Assimilation and Pluralism
From Immigrants to White Ethnics
We have room for but one flag, the American flag. . . . We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language . . . and we have room for but one loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.
—Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, 1907
his chapter continues to look at the ways in which ethnic and racial groups in the United States relate to one another. Two concepts, assimilation and pluralism, are at the core of the discussion. Each includes a variety of possible group relations and pathways along which group relations might develop.
Assimilation is a process in which formerly distinct and separate groups come to share a common culture and merge together socially. As a society undergoes assimilation, differences among groups decrease. Pluralism, on the other hand, exists when groups maintain their individual identities. In a pluralistic society, groups remain separate, and their cultural and social differences persist over time.
In some ways, assimilation and pluralism are contrary processes, but they are not mutually exclusive. They may occur together in a variety of combinations within a particular society or group. Some groups in a society may be assimilating as others are maintaining (or even increasing) their differences. As we shall see in Part III, virtually every minority group in the United States has, at any given time, some members who are assimilating and others who are preserving or reviving traditional cultures. Some Native Americans, for example, are pluralistic. They live on or near reservations, are strongly connected to their heritage, and speak their native languages. Other Native Americans are very much assimilated into the dominant society: They live in urban areas, speak English only, and know relatively little about their traditional cultures. Both assimilation and pluralism are important forces in the everyday lives of Native Americans and most other minority groups. 43
P ART I
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF MINORITY GROUPS IN THE UNITED STATES
American sociologists have been very concerned with these processes, especially assimilation. This concern was stimulated by the massive immigration from Europe to the United States that occurred between the 1820s and the 1920s. More than 31 million people crossed the Atlantic during this time, and a great deal of energy has been devoted to documenting, describing, and understanding the experiences of these immigrants and their descendants. These efforts have resulted in the development of a rich and complex literature that I will refer to as the “traditional” perspective on how newcomers are incorporated in U.S. society. This chapter begins with a consideration of the traditional perspective on both assimilation and pluralism and a brief examination of several other possible group relationships. The concepts and theories of the traditional perspective are then applied to European immigrants and their descendants, and we develop a model of American assimilation based on these experiences. This model will be used in our analysis of other minority groups throughout the text and especially in Part III.
The United States is now experiencing its second mass immigration, which began in the mid-1960s, and a particularly important issue is whether the theories, concepts, and models based on the first mass immigration (from the 1820s to the 1920s) will apply to the second. The newest arrivals differ in many ways from those who came earlier, and ideas and theories based on the earlier experiences will not necessarily apply to the present. We will briefly note some of the issues in this chapter and explore them in more detail in the case study chapters in Part III.
Finally, at the end of this chapter, I briefly consider the implications of these first two chapters for the exploration of intergroup relations. By the end of this...
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