Commentary Magazine


The New Americans by Michael Barone

The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again
by Michael Barone
Regnery. 338 pp. $27.95

In the opening words of this book, Michael Barone positions himself squarely against an Al Gore gushing over the wonderfulness of multiculturalism and demanding a “collective civic space large enough for all our separate identities.” To Barone, separate identities and multiculturalism are precisely what America does not need.

Barone is, of course, not alone in delivering backtalk to our country’s diversity celebrators. But he is far more upbeat about the future than almost all of his allies. Most of them—or should I say us?—often come across as partisans of a lost cause, beset from every side by the hyphenization of America. And yet, as reflected in his subtitle, Barone believes that the multiculturalists can and will be defeated. He is, in two words not often conjoined these days, an optimistic assimilationist.

A senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, and for many years a co-editor of the invaluable Almanac of American Politics, Barone plainly qualifies as an optimist—and also as a conservative. Throughout The New Americans, he leans heavily for both data and analysis on such neoconservative scholars as Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Paul Johnson, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell. The thesis he outlines here was laid out earlier in a lecture funded by the conservative Bradley foundation, and delivered at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. But it is an answer to a view found on the Right as readily as on the Left. According to that view, we are in an unprecedented new era, one in which e pluribus unum—“out of many, one”—no longer applies, and, for better (say many on the Left) or for worse (say many on the Right), America’s traditional self-identification as a “white bread” society is inexorably giving way to a “multigrain” vision based on massive immigration and separate identities.

The reality, Barone tells us, is otherwise: we have been assimilating diverse cultures all along. We have always been a nation of immigrants, with different folkways and clashing values, and we have always succeeded in bringing them together in a common civic culture. And we will succeed again. In a series of richly elaborated historical parallels—between today’s blacks and yesterday’s Irish; today’s Latinos and yesterday’s Italians; today’s Asians and yesterday’s Jews—he attempts to demonstrate that our own anxieties are as groundless as were Benjamin Franklin’s when he expressed the fear that immigrant Germans—some 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s population at the time of our country’s founding—would never be integrated into American life.

American blacks, argues Barone, can be considered to be like “immigrants,” since most were confined to the rural South and unable to live as free Americans until well into the 20th century. There is no reason to believe that their prospects cannot be as bright as those of 19th-century Irish immigrants who lived in fearsome urban slums but whose descendants thrive in affluent suburbs and enjoy above-average incomes and educations. Latinos, like the Italians of a century ago, are already beginning to move along the path to integration and success. Asians are moving along the same path, only, like the Jews before them, more quickly.

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Barone’s three parallels are not equally persuasive. The strongest is the Asian/Jewish: two groups that have had abundant experience with discrimination in the United States and have essentially overcome it. Both contain unusually high proportions of gifted individuals, and exhibit a natural talent for entrepreneurship; both also feature strong commitments to family and education. Thus, to suggest that Asians will follow the Jews down the road to mainstream success does not require much in the way of foresight; they have already gone a long way down that road, as evidenced in the wisecrack (cited by Barone) about the most common name in the Harvard faculty directory having changed slightly, from Cohen to Chen.

By contrast, the Latino/Italian parallel presents certain difficulties. America’s Italians came overwhelmingly from southern Italy between 1890 and 1910, and settled mainly in the New York City area. (An arresting detail mentioned by Barone is that half of all Italian-Americans still live within 100 miles of Manhattan.) By contrast, the 30 million Latinos—a term applied by Barone to immigrants from such disparate places as Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Central and South America—live all over the United States and have to be viewed as different populations.

Among these populations, New York’s Puerto Ricans are in general the poorest and, over the years, have been most prone to welfare dependency; to the extent that they register to vote, they are heavily Democratic. Florida’s Cuban Latinos are more upscale; in the 2000 election they went 80 percent for Bush. The Latinos also include a significant fraction of “illegals,” most of them Mexicans (who represent about half of all the country’s Latinos).

In one respect, comparison with the Italians is suggestive: as late as the 1920’s, a sizable majority of Italians had not gotten around to naturalization. So, too, Latinos in general—including those with green cards—show the lowest rates of citizenship among all recent immigrants. Even after Bill Clinton’s huge 1996 effort to speed up the naturalization process (and thereby boost his own vote totals), the Census Bureau found that only 22 percent of Latinos were citizens, in sharp contrast to the 35-percent rate among foreign-born blacks, 44 percent among Asians, and 50 percent among non-Latino whites.

Still, in almost every other way, Latinos and Italians are such different kinds of populations that Barone’s analogy seems of limited utility. And his analogy between blacks and Irish seems weaker still.

Contrary to Barone’s suggestion, it is not even clear that today’s successful Irish suburbanites are really descended from the underclass of the mid-19th century. In his strikingly original book, The Unheavenly City (1970), Edward Banfield defined the underclass by its propensity to live in a “present-oriented” world based on instant gratification and impulsive adventuring, with little or no planning for the days ahead. This led him to speculate that even as discrimination faded and economic opportunities opened up, the Irish underclass never got its act together. Instead, done in by alcohol, multiple infectious diseases, and violence, it gradually died out. Today’s well-to-do families are the descendants not of these Irish but of less conspicuous immigrants who were already committed to striving and middle-class values upon their arrival.

If this analysis is correct, then the moral of the Irish/black analogy changes significantly. Yes, many blacks will continue to escape from today’s urban slums; but many others may be unable to shed their underclass identities. Unlike 19th-century Irish-Americans, they are on their way to becoming a permanent feature of our social landscape, sustained by today’s welfare arrangements and today’s medicine but seemingly incapable of making the transition to middle-class life.

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So there are anomalies in Barone’s three sets of parallels. And his case seems even less persuasive when one examines the quite different political circumstances in which the melting pot, then and now, has been asked to do its job.

Today there is celebration of diversity and institutionalized affirmative action. Like yesterday’s, today’s immigrants can attempt to work their way into the larger society by studying hard and laboring long hours. But they can also try to get ahead by playing assorted separatist cards: demanding racial quotas, set-asides, near-permanent bilingual arrangements, ethnic dormitories, and other preferences based on their minority status. Barone is fiercely opposed to all such arrangements and plainly regards them as incompatible with assimilation. But except for the Asian immigrants, he nowhere offers good reasons for thinking his “New Americans” will readily abandon the benefits conferred by those preferences.

The exception is easily accounted for. Asians, some 4 percent of all Americans nowadays, do not need special breaks to get ahead. By several indicators, they are actually being held back by preferences; Barone presents evidence that their representation in elite colleges—19 percent at Harvard, 28 percent at MIT, 22 percent at Stanford, 39 percent at Berkeley—would be even higher but for affirmative action. True, once they are in college, Asian students are subjected to heavy doses of victimological propaganda designed to make them feel they belong to a persecuted minority and to discourage their impulses toward assimilation. In general, however, as Tamar Jacoby has persuasively demonstrated (“In Asian America,” COMMENTARY, July-August 2000), they seem not to be buying this line.

Latino immigrants are a somewhat different case. As Barone shows, most are not much affected by affirmative action, and many indeed seem unaware of it. In part this is because the small-business, private-sector jobs in which the overwhelming share of Latinos work are relatively untouched by employment quotas. Nor do quotas seriously impinge on Latino college enrollments, which are substantially lower—among those aged twenty to twenty-one, only 29 percent were recently registered in a school—than those of other immigrant groups.

Still, affirmative action is far from a dead issue among Latinos, whose political-cultural establishment continues to operate under what Barone calls “the civil-rights paradigm,” nurturing grievances that plainly retard assimilation. It is hard to believe that Latinos will flourish in the American mainstream until more of them attend college—but also hard to see their leadership backing away from demands for more affirmative action in order to make widespread college enrollment a reality. Conservatives who support Latino immigration and oppose racial preferences (e.g., the Bush administration) may increasingly find a certain tension between those two objectives.

Barone’s wobble on affirmative action is most conspicuous in his chapter on American blacks, whose job prospects and college admissions are seriously enhanced by quota-like arrangements. Absent a sea change in the laws mandating such preferential arrangements, why should American blacks ever willingly forgo them? Barone nowhere crisply answers this question, although he comes close to advising blacks that they would be better off without affirmative action. He details its insidious effects on black self-confidence and achievement, and quotes at length from John McWhorter’s argument in Losing the Race that blacks would have substantially higher grades and SAT scores if only affirmative action went away.

One wonders to what extent that is really so; Barone does not mention the persistent black-white gap in IQ, or for that matter the black-Latino gap (about half as large as the black-white gap). And one also wonders whether Barone really expects blacks to drop demands for affirmative action any time soon. It is “possible to hope,” he concludes lamely, that the separatism and anti-intellectualism infecting the black community, so well described by McWhorter, will eventually disappear, and that blacks will not take as long as did the Irish (perhaps 120 years) to become “fully interwoven into the fabric of American society.”

Well, it is always “possible to hope.” But there is a final problem for supporters of assimilation: the role played by today’s American elites. In past generations, the country’s self-confident leadership took it for granted that hyphenated Americanism was unacceptable and immigrants must assimilate or be marginalized. This posture was no doubt tinged at times with a certain amount of bigotry, but at least it left no question about what was expected. Today’s not-so-confident elites—the CEO’s, foundation heads, newspaper editorial boards—seem by contrast utterly unable to demand assimilation.

Indeed they seem to be against it. They have fervently embraced affirmative action and “diversity,” and have encouraged minorities to see everybody on the other side of the argument as perversely mean-spirited. At any number of points in The New Americans, Barone speaks despairingly of these opinion-makers, and agrees that they present a formidable stumbling block to his assimilationist vision. I will surely not be the only reader who gets to the end of his book wishing his optimism were well-founded but believing it misplaced.

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About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.




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