What's So Great about Assimilation Anyway?

The unmeltable ones make our world and our lives much more rich and adventurous.

Surely it has happened to everyone: you are touring a large city in the US and happen upon a neighborhood enclave dominated by a single ethnic or religious group. Could be a Chinatown. Maybe it is Polish, Cuban, or Persian. Maybe Amish or Orthodox Jewish. You see new things, taste fascinating food, see products not in your store. You hear a new language. You encounter a new way of life.

It happened to me the other day. I inadvertently encountered a Little Brazil in Atlanta. It was absolutely delightful. It prompted me to think about the whole question of immigration and the incessant demand for assimilation. Even many supporters of immigration implicitly endorse this demand by citing evidence of rapid assimilation when defending immigrants.

Be Like Us

The demand that immigrants acculturate and assimilate – and fear that they will not – has been a staple in the immigration debate since the late 19th century or even earlier. Back then, the grave fear was that the Irish, Jews, and Italians would hold on to the values of the home country and fail to adopt that of the new. That would rip apart the American cultural fabric, resulting in disunity and ending in some kind of demographic disaster.

This fear was intensified by the rise of the eugenics movement.

Public schooling and compulsory attendance in the US was developed in the hope of homogenizing the culture, purging attachments to the home country and instilling a new one – by force. They came about in a time of cultural panic inspired by the gigantic demographic shift resulting from free markets. Its primary purpose was to unify the population in singular cultural commitments – not education as such.

This fear was intensified by the rise of the eugenics movement, which observed that culture and genetics are different issues. Even if Jews and other “dysgenic” groups learned to behave in a way consistent with Anglo-Saxon American cultural ideals, they believed that these aliens could still poison and destroy the American bloodstream. The result was a series of political measures to isolate and alienate the immigrants who were here and keep new ones from arriving (hence the immigration restrictions of the 1920s, among many other government measures).

Once eugenics became unfashionable (or at least undiscussed) following the Second World War, the fear of dysgenic poisoning abated, while the worry that immigrant groups won’t assimilate was revived.

This is a common fear you hear today. The presumption is usually that “we” have the right culture while “they” have the wrong one, so it is up to “them” to adapt and become like us. Along with this comes a huge apparatus of politics: that we, the dominant group, own the culture, that the culture can only be one thing, that outliers are a threat to national well being, and that there is something living and breathing that we can call the national culture in the first place.

Little Brazil in Atlanta

But why do we suppose this at all? It’s one thing if the US were like the country of Luxembourg, with a population about the size of Tucson, Arizona, and a territory not that much bigger (although Tucson has a massively diverse population with even as many as 100 Asian cuisine restaurants, and no terrible fate has befallen it). And there is some intuitive plausibility to the idea that a nation needs a prevailing language, if only for the conduct of business. But inspiring that to take place doesn’t require some kind of policy plan; it happens in the course of time and due to organic forces of social evolution.

I was happy too: thrilled to have discovered a Little Brazil in Marietta, Georgia, of all places.

It sounds like a cliché, but that makes it no less true: a beautiful feature of freedom is its diversity within a vast land space. America is fortunate in part because immigrant cultures haven’t fully assimilated to the dominant strand. It makes living in the US far more interesting and adventurous.

My example of Little Brazil is a small one but it illustrates the point nicely.

I was looking for my favorite brand of chewing tobacco and found that it was carried by a shop about 15 miles away. I decided to make the trek and found myself in a nice shop with tobacco but many Brazilian products as well. I asked about that. The proprietor said that there were lots of Brazil things in this shopping area.

Really? I looked again and found that he was right. There was the Brazilian café, with hot meats grilling over an open fire and a buffet with all sorts of Brazilian foods I recognized from my trips to that country. The clientele spoke entirely in Portuguese. These were happy people. I was happy too: thrilled to have discovered a Little Brazil in Marietta, Georgia, of all places.

Next door I found a Brazilian grocery, with all kinds of specialized foods and products, including some Brazilian coffee I had never seen before, and some Brazilian sodas and rice.

On the other side, there was a Brazilian bakery. Now things were getting serious. This was a huge place with vast specialities, including breads and desserts, and a friendly staff that felt great pride in their national foods. The shopkeepers were excited to have new customers and happy to brag about their products. We laughed and talked, and I tried to say things in Portuguese. I loaded up and delighted in the experience.

In addition, there was a Brazilian-centered place for haircuts, and, of course, a place for the famed Brazilian wax.

How Does This Happen?

They were all clumped together in a single small strip mall. Why? Because of city planning? No. There are network effects that produce advantages for locating where they do. A conjectural history goes something like this: a few immigrants arrive and choose to live in a certain area. Friends and family, looking to avoid search costs, choose the same area. Then their friends and family arrive too. They need products and retain affections for the home country, and feel comfortable around their compatriots. The stores open. More open and locate in the same area. This attracts more residents. Pretty soon a single national/ethnic group has “taken over” a part of town and together they create a cultural experience for everyone in the city.

Do I really want to live in a country where places like Little Brazil are not possible, where every single neighborhood is like every other one, all homogenized and unified?

For me or any visitor, the result is a wonderful free adventure into another world. Now I go routinely just for the experience. I drive 20 minutes and find myself in Brazil, thrill to the music, the food, the people, the culture. I take in everything I can, loving every minute. Then – and this is the strange thing – I hop in my car and leave Brazil, returning to the world of my choosing. And I do it all without a passport, a plane ticket, customs authorities, or even any expense beyond the gas it took me to get there and the cost of the Brazilian delectables I purchased.

In other words, this experience adds vastly to my quality of life.

So as I look at this, I have to wonder: what precisely is gained and what is lost by this incessant demand to acculturate? Do I really want to live in a country where places like Little Brazil are not possible, where every single neighborhood is like every other one, all homogenized and unified? That actually sounds terrible to me. The diversity we gain from the stubborn unwillingness to adapt is a beautiful thing. It puts on display what is most magical and wonderful about the liberal order: its capacity to create peaceful and productive outcomes based on radical heterogeneous inputs.

In contrast, the demand for acculturation in the course of 100 years has done so much to reduce our liberties, violate human rights, and build a large state apparatus that benefits no one but the ruling class. So here’s to the unwillingness of people to fully assimilate: the unmeltable ones make our world and our lives much more rich and adventurous.

Further Reading

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