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Friday, November 1, 2002

Book Review ~The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again

Regnery Publishing o 2001 o 338 pages o $27.95

Reviewed by Fred Foldvary

During the past decade there has been a large inflow of immigrants into the United States, especially from Latin America and Asia, raising fears that the new immigrants may not merge as easily or swiftly into the American culture and economy as previous waves of immigrants. There have also been concerns that the black migrants from the south during and after World War II have not been sufficiently advancing economically.

Michael Barone’s study reveals startling similarities between the old and new ethnic waves. Barone pairs the Irish with the blacks, Italians with Latinos, and Jews with Asians to demonstrate that “we’ve been here before.” Recent immigration is a déjà vu of the earlier folks who came to America, repeating previous cultural and economic patterns. While acknowledging differences between the linked pairs and variation within groups such as Latinos, there are nevertheless common patterns of culture and history.

The New Americans has a chapter for each ethnic group, all structured similarly. Barone applies his extensive experience as a political historian, senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, and coauthor of the biannual Almanac of American Politics to describe the old country, journey to America, life in the new country, work patterns, family orientation, religious practice, education, prevalence of crime, political participation, distinctiveness as a group, emergence in sports and entertainment, and convergence into the American mainstream for each group.

Describing the Irish, Barone depicts the massive discrimination that they faced, their initial poverty and lack of entrepreneurship, the high degree of fatherless families, the importance of religion, and high rates of crime. These largely forgotten characteristics are surprisingly similar to those associated with black Americans. While we think of Irish today as no different in appearance from other Caucasians, Barone shows that attitudes 100 to 150 years ago were much like prejudices against blacks recently and presently. The Irish were regarded by many Americans as an inferior race. Some Irish rose to prominence in sports and entertainment, just as blacks did later. Both looked to government to obtain power and employment opportunities. But now the Irish have converged into America, although many have retained their ethnic identity.

Like the Irish, black Americans had an “old country,” the old South, where most still resided until the 1930s. Like the Irish, blacks have had a lower rate of married couples, but they too made economic gains. Barone notes a key difference in government policy: racial quotas and preferences for blacks, which reduce their incentive to high achievement. Still, Barone observes that the racial divide is fading rapidly, just as ethnic divisions did for earlier immigrants. It took 120 years for the Irish to become fully assimilated, and Barone thinks it may not take as long for blacks, whose mass migration began 60 years ago.

The “uncanny resemblance,” as Barone puts it, between Italian immigrants and the current wave of Latino newcomers shows that the Spanish-speaking arrivals too will merge into mainstream America. Neither initially placed much value in education, but both were diligent workers and family-oriented, and both largely shunned welfare-state aid and, initially, politics. Just as Italians became interwoven into American life after being clustered in ethnic enclaves, so too do later generations of Latinos learn English and make economic advances. As with blacks, Latinos face a policy difference, especially with bilingual education, which in practice has often been Spanish-based. Its failures are now evident, and there is movement back to English-based instruction.

In contrast to Italians and Latinos, both Jews and East Asians traditionally valued schooling, and they have achieved higher levels of education than native-born Americans. Jews and Asians have strong family ties and low crime rates. Jews have become prominent in the professions and in the entertainment industry, and prejudice has receded as Jews have converged and intermarried to such a high degree there is fear in the Jewish community that it has become too assimilated and may lose its identity. Intermarriage is becoming high also with Asians as anti-Asian discrimination has vanished.

Barone not only paints a hopeful picture of the assimilation of immigrants into the America they came to for freedom and economic opportunity, but also shows that the American spirit has overcome prejudices. This is an excellent book both for information on the sociology of immigrants and for the policy implication that we need not fear any loss of American cohesion even with large amounts of immigration.

Fred Foldvary teaches economics at Santa Clara University.