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Becoming American

Think Tank
Ben Wattenberg - Becoming American
TTBW 1219 PBS Feed date 6/24/2004

Funding for Think Tank is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

(opening animation)

WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. In this age of globalization and ethnic identity politics, what does it mean to be an American? Do we as a nation need to find new ways to talk about - and proudly encourage - the exceptional American experience? In the aftermath of 9/11, the stakes could hardly be higher. One in nine Americans are foreign-born, and are here legally or illegally. Nearly one-fifth of Americans speak a language other than English at home. Can we make it easier for immigrants to assimilate? Should we? To find out, Think Tank is joined by: Richard Alba, professor of sociology at the State University of New York-Albany and co-author of 'Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration'. And Tamar Jacoby, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the editor of 'Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means to Be an American'. The topic before the House: Becoming American. This week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Tamar Jacoby, Richard Alba, both old friends. Welcome to Think Tank.

ALBA: Delighted to be here.

WATTENBERG: Okay. Now - Iím delighted that youíre delighted. Now, first question; what is going on in the scene of American immigration? Itís become topic du jour, maybe up there right with terrorism, and itís part of that whole situation. Letís start with an easy one. Since 9/11, are Americans becoming more opposed to immigration?
Anybody have an answer on that?

JACOBY: They were very frightened right after 9/11. Polls showed huge numbers, two thirds higher thought that the borders should be closed or we should have much lower numbers.

WATTENBERG: Thatís an easy answer to give. Close the borders.

JACOBY: Exactly... couldnít do it. Some of those fears I think are ebbing but the surface fears, the surface panic. But I think deeply people are uneasy about it.

ALBA: I think the U.S. like lots of countries that receive immigrants is one where the people have a certain uneasiness about immigration. They see it changing their society. All the polls have consistently shown that people would much prefer to lower immigration than to raise immigration. Thatís true in the U.S., itís true in western Europe as well. But they donít care deeply enough about the issue to really press for political change. And the political tracks are set for either status quo, if not even increased immigration.

WATTENBERG: But at the same time, Americans are proud of the fact that...

JACOBY: Well, itís always been true that Americans have loved the immigrants of a generation or two ago and been frightened by the immigrants of their era.

WATTENBERG: Rita Simon, whoís at American University, has a great quote which she says 'we look at immigration through rose-colored, backward-looking eye glasses'.

JACOBY: Exactly.

WATTENBERG: The immigrants of yesteryear are always the good ones and the ones today are the ones...

ALBA: Itís a little bit like the statement of generals fighting a war, right? That theyíre always fighting the last war and weíre always seeing contemporary immigration through how we understand the experiences of the past, including the experiences of our own families.

WATTENBERG: I have a quote I want to - I have two quotes; Iíll read them just in the short version. This concerns about a hundred years ago, the last really big immigration when the Italians and Jews and Polls, Hungarians and Slovaks were coming over and the superintendent of the Census Bureau, when Francis Walker, who then become the President of MIT, then later became President of MIT - said - itís a long quote - but heís talking about the immigrants, and he says, 'They are beaten men from beaten races.'

ALBA: You have to read on because the best part of the quote is where he says 'they donít just come from the tribes of old Germany that made laws under oak trees'. Fortunately he was not prescient enough to see the future in the 20th century.

WATTENBERG: I know. I have that. And the other one, which is the one I love, as you might imagine, is from Oscar Handlin, who is the great scholar - one of the great scholars of immigration. And he makes the point that the new immigrants, unlike some of the older stock, were of peasant ancestry, and he says, 'Once they got here they discovered the glory and grief of being free.'

ALBA: Itís a great quote.

JACOBY: Itís a great quote.

WATTENBERG: He was, I think a great writer, a stylist himself - Handlin.

JACOBY: But public opinion, I actually believe, despite those fears and that deep uncertainty about it, I think if we framed it properly we could bring the American public along to a more realistic...

ALBA: Well, it has to also say here that many Americans benefit directly from immigration in the sense that they obtain services of various kinds, including very personal services that they would otherwise be unable to afford. So in immigrant-receiving areas there are lots of people in the middle class and the upper middle class who have immigrant gardeners, immigrant maids...

WATTENBERG: Some legal and some not.

ALBA: Thatís right.

JACOBY: And even more than that, I think thereís a kind of optimism and a faith in America and in Americaís power to absorb people that you could tap into. If you said we have control but we are absorbing them, I think you could get people to go for higher numbers.

WATTENBERG: Well, letís ask that question. Are we absorbing them? Is the melting pot working? Is assimilation working and what do we know about that?

JACOBY: I think we know a lot and I think the evidence we see - thereís a lot of evidence. The evidence we see is that it is working fairly well. That people exaggerate... they think the past worked perfectly and they look around them and they think the present isnít - they exaggerate how difficult it is in the present. In fact, itís working about as well as it has in the past, which is pretty well.

WATTENBERG: The way to always measure immigration in America is not to look at the first generation, ícause that may or may not have a problem. Look at second or third or fourth generation for that. I mean sooner or later the assimilationists, the way I see it, they win.

ALBA: Well, I think one has to add this qualification, though. Itís working. I think Tamar is right. Itís working about as well as it did in the past, say pre-1930, which means that lots of children of immigrants are advancing socially, economically in the United States. But there are a lot of people left behind, too. Itís a process with divergent trajectory.

JACOBY: ... is left behind. I mean, remaining a working class, or remaining poor, or remaining...

ALBA: I think remaining poor, but I think...

JACOBY: But not outside the system.

ALBA: Well, there are two key points here. One is that American racism still exists and it cuts more deeply into these immigrations than it cut into the immigrations of the past. I mean there are lots of Afro-Caribbeans, people who are by North American standards Black or African descent, and probably people who have an indigenous appearance who suffer in the United States. The second point is that legal status has a role for the contemporary immigrants and their children that it never had for the European immigrants. And as I was describing to Tamar earlier, there are lots of kids growing up in the United States who do not have the right to live here legally, but theyíve grown up here. They canít go back. But they canít really take advantage of the opportunities here.

WATTENBERG: And we are not about to throw them out, and you also have kids growing up here of illegal parents who are born here, who, when theyíre what, 18 or 21, can apply for a green card for their parents. Is it 18 or 21?

ALBA: Yes.

JACOBY: Iím not sure which one.

ALBA: If theyíre born here.

JACOBY: But, not to quarrel with that, I mean of course those two caveats are true, but when you look at the big picture and are todayís immigrants assimilating or not, the answer is yes.

ALBA: Yes.

JACOBY: And I mean look at something like language which, you know, Richard is the authority in, but, you know, every Hispanic kid who grows up here is proficient in English. And your average American looks around and they say, 'Well, I hear all this Spanish spoken.' But the second generation, if you grow up here you may not learn it in school; you may learn it on the street or from TV, but you become proficient in English, and by the third generation about two thirds of Hispanics speak only English.

ALBA: I think Tamarís point is very important. Even in the second generation, we have a raft of studies of language that show that for kids from Spanish speaking backgrounds, theyíre English-dominant in the second generation. And in the third generation most of them are going to be English monolingual. The prestige and the power of the English language are much greater today than they were a hundred years ago. Itís crazy to think that people are going to come to the United States and not recognize that their children really have to learn English if theyíre going to get ahead.

JACOBY: And imagine the kids. I mean what kid would rather be home watching the Mexican telenovella than watching 'Friends' and, you know, American. . .

WATTENBERG: Thereís a line that I heard of Latino mothers telling their kids, without any attempt at derogation of Spanish, but saying that Spanish is the language of busboys. And itís a tough statement, but thereís some truth to that. I mean if you want to get ahead in America...

JACOBY: You need English.

WATTENBERG: And whatís the figure in Los Angeles, southern California, that thereís like 140 separate language groups. Does that sound right?

JACOBY: Something like that. But there are - but again - the kids learn English. You can be in Mexican-American neighborhoods in California and hear all the adults speaking to each other in Spanish, and the little siblings speak to each other in English.

WATTENBERG: Statistically, I think the people who are left behind most in America are American Blacks.

ALBA: Absolutely thatís true. But I think we have to be wary that weíre not leaving others behind, and thereby creating, you know, a larger, multihued poverty population. And, again, I say, you know, I think probably the best thing we can do to enhance assimilation is to work against barriers of discrimination that confront immigrant children; barriers of racial discrimination and also barriers of discrimination on the basis of legal status. I mean, itís opportunities that motivate people to assimilate.

WATTENBERG: And I want you to discuss the intermarriage aspect of this as well, but you have - within and among immigrant groups - you have a lot of tension, and a lot of the sub-Saharan Blacks and Caribbean Blacks dislike American Blacks, and vice versa, for a whole variety of reasons.

ALBA: Well, I think for the immigrants they recognize that...

WATTENBERG: Thatís the street wisdom anyway...

ALBA: Well, I think itís easy enough to understand. The immigrants quickly recognize that to be a Black in the United States is to have very low status and so they want to distinguish themselves as best as they can from the American Black population. Mary Waters has shown in fact that many children of West Indian immigrants find ways to make clear that theyíre West Indian because thatís considered to be a higher status.

WATTENBERG: Now, Tamar, you say in your book that, historically, it has been Republicans who have been anti-immigrant, and now you have George W. Bush who speaks Spanish and comes from Texas and is really whaling away trying to get that...

JACOBY: I wish he were whaling away a little more. Heís not whaling away quite enough for my taste, but yes, yes. Now a large part of the Republican party - maybe not half, but coming up to that - sees that immigration is a reality in America today. That we need it to keep the economy growing, and is seeing reason on the topic.

WATTENBERG: And most jobs - itís your view some of the bad jobs - so-called bad jobs - would not be taken by American...

JACOBY: One statistic. One statistic I think tells that story. In 1960, half of American men hadnít finished high school. Today, only 10% of American men have not finished high school. The people who used to drop out from high school in 1960 did a kind of job that Americans donít want to do anymore. Immigrants donít tend to displace American workers. They have some affect on wages; small, temporary affect. But itís not a zero sum game. They help grow the economy.

WATTENBERG: And of course if they help grow America, if you look at the U.N. demographic data, you see that in the next fifty years - which is half a century, so itís a long way out but itís - demographically speaking itís not such a long way out. America is going to grow by about 120 million people while Europe is going to lose about 100 million because their birthrates are so low.

JACOBY: Boy. Boy.

ALBA: And theyíre also not taking in enough immigrants.

WATTENBERG: Well, because their immigrant pool has traditionally been from North Africa, from Morocco, Algeria, Turkey in Germanyís case, and they didnít like the Muslims before 9/11 and they really donít like them now.

ALBA: I donít think that their immigration policies have changed so much, actually. Theyíve been very...

WATTENBERG: The Dutch tried to throw out immigrants.

ALBA: But I think the Europeans - precisely because they saw themselves as having very strong welfare states that could be attractive to people from third world countries - theyíve always raised the barriers high against immigration, so - I mean, this was true for several decades - for a couple of decades before 9/11. It was difficult to immigrate to France, to Germany.

WATTENBERG: What are we seeing about intermarriage in America...

ALBA: Itís very high.

WATTENBERG: ... because thatís really the key to this...

ALBA: I mean we donít yet have good intermarriage data from the 2000 census, but we know pretty well what the story was from the 1990 census. Among young U.S. born Asians, roughly a half married non-Asians.

WATTENBERG: U.S. born. Now thatís second generation and more.

ALBA: Second generation. Among young U.S.-born Hispanics, roughly a third married non-Hispanics. Thereís a great deal of intermarriage.

JACOBY: And sometimes in the third generation itís above fifty, even into the sixties.

WATTENBERG: You once explained to me and itís very interesting, the uptown word for intermarriage is exogamy. And that itís highly dependent on how big the pool is.

ALBA: Absolutely.

WATTENBERG: I once did a television documentary and we went to a Greek wedding where the bride was of Greek ancestry and the groom was not and the parents of the bride were telling us, 'Well, what do you expect? You know, we sent her to college and only three percent of Americaís of Greek ancestry. Howís she supposed to find...' They liked their new son-in-law but they felt a certain twang, you know.

JACOBY: The pool matters but cultures matter, too. Some cultures do intermarriage very easily. Mexicans come from a culture where intermarriage is basically the rule. Where itís a culture thatís made of Indians and Spanish mingling and the cultureís about mixture. So they come to intermarriage easily.

ALBA: Thatís a good point.

WATTENBERG: How do Mexicans in Mexico feel about Mexicans marrying Anglos and living in America? And living in Mexico, Iím sorry.

JACOBY: Mexicans in Mexico are very complicated about the migration. They havenít really figured it out. A tenth of their country lives outside the country.

WATTENBERG: And their president, who is supposed to be such a big supporter of Bush, is making it hard to stop illegal immigration.

JACOBY: Well, I wouldnít go that far actually, but the point is - I mean the point for us is not about Mexican policy. The point for us is that the bulk of immigrants who are coming now are people who understand cultural fluidity, understand intermarriage, find that a natural, easy thing, understand the mixing of cultures and find the binary nature of our views of race and our views of out and in very alien. And that bodes well for assimilation.

WATTENBERG: Now what do you think? You have written at some length, and Iím sure you have an opinion also on this, what President Bush claims and other supporters of him claim is not amnesty, but in point of fact is another amnesty, isnít it?

JACOBY: Amnesty implies waving a wand and saying no matter what you did or who you are, youíre legal. Thatís not what the presidentís proposing, or what anyoneís really proposing.

WATTENBERG: Itís the effect of what heís proposing.

JACOBY: Well, people whoíve been here for many years, who are living here as Americans, who have American-born kids, who own businesses here, who feel theyíre American, who recognize that theyíre American, I donít consider that an amnesty; I consider that recognizing reality.

WATTENBERG: One of the arguments thatís going on in the realm of immigration and identity politics concerns this mystical word 'multiculturalism', and, Richard, I guess you must see it on campus. Thatís where a lot of the professors are encouraging their students to have identity group politics. What is that all about? Black identity groups and...

JACOBY: I think thatís where it started. This was the product of the Black Power revolution where groups realized that - and it was, you know, really Malcolm X whose idea it was - realized instead of having your difference be something that could be used against you, you could turn it into something that could be a source of power. And once groups figured - Blacks figured that out, other groups started to imitate and now that is our culture; that is our civil religion. Itís that you get power...

WATTENBERG: You get separation.

JACOBY: Well, you get power out of making something of your difference.

ALBA: Well, I think that may go too far. I think that, you know, multiculturalism is very much still an academic and intellectual enterprise.

JACOBY: Our corporate world? Oh, please. Advertising? Marketing?

WATTENBERG: Thatís - Tamar, thatís in hiring to put a good face on the company.

ALBA: Yes. Yes.

WATTENBERG: And in point of fact, I donít think in the corporate world theyíre sitting down at the corporate executive dining room self-segregating themselves the way you have in college.

JACOBY: No. No. But there is...

ALBA: I think we have to distinguish between the affirmative action spirit and set of procedures, which are attempting to create diversity in the corporate world and what Ben is referring to as multiculturalism.

JACOBY: Well, I donít know how much we do want to distinguish. I think they feed each other. I would argue...

ALBA: Theyíre related but I think they are distinctive. I mean, I think itís worth making that distinction. You can have one without the other.

WATTENBERG: I mean multicultural when you think about it, the word really means two polar things. It means separating and it means coming together. If you say weíre a multicultural society you can mean...

JACOBY: You can mean inclusive or you can mean diverse.

ALBA: Yes. Yes. Yes.

JACOBY: I mean, I think thatís the key thing.

WATTENBERG: Well, more than diverse. . .

ALBA: And I think we could be a multicultural society and be inclusive . . . without necessarily then maintaining self-segregating ghettos.

JACOBY: But I think we do have to learn to talk about if differently to get there. I think the way we talk about it now, we make difference the most important thing. We have to learn to talk about it in a way where difference is good and difference is valued, but what we have in common is more important than our differences.

WATTENBERG: Thereís nothing wrong - I mean, itís a statement thatís been used by racists or whatever you want to call them, but the fact is there are a lot of people who want to live - Judaists might want to live with Jews, Italians with Italians, Latinos with Latinos and provided thereís no law - that says 'you canít live with us', I donít see anything wrong with people doing what they want to do.

ALBA: No, there isnít anything wrong.

JACOBY: As long as they buy into our political values and play by the rules. But thatís key. I mean, itís a balance between that sense of shared values and shared political ideals, and then whatever you want to do at home.

WATTENBERG: Look ahead twenty, thirty, forty years, whatever; is our sense of national identity, our sense - American national identity - is that going to be reinforced? Is it still going to be strong or is there this possibility of some sort of splitting apart?

ALBA: Oh, I donít see any possibility of splitting apart. I think... itís hard to say whether it would be as strong then as it is today, but you have to remember that the sense of American nationality, American patriotism is one of the strongest patriotisms in the world. I mean, even Samuel Huntington acknowledges that. . . It seems to me that the forces that are eroding that sense of patriotism and identification with the American nation are as much globalization forces that really are operating on the top layers of society as they are immigration. In fact, less immigration, I think, is important here, which is operating more toward the bottom layers of society.

JACOBY: And globalization is having a kind of a perverse effect in some ways; the more things are globalized, the more people remember who they are and where they come from and what their values are.

WATTENBERG: The irony being that the increase in immigration and diversity in America, I think, becomes part of this Americanization that is sweeping the world.

ALBA: Absolutely. Absolutely.

WATTENBERG: Whether people are prepared to acknowledge it or not, and what we also fail to acknowledge is the tremendous impact, for example, on Spanish music into American life.

JACOBY: But thatís not - but thatís different than really changing our values. Again, our democratic values, our sense of opportunity, our sense of can-do, you know, as opposed to fatalism. Thatís what counts. Do we have a little Hispanic accent in our music? I donít think thatís going to really erode what it means to be American.

WATTENBERG: No, absolutely not. Itís fun, itís good music. Okay. So weíre going to be - weíre going to do all right.

JACOBY: I think so.

ALBA: Yes, I agree. I agree.

JACOBY: Thereís nobody more patriotic.

ALBA: Weíre going to do better than all right.
We really are going to do better than all right. Immigration, as Iím sure we all agree, is ultimately for all the pluses and minuses, is strengthening the United States.

JACOBY: Thereís nobody more patriotic than a new immigrant. Look at the Hispanic kids dying in Iraq.

ALBA: Absolutely. Yes.

WATTENBERG: Okay. Tamar Jacoby, Richard Alba, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank. And thank YOU. Please, remember to send us your comments via email. It helps us make the show better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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Funding for this program is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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