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Assimilation, American Style

By Peter D. Salins
Basic Books 1997 ISBN: 9780465098170

About the Book

Peter Salins’ latest book, Assimilation, American Style, reminds us that the United States has developed into the world’s greatest democracy because we have been able to build one nation from many peoples. From the Reverend Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam on one side to Pat Buchanan on the other, our daily news is dominated by indications that America’s uniquely cohesive social fabric is being pulled apart from the left by multiculturalism and from the right by a resurgent nativism. As the tension between the two forces increases, Salins reminds us that the means by which generation after generation of new Americans have been assimilated have never really changed. Salins believes America can once again reassert these priorities, indeed we must reassert them, and revive the traditional notions of America as the great melting pot.

A Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and himself the son of immigrants, Salins decries the current trend toward multiculturalism and ethnocentricity. Separating Americans by ethnicity or race through bilingualism, ethnic separatism, and affirmative action, not only harms the groups it is intended to help, but also undermines such core national principles as liberty and equality. While Salins demonstrates that new immigrants need not wholly surrender their native cultures upon arrival in the U.S., he does stress that an aggressive and persistent dedication to the three most crucial institutions of assimilation—the English language, liberal democratic capitalism, and the Protestant work ethic—is absolutely necessary to the success of any new immigrant group.

But the process and responsibilities of assimilation do not fall solely onto the shoulders of the new immigrants. Salins also instructs native Americans in their responsibilities in the assimilation paradigm. Natives must recognize the legitimacy of new immigrants; only then will the immigrants’ acceptance of American values fully enable them to become Americans. Salins chides the nativists who seek to close our borders to many immigrant groups and those who profess doubts about some groups’ ability to share in the American Dream. He points out that the Hispanic and East Asian immigrants of today are behaving exactly like the Irish and German immigrants of the nineteenth century, and show every sign of being able to enjoy similar success. His message is clear: America is still a land in need of contributions from immigrants, and natives, for their own sake, if not for the immigrants’, should work to ensure that those contributions continue to be made.

Salins ends his book with a troubling reminder of the ethnic conflicts in dozens of regions of the world that each year cost thousands of lives. In each instance, societies with a heightened devotion to and a focus on ethnicity, race, or religion are paying the price for their emphasis on their differences, instead of their commonalities. Until now, fortunately, America has avoided the trap of dividing power and privilege along ethnic or racial lines. But Salins stresses that if we are to remain truly a civil society, one which invests in individuals and not groups, then we had better return quickly to our very special form of assimilation, American style, or face the prospect of living in a radically different and much less pleasant country in the twenty-first century.

About the Author

Peter Salins is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a former editor and contributor to City Journal, and an expert on housing, immigration, higher education, and New York City. He is currently University Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University and director of its graduate program in public policy; and formerly, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs of the State University of New York system.