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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Immigration and Integration the American Way

Maybe the biggest criticism of Europe that people here in Austin tend to stress is related to the Europeans supposed anti-immigration measures, the lack of integration possible in Europe, even worse, their basically racist policies versus immigrants. While this kind of universal and all-encompassing frontal attack - which is really what it is more often than just criticism - obviously and inherently is misleading and faulty, I have to admit that there is some truth to it. The recent proposals by the French government effectively wanting to create a second class of - recently naturalized - citizens, Merkel's reaction to proposals from Brüderle to increase even qualified immigration into Germany only, the Swiss referendum against minarets, Geert Wilder's astounding success in the national Dutch elections, this list could go on yet suffices to paint a bleak picture of European efforts (or rather lack thereof) at integrating its immigration populations.

I don't want to concentrate on European shortcomings here though, but would instead like to make a few observations on the situation in the USA, which, by the same people who criticize Europe, is usually seen as far less gloomy. Yet, recent developments here make far less evident if there is a more positive American attitude towards accepting people of all colors and races. The recent - since struck down in a federal court - Arizona law criminalizing illegal immigration and allowing for - arguably demanding it actually - racial profiling by the police caused quite a furor of course, resistance against an Islamic centre near the World Trade Center site in downtown Manhattan is a similar case which shows America's distrust versus the other - whether Hispanics or Muslims. Yet, the argument still stands that the United States successfully integrated wave after wave of immigration during the 18th and 19th centuries, well into the 20th century actually. The Italians, the Irish, the Germans, East European Jews, they all worked their way up the ladder and became an accepted part of American society.

Aside from the political polemic and a glorification of the American past - ignoring the immigrants' problems and difficulties for one - there are two main issues I have with this overly positive perception of the United States' integrationist capabilities.

One, integration in the United States never was - in any significant manner in any case - a two-way street, but instead a question of recent immigrants assimilating to mainstream - white, Anglo-Saxon - American culture. If you look at the immigration history into the United States you will notice two things. On the one hand the amazing amount of people from various backgrounds that have come to this country over the last 200 years and on the other hand how little the groups that arrived later on (post-Civil War basically) impacted American society in any but the most superficial manner. Obviously, everyone eats pizza now, Bagels have become ubiquitous, as has Tex-Mex, yet the most significant determinant of American society and culture remains a Protestant, puritan, Anglo-Saxon influence which was minuscule as far as sheer numbers are concerned in comparison to today's United States. The Catholic immigration of the Irish, Italians and today Latinos did not change that. Eastern European immigrants' attempts at worker organization and unions were violently put down and socialist ideas never really took hold in the US. Manifest Destiny, the imagery of the frontier, the ragged individual fighting against over-regulation and government interference remain popular and important points of reference even though in all reality, they have neither quantitatively (most immigrants having come far later) nor qualitatively much to do with today's United States. The melting pot is, maybe was even in Crèvecœur's day and age, a myth. Integration into the United States means acceptance of its founding myths, its capitalist system and puritan mindset, it means assimilation not the forging of a new society consisting of the differing attributes the manifold immigrants brought with them. Case in point, the never-ceasing flow of young, educated and hip (I live in Austin after all) Americans who pride themselves on their mixed (or even of exclusively one distinct other nationality) parenthood without speaking the native language of their parents or having anything but a superficial conception and understanding of their - parents' - country of origin. This kind of self-effacing integration never ceases to amaze me.

Two, living - even temporarily - in the United States today, one cannot help but notice the astoundingly developed parallelism of the three main American societies - the, still, dominating white Anglo-Saxon one, the black or Afro-American one, and the Hispanic or Latino society. The supermarket I shop in is almost exclusively Hispanic, the basketball court I frequent on Sundays is run by Afro-Americans, I am (pretty much) the only white guy playing there. They all identify as American of course, even pride themselves on their country and its achievements, but they do not mix. The hipster coffee shop I write this in probably has one black customer a day, I have yet to see a Hispanic in here who wasn't working in the kitchen. It is possible to cross over, but then you become a white Hispanic or a white black guy. You, to some extent, lose adherence to the group people would assume you naturally belong to. This especially because these groups are not just separated physically but, most importantly, culturally. There are black radio stations, Hispanic ones and the white, indie-rock or underground hipster stations. Hispanics of course converse in Spanish or at least bilingually, switching from one language to another, employing English words within a Spanish sentence or vice versa, but the Afro-American society also has its own jargon including references and adopted words and expressions which white Americans or Hispanics will not unequivocally understand.

So what's the point that I am trying to make? Quite honestly, I don't know if I even have one. This is not an attempt at showing that integration capacities in the US are lower than in Europe. Far from it. I'm not even sure I believe that. Rather, I guess I want to show how integration, assimilation and the influx of immigrants into the US are topics far more complicated and far less successful than too many people pretend or believe them to be.

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