The Waning of Assimilation


The Waning of Assimilation Ethnic Relations in America Edited by Lance Liebman Prentice-Hall 179 pp $13 95 Reviewed by John Rofe A decade ago, Christopher Jencks set off shock waves when he...

...The Waning of Assimilation Ethnic Relations in America Edited by Lance Liebman Prentice-Hall 179 pp $13 95 Reviewed by John Rofe A decade ago, Christopher Jencks set off shock waves when he reported in Inequality that educational attainment was not vital to the upward social mobility of ethnic groups and suggested income redistribution as an alternative One critic noted that Jencks waited until the last eight words of his work to open up a very large can of worms Equally controversial a decade earlier were Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moymhan in Beyond the Melting Pot America's capacity to absorb immigrants and new ethnic groups had diminished, they asserted, because of a new-found abundance of labor In-tergroup relations, they further noted, were being defined by the "Southern" pattern, with the law assigning rights to groups and responsibility to society based on the past deprivation of blacks in the South, and this would result in the continued injection of ethnic concerns in American politics The overall view among the scholars contributing to Ethnic Relations In A menca, edited by Lance Liebman, assistant dean of Harvard Law School appears to combine both analyses The avant-garde Northeast is today less reluctant in its call for social reform, however Only Glazer, m fact, rejects the notion that the American melting pot did not heat up enough and insists on additional study to determine "whether the much-maligned goal of assimilation does not have much to teach us " In his Introduction, Liebman remarks that "so much is new, yetsomuch is the same " He and the others observe that the economy of World War II and the Civil Rights legislation passed in the '60s have allowed racial ethnics to attempt assimilation into productive Amencanhfe But some of the very factors that would make it possible for them to achieve full citizenship have exacerbated the strained living conditions in our cities, rendering more acute the pains of youth unemployment, poverty, ineffective schools, illegal immigration and ethnic rivalry This Catch-22 compelled the latest in asenes of volumes issued bytheAmen-can Assembly Confident that the participants in the project have reached a consensus on an agenda for the '80s, Liebman concludes that the country's cry for "thoughtful actors and for active thinkers" has been answered by Ethnic Relations His conclusion is debatable In a tune when that cyclical phenomenon, neoconservatism, has been resurrected—and even the man who paraded the liberal banner so proudly as recently as the Democratic National Convention in August of 1980 has suddenly lapsed into the Presidential politics of moderation—the proposals here clearly go against the tenor of current public opinion They also contradict the "American Way" Liebman himself admits that having the courts serve as the arbiter of ethnic conflicts, though a vital process, runscounter to the individualist ethic so ingrained in the American mind-set?because they respond and assign consequences to groups rather than individuals The growing trend, he says, is why the courts have been accused of acting in an "unjudicial manner ' Yet group relations are fast becoming a fact of life Charles B Keely, of the Center for Policy Studies at the Population Council, points out that "pluralism has been the dominant ideology in the last quarter century," so much so that E Pluribus Plura has replaced the moie familiar motto Moreover, the ethnics have not discarded, or disregarded, their heritage in the name of Americanism, as did their predecessors Ethnic Relations offers a number of interesting reasons for this The first, simply put, is that the older ethnic groups arrived in America first Several contributors to the book cite self-interest as inhibiting the advancement of the later arrivals FormerHUD Secretary Robert C Weaver, for example, describes the attitude of whites of European descent to subsequent immigrants "Because their ancestors made it without public intervention in general, and without affirmative action in particular, the more recent urban newcomers could and should do so also ' This reaction, while understandable in the light of the white ethnic's substantial struggles, neglects certain realities peculiar to the latecomers Thus the geographical proximity of Puerto Ri-cans and Mexican-Americans to their homeland guarantees them infusions of their native culture These groups are therefore less likely to cast off their customs m favor of an unfamiliar and intimidating culture By contrast, the first waves of immigrants were of necessity divorced from their roots and could not hope to return Pastora San Juan Caf ferty of the University of Chicago remarks that native language retention is highest among Latins, Limiting their access to the chief "Americanizing force opportunity " A more significant barrier to ethnic acceptance is racism Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican-Americans, not to mention American Indians, have at one time or another been fundamentally excluded from the country's institutions of power Either disenfranchised or stripped of property and other rights, they have been relegated to an especially enduring kind of second-class citizenship Weaver reminds us that "Not only did slavery deny blacks freedom but it produced a rationalization which characterized them as sub-human " The resulting disillusionment, Weaver explains, led many blacks, and later other ethnics, to "look inward and develop group strength and institutions" based on standards of viability and success that are outside their American parallels, and outside of the melting pot Society's response to injustices, and that of the prominent scholars writing in Ethnic Relations, has been to promote compensation to the deprived for their suffering The courts have consequently become a frequent battleground for group disputes, affirmative action policy, in an era of "ethnic entitlement," has been used to ensure a measure of ethnic mobility By and large, though, these measures have been inadequate in forging a un-um from the plunbus Liebman notes that the courts, because they are petitioned by factions, are "fragmenting the population and crystallizing that fragmentation " In the same vein, Stephan Thernstrom of Harvard declares that affirmative action has been an ineffective instrument of equality because it "benefits the more affluent and educated elements of minority groups' Since the Jencks study, blacks and Puerto Ricans have attained roughly the same education levels as whites, and Koreans and Cubans have surpassed whites in average economic status There nonetheless remains the problem of the "ghettoization" of the preponderance of this nation's minorities, who live in a "poverty trap" and are excluded from a productive existence Given these circumstances, one wonders why Thernstrom devotes a mere paragraph to income redistribution when he finds affirmative action inadequate And why, if there are so many members of minorities who are "ships wrecked at the bottom of the sea," does Weaver settle for the '"quantitative objectives" of affirmative action It may be true that the policy has yet to receive full play Still, alternatives ought to be under consideration The contributors to Ethnic Relations in America rightly point out that the success of past immigrant populations has come with time, which has not had an opportunity to work in the case of the late comers Unfortunately, the incremental social advancement does nothing to help those "hopelessly wrecked" today...

Vol. 65 • July 1982 • No. 14

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