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The Myth of the Melting Pot Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

The Myth of the Melting Pot
By Caroline Golab, 1975


America has meant many things to many people, but no image has been more pervasive, both at home and abroad, than that of the Melting Pot. The Melting Pot offered, as Will Herberg would say, "a genuine blending of cultures to which every ethnic strain would make its own contribution and out of which would emerge a new cultural synthesis, no more English than German or Italian, and yet in some sense trancending and embracing them all."

Although the concept of "melting pot" or "crucible" has been part of America since her inception, the idea received its greatest promotion during the two or three decades that preceded the First World War, the era of massive Southern and Eastern European migration to the United States. Israel Zangwell, an English Jew, was its official formalizer. Playwright, author and professional visionary, Zangwell wrote a play in 1909 which he titled The Melting Pot, thereby formally adding the term to the American language.

The play tells of the love of David, a Jew, for Vera, a Gentile, and of their struggle to overcome the strictures of heritage that forbid them to marry. The New World offers the lovers what would have been impossible, even inconceivable, in the Old World: a life where the traditions of the past will have no meaning for the future. In exchange for a future together, Vera and David will give up their past; they will live for their children, the "new Americans." The end of the play finds the young couple standing on a tenement fire-escape overlooking the clutter and rhythms of New York City:

David: There she lies, the great Melting Pot – listen! Can't you hear the roaring and the bubbling? . . . Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian, – black and yellow –
Vera:   Jew and Gentile –
David: Yes, East and West, North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross – how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!

(He raises his hands in benediction over the shining city.)

Peace, peace, to all ye unborn millions, fated to fill this giant continent – the God of our children give you Peace.

As the grandchild of immigrants writing almost seven decades after Zangewell's play, I find myself uneasy with the concept of the Melting Pot. So deeply have we accepted its ideology that we have been blinded to the realization that it never really worked. The Melting Pot is a myth and always has been. Nonetheless, we remain prisoners if its rhetoric, not realizing that the concept is fraught with dangers and that its whole cosmology is at the root of America's persistent and constant inability to define herself. The mythology of the Melting Pot has blinded us to be ashamed and embarrassed by our heritage and, unkindest cut of all, turned our diversity into discord.

The Melting Pot was never workable. It failed for three major reasons: First, it assumed that changing people was an easy thing to do – as simple as changing one's shoes and socks. Second, it assumed that the immigrants wanted to change because the desire to become "American" was irresistible. Third, it assumed that the host society would welcome the newcomers with open arms; that is, it assumed that Anglo-Saxon Americans would also agree to be melted down and formed into new creations.

The proponents of the Melting Pot were wrong on all three counts. Changing people turned out to be a complicated process; the immigrants never came with the intention of becoming "Americans; and the host society never agreed to melt in order to form the New Creation. If there was any change, it was all one-sided and concentrated on the superficial aspects of culture; the immigrants alone were melted down and molded into Americans along Anglo-Saxon lines.

The enthusiasm for the Melting Pot reached its climax during the Progressive Era, a time when sociology and psychology were still fledgling sciences recently imported from Europe. Consequently, Melting Pot advocates assumed that it was possible for people to change easily and rapidly (only an act of will was necessary). Moreover, they placed great emphasis on external aspects as the key to culture change. Change his clothes, cut his hair, give him a shave and a bath, teach him English, keep him from eating spaghetti, give him an American flag to wave and teach him the Pledge of Allegiance, and you have transformed the immigrant into an American. Send his children to the public schools and you continued the process. Teach the children to deny their heritage, teach them to see their parents as embodiments of things unAmerican, unworthy and inferior, and you completed the process.

In essence, the Melting Pot was sociologically and psychologically naive. It failed to understand how people function, as individuals (psychologically) and in groups (sociologically); it did not know that the process of change involves many more dimensions of man than can be seen on the surface.

Today we realize that man is very much a product of his early childhood conditioning into a particular cultural environment. The linguist Noam Chomsky, for example, asserts that every child is born with the ability to make all sounds imaginable. By the time the child is a year old, however, it loses this ability; only with difficulty will the English child now be able to make the nasal sounds of the French or the guttural sounds of German.

Because child rearing is so crucial to personality development and socialization, it is very difficult to change a person's habits, values, attitudes, loyalties, and expectations once he or she has reached adolescence or adulthood. More people smoke today than ever before, even though we know that smoking may produce cancer. We continue to spend on the highways, lose our tempers and eat too much, despite our good intentions to the contrary. When Dr. Thomas Harris says that "I'm OK, you're OK" is the way we want to be, he is also telling us how difficult it is for us to change, to cope, to balance all the intricate parts of our personalities. Thus, unenlightened by modern psychology, the Melting Pot ignored a basic rule, that people react and adapt to new situations only in terms of their own experiences and cultural cues learned in childhood. To change, to take on the habits, values, and traditions of a new society involved the denial of the habits, values, and traditions learned in childhood; it meant the elimination of years of pre-conditioning in another culture. This was most difficult, if not impossible to do, for the immigrant was no longer a tabula raza ("clean slate") capable of receiving new imprints without adverse complications or ramifications.

When asking the immigrants to change, Melting Pot enthusiasts also failed to appreciate the importance of size and network. While it may be relatively easy for a single individual to blend into the American landscape, it is not so easy for a group composed of many members. What happens if, because of sheer numbers, a group is able to reproduce or create institutions – family networks, churches, parishes, newspapers, schools, fraternal organizations, communities, and even neighborhoods – that contain only members of that group? There would be no need and perhaps little opportunity to come into contact with the structures, institutions, and even the culture of the host society.

Today's sociologist would inform us that the Melting Pot failed to distinguish social structure and culture. The anthropologist would tell us that it failed to distinguish between material and immaterial culture. When the immigrant exchanged his clothes, food, and language for those of America, he was forsaking the external aspects of his culture, but not his social (identificational) structures; nor was he necessarily forsaking all the intangible aspects of his culture – his family patterns, kinship values, attitudes toward God, sex, pain, work, or property. In other words, if you give a man new clothes and shave his beard, have you really changed him?

Although today we may all be very acculturated or culturally assimilated – we wear the same styles of clothes, eat the same foods, speak the same language, watch the same television programs – we are by no means structurally assimilated. For the most part, the changes have been the external ones. The invisible structures remain. Moreover, some social scientists insist that we are not yet even fully acculturated because the intangible and immaterial parts of our cultures remain as the underpinnings to our structural pluralism. The sociologist Andrew Greely, for example, has found that regardless of class, income, education or distance, Italian Americans invariably visit their parents and brothers and sisters at least once a week or more (usually more). Irish Americans, however, visit their brothers and sisters almost as often as the Italians, but do not visit their parents very much, and Jewish Americans hardly visit their brothers and sisters, but rank high with the Italians when it comes to visiting Mom and Dad. The message for us here, as Milton Gordon would tell us, is that "acculturation, without massive structural intermingling at primary, group levels, has been the dominent motif in American experience of creating and developing a nation out of diverse people . . ."

Not only did the Melting Pot assume that the immigrant could change easily and with no fatal consequences or adverse side effects, but it also assumed that they wanted to change. A great case of "America Fever" (so we're told) swept over Europe and Asia. Given the chance, everyone would want to be an American. Such thinking, however, was a projection of the Anglo-American mind, a case of arrogant ethno-centrism. There is little support for it; indeed, it represents a distortion, even a falsification, of American and European history.

Historically, we must distinguish between immigrants and migrant laborers. Immigrants (the very word is an American coining, first used in 1787) are those who come to a place with the intention of staying there permanently, either because they cannot return home or because they do not wish to. Classic American immigrants are the Irish, Jews and Armenians, people forced out of Europe by persecution and pogrom and with no home to return to even if they had wanted to return. To assume that the Irish, Jews, or Armenians left Europe because they no longer wanted to be themselves is absurd. If the desire to change one's heritage and culture was the true motive for emigrating, there should have been a fantastic movement toward assimilation on the part of these peoples while still in Europe. Surely, to the end of their persecutions, the Jews would have become Gentiles (or at least tried to) and the Irish would have converted to Protestantism and attempted to become acculturated Englishmen. The point is, they never did or even made the attempt. To paraphrase Peter Schrag, the promise of America was that it held out the possibility of being Jewish without the czar and his pogroms, of being Irish without the English and their Protestantism, and of being American without the Turks and their Massacres.

There were other people, however, who were not immigrants, but migrant workers who had come in search of work and wages: Italians, Poles, Greeks, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Croatians, Hungarians, Serbians, etc. Always, the intention of these people was to return home with their American savings. They wanted to reestablish their traditional societies but these societies were changing and slipping through their fingers, succumbing to the larger forces of industrialization and urbanization.

At least one half, and in some instances three fourths, of all the migrant workers who came to the United States returned to Europe. More would have returned had not the Great War prevented their sailing. Some decided to stay out only because they faced years of military conscription should they return to Europe, while others found economic opportunities in America that surpassed those available in the home country. Nevertheless, most of them returned and did not remain in America – but where did we ever read about this in our history texts?

Thus, the "American Fever" that spread across Europe was really a desire for livelihood, self-sufficiency, and freedom – the freedom to be Irish without English and to be Jewish without persecution; the ability to maintain a traditional Polish or Italian social system in Poland or Italy without the eroding influences of landlessness and poverty. The immigrants never disliked their cultures or their social systems; nor did they realize that they would have to forsake these entities in order to become Americans. It was America that taught them to be ashamed of what they were and where they came from. The subsequent scramble to become "American," even super-American; the need to be patriotic, even super-patriotic, was an outgrowth of the inferiority and unworthiness that America inculcated in the immigrants. Like Daved and Vera of Zangwell's play, the immigrants had to deny their past and denigrate their heritage as part of the price to obtain the livelihood, self-sufficiency, and freedom that America offered them.

Finally, the Melting Pot failed because it assumed that the receiving society would welcome the newcomers with open arms; it assumed that the Anglo-Saxons, the native Americans, would also agree to be melted and formed into new creations. It assumed that every time a new wave of immigrants arrived, there would be a willingness to be remelted and remolded again and again. This never happened. The welcome was never extended. Despite the effort of Emma Lazarus, there was no lamp lifted beside the Golden Door.

The newcomers, especially those of southern and eastern Europe, were considered unassimilable. Not only were they inferior physically, but they were less intelligent than native Americans and incapable of upholding the American ideals of democracy, competition, and fair play. Science supported these assertions. In 1916, Madison Grant wrote a best seller, The Passing of the Great Race, in which he warned of the dilution of American blood by inferior types. In 1911, the Immigration Commission of the United States Senate published several volumes establishing the inferiority of the newer immigrants; these volumes provided the basis for testimony that was later used to impose the restrictive quotas of 1924. The Senate ranked the immigrants on a scale of inferiority, placing the Chinese and Southern Italians at the bottom.

Men of education, science and national respect, writing in influential journals of the day – North American Review, Century – referred to the immigrants as "barbarians" and as "the defective and delinquent classes of Europe – the individuals who have not been able to keep the pace at home and who have fallen into the low strata of its civilization . . ." We read that "the blood now being injected into the veins of our people is sub-common . . . the Caliban type shows up with a frequency that is startling." We are informed that "we have already begun to despotize our institutions in order to deal with large masses of citizens not capable of intelligently supporting representative government" and that "there is the unanimous testimony of the Commissioner-General of Immigration, the Commissioner at the Port of New York, and the Immigration Commission, which has recently spent several years studying the matter, to the fact that for one immigrant whose defects are so marked as to put him in the classes excluded by law there are hundreds, if not thousands, who are below the average of our people and who . . . are 'watering the nation's life blood.'"

To deal with the problem of inferior and unassimilable immigrant, native society institutionalized "Americanization" – a "Consciously articulated movement to strip the immigrant of his native culture and attachments and to make him over into an American along Anglo-Saxon lines – all this to be accomplished with great rapidity." Schools, churches, municipalities businesses, fraternal organizations, and even unions joined the movement. In addition to external dress and habits, emphasis was placed on loyalty to America. Flag Days and patriotic parades were popular. Children were urged to teach their parents English via patriotic songs and to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance and Preamble to the Constitution. The coming of the Great War offered the ultimate opportunity to prove one's Americanness; if you fought for your new country, and especially if you died for it, no one could possible doubt your loyalty. Thus, the greater one's loyalty and the greater one's conformity to the Anglicized model, the less were the chances of being called inferior and unworthy.

Henry Ford, a great believer in the Melting Pot, sponsored Americanization classes for his immigrant workers. To celebrate the end of their schooling he would have them perform a skit for friends and relatives. A huge caldron, labeled "The Melting Pot," would be centered on the stage. The immigrants would march onto the stage dressed in their native costumes and waving the flags of their native countries. They would then pass behind the "Melting Pot" and emerged dressed in identical black suits with starched white collars and derby hats, and waving the flag of the United States. This performance symbolized what the Melting Pot really was – a one-way melting in which the immigrants gave up their histories, their heritages, their languages, and their pasts in order to emerge as endless replicas of the idealized Anglo-Saxon American. Will Herberg, author of Protestant, Catholic, Jew has stated it very well:

It would be a mistake to infer – that the American's image of himself – and that means the ethnic group member's image of himself as he becomes American – is a composite or synthesis of the ethnic elements that have gone into the making of the American. It is nothing of the kind; the American's image of himself is still the Anglo-American ideal it was at the beginning of our independent existence. The "national type" as ideal has always been, and remains, pretty well fixed. It is the Mayflower, John Smith, Davy Crockett, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln that define the American's self-image, and this is true whether the American in question is a descendent of the Pilgrims or the grandson of an immigrant from southeastern Europe . . . Our cultural assimilation has taken place, not in a "melting pot," but rather in a "transmuting pot," in which all ingredients have been transformed and assimilated into an idealized "Anglo-Saxon" model.

If the Melting Pot has distorted our history and taught us to be ashamed of our heritage, it's most regrettable legacy is that it has turned our natural diversity into discord. The emphasis of the Melting Pot has always been on conformity and homogeneity and, hence, super-patriotism and super-Americanism. To be different is to be inferior. Each group is given to a carte-blanche authority to downgrade other groups because in this way it can show its "Americanness"; in this way it can show that lat least it is not different and thus inferior. At the same time, however, the group is really demonstrating that it has, indeed, internalized the belief that it is inferior and that the Anglicized version is superior.

Given this line of thinking, diversity can only result in conflict. If you wish to eliminate conflict, therefore, you must eliminate diversity.

Once again, the adherents of the Melting Pot are wrong. Diversity of itself does not produce conflict. To be different does not mean that one is inferior. Conflict comes only when one group maintains that its way of thinking, doing, or behaving is the best and only way and that, consequently, it has a right to impose its ways of thinking, acting, or doing on those who are allegedly inferior. Conflict comes only when you tell someone that he is inferior, or not as good as you are; you are then forcing him to defend himself by proving that he isn't what you claim him to be. But that is precisely what the Melting Pot taught us, that the Anglo-American way was the only way because all others were inferior.

As Bayard Ruston has said, "We were lied to and accepted the lie."

We expect the opposition to fool us; but when we fool ourselves we are in deep trouble. We consistently have fallen for the old melting-pot concepts. But there never was a melting-pot; there is not now a melting-pot; there never will be a melting-pot; and if there were, it would be such a tasteless soup that we would have to go back and start all over!

Used with permission of the
Center for Traditional Music and Dance Archive.
Printed in Balkan-Arts Traditions, 1975.