The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Immigration to the United States and American Ethnic Identity

The United States of America is a place where different identities mix and collide constantly producing and reproducing new selves. The children of immigrants to the United States mostly preserve the language and culture of their parents, but their children, if they mix with people of different origins, usually acquire traits of a common, American culture. In the discussion about the ethnic identity of US citizens, two models of cultural assimilation are prominent.

Melting Pot vs. Salad Bowl

According to the Melting Pot theory, peoples from various cultures come to America and contribute parts of their culture to create a new, unique American culture. The result is that contributions from any culture are effectively "melted" together. Proponents of this theory believe new immigrants should learn English and try to blend in.

According to the Salad Bowl theory, there are times when newly arrived immigrants do not lose their unique aspect (language, food, religion and holidays) of their cultures like in the melting pot model, but keep them instead. Just like you can see all the separate ingredients in a salad, you can still identify who Chinese-American, Mexican-American, or Russian-American is. Critics of this trend say that if it continues, there will no longer be an American culture.

Immigration Patterns

Americans consider themselves "a nation of immigrants." This sentiment corresponds well with the generally accepted principles of American social and economic development. The United States have historically been a labor-short nation, and until the twentieth century federal and state governments not only did not restrict foreign immigration,but they also followed policies that encouraged it. These favourable attitudes and the resultant government policies led to an enormous flow of people into the country. Between 1820 and 1880, over 49 million immigrants came to the US. The massive immigration from Europe began to pour first to the vital water transportation routes along the East Coast, and then to the Midwest and Far West when railroad connection settlements were built. Some cities, like Chicago, mushroomed in a matter of decades. Chicago's population was about 30,000 in 1850; over a million and the second city in the nation by 1890. The census of 1890 reported that 450,666 Chicagoans had been born abroad. California and the Pacific Northwest started to be populated since mid-nineteenth century, especially after the great California Gold Rush of 1849.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the United States began to industrialise. By 1880, the Northeast had become an urban industrialising region. Throughout the twentieth century, immigrants fueled the industrial sectors of the American economy as wage laborers; there they had a major impact on the shape of the society.

The sources of the largest immigrant streams were changing in the late 1880s, and Northern and Western Europe were no longer sending most immigrants. The "new" immigrants were pre-industrial peasants from the nations of Southern and Eastern Europe. Because of a different material status and look of these immigrants, the notion that they were racially different and inferior to older immigrants began to penetrate into public consciousness after the turn of the century.  Fleeing economic and political conditions in Europe, Jews and Italians predominated among the new migrants. By 1920, some 1.4 Russians and 1.6 million Italians had migrated to the United States. Like the Irish before them, the newcomers congregated in the big cities. Prejudice against the new immigrants and American isolationist politics after World War I caused the first restrictions on immigration, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921 and the National Quota Act of 1924.

The reduced flow of immigration from Europe during the two World Wars caused a shortage of labour in the big cities of the East and the Midwest, and Southern African-Americans filled them. Racial prejudice by the older, European immigrants caused them to populate certain sections of those cities, forming ghettos.

In 1965, U. S. Congress repealed the national origins quotas and restrictions against Asians and substituted a preference system based upon family unification, occupations, and refugee status. The changes in policy led to an increase in the number of immigrants arriving and also led to shifting patterns of immigration. Immigrants coming after 1945 were more apt to be refugees and to be of higher skills than before. After 1965 another important shift was apparent: Third World nations replaced Europe as the major sending regions, and by the late 1970s, the vast majority of America's latest newcomers were from the Third World. Asians populated mostly the West Coast, and Latin Americans the South West and the big cities of the Northeast and the Midwest. Since 1980, Mexicans have been the largest immigrant group in the United States. As of 2013, approximately 11.6 million Mexican immigrants resided in the United States—up from 2.2 million in 1980—and Mexicans accounted for 28 percent of the country’s 41.3 million foreign born. Some areas of the United States, like Western Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California are virtually bilingual, and there is an appearance of a language mix between English and Spanish called Spanglish.

So, there have been four major ethnic migrations to the big US cities since the 1840s. Before that time, most of the settler came from England.

1. Western European immigrants - primarily Irish and Germans - constituted the first massive wave from the 1840s to the 1870s, settling in the cities along the Atlantic seaboard and in the upper Midwest.

2. Southern and Eastern European immigrants - Jews, Italians, Poles - formed the second wave of migrants, coming from the 1880s to the early 1920s, settling in many of the same northern cities as had the Western Europeans.

3. In the period between the two World Wars, Blacks and Puerto Ricans constituted yet a third wave of migrants to the northern cities.

4. The fourth-wave migration took place after 1945, and drastically intensified after 1965. It consisted mainly of immigrants from Latin America (mostly Mexico and Cuba) and the Far East (predominantly Korea, Taiwan and The Philippines).

Toward the end of the 20th century, because of the multi-cultured aspect of the United States, many were not happy with the look at the American identity as uniform. There appeared a tendency not to consider a typical American as a male WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), but to take into consideration the variety of American identities. The quincentenary (celebration of the 500th anniversary) of Columbus "discovery" of America became a landmark in the opposition to the celebration of the arrival of Europeans, because they took away the land from Native Americans, subjugated and almost exterminated the indigenous population of the continent. As immigration from Latin American countries and the Far East continues to grow, white Americans are expected to become a minority sometimes in the 2040s or 2050s.

Books to Read and Films to See

The Counterlife (1986) is a novel by the American writer Philip Roth. It juxtaposes the view on life of an American non-religious Jew and his Zionist brother who, upon suddenly becoming aware of his ethnic identity, leaves his family and goes to live in Israel. The novel examines the significance and meaning of ethnic origin in a multi-ethnic conglomerate like the United States of America.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) is the highest-grossing American romantic comedy of all time. A young, second-generation Greek woman falls in love with an Anglo-Saxon young man and struggles to get her family to accept him while she comes to terms with her heritage and cultural identity.

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