Immigration, Culture and Race

By Merrill Ring

The backlash against our immigration policy, against the racial and cultural diversity that marks the U.S. today, against the slow crumbling of traditional religion, of male dominance and of the belief that sexuality takes only one legitimate form is a significant feature of our lives. The Trump Administration has pushed the idea of white supremacy, of white nationalism, into full public view. Progressives are against that – but exactly what are we for? That issue is explored here by means of the examination of three different positions that originated early in the previous century and the possibilities of which continue today.

We on the left in the U.S. know what we’re against: what is today called the ‘alt-right’: the white supremacist movement. What we are less clear about is what we are for: at least we are less clear about how to articulate what we are for.

I put it that way because we don’t currently have the terminology to express different possibilities. It is not that such terminology is missing from the larger world of academic research, but that it hasn’t moved down into popular political life.

What I want to do here is to offer some ideas as to what those alternative possibilities are. And I want to do that by talking of a period of time when those possibilities, though by other names, were at the center of active political discussion. The period I have in mind is just over a century ago, the early 20th century.

At that time, the country was seriously considering what was happening, and what should happen, concerning what America should be and what it is to be an American. There were reasons for that public talk. First, the Civil War had been over not long before – with the consequence that the slaves had been freed and were now citizens (though badly mistreated) of the country. Their existence as free people, recently freed people, caused thought as to how they could be integrated into the life of the country.

Moreover, in the latter half of the 19th century there was, first, an influx, especially into the western states, of Chinese immigrants brought in to build the railroads. They were followed later in the century by Japanese. There was also, late in the 19th century, a boom in immigrants along the eastern seaboard from southern and eastern Europe, Europeans not at all like those from northern Europe who had been the chief settlers of the country and who were the overwhelming majority of the population. (I’m ignoring the arrival of the Irish in the country slightly earlier.)

Those developments sparked a large public discussion of the issue of immigration and assimilation around the turn of the century. The broad positions taken then on the questions are the ancestors of the differing views taken today. For that reason, I will be reviewing (briefly and so inadequately) what those differing views were as well as how they relate to the situation today.


In that earlier period of time, there was a major development of what we today recognize as the white supremacy, white nationalist, alt-right movement. Around 1900, however, it did not bear that name: the earlier version (perhaps the original version) was commonly known as Nativism (a name that still occurs at times today as a variant on ‘white supremacy’.) It is ironic, both then and now, that such a name was given to the movement. For of course the people being so named are not natives at all, while the genuine Native Americans, then and now, are among those thought of by Nativists as outsiders.

Who were thought of as natives? Northern Europeans - chiefly the Anglo-Saxons (the Scots were included here) and Germans (throw in the Scandanavians.) Those people, of course, were immigrants but that (then as now) was conveniently forgotten. They were white and that is what connects them directly to today’s alt-right. These were the people, the Americans, who around 1900 were faced with a large variety of others: the genuine Native Americans, the recently freed slaves, the Chinese and Japanese out west, the new arrivals from southern and eastern Europe. People from all those backgrounds were sharing the country and so questions arose among the established Americans ‘How are they to be assimilated as citizens of the U.S.?’

The Nativist response was that people who might racially become indistinguishable from the Anglo-Germans (the Nordics) were assimilable – once, that is, that they had lost their backwardness and the culture brought from their place of origin and had adopted the American way, i.e. the Northern European culture that was established here, they could become Natives. Others, who racially could not come to look like northern Europeans were not at all assimilable - and so should not be allowed into the country. (Of course, what to do with those who were already here remained a serious problem. It had been ‘solved’, earlier, in the case of the freed slaves, who were of African descent, by holding that they should be shipped back to Africa, i.e. deported. In the short term, the ‘problem’ was solved by Jim Crow laws in the south, so that the freed slaves in effect continued their dependency and could not achieve in any numbers the status of American citizens.)

The major Nativist anxiety was race mixing - ‘race suicide’ as the Nativists called it. That means of assimilation led to, as we all know, various devices to prevent it, to keep the country white, especially Nordic white. (That attempt to maintain racial purity was admired and employed a few decades later by Hitler in Germany who called a major Nativist book “my Bible”.)

But today’s white supremacists are not carbon copies of the Nativists of a century ago. For too much has happened in the ensuing century to make that possible. For one thing, the very notion of race became at a minimum deeply suspect. We now know the boundaries between so-called ‘races’ are not at all biologically determined. And we know that actual people, when their ancestry is looked into, show very little ‘racial purity’. (In fact, we humans are not even species pure: we homo sapiens have Neanderthal and Denisovan genes.)

Note: though the notion of a race has vanished from the pages of science, it is still employed in a practical way to organize information. We today speak of whites and blacks (say) to help us understand certain matters of importance – allowing individuals to classify themselves. It is in that way that I will continue to talk of race in what follows.

Also, immigration did not stop (nor did massive deportations proceed) and so the variety of people who are today counted as white by the white nationalists expanded enormously over the 20th century. Those despised southern and eastern Europeans - the Italians, Greeks, Poles, Slovaks, etc - are now part of the American mainstream: they have been successfully assimilated and are accepted by today’s white supremacists as white. (Jews, though often white, are excluded by the white supremacists on other grounds.)

There have been other large changes that have produced today’s descendants of Nativists. The issue of race was so central to that position that it was not widely observed that the Anglo-German culture of the United States included other features than race: religion (Christianity was simply assumed), male dominance, heterosexuality, were as central to that culture as skin color. Over the course of the 20th century that fact has not only been recognized but has become the object of criticism. Today’s alt-right is not simply about white supremacy – it is a defense of that traditional American culture, its religion, its masculinity, its heterosexuality.

The cultural landscape has shifted significantly so that today’s white supremacists must also explicitly defend what their Nativist forefathers only had to assume.

Melting Pot

I said at the beginning that we progressives know what we are against – the alt-right, white supremacy, the 1900 version of which was known as Nativism. However, we have a much less clear idea of what we are for.

Around 1900 there arose two anti-Nativist views which had a very different picture of what the U.S. was and should be. As far as I can see, in present day discussions these two views are not clearly sorted out. (That may be because there are important overlaps between them.) What I want to do here is to sketch out what those views were - and what their present day descendants are - with the aim of improving public discussion among progressives as to what view we should defend.

In 1908 there appeared a play in London by Israel Zangwill entitled ‘The Melting Pot’. The play was a big hit – Teddy Roosevelt loved it and its thesis, that the United States is a melting pot. We take in a huge variety of nationalities and their different cultures and blend them together, creating a new culture, something not there before but produced by blending what went into the pot.

The phrase ‘melting pot’ had been applied to the U.S. well before Zangwill, but it was his play, and the enthusiasm that greeted it, that made the idea that we could and should understand the U.S. as a melting pot a major player in the game of immigration and of assimilation.

The melting pot notion stood in opposition to Nativism – which was the idea that only if a group of foreigners could be assimilated into the existing northern European race and culture, vanishing into the existing culture without a trace of their origins, should they be allowed into the country.

The metaphor of the melting pot should be taken seriously. For it was a way of ‘showing’ how disparate elements could be put together to create something new and exciting, a stew that is not identical with its elements and yet is derived from them. The carrots and the tomatoes and the pepper all add something to the result but the result is not a mass of carrots and tomatoes and….

The melting pot picture of the U.S. is still with us, although I think that Zangwill’s terminology is not as much employed as it once was. Probably some of the reason for that is a very influential book by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan Beyond the Melting Pot (1963). They argued that ethnic groups in New York City were not melting, that they were actively pursuing their particular identities, they were not blending.

It is important to make a distinction here. We can take the melting pot metaphor (or any other for that matter) as a ‘description’ of how things are or we can take it as an account of how things ought to be. One might look on Glazer’s and Moynihan’s sociological picture as a statement of how things are – and one might even take it as a snapshot taken at a certain time of how things were and argue that in the longer run it will not be an accurate picture of later developments, that they have taken a picture of the stew before it has cooked long enough and so the elements have not had a chance to break down and blend – and nonetheless go on to hold that we ought to come to think and act so as to bring the blending, the stew, into being. In other words, the melting pot metaphor might be the end state and not an account of how things are.

I do not hear these topics being discussed today. Yet if we are to have some idea of what the state of ethnicities in this country is today and what we progressives would like it to be, they need to be part of our conversation. Is that what we would like the U.S. to become?

There is one last problem with the melting pot notion, one that leaves the Nativist position untouched. The melting pot was conceived of as a means of cultural assimilation, of how different nationalities and their different cultures could be assimilated into the U.S. What it did not focus on, and what was central to the Nativist position, was the question of race. Did the outcome of making an American stew leave separate populations of whites, blacks, Asians… or did those differences also vanish into a new kind of physical person? Was there to be, as the Nativists would have it, ‘race suicide’ or was it only the cultures that blended into something new?

I have not found any of the melting pot literature arguing that what a dedicated subscriber to the blending view ought to do is to strongly encourage inter-racial marriage as a means of blending races as well as cultures. And I haven’t noticed anyone today proposing that we must explicitly do what people have always done, produce children across existing racial distinctions. That of course simply might happen given that different peoples live together and that sexual attraction is powerful even across traditional racial lines.

Cultural Pluralism

In opposition to Nativism, but equally rejecting the melting pot view of the country, a third position on immigration and what the country is and should be like was created early in the 20th century.

It was developed by Horace Kallen, a philosopher from Harvard teaching at the University of Wisconsin. The popularity of the melting pot concept produced by the success of the Zangwill play led Kallen to a contrary view of what this country is and should be like. The central thesis of Kallen’s Cultural Pluralism is that we do not want those nationalities and cultures that come to the country in immigration to vanish as the cooking image has it.

Kallen created an opposing picture: a musical metaphor, that of an orchestra performing a symphony. In an orchestra different kinds of instruments cooperate to produce a significant musical outcome. Unlike a stew, in which the potatoes and tomatoes and so on vanish in the creation of a tasty dish, in an orchestra the violins and flutes do not vanish at all, but continue to exist as violins and flutes as they act together to produce a tasty auditory dish.

Another important defender of the cultural pluralism model, Randolph Bourne, thought it better to think of the instruments performing as a jazz ensemble. Yet another variation that model is that of the nation as a salad: unlike the melting pot, the lettuce, tomatoes and onions do not vanish when made into a salad – they remain as discrete parts of the new entity, the salad.

Less pictorially, for Kallen’s Cultural Pluralism, the cultures of the peoples that come here in immigration do not vanish but make their contributions to something new, the American culture, while remaining distinct. (It isn’t in fact just immigration that produces the components of the new: Native-Americans did not immigrate to the U.S. and neither did the original African-Americans.)

What has happened to cultural pluralism? First, as the Glazer and Moynihan argument shows, the country in fact resembles more the cultural pluralism organization of the country than the melting pot. The various cultures and ethnic groups in the country have shown a stubborn resistance to losing their identity and blending into a new culture. That could be simply because they have not cooked long enough and so the present state of affairs is just a stage in the process.

Further, the very name Cultural Pluralism has vanished from our public discussion of these matters, but the general conception has not. What we have today is the terminology of ‘multi-culturalism’: Multi-Culturalism is the later version of Cultural Pluralism.

The immediate problem is that so many things today pass under the heading of multi-culturalism that it is difficult to specify exactly what the view is. It certainly involves the idea that the country contains various national cultures and ethnic groups. It no doubt includes the idea that that is a good thing – that that cultural diversity is valuable and ought to be appreciated and retained: that the different cultures found in the country have strengths that the other component cultures can learn from.

However, it is often not at all clear in current discussions what some of the crucial details of multi-culturalism are. Are we holding that different cultural groups ought to be components of the U.S. as, say, the Amish are or Orthodox Jews? Is the appropriate metaphor that of a bowl of marbles (the bowl is the geographical boundary) with each component culture a largely independent entity having minimal relations to the other components? That they should be semi-isolated and inward-looking cultural units, ignoring as much as possible other groups in the larger society? Or should they be as the orchestra picture has it, cooperating to produce beautiful music, i.e. a lively and exciting overall culture?

If you commit to being a defender of multi-culturalism, it is necessary to specify much more precisely what the details of your view is

Moreover, there is the issue that is raised by today’s white nationalists: race. Both cultural pluralism and multi-culturalism are concerned with culture. What about race? To oppose the white supremacists it is necessary to have a view about what the country should look like racially speaking.

Since the general view multi-cultural view is that the component individual cultures should remain distinguishable, what is suggested is that intermarriage and sexual relations between people of the country’s different cultures is not desirable. And that view consorts much better with the white supremacists’ fundamental emphasis on race (and racial purity.) “Our first duty is to preserve American for the Americans and the white races whom we can assimilate, and whose children will have the American standard of life.” (San Francisco Chronicle editorial, ca 1900.)

Last Words

We on the left start with a rejection of the idea that the ‘white race’ – whether narrowly defined (only those descended from northern European countries) or more broadly (accepting as white people whose forefathers came from elsewhere in Europe) – ought to be either the sole or the dominant race in this country. Further we reject the belief that the only significant culture in this country ought to be that of the ‘white race’ for that culture involves the dominance of religion, of a single religion, the traditional notion that males are superior to females, the belief that human sexuality comes in only one form, and several other more diffuse ideas.

However, how do we think of what ought to be? The previous century gave us two other models of a different way of conceiving of how this country ought to regard the fact that this country contains, and allows entrance to, people from different cultural backgrounds and different races. The problem lies in how to decide which of those two horses is the best choice.

I’m not going to back either one of those possibilities here. What I want to do instead is to offer a very concrete way for others to think through the issues, sketched out above. I would like to encourage progressives to think about these matters in the context of a film.

The film I have in mind is What’s Cooking? - a film by the British director Gurinda Chadha (2000). It is not a great movie, but it makes a stab at exhibiting the issues being considered here. It is set in Los Angeles at Thanksgiving and shows four families from different ethnic backgrounds – Mexican-American, Jewish, Afro-American and Vietnamese-American - each family celebrating that American holiday with significant adaptations from their respective cultures. What does the situation depicted show? A melting-pot in the making? Some form of multi-culturalism? Watch it and think and talk.