Acculturation Without Assimilation

National Review | Published on May 20, 2013

By Stanley Kurtz

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The Boston Marathon terror attack has pushed the problem of assimilation to the forefront of the debate over immigration reform. The younger bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, took his oath of citizenship on September 11, 2012, of all dates.
Although his older brother and the mastermind of the plot, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had been investigated by the FBI in 2011, his citizenship application was still pending at the time of the bombing. These terrorists wanted to be Americans, yet they nursed a murderous hatred for the United States. Clearly the quest for citizenship is no guarantee of assimilation. Sad to say, the Tsarnaevs are but extreme examples of a far wider breakdown in America’s system of assimilation. We ought not to be mulling amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants before putting that system back in order.

One of the architects of this country’s ethos of assimilation, Teddy Roosevelt, delivered an 1894 address called “True Americanism,” which seems almost to have been written with the Tsarnaevs in mind: “We freely extend the hand of welcome and of good-fellowship to every man, no matter what his creed or birthplace, who comes here honestly intent on becoming a good United States citizen like the rest of us; but we have a right, and it is our duty, to demand that he shall indeed become so and shall not confuse the issues with which we are struggling by introducing among us Old World quarrels and prejudices.” It’s a message today’s immigrants are no longer hearing.

From the late 1960s on, a multiculturalism hostile to everything Teddy Roosevelt stood for has entrenched itself in our schools, our universities, large corporations, and the mainstream press. Pockets of traditional assimilationist thinking remain, yet the trend is clearly in the opposite direction. Federal and state governments reinforce the new multiculturalism by funding bilingual education, multilingual voting, diversity training, and the like.

The famous melting-pot metaphor notwithstanding, America has never required a total sacrifice of culture or creed from its immigrants. Instead we’ve called on prospective citizens to attach their personal heritage to American principles and identity. In a 1997 essay, the Manhattan Institute’s Peter Salins identifies three core components of what he calls “assimilation, American style”: acceptance of English as the national language, willingness to live by the Protestant work ethic (self-reliance, hard work, moral integrity), and pride in American identity and belief in our democratic principles. Knowing J. Lo from Jay-Z isn’t enough, in other words. That’s mere “acculturation.” Genuine assimilation — true Americanism, in Roosevelt’s words — is something more.

Many studies purporting to show that our assimilation system is flourishing do not adopt Roosevelt’s standard — that immigrants should embrace Americanism — as their own. A 2010 research report for the Center for American Progress by Dowell Myers and John Pitkin and a 2013 study for the Manhattan Institute by Jacob Vigdor, for example, use the rate at which immigrants become citizens as an index of civic assimilation. Yet citizenship itself in no way guarantees assimilation, as the Tsarnaevs show.

A newly published Hudson Institute study by John Fonte and Althea Nagai provides a more reliable assessment. In “America’s Patriotic Assimilation System Is Broken,” Fonte and Nagai found wide differences between native-born and naturalized citizens on a series of questions measuring patriotic attachment to the United States. For example, native-born citizens are, by large margins, more likely than immigrant citizens to believe that schools should focus on American citizenship rather than on ethnic pride, or that the U.S. Constitution ought to be a higher legal authority for Americans than international law. Republicans who believe that amnesty for illegal immigrants will be a political boon for the GOP, whether because they view Hispanics as “natural conservatives” or because they hope to win them over in time, may be taking for granted a pattern of assimilation that no longer exists.

America’s vaunted ability to forge a cohesive society out of many immigrant strands is now in doubt. The implications of this breakdown range well beyond terrorism, but the connection between terrorism and the weakening of assimilation cannot be dismissed as a side issue.

Salins, in his 1997 essay, presciently singled out several Arab-born perpetrators of the failed 1993 World Trade Center bombing as pure examples of “acculturation without assimilation.” These men were quite familiar with American society. The sister of one of the ringleaders said of her brother, “We always considered him a son of America. He was always saying, ‘I want to live in America forever.’” As observers on both left and right have pointed out since the Marathon bombings, post-9/11 terror attacks in Europe were likewise carried out by plotters conversant with the culture of their targets.

Many of those terrorists were children of poorly assimilated immigrants from Muslim countries. These second-generation European Muslims had an easy familiarity with the ways of their birthplace, yet they never felt quite at home in the adopted countries of their still unassimilated parents. Caught between two worlds, fully belonging to neither, these young men turned to radical Islam for certainty and identity when they felt the hard knocks of adulthood. The same thing happened to the Tsarnaevs. The collapse of cultural self-confidence in the West has left us with too little spiritual food to offer the children of Muslim immigrants, leaving some to turn to militant Islam in a search for lost roots. This suggests that opening our doors to new citizens without first paring back the excesses of multiculturalism and confidently reasserting traditional American principles of assimilation is asking for trouble.

Unlike immigration from regions wracked by violent ethnic and religious conflict, such as the Tsarnaevs’ homeland, Hispanic immigration raises no specter of terrorism. Yet the abandonment of Roosevelt-style assimilation has caused problems for the immigrants themselves. In 2000, Brookings Institution scholar Peter Skerry described a process by which the children of such immigrants undergo a sort of reverse assimilation. According to Skerry, many Mexican Americans who largely assimilate into majority-Anglo environments in their K–12 years, scarcely even thinking of themselves as members of a minority group, dramatically change when they reach college. The politicized multiculturalism that dominates America’s universities substantially deassimilates many of them, leading them to attribute virtually all of their discontent to race-based grievances. That process may not make for terrorism, but it won’t foster civil comity either, much less a raft of Republican recruits.

The reversal of assimilation at the university is by no means a worst-case scenario. Too often, says Skerry, high-school-aged Latinos born in the United States are “prone to adopt an adversarial stance toward school and a cynical anti-achievement ethic.” Even left-leaning assimilation researchers such as Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco, who want more multiculturalism, not less, describe the tough urban schools that many immigrants attend as riven by racial and ethnic tensions. The Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald recently called the fast-growing split between America’s English-speaking and Spanish-speaking cultures “E pluribus duo.”

Fixing our broken system of assimilation won’t be easy, because the problem is deeply rooted. Fonte and Nagai propose doing away with the apparatus of state and federal supports for multiculturalism and bilingualism. That step would surely have positive consequences beyond the programs directly affected by the change, and Republican leaders should advocate it. They also ought to insist on guarantees of border security that far exceed those on offer in the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” immigration proposal before considering a path to citizenship. Should Democrats demur, it will show they were never truly serious about comprehensive immigration reform to begin with.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.