As part of the graduation ceremonies at the Ford Motor Company English school in Detroit during World War I, students climbed to the stage in native dress carrying signs that read Greece, Syria, Italy, and so on. The students entered a giant cardboard cauldron labeled Melting Pot and emerged dressed in coats and ties and carrying their diplomas and small American flags. Assimilation was dramatically complete.
This stage show is symbolic of a much larger (and usually more subtle) process that millions of immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries underwent. Between 1820 and 1990, more than fifty million immigrants entered the United States, and three-quarters of them came from Europe. Before 1890, the majority of these immigrants were—in descending numbers—German, Irish, and English. Between 1890 and 1914 fifteen million Europeans arrived in the United States, and most of them came from southern and eastern Europe: Greece, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. By 1980, individuals of European origin composed the bulk of the United States population (approximately 75 percent) and Europeans continued to make up a significant proportion of the immigrants still arriving in the United States.
In the 1980 census, 50 million Americans reported their ancestry as English, 49 million listed German, and 40 million cited Irish. African Americans numbered 21 million, French 13 million, Italian 12 million, Scottish 10 million, Polish 8 million, Mexican 8 million, American Indian 7 million, and Dutch 6 million.
Such distinctive and overwhelming national identification has often been blurred in American cultural consciousness by the peculiar assimilative process of the United States. Economic and social discrimination, on one hand, pushed immigrants into early and often involuntary assimilation. The dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886—where the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus’ words “Give me . . . your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are inscribed—was not unanimously endorsed. In the press and on the streets there were attacks on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. When not changed by Ellis Island officials, the names of many European immigrants often quickly were changed by the immigrants themselves, who as foreigners were greeted with hostility and suspicion but who as Americans were welcome. The Polish Sciborski might become Smith; the Italian Pina, Pine; the Jewish Greenberg, simply Green.
European Americans in the late nineteenth century were drawn by the lure of the American Dream, which promised equal access to wealth and possibility to all. Supporting this dream was the dominant ideological construct of the melting pot, which, like the symbolic cauldron in the Ford Motor Company graduation ceremonies, encouraged immigrants to give up their native heritage and take on a narrower American identity. Behind the melting pot theory was the belief in homogeneity over heterogeneity, assimilation over pluralism. The term itself was first popularized in a play, The Melting-Pot, by the English Jewish writer Israel Zangwill in 1908. As Werner Sollors has noted in Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (1986): “More than any social or political theory, the...
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