Politics & Policy

For Immigrants, the Melting Pot Isn’t Comfortable, but It Works

(Boguslaw Mazur/Dreamstime)
Consider the thousand-plus Somali refugees in Amarillo, Texas.

The jokes came pretty quick, and I was quick to join in: A gunman at a Walmart in Amarillo? He’ll be lucky if he lives long enough for the police to show up.

As it turns out, he lived that long, but not much longer: A SWAT officer killed him before he could injure anybody.

People on Twitter joked: At least we can be pretty sure it’s not a jihadist. How many angry Muslims could there be in Amarillo?

These people don’t know Amarillo, which has one of the largest populations of refugees relative to its population of any city in the country, the largest by some estimates. They are mainly Somali, Burmese, and Iraqi, and many are employed in nearby slaughterhouses and meat-packing facilities. The feedlots there are something to see: cattle all the way to the horizon. If you’ve heard of “factory farming,” this is the Pontiac of beef.

The Walmart gunman was indeed a Somali [EDITOR’S NOTE: See correction at end], by the name of Mohammad Moghaddam. A note in what was presumed to be Arabic (the Amarillo police department is not jam-packed with Semitic linguists) was, according to overheard police-scanner traffic, left in the shooter’s car. It is Ramadan, and jihad is in the air after Orlando. But he had worked at the Walmart, and his target seems to have been his former boss. The police are saying it is just another episode of workplace violence.

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But that’s the thing about having a diverse society: A simple episode of workplace violence isn’t necessarily just that. Amarillo’s churches and institutions have done a great deal for the refugees, but many locals believe that the city already has done more than its fair share, that enough is enough. Not everyone in this Panhandle city has been entirely happy to host those thousand-plus Somali refugees, who have not undergone what you would call rapid assimilation. The Somalis may not be entirely happy to have been shipped to a cow town on the far side of the world, either, though one supposes that what greeted them in Amarillo is a bit nicer than what the local warlords might have had in mind for them back home.

Would Muhammad Moghaddam have been treated differently by his boss if he’d been an Anglo or a Mexican American? (Potter County is about 38 percent Hispanic; as is true of much of West Texas and the Texas Panhandle, the Anglo and Latino communities, having had more than a century to get used to one another and very little to fight over in the way of status or economic resources, are much better integrated than they are in, say, Southern California.) Would he have perceived his treatment differently? Would he have cracked up in the way he apparently did if he were not a refugee in an alien land? It is impossible to say. I can say that the local reception to a gunman named Muhammad has been rather different from what it would have been to one named Ray.

#share#The scholarly literature in economics and the other social sciences suggest that a certain level of diversity is healthy for a society (if you have lots of different ideas and approaches to community problems, you’re more likely to have a good one) but that diversity beyond certain levels imposes real social costs. People are less trusting and less cooperative when dealing with people who are unlike them, and it may very well be the case that this isn’t a learned attitude but an evolved response to real threats in the ancestral environment.

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This isn’t the area’s first time around with refugee questions. In the 1970s, a great many Vietnamese families settled there, many of them attached to Texas Tech University or to local businesses such as the now-defunct Texas Instruments factory. One of my best friends growing up was one of these immigrants. He didn’t speak a word of English when he showed up in the second grade; by sixth grade, you’d have thought he was a refugee from San Diego. They assimilated quickly in West Texas, in part because there wasn’t much choice. Where their numbers were larger, such as on the Gulf coast near Houston, they formed more-enduring unassimilated enclaves.

I was in a tenth-grade American-history class the first time I heard one of my teachers, a well-meaning left-winger of the Ann Richards variety for whom the entirety of American history was slavery, Jim Crow, and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, talk about the “salad.” You know the salad: America shouldn’t aspire to be a melting pot, this line of thinking goes, but a kind of tossed salad, in which everything is mixed up but each bit retains its distinctiveness. A great deal of our public policy, from so-called multicultural education (which is in fact the opposite of an education in culture) to refugee protocols that concentrate foreign populations instead of dispersing them, assumes the salad. We’ve seen how well that’s worked for the Swedes, the Germans, the French, etc., but we’re sure that our salad will be a gourmet masterpiece compared to the French frisée or the German . . . whatever passes for a salad in Germany.

It isn’t.

#related#I think of my Vietnamese friend, lost and no doubt feeling very, very alone in the second grade. It must have been hard on him, and still harder on his parents, who were terrific people but who never really were quite at home in their adopted country. But their son is as assimilated as he can be, and if their grandchildren grow up to be presidents or CEOs, no one will be surprised. That exercise in assimilation was hard, fast, unsympathetic — and effective.

The melting pot isn’t comfortable — it is, metaphorically, a kind of trial by fire — but it works.

There’s a lot standing between those Somali refugees in Amarillo and assimilation, and Islam is not the least of it. We did a pretty good job of assimilating those Vietnamese, and we aren’t doing such a bang-up job so far with the Somalis — not in Texas, and not in places such as Minneapolis.

There’s a lesson in that for immigration reformers, if they have eyes to see.

— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review.

UPDATE: News reports originally identified Mohammad Moghaddam as a Somali immigrant; subsequent reports identify him as an immigrant from Iran. 

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