The Agenda

Noah Smith on the United States as ‘Alt-Asia’

Noah Smith has a clever article in The Atlantic arguing that the U.S. would benefit from an increase in Asian immigration. The basic premise, as I understand it, is that the U.S. flourished as an “Alternative Europe,” i.e.:

Political and religious dissidents who were dissatisfied with the ruling regimes in their homelands, oppressed ethnic minorities, and poor people who couldn’t get a good job — all made their way to the United States. Here they found a place where their beliefs, their ethnicity, and their parents’ socioeconomic status mattered far less than in the Old Country. America itself benefited greatly from the inflow, gaining a huge labor force, a constant supply of entrepreneurs and creative free thinkers, and a diverse ethnic makeup that helped us avoid the kind of brutal ethnic violence and fragmentation that plagued the European subcontinent.

and so the U.S. can now flourish by playing a broadly similar role for Asia, which is far more populous and far more likely to prove economically and culturally central in the coming century. Smith also suggests that the U.S. should play a similar role for Africa, which makes sense given robust population growth in the region and the large number of skilled English-speaking African professionals. 

My main objection to Smith’s thesis, and it is relatively minor, flows from the following:

I believe that the cultural benefits of Asian immigration will be just as big as the economic and political benefits. Adding diversity to our melting pot will speed up America’s inevitable and necessary transition from a “nation of all European races” to a “nation of all races.” The sooner that happens — the sooner people realize that America’s multi-racialization is a done deal — the quicker our political debate can shed its current ethnic overtones and go back to being about the issues.

My guess is that I don’t see the “ethnic overtones” Smith invokes in the same way he does. Moreover, I think it is possible if not likely that an increase in Asian immigration will reinforce existing cultural patterns rather than change them dramatically. The logic of the founder effect suggests that Asian immigrants are likely to assimilate to established norms, including political norms. And one likely result of self-selection among migrants is that those who will settle in the U.S. will tend to be those most aligned with U.S. norms and sensibilities. The racialization thesis implies that a bipolar dynamic might prevail, i.e., assimilation and intermarriage might lead Asians to identify with the dominant cultural group and not historically marginalized groups. This analysis doesn’t represent a case for or against Asian immigration. It does, however, undermine the notion that increasing the Asian share of the U.S. population will usher in an era of interethnic harmony. 


The Latest