Assimilation has become a dirty word


By Leo Morris

Can you tell from the following three summaries which groups of Americans are being described?

Two million of them flooded into this country in the space of a few years. Followers of “an alien religion,” they were also poor and uneducated, and it was feared they would both strain welfare systems and take over all the low-paying jobs. Large cities were overwhelmed. In Boston, a city of just 100,000 where 37,000 of them landed, they were “fated to remain a massive lump in the community, undigested, undigestible,” according to historian Oscar Handlin.

On March 5, 1891, 11 of them were hanged or shot to death by a mob in downtown New Orleans. Between 1890 and 1920, they were the subject of about 50 lynchings throughout the country. Of the New Orleans killings, The New York Times editorialized that the victims were “the descendants of bandits and assassins who have transported to this country the lawless passions … of their native country.”

Their language was forbidden to be taught in schools or spoken in churches, hospitals or businesses. Their books were all removed from the library. Those still in the process of becoming naturalized citizens were ordered to report to the police station as potential enemy aliens.

The first group were the Irish escaping the devastating potato famine that started in 1845. In addition to discrimination everywhere they turned, they were frequently accosted by anti-Catholic mobs and a major political party (the American Party, aka the Know Nothings) sprang up because of the anti-immigration fervor they inspired.

The second group were the Italians. According to Public Radio International’s The World program, they were “portrayed in parts of the media as ignorant, insular, superstitious, lazy, prone to crime, ignorant of the law, ignorant of democracy and prone to righting wrongs with personal vendettas and acts of violence. Even their food was seen as alien.”

The third group were the Germans in my adopted home town of Fort Wayne. They poured into the city in the 1800s in response to ads from businessman Henry Rudisill’s advertisements for hard workers, and by the 1890s, Fort Wayne was called “a most German town” by The Chicago Tribune. By 1916, it was estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of residents were of Germanic descent, and this was reflected in everything from religion and education to street names and food.

But leading up to and during World War I, the anti-German hysteria sweeping the country was so bad that dachshunds, deemed a “German breed,” were shot or kicked to death in front of their owners. In Fort Wayne, there was a concerted and largely successful effort to eradicate all traces of German culture.

These examples are cited not to illustrate any profound truth but just to provide something to think about as Indiana prepares to welcome another wave of refugees, this one the result of America’s feckless 20-year befuddlement in Afghanistan.

Anti-immigrant zealousness is not, current wisdom to the contrary always an oppression by white people against people of color. It is not always an attack by Christians on Judaism or Islam or other religions. It is not always directed at the most recent arrivals, as the Fort Wayne experience shows; the victims can best the victimizers in length of residence and even outnumber them.

Nativist sentiment is about attempts from the prevailing culture to maintain dominance and the efforts of minority cultures to find a balance between isolation from and immersion in the mainstream. And if you think that is unique to America or even especially harsh here, please just look at the history of dealing with outsiders of almost any other country. This is a relative paradise of tolerance and inclusiveness.

About 5,000 Afghan refugees are expected to arrive at Camp Atterbury in the coming weeks, and we can already hear the sadly familiar rumblings of the developing narrative: Hoosier yokels freak out over invading Islamic horde. Remember the rhetorical free-for-all about Syrian refugees just a few years ago?

A TV station took its crew to Edinburgh, the small town nearest Atterbury and prompted the kind of prattle it wanted from the rubes — worries about the refugees’ lack of English and money, whether they might be terrorists or have COVID. But the simple fact is that the town’s population is 4,792, fewer than the 5,000 refugees expected and far fewer than the 10,000 that could be accommodated. That residents would feel overwhelmed is neither extraordinary nor unsurmountable.

I have seen the ebb and flow of tensions between natives and newcomers play out many times in Fort Wayne. I saw it with the Vietnamese, whose country I had been a stranger in. I saw it with the Burmese as they made our city their largest enclave in the country. I saw it time and time again with the steady influx of Hispanics over the years.

Each group made its own way in its own way, deciding how much to preserve of their own culture and how much to blend it with the prevailing culture. There is no set formula, and some groups have had more trouble adjusting than others, but it seems safe to say none have faced the kind of brutal suppression the Germans did more than 100 years ago.

It’s called assimilation, and it should be a beautiful thing. There is not a stark choice as we seem to believe these days — stay isolated and separate or completely lose touch with one’s heritage. There is a sharing, a give and take that gives us a rich culture that’s a mix of many cultures. The majority grumbles then gives in, the minority resists then fits in.

Today we emphasize what makes us different rather than what we have in common, so faced with the false dichotomy, we choose the one that isolates us within our own tribes. Assimilation has become a dirty word.

Is that where we are today?

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