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REHEATING THE MELTING POT: A Review of Michael Barone's The New Americans

By Roger Clegg

Friday, Aug. 03, 2001

Michael Barone, The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again (Regnery 2001)

In his recent book The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again, Michael Barone reassures us that America's interracial, interethnic frictions are no worse today than they have been in the past.

Barone also persuasively argues that these frictions can be overcome — if only we follow the assimilative ideal of our national motto, E pluribus unum (out of many, one), and reject divisive policies like racial and ethnic preferences and bilingual education. In short, Barone is unafraid of immigration, so long as immigrants and other Americans accept Americanization as part of the bargain of coming to America.

Barone's pro-immigration, pro-assimilation, anti-preference, anti-bilingual education prescription is shared by the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Unsurprisingly, then, Barone's work parallels two earlier books by CEO intellectuals: Linda Chavez's 1991 Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation and John J. Miller's 1998 The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined America's Assimilation Ethic. Barone also draws heavily from Thomas Sowell's 1981 classic, Ethnic America.

Parallels between Different Races and Ethnicities

The critical moment for The New Americans came when Mr. Barone sat down and wrote: "I. Irish and Blacks, II. Italians and Latinos, III. Jews and Asians." This outline drives the book and, really, explains it.

The three parts of Barone's book straightforwardly explain and document the parallels between, respectively, the nineteenth-century Irish and twentieth-century African Americans; earlier Italian and more recent Latino immigrants; and, finally, the Jewish immigrants of a century ago and Asian immigrants today.

The parallels are instructive. Not so long ago, the Irish, Italians, and Jews were each viewed as unassimilable groups–separate races, in fact. Yet each was assimilated. So, Barone suggests, there is no reason to suppose that three groups–blacks, Latinos, and Asians–that are now also viewed by some as unassimilable cannot be assimilated, too, especially when he has shown that their cultures parallel those of their earlier counterparts.

Irish and African Americans

First, Barone discusses how the Irish and blacks both were denigrated as racially inferior, and characterized by unstable families, high crime rates, and substance abuse. Both had strong religious traditions but weak entrepreneurial ones, and abandoned rural roots to settle increasingly in cities, where they showed a knack for politics, sports, and entertainment and the arts.

Barone also explains that, while of course blacks are not "new Americans" in a literal sense, "the central tragedy of American history" is that they did not enjoy the full rights of American citizenship until the 1960s. In that sense, Barone contends, "they qualify as new Americans for the purpose of this book."

Finally, Barone notes that the recent progress of African Americans has been spectacular, quoting Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom: "The black middle class is now proportionally as large as the white middle class was at the end of Dwight Eisenhower's second term, a time when American society as a whole was usually described as predominantly middle class."

Italian Americans and Latinos

In other ways, too, the two groups shared similar experiences that affected their social attitudes. For instance, Barone points out that Italians came from a politically corrupt country, as do many Latinos. Moreover, while both groups are nominally Catholic, they have "showed less than total attachment to the Catholic Church in America."

Barone–himself of Irish and Italian ancestry–concludes that it took the Italians about eighty years to be "thoroughly interwoven into the fabric of American life," forty years less than the Irish.

Jewish and Asian Americans

Jews and Asians, according to Barone, "were people of the book" who have always put great stock in educational achievement. Both have "traditions of strong family ties" and low crime rates, despite some involvement in organized crime.

Barone–co-author of the indispensable Almanac of American Politics–shows his characteristically sharp eye for historical detail: "Jews clustered in trading cities, most notably New York and Cincinnati," he notes, and "the latter had a large German population and in 1860 was the fourth-largest city in the United States."

Later, Barone points out that the first Jewish Cabinet member was appointed in 1906, versus 1962 for the first Italian American. Barone concludes that it took the Jews, like the Italians, eighty years to be thoroughly interwoven into the American fabric, and that for Asians it "may take considerably less."

The Obstacle of University Quotas

Of course, there have been bumps in the road even for these "model minorities." Barone discusses in particular how, in the 1920s, "many schools began instituting quotas for Jews, limiting their numbers and in effect requiring them to meet much higher standards than other applicants." Schools using quotas at the time included Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Duke, Rutgers, Barnard, Adelphi, Cornell, John Hopkins, Northwestern, Penn State, Ohio State, Washington and Lee, and the Universities of Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

The rationalization? As the dean of Yale said, "[I]n terms of scholarship and intelligence, Jewish students lead the class, but their personal characteristics make them markedly inferior."

What We Should Ask of Immigrants

One can argue about the degree to which one racial or ethnic group is like another, and at what point immigration levels become so high that absorption of an immigrant group is impossible. There are also, of course, limits on the extent to which one can generalize about "Latinos," since that category includes groups as socially distinct as Puerto Ricans and Cubans; the same is true of the category "Asians." But whomever and however many our immigrants are, surely we must give thought to what we expect of them.

Assimilation does not mean that we have to forget or disparage our different roots, ban burritos and egg rolls, and eat only white bread. But for a free society to flourish, especially a multiracial and multiethnic one, there have to be some common standards. In an earlier essay I listed ten: (1) don't disparage anyone else's race or ethnicity; (2) respect women; (3) learn to speak English; (4) be polite; (5) don't break the law; (6) don't have children out of wedlock; (7) don't demand anything because of your race, ethnicity, or sex; (8) don't view working and studying hard as "acting white"; (9) don't hold historical grudges; and (10) be proud of being an American.

Barone's book provides direct and indirect evidence that this is not a bad list. "America in the future," Barone writes, "will be multiracial and multiethnic, but it will not–or should not–be multicultural in the sense of containing ethnic communities marked off from and adversarial to the larger society." Following these ten principles would all but ensure the successful assimilation of all racial and ethnic groups into American society as a whole.

Barone concedes that, while the resemblances between the immigrants of 1900 and those of 2000 are great, "there is a great difference between the responses of the American elite then and now." Today eight or nine of the ten principles would be rejected as politically incorrect. Our elites used to be pro-assimilation; now, perversely, they encourage Balkanization. Yet harmony requires mutual respect, and mutual respect is impossible unless everyone knows that everyone else is held to the same standards.

Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C.

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