Politics & Policy

Assimilation, Now More Than Ever

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965. (LBJ Library and Museum)
America’s demographic revolution.

In the most predictable demographic revolution ever, the Census Bureau reported that nonwhite babies now make up a majority of all births.

This shift was inevitable as long as the basic architecture of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act remained in place. It ended the old system of per-country quotas and — together with subsequent liberalizations — unleashed a flood of immigration from Latin America and Asia. So long as about a million new immigrants entered the country every year, a demographic transformation was ensured as a matter of mathematics.

By 2010, the immigrant population was 40 million, following the highest decade in immigration in our history. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the immigrant population had doubled since 1990, nearly tripled since 1980, and quadrupled since 1970. Hispanics went from about 4 percent of the population in the mid-1960s to 16 percent in 2010.

Ted Kennedy and other architects of the 1965 law predicted that nothing much would come of the law’s changes. “Our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually,” Kennedy insisted, and “the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.” Forty-five years later, Hispanics are roughly 26 percent of all births, blacks 15 percent, and Asians 4 percent.

These categories aren’t quite as clear-cut as advertised. About half of Hispanics identify their race as white on the census, a phenomenon that was neglected until the New York Times started calling George Zimmerman a “white Hispanic,” apparently on grounds that an unambiguously Hispanic man couldn’t possibly be involved in a racially charged shooting of a young black man.

At its best, this country absorbs immigrants and makes them fully American. The question is whether we can do it now, with our common culture under assault at the same time we are experiencing a historic wave of immigration.

In 1910, immigrants were a greater percentage of the population, at 14.7 percent, than they were in 2010, at 12.9 percent. And many of those immigrants weren’t considered “white.” In 1922, an Alabama court threw out a miscegenation conviction against a black man because he had married a Sicilian woman. The court reasoned that she wasn’t conclusively white enough to commit the crime of interracial marriage. A scholar wrote a book in the 1990s suggestively titled How the Irish Became White.

That all feels like ancient history now, a tribute to the wonders of American assimilation. It is still at work. A Pew Hispanic Center survey found that the longer Hispanics are here and the more money they make, the more likely they are to call themselves “typical Americans.” About 36 percent of Asian-American women marry someone of another race.

But the assimilation machine is growing creaky. Diversity is now an industry. Multiculturalism, an ideology hostile to the assimilationist ethic, is ascendant in the schools. An obsessive racialism is sanctioned by government, which draws congressional districts and awards contracts based on race. The universities and corporate America are in thrall to affirmative action. There is no more apt symbol of the potency of the new “one-drop rule” in American life than the Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, who thought it would be to her advantage to tout her alleged 1/32 Cherokee heritage in her academic career.

All this comes as the nature of immigration has changed since the early 20th century. After its high in 1910, the percentage of immigrants plunged in ensuing decades. We paused to integrate the immigrants we already had. The current wave is slowing but not stopping. It is dominated by immigrants speaking one language, many of whom are from one country. About one out of ten births in America is to a woman born in Mexico. That is unprecedented.

If we are to avoid the racialized politics that tears at the fabric of other multiracial societies, we’ll need a revival of a patriotic assimilation that long ago fell out of style. More pluribus demands more unum.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry(at sign)nationalreview.com. © 2012 by King Features Syndicate.


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