The Public Interest

Assimilation and its discontents

Vincent J. Cannato

Winter 2004

IN the past, our immigration debates have centered .on  whether immigrants would assimilate into mainstream American society. It was a battle between defenders of the melting pot on the one hand and those who feared that millions of “undesirable aliens” would change the character of American society on the other. The country is once again experiencing a large wave of immigration, but the argument has changed. The anti-immigrant restrictionists and the pro-immigrant assimilationists have been joined by a new group—the pro-immigrant multiculturalists. The multiculturalists deem the traditional idea of assimilation racist, oppressive, insensitive, and ethnocentric, considering it a form of “Eurocentric hegemony” that forces immigrants to live by the standards of another culture. The new multiculturalist ethic has clearly gained ground. In a 1993 article in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Nathan Glazer noted that upon asking his Harvard students for their impressions of assimilation, “the large majority had a negative reaction to it. Had I asked what they thought of the term ‘Americanization,’ the reaction, I am sure, would have been even more hostile.” Those who are pro-immigrant and favor the idea of assimilation must now not only convince nativists that acculturation is a reality, but must also convince multiculturalists that assimilation is a worthwhile endeavor.

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