In the first part of this series, I defended the need for immigration, arguing that great nations cannot sustain their vitality relying solely on their native populations for both unskilled and skilled labor resources. I also stated that after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the national origins of new immigrants shifted from Europe to the rest of the world.
The big city ghettos European immigrants settled into may still exist physically today, but they mostly serve as quaint reminders of yesteryear in the form of “Little Italy,” “Germantown,” “Slavic Village,” and the like. My parents did not settle in an Italian neighborhood. The various streets we lived on contained a cross-section of (mostly) European nationalities or direct descendants. In the late 1950s, there was still a strong connection to one’s European roots because many first- or second-generation descendants could still identify with their cultural origins through their parents or grandparents who arrived during the earlier great immigration waves. Thus having a last name ending with “ski” probably meant your cultural home life was different than someone whose last name sounded like a Renaissance artist.
To be sure, there were prejudices toward and between the European immigrants of different nationalities. My family and I experienced a number of anti-Italian rants that today would mistakenly be called racist. Nearly all of the insults had to do with belonging to the mafia, but there were also the occasional “wop,” “dago,” “guinea,” and “goomba” labels. Few, if any, of these experiences ever bothered me or had lasting negative impressions. Other nationalities, of course, had similar experiences.
For adults, some of these prejudices dissolved over the years due to multi-ethnic mixing at the workplace. I saw this firsthand through my parents’ experiences, as well as through other adults. However, although adults made some headway at the workplace, it was children that broke the gridlock.
I believe three factors led the way to the melting pot. The first was the public school system. The American education system was so vast and omnipresent that kids with blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair complexions played kickball with kids with dark hair, brown eyes, and olive complexions. Years later, it wouldn’t be kickball that brought them together but the prom. When children brought home friends, parents would want to know their nationality and then their religion. When my brothers and I started dating, my parents would naturally ask, “Is she Italian? Is she Catholic?” Our home lives may have had differences, but once out of the house, it was the children that led the way to creating the American melting pot. For my brothers and me, the answers to the two questions for those women who eventually became our wives were “No” and “No.”
The second factor that sped along assimilation was the draft. For many young men, their time in the military provided them with the first real opportunity to work and live with someone of a different nationality, religion, or race, or from a different part of the country. It is difficult for someone who has no military experience to understand the camaraderie that grows in a military environment.
The third factor that led to European assimilation was the nonexistence of a dominating national political and legal infrastructure that exploited or hindered advancement toward assimilation. By this I mean that prior to the creation of the welfare state and the explosion of multiculturalism, immigrants wanted and were encouraged to become Americans. After all, that’s why they came here. This was their new home. I am not saying that no exploitation occurred, but that the total sum of forces at the time, national and local, pushed us toward assimilation.
Humans are still basically tribal, and it is tribalism that is behind many social problems. What these three forcing functions accomplished was to make European immigrants eventually discover that they were not different tribes, but rather just different clans. The differences between clans are usually in degree, not in kind. That is, we have more in common than not in common, and those things we don’t have in common are not important. Thus, within one or two generations these different groups had intermarried and completely assimilated into one limited form of an American melting pot.
To drive home these ideas, especially the first and third factors, it is helpful to look at a real life example of what happened to me in 1959 and how the problem would be handled today. By the time I entered kindergarten, I had been in America for about 14 months. Although I don’t remember how well I spoke English at the time, my English must have been poor because on my first report card my teacher wrote, “Antonio needs to hear and speak English at home. He needs to say verses and numbers at home.” I know this for a fact because I still have that report card. She then added, “His attitude is one of the ‘smartly type.’” But let’s move on.
My parents had little formal education, but they did understand one thing: to achieve success in America you had to work hard, go to school, and learn English. Few, if any, of the current legal and welfare safety nets existed back then. One did not press “2” for Spanish, or for my generation, Italian, Polish, German, etc.
The kindergarten incident could not happen today. No teacher would write what my kindergarten teacher wrote on my report card regarding learning English in that context. From that time forward, my parents stressed English at home. I can’t say whether that singular event eventually led to my successful development, but I do want to say thank you Mrs. Lodwick, wherever you are.
Not long ago, most immigrants embraced Americanization because they knew the country they left behind. They saw America as “good,” and no one told them otherwise.
NEXT IN THIS SERIES: “The New Immigrants, Melting Pot versus Mosaic”
Tony Corvo is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with a Ph.D. in physics. He is active in local Beavercreek, Ohio politics and is the author of All Politics is Loco: Musings from the Conservative Next Door. He and his wife have two grown daughters. He writes extensively on local issues. Many of his recent articles can be found at taxbusters.wordpress.com/author/phdmc2.
All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff.
Related on OCR: “A Conservative Case for Immigration Reform”
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