For better or for worse, America is today, and has been throughout most of its history, the world’s melting pot. But there is now some indication that without realizing it we are fast becoming an unmanageable polyglot nation of multiple ethnic backgrounds and cultures, starting with language.
The danger here is that these distinct ethnic/language groups will eventually seek to break away and form their own political units similar to the separatist movements in Scotland, French-speaking Quebec in Canada, Spanish Catalonia and elsewhere. It forebodes a radical challenge for which we are mostly unprepared.
Almost from our colonial beginnings we have accepted and assimilated immigrants, not always gladly, but more or less willingly. We needed them for jobs Americans couldn’t or wouldn’t perform. But by the third generation these immigrants usually became fully Americanized and no longer connected to their grandparents’ language and culture. And with exceptions they were generally accepted as fully American. Through this process the United States has become the only country to have made a multi-ethnic society actually work. Only here have individuals of all nations been melted and blended into a new race, the American Race. In general this has been good, but recent trends might call this process into question.
In the early twentieth century the U.S. absorbed the largest influx of immigrants in its history: Irish, Germans, Italians, East Europeans, Catholics and Jews. Some 18 million became American citizens between 1890 and 1920. But today we are experiencing a second great wave of immigration that could have profound implications. Few of today’s immigrants come from Europe, but overwhelmingly from the still developing nations of Asia and Latin America. This influx is so relentless that by mid-century America’s Caucasian Race could become a minority and severely modify our melting-pot traditions.
Peter Salins, immigration scholar in the State University system of New York, says "I do not think most Americans really understand the historic changes happening before their very eyes. What are we going to become? Who are we? How do the newcomers fit in and how do we handle it?" These are the great unknowns."
Previous immigrant groups were encouraged, if not coerced, by the predominant white Protestant culture to assimilate. But we are no longer secure in that process. For the first time there seems to be more emphasis on preserving the immigrants’ ethnic identities and cultural roots than on assimilation. If taken to the extreme this could lead to separatist and independence movements such as those in French Canada, Scotland and the Brexit breakaway from the European Union.
Think it can’t happen here? Hispanics are fast becoming a majority in south Florida and African Americans in the Miami area are already complaining that the Cuban-America majority there resists hiring them for any kind of employment. Where are we failing in the Americanization of these new immigrants?
Since passage of the new immigration law in 1965 which makes family reunification a primary criteria for admittance, immigration rates have multiplied. The new rules allow immigrants already in the U.S. to bring over their relatives, who, in turn bring over theirs etc, etc. The result is obvious. We have been absorbing as many as one million newcomers a year. Today almost one in every ten Americans is foreign born. That’s not quite as high as in the era of massive immigration preceding World War I, but in New York City today two of every five residents speak a language other than English at home. Where do we go from here? As many of us down here in the Bible Belt might ask, "What would Jesus have us do?" But dare we ask?
Instead of spreading the Gospel of peace, love and acceptance as prescribed in the gospel, American Protestant houses of worship today remain among the most segregated places in the country. And churches are also providing little leadership on the vexing questions of the day, including immigration and drug addiction. They prescribe plenty of admonitions on the certified SBC sins of drinking, dancing, cussing and you-know-what, but little on how to address today’s really sticky issues. We Christians embrace New Testament beliefs and values on Sunday, but live mostly an Old Testament existence the rest of the week; more "an eye for an eye" than "turn the other cheek;" more Rambo than St. Francis of Assisi. To paraphrase the words of British philosopher G. K. Chesterton, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found too difficult and has hardly been tried at all.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.