Immigration: The Myth of the Melting Pot

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A U.S. flag flies in front of the Ellis Island immigration museum in New York in October 2013. Reuters

This article first appeared on The Wilson Quarterly site.

In 1908, British writer Israel Zangwill wrote a stage play, the title of which popularized a term that came to be used as a metaphor for America itself: The Melting Pot.

Debuting before U.S. audiences in 1909, Zangwill’s play told the story of David Quixano, a fictional Russian-Jewish immigrant who is intent on moving to the United States after his family dies in a violent anti-Semitic riot in Russia.

For Quixano (and many actual immigrants at the time), America, in all of its culturally “blended” glory, stood as a beacon of light visible from the darkest and most oppressed corners of the world, offering promise, possibility and maybe even acceptance.

Well before Zangwill put the “melting pot” label into the global lexicon, the United States had already earned a reputation as an immigrant haven.

New England’s first immigrant settlers, the Puritans and the Pilgrims, left their native England in the early 1600s in order to practice their respective religions more freely, without antagonistic meddling from the Church of England.

In the early 1800s, the French Revolution saw thousands of rural Europeans flee to America, to escape the war-torn countryside and a government in shambles.

As a result of the great famine that struck Ireland in the first half of the 19th century, millions of Irish-Catholic immigrants crossed the Atlantic, settling into various pockets of the East Coast.

The next wave came from Asia, with Chinese and Japanese immigrants arriving to California in droves, working throughout the West as the Gold Rush and the railroad stirred dreams of vast riches.

The arrival of these immigrants, and with them their varied cultural backgrounds, was essential in molding America’s public identity. And it fed into America’s self-history, enshrining the United States as a refuge for all those suffering persecution for political or personal beliefs; a shelter that accepts a wide variety of faiths and ideologies.

This widely publicized version of America as a wholly inclusive land was not in touch with reality, with a widespread desire to strip immigrants of their individual customs—and force them into a version of whiteness that permeates society—lurking right beneath the surface. There is a rich American tradition of rejecting immigrants and refugees, and those who do make it through often face calls to assimilate and deny their cultural roots.

Prior to the late 1800s, the federal government did little to control the flow of immigration. Naturalization guidelines were put in place in the late 18th century, and starting in 1819 immigrants were required to report their arrival to the U.S. government. The weak enforcement of this provision allowed for a high number of undocumented immigrants.

State governments attempted to pass their own immigration laws, and the chaos that ensued across state borders finally led the federal government to take control of the issue in the late 1800s. With anti-immigration sentiment heightening throughout the native-born public, immigration laws were introduced as a means of placating an upset public.

Nativist partisans have a long history in America, but hey began to emerge as a major national political force in the 1850s, becoming major opponents to immigration as they stressed the importance of pure “American values.”

Though Irish immigrants adapted easily to many facets of American life, for example, nativists denounced their Catholic religion as un-American, put up store window signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” that blocked them from prospective jobs, and tried to stem the flow of immigration from Ireland.

Many immigrants—especially those with Italian and Irish roots—were plainly seen as inferior and depicted as ape-like in the media of that era. For these immigrants, gaining acceptance often required them to ostracize the next wave of immigrants; you became white by opposing those who weren’t.

This dynamic contributed to the demonization of Asian immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s. The Page Act of 1875 specifically targeted Asian laborers, convicts and prostitutes by denying them entry to the United States, though its primary mission was to make immigration harder for all Asians. The Chinese Exclusion Act followed in 1882 and effectively banned Chinese immigrants from entry into the United States.

Though these laws were specific to Asian immigrants, broader immigration laws soon succeeded them, enacted with the intention of tightening border security and making it harder for immigrants to enter legally.

Despite these new laws and bouts of anti-immigrant fervor, foreigners continued to flock to America. The third major wave of immigration in the United States occurred around the turn of the 20th century and brought with it immigrants from previously unrepresented regions (Eastern Europe and Russia, among others). The cycle—immigrate and then turn against those who come after—began anew, and a new assimilation movement arose.

The government and the public encouraged newly minted American citizens to absorb a new culture almost immediately upon arrival, a process dubbed “Americanization.” In an often quoted passage, President Teddy Roosevelt called for assimilation, saying, “We have room for but one language here [in America], and that is the English language.”

Citizenship programs were established across the country, and free English lessons were available in most major cities and towns. The Ford Motor Co., among other major businesses, kept immigrant laborers after working hours for mandatory courses to teach them English and instill American values. The Young Men’s Christian Association offered classes that taught immigrants the “American way,” educating them on American hobbies, hygiene practices, family life and more.

Zangwill’s play debuted just as the Americanization movement took off, receiving mixed reviews from both the public and critics. In his article “How the Melting Pot Stirred America,” author Joe Kraus notes that fans of the play saw it as a “powerful articulation of the promise of America.”

Those who disliked the production, however, saw it as a representation of the mounting cultural hierarchy in America. “The Melting Pot, which celebrated America’s capacity to accommodate difference,” writes Kraus, “appeared on the scene at a moment when the American theater world ceased to accept heterogeneity in its productions and, more subtly, ceased to accommodate difference in its audience.”

Thus, The Melting Pot, for all of its insistence that America was a joyful marriage of diverse cultures, actually symbolized the end of cultural acceptance in the United States.

Even so, many immigrants continued viewing America in something like the spirit of Zangwill’s Quixano: “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming…Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”

Despite its shortcomings, the great melting pot was the face of America for decades after Zangwill’s play. Even as Asian immigrants were forced into Chinatowns (the first of which was formed in response to rising racial tensions), Japanese-Americans were interned and Jim Crow reigned, America proudly viewed itself as a cornucopia of ideas and ethnicities. In the mid-20th century, however, the melting pot concept began receiving more critical examination, just as a fourth wave of immigration crested in the United States.

Unlike the episodes of major immigration that came before it, the fourth wave consisted predominantly of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Central and South America. Like many of their predecessors, they were met with distrust and dislike by the American public.

Though many tried to assimilate into American daily life, they were seen as cultural and economic threats. Nonetheless, aspects of Hispanic culture leaked into American life.

With so many ethnic groups a part of 20th-century America, calls for assimilation began to see opposition in the form of multiculturalism, a school of thought that stresses the importance of recognizing individual ethnicities. It’s in direct contrast to the concept of a melting pot and has earned catchphrase metaphors of its own, like “salad bowl” and “cultural mosaic.” With the introduction of this ideology, Zangwill’s grand melting pot theory was aggressively called into question.

Even now, multiculturalism is but one of the terms used in an ongoing debate of how best to describe America’s diverse and growing population. Though Zangwill’s play advocated for America as the great equalizer, the melting pot was no more than a myth, albeit one cherished by many Americans.

The great number of ethnic backgrounds that exist in the United States make it difficult to assign but one name to the country, and one that adequately describes the mixture of many at that.

For further reading, see “Melting Pots and Salad Bowls” by Bruce Thornton (Hoover Institution, October 26, 2012) and “Immigrants Have Enriched American Culture and Enhanced Our Influence in the World” by Daniel Griswold (Insight, February 8, 2002).