By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
Assimilation into American life, and the success of one generation of immigrants after the next, led to a gradual dispersal of ethnic enclaves, the ghettos, in the second and third generations. Economic opportunity certainly was not as golden as some naive immigrants had imagined and as the stories circulating in Europe would have one believe, but nonetheless it was real.
An Education of America
America was a land of opportunity. The most spectacular immigrant success stories, like the rags-to-riches tale of Andrew Carnegie, the son of a penniless Scottish immigrant, were very rare, but to move into the respectable middle-class was the destiny of millions of immigrants in the second and third generations moving into the 20th century.
The First World War marked a kind of crescendo of Americanization policies. When the First World War began, and particularly when the Americans joined in the war effort directly in 1917, German was still the first language of about four million Americans, again, most of them recent immigrants, or their children.
Most of the German-speaking Americans abandoned it in public and in their churches as a demonstration of loyalty to their new home, America, or else out of fear that they’d be attacked as potential enemy agents out on the streets. The public schools, therefore, became a focus of these campaigns, and sometimes students were incredibly enthusiastic about education.
One of the things that immigrants were taught to do was to accept a new set of heroes. As we know, every nation has got its own folklore, its own national tradition, and its own idea of who ought to be venerated in the national past, and so American history teaching in those days was extremely self-consciously geared to adapting children to the love of a new set of heroes.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Jews: A Success Story in America
One of the very best examples of rapid upward mobility and professionalization based on educational success is that of American Jews. Other groups, such as southern Italian immigrants, were relatively slower to adapt. They came from a mainly illiterate community, and very often preferred to have their children getting jobs early in life and helping out with the family income, rather than the family sacrificing to send their children to schools instead.
There was a lot of prejudice among the different immigrant groups; prejudice and discrimination. For example, gang life among adolescent boys was usually based strictly on ethnic grounds. But, when we look at the ethnic antagonism in the New World, in America, we need always to compare it with what was happening in the Old World, what’s so striking about America is that assimilation policies worked, and that ethnic antagonism, although it was real, was relatively less bad than it was almost everywhere else.
The Case of Chinese Immigrants
No group was more fiercely discriminated against than the Chinese in California. Chinese had been coming into America ever since the gold rush, and employers like Leland Stanford in the building of the Central Pacific Railroad had had a policy of importing Chinese work gangs.
For the Anglo-Saxons—the white immigrants to California—by contrast, were bitterly resentful of the Chinese, because the Chinese were willing to work for lower wages than they themselves were, so one of the great principles of the early California trade union movement was Chinese exclusion.
In the same way, black migrants from the American South, that is people who’d migrated from within the United States, from the rural South up to the urban North, also experienced comparable levels of very severe discrimination, making their adjustment and adaptation commensurately more difficult.
After about 1910 or 1915, American confidence in the melting pot began to falter. The term ‘melting pot’, incidentally, was the idea that America is a pot into which people from all different nationalities can come, and they’ll all be cooked up together and they’ll come out as this sort of tasty blend of all the different ethnic groups.
The phrase comes from a play written by Israel Zanguel, and was first produced in 1908. He was an immigrant himself, an English Jew who came to America, and the play, ‘The Melting Pot’, was a smash hit on Broadway in 1908 and 1909.
Melting Pot: A Confusing Metaphor
It is true that in some ways ‘melting pot’ is a slightly misleading metaphor, because it’s quite clear that some immigrants contributed more to the character of America than others. America’s institutions, its language, and many aspects of national life clearly have English origins that remained dominant, not least in the language itself.
But the ‘melting pot’ is a useful metaphor because it reminds us that everybody had to conform to the shape of the pot. In other words, if one came to America, they were required to fit in, in one way or another.
Common Questions about How Immigrants Assimilated to the American Society
Every nation has got its own folklore, its own national tradition, and its own idea of who ought to be venerated in the national past, and so American history teaching in those days was geared to adapting children to the love of a new set of heroes. Thus, the immigrants were taught to accept a new set of heroes.
The Anglo-Saxons—the white immigrants to California—were bitterly resentful of the Chinese, because the Chinese were willing to work for lower wages than they themselves were, so one of the great principles of the early California trade union movement was Chinese exclusion.
The term ‘melting pot’ comes from a play written by Israel Zanguel, first produced in 1908. ‘Melting pot’ was the idea that America is a pot into which people from all different nationalities can come, and they’ll all be cooked up together and they’ll come out as this sort of tasty blend of all the different ethnic groups.