The right way for Republicans to handle ethnicity in politics by Ron Unz
American Enterprise, April/May, 2000
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. Immigration. Bilingual education. Over the past few years, these issues and broader matters of ethnic politics have become the stuff of nightmares for Republican candidates around the country.
On the one hand, ethnic issues are tremendously important to the future well-being of our large and diverse society. They are the hottest of hot buttons for many voters, and several ballot measures on ethnicity-related social problems have turned out to be immensely popular-for instance, Proposition 187 (eliminating public services to illegal immigrants), Prop. 209 (ending affirmative action), and Prop. 227 (dismantling bilingual education), which all won huge victories in vote-rich California. An anti-affirmative action measure did even better in Washington State, and additional referenda on these topics are coming in other states.
Yet these same ethnic issues-including the popular ballot measures mentioned above-are widely believed to have created disastrous problems for the Republican Party by scaring away minority voters and leaving Republicans with a harshly negative image. With the elite national media always quick to espy bigotry when Republicans talk about race and ethnicity, many conservative politicians have recently decided to avoid these issues altogether.
Attempts to bridge the chasm between conservative activists and minority voters have recently caused many prominent Republicans to stammer their way through terminological contortions aimed at avoiding controversy. Thus, presidential candidate George W. Bush may oppose “quotas” and have his doubts about “affirmative action,” but he is all for “affirmative access. ” Governor Bush has similarly announced his support for those bilingual education programs “which work.” To most voters, minority or otherwise, these rhetorical flourishes are merely platitudes. Such content-free symbolism may lessen a candidate’s vulnerability, but it eliminates any possibility of developing a mandate on these critical subjects. Such a stance is merely a polite means of saying “no comment.”
The conservative tendency to confront these issues on a case-by-case basis, with no overarching framework or broader social vision, further courts disaster. Attacks on prevailing policies seem scattershot, politically opportunistic, and purely negative in tone. Liberal critics are quick to respond, “But what do you offer instead?”
The solution to these political obstacles is a broad social vision which connects various controversial policies in an old and accepted framework easily understood by all: the melting pot. For most of the last century, assimilation and the ethnic melting pot were regarded as fundamental aspects of the American experience, promoted by liberals and conservatives alike. Returning national policies to the principles of the melting pot should become the primary Republican goal on ethnic issues.
A “NEW AMERICAN MELTING POT” would not be a cartoonish one-way street of forced integration into the dominant white culture, as “multicultural” activists charge. Over the past couple of centuries, America’s mainstream culture has widely diverged from its original Anglo-Saxon heritage through the admixture of foreign elements. Our language, our cuisine, our high and popular cultures contain important elements from the Germans, Italians, Slavs, Jews, blacks, Asians, and others who today compose well over half our national population. American assimilation has always been a two-way street.
Assimilation is also variable in its speed and extent. A Chinese-born Stanford Ph.D. in engineering with a job in Silicon Valley and a house in the suburbs is likely to assimilate much more rapidly than a poorly educated Chinese immigrant living and working as a short-order cook in a Chinatown. But for most of our history, thorough assimilation into the mainstream has been a process taking generations rather than years, and alarmists concerned about today’s ethnic and language enclaves of Mexicans or Chinese should recognize that similar enclaves of Italian Americans or Jewish Americans dominated the New York City landscape for generations following their arrival.
Today, the American melting pot is both far stronger and far weaker than it has ever been before. The reality of assimilation has grown with the rise of electronic media and America’s ubiquitous English-language popular culture, which now dominates the world. A recent study by the National Immigration Forum indicates that over half of U.S. immigrants already spoke English “well” or “very well” upon their arrival, and after ten years of residency, that figure climbs to more than three-quarters. The vast majority of third-generation Asians and Latinos speak only English at home.
Cultural and economic assimilation are also quite rapid. Today, a quarter or more of Hispanics have shifted from their traditional Catholic faith to Protestant evangelical churches, a religious transformation of unprecedented speed, and one obviously connected partly to their absorption into American society. And more than 70 percent of foreign immigrants have achieved the middle-class distinction of becoming homeowners within 30 years of their entry into America.
The strongest measure of assimilation-intermarriage across ethnic lines-illustrates today’s assimilationist reality. As late as the 1960s, intermarriage rates for white ethnic groups such as Jews and Italians were as low as 5 percent or less. But today, not only Jews and Italians but also American-born Asians and Latinos marry outside their ethnicity in a third to a half of all cases. By most measures, the assimilation of Asian and Latino immigrants is proceeding far more rapidly than that of white immigrant groups who arrived early in the twentieth century. Thus in California the number of “multiracial” births recently passed the combined total of black and Asian births.
Yet at the same time that the reality of the melting pot has grown, the ideology behind it-even the very term itself-has been driven out of public discourse. Today, the contrary concepts of “maintaining diversity” and “fostering multiculturalism” are the purported goals of liberal elites in universities, the news media, and elsewhere. Leaders of ethnic advocacy groups are assumed to be speaking on behalf of millions of their co-ethnics, and the Democratic Party chooses its convention delegates based on strict ethnic and racial criteria. American assimilation has become the powerful reality that dare not speak its name.
HOW WOULD A REVIVED “melting pot” principle apply to some of the difficult ethnic issues in politics today?
First and foremost, our public schools and educational institutions must be restored as the engines of assimilation they once were. America is now in the midst of one of its largest immigration waves, bringing to dwell among us millions of foreign-born or first-generation arrivals who lack good knowledge of English or of our historical traditions and national institutions. Our schools once met similar situations by teaching English to students as rapidly as possible, together with the civics lessons and American history which turned Italian or Polish children into good Americans. Today, schools often do not, and instead keep millions of immigrant students in native-language programs in which barely a word of English is used-sometimes for many years. In history and social studies classrooms, “multicultural education” is now widespread, placing an extreme and unrealistic emphasis on ethnic diversity instead of passing on the traditional knowledge of Western civilization, our Founding Fathers, and the Civil and World Wars.
Although changing an entire educational curriculum is difficult, requiring nearly all children to be taught to read, write, and speak English as soon as they enter school is legally easy and enormously popular. In 1998, California’s Proposition 227 passed in a landslide despite facing the united opposition of both the Democratic and Republican Party establishments and being outspent some 25-1 in advertising; it ran 20 to 30 points ahead of Republican candidates among blacks, Asians, and Latinos. Results since the election have proven the people right and the party establishments wrong, as test scores of the students who moved into English immersion classes have risen 20, 40, or even 100 percent compared to similar students who remained in bilingual programs, all after less than one year of the new curriculum.
Public opinion surveys on requiring English in the schools are also quite remarkable. More than three-quarters of likely voters support federal legislation “which would require all public school instruction to be conducted in English, and for students not fluent in English to be placed in an intensive oneyear English immersion program,” according to Zogby polls. Support is overwhelming across all geographical, ethnic, political, and even ideological lines. Yet despite this near unanimity of opinion, government policy has been (and, except in California, remains) completely contrary.
Similarly, current public school curricula which glorify obscure ethnic figures at the expense of the giants of American history have no place in a melting pot framework. Multiculturalist ideology, which claims that Asian students can only identify with Asian heroes, black students only with black heroes, and so forth, is not only demeaning and divisive, it is also false. Earlier this century, children of Jewish and Italian families, who entered school with scant knowledge of American culture and often barely even speaking the language, soon saw themselves as just as much the political inheritors of George Washington as Americans whose ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower. Black leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois believed they had as much claim to the legacy of Western civilization and American government as any white citizen. Individual families must remain free to preserve as much-or as little-of their own traditional ethnic heritage and culture as they desire, but our public schools should provide a single, unifying American culture rather than encouraging ethnic fragmentation. Today’s immigrants deserve such support.
OUR CURRENT SYSTEM of affirmative action-preferences based on race or ethnicity-also becomes completely indefensible under a melting pot analysis. Given current high intermarriage rates, even classifying a particular individual ethnically can be almost impossible. Consider a child whose four grandparents are Asian, Hispanic, Armenian, and Italian-the kind of mix growing ever more common. At the University of California at Los Angeles, Asians and Armenians are over-represented, while Hispanics and Italians are underrepresented. So should our hypothetical child be given a boost or held back? And who should decide this?
Furthermore, the broad ethnic categories on which affirmative action is based-such as “Asian” and “Hispanic”-are meaningless. Chinese and Hmong have almost nothing in common, with the former being massively over-represented in elite institutions and the latter massively underrepresented. Most Cuban Americans are well-to-do, while most Puerto Ricans are poor; why grant them both preferences on racial grounds? And by what absurd logic does the son of an affluent, blond, thirdgeneration Argentinean American not speaking a word of Spanish (or the child of a black millionaire living in Beverly Hills) end up categorized as a “disadvantaged minority”?
The obvious solution to all these obvious contradictions is to replace ethnically based affirmative action with special assistance based on socio-economic factors. To the extent that some ethnic groups such as blacks or Hispanics are disproportionately among the poor or the poorly educated, they would disproportionately benefit from such programs, but poor whites or Asians would receive help as well. Programs and benefits aimed at the disadvantaged must use objective criteria such as poverty or lack of education, not skin color.
Besides being far more just and workable than our ethnically based spoils system, such a colorblind approach would demonstrate the commitment of Republicans to enhancing opportunities for the truly poor, while today’s system sets aside admissions quotas and business contracts for the country-club members of favored races. Poor whites and poor Asians who now overwhelmingly vote Democratic might have a new reason to consider the Republican Party. There would also be better targeted help for poor blacks and Hispanics, since the benefits of current affirmative action set-asides are mostly scooped up by more affluent and privileged members of those groups (which is why the minority-group establishment fights so hard to preserve the status quo).
A strong and forthright stand in favor of assimilation should be combined with an equally strong and forthright stand in favor of beneficial immigration. Under an assimilationist framework which supports and expects integration into American society, many public concerns about immigration will disappear. Then it becomes possible to be pro-immigrant in a way that will reassure Asians, Hispanics, and others who have sometimes felt under attack.
GOOD POLICIES MUST ALSO BE good politics in order to have a chance of becoming a reality. How would an assimilationist agenda play in the political arena?
Thanks to today’s trendy multiculturalist status quo, promoting assimilationism will generate considerable controversy. Left-wing academic and media elites regard “the melting pot” as fighting words. But such controversy can be extremely useful, since harsh attacks by ardent multiculturalists will be offPutting to most voters. And the wide media coverage generated in the process will help attract public interest and ultimately a mandate for change. A sensible and sensitive call for assimilation will defuse most potential opposition, leaving the loudest contrary voices-diehard supporters of ebonics and Spanishonly instruction-isolated as extremists. Half of winning a victory is picking the right enemies, and these could not be better.
On the other hand, any attempt by Clintonized Democrats to co-opt assimilationism or borrow its language while ignoring its substance would be very difficult, if not impossible, given the vehemence of the multiculturalist Left. While nearly 80 percent of ordinary Democrats support ideas like requiring the public schools to teach English, many left-wing activists will fight to the last ditch against this, and denounce as a traitor any Democrat leaning in that direction. Liberals will face a desperate choice between numbers and intensity@ and lose either way.
As for the minorities and immigrants who are the principal subjects of the melting pot agenda, few votes will be lost and perhaps many will be gained. Although Asians are a tiny fraction of today’s electorate, within a generation their growing numbers, wealth, and presence in elite institutions will give them influence similar to that of American Jews. And Asians are among the most assimilable of American groups, with an enormous emphasis on learning English and intermarriage rates often at 50 percent or above. Asians will also benefit most from the end of racial preferences in academic institutions. A pro-immigrant, pro-assimilationist agenda is almost tailor-made for winning Asian support.
And contrary to some misperceptions, America’s huge and rapidly growing Hispanic population should also be receptive. Although a small core of Hispanic activists (many of whom are native-born and speak not a word of Spanish) are in the forefront of the multiculturalist and bilingual camps, their views have little relation to their alleged followers, who support English in the schools in landslide numbers. The improved school results among Hispanic children now resulting from the rollback of bilingual education will marginalize these activists, and destroy their remaining credibility. What ambitious Hispanic politician will dare to oppose an educational reform that has a demonstrated possibility of eventually doubling the academic performance of his constituents’ children?
Though the concept of the melting pot may grate on cultural leftists of all ethnicities, it actually resonates deeply with most Hispanics, Mexicans in particular. Unlike Chinese, Koreans, or Japanese, who come from effectively mono-ethnic societies with few assimilationist traditions, Hispanics recognize themselves as a fusion of European and Indian cultures. The very common term mestizo-meaning “mixed”-is the self-description of most Hispanic immigrants. It is no coincidence that when Time devoted an issue to American ethnic trends, the attractive face on the cover-a computer-generated composite of hundreds of actual Americans of every race and ethnicity-looked very Hispanic. The “melting pot” is as Hispanic as rice and beans.
An assimilationist approach might also attract surprising support from traditional liberals (especially Jews) who have a history of stressing common bonds among the races. It was Kennedy acolyte Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who published one of the earliest forceful attacks against multiculturalism, The Disuniting of America. National polls show Jewish opposition to bilingual education running at close to 90 percent. Individuals who themselves learned English as children, or whose parents did so, often have even stronger feelings on this issue than citizens several generations removed from the immigrant experience.
Similarly, replacing race-based preferences with new assistance based on socio-economic status could peel supporters away from the Left. In many respects, the policies now advocated by multicultural ists are closer to the ideas advocated by racialist reactionaries in the 1920s and ’30s than to any truly progressive policy. Public support for a melting pot alternative could attract a principled core of traditional liberals who would provide tremendous credibility for an assimilationist push. The power of this issue might, for instance, help raise Jewish support for Republicans from the negligible 15 percent or so at which it has long been stuck.
Using these issues to raise black support for Republicans-also generally around 15 percent-is far less likely. Blacks, especially those living in immigrant-rich cities, are vehement foes of bilingual education, which provides an opening to them, but that is not enough to overcome the drag of the other assimilationist policies proposed here. Whereas an older generation of black leaders from DuBois to Martin Luther King would have had grave doubts about affirmative action, and rejected multiculturalism out of hand, a considerable number of today’s most prominent blacks are explicit separatists, and finding a popular black leader who opposes ethnic preferences is almost impossible (even leading black Republicans such as Colin Powell and J. C. Watts won’t break with affirmative action).
Further, intermarriage rates between blacks and other groups are minute compared to those for Asians or Hispanics, and there is considerable sentiment that blacks whose spouses are of a different ethnicity have betrayed their community in some way (similar sentiments are sometimes expressed by Jewish activists toward Jewish intermarriage, but those rates are now over 50 percent and the issue is more of a religious one). Since middle-class blacks are disproportionately employed in the public sector or in large corporations-places where affirmative action policies have the greatest influence on career advancement-there is obviously a strong personal as well as ideological stake in maintaining race-conscious policies. Nonetheless, with so few blacks supporting Republicans now, a sincere and principled assimilationist approach could hardly do worse than today’s Republican silence and squishiness.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF Bill Clinton, American elections have recently turned to the small and the symbolicurging school uniforms, for instance, or allocating 0.01 percent of the federal budget to some high visibility program better left to the states anyway. Such a political strategy cuts risks, and Republican candidates and office-holders, eyeing Clinton’s success, seem to be following a similar path. But while such micropolitics may be successful against other micro-politicians, it would have little chance against a campaign centered on a sincere and widely popular Big Idea.
Assimilation can be that Big Idea for Republicans. It represents a powerful, positive vision, a clear solution to some of America’s most intractable and controversial problems, appealing across ideological and partisan lines. A spirited campaign to revive the melting pot would encounter heated opposition, but that opposition would be shrill and extremist, and the attention drawn in the process would be a good thing politically. Although many rank-and-file Democrats and liberals would be attracted to the concept, a hard core of activist opposition would prevent Democratic candidates from easily stealing the issue.
Unifying our increasingly multiethnic society is a project of the highest importance. Large political rewards will flow to those with the courage to move us in that direction. As a Republican, I hope that the courage and wit necessary may be found somewhere within the leadership of my own party.
Physicist, turned software entrepreneur, turned political activist Ron Unz organized California’s successful 1998 ballot initiative that rolled back bilingual education.