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Posted on August 20th, 2012, by

The majority of the existing research on assimilation focuses on Gordon’s theory of assimilation. However, some recent attempts have addressed assimilation by directing to integration. Overcoming the constraints of Gordon’s assimilation, current research has incorporated it into global transformations in which a minority is gradually turning to a minority majority that can thrust on assimilative powers on the dominant white community, blending into a new American type that has cast off any assimilative burdens for the sake of integrative freedom.
     1. Introduction. From the three pillars of assimilation that include Anglo-conformity, the Melting pot, and Cultural pluralism, Milton Gordon in his renowned book Assimilation in American life (Gordon, 1964) claimed that Anglo-conformity was the most prevalent ideology of assimilation in America throughout the nation’s history. (Gordon, 1964, p. 89) Since the publication of the book, America has experienced new immigration waves, as well as has found a Muslim threat to the national security. Gordon’s theory of assimilation has influenced multifaceted approaches to the genesis of a new indigenous American type and its future (Jiobu, 1988; Padilla, 1990, Salins, 1997). The present essay argues that the changing dynamics of assimilation brings about the new policies of ethnicity that incorporate global migration and global economic transformation into the integrative powers of global assimilation.

2. The theory of assimilation in its development

   2.1. Socialization processes. M. Gordon’s book is still viewed as the most comprehensive exploration of assimilative processes. His opinion that structural assimilation has positive effects on the integration of immigrants has not been refuted (TNI, 2002, p. 143). Gordon viewed American society as a mosaic of ethnic, racial, and religious groups whose migration to the United States was caused by Industrialization, agricultural reforms, and political revolutions. Slaves were brought from Africa as the cheapest workforce. Oriental immigrants came to an established pluralistic American society. In Gordon’s opinion, assimilation was a process of interpenetrations and fusion that resulted in acquiring memories, sentiments, and attitudes in a shared environment (Gordon, 1964, p. 62). The white American population used to be predominantly English and Protestant with absorbed German, French, Dutch, and other ethnic elements that participated in conquering the New World. Most of them, with the exception of the Quakers, were hostile to Native Americans (Gordon, 1964, p. 85) whom they had almost destroyed. Gordon classified assimilation into seven types: cultural assimilation, structural assimilation, marital assimilation, identificational assimilation, attitude receptional assimilation, behavioral receptional assimilation, and civic assimilation. Gordon’s followers reduced them to acculturation, structural assimilation, and behavioral-receptional assimilation (Stodolska, 1998, p. 521).

However, socialization processes of today have revealed difficulties new immigrants have with assimilation. They become Americans with their own right to preserve the ethnic identity of the country they come from. This tendency contradicts the expected assimilation that immigrants should undergo. The concept of assimilation, although still widely used, is questioned. Gordon’s straight-line theory of assimilation (Stodolska & Alexandris, 2004, p. 379), understandable and universally admired as a scientific construct, cannot remain the same for half a century.

2.2. Structural pluralism in relation to prejudice. In his immediate review of Gordon’s book, S. Tomasi maintained that Gordon explored first and foremost etiology of prejudice and discrimination by concentrating on intergroup lives of a heterogeneous population. Tomasi claimed that Gordon developed a structural pluralism approach to the problem of prejudice (Tomasi, 1964, p. 232). He placed Gordon’s research within the framework of structuralism that dominated scientific analysis in the 1960s. However, the discriminative aspects of assimilation theory are still explored because poverty of immigrants as a temporary phenomenon is not eradicated (Kazemipur & Halli, 2991, p. 217).

2.3. From acculturation to cultural integration. Gordon’s acculturation, a change of cultural patterns under the influence of the host society (Gordon, 1964, p. 71), has been replaced by the concept of cultural integration. Duen and Vu expressed the opinion that assimilation can be achieved and may be considered positive only at a functional level, so that immigrant minorities in mastering cultural behaviors necessary for functioning in the mainstream society are not endangered with a loss of their ethnic identity. In their study of Vietnamese Americans, Duen and Vu arrived at the conclusion that in assimilation cultural and ethnic identities are sacrificed, which is not desirable.

In other words, Gordon’s assimilation is restricted to a functional level, while overall assimilation is viewed as self-estrangement. Hence, Duen and Vu preferred cultural integration to assimilation, criticizing an assimilationist approach as the one that does not meet the requirements of the day (Duen & Vo, 2000, p. 225).

2.4. From structural pluralism to Individual and intergroup integration. To Gordon, structural assimilation is a process of large scale entrance into cliques, clubs, and institutions of host society, on a primary group level. (Gordon, 1964, p. 71) To J.M. Yinger, structural assimilation takes place if several groups contact by developing common interactions. He singled out individual and group integration. In individual integration, two persons from different backgrounds equally interact within a group. In group integration, the same rights, public privileges, access to societal advantages are enjoyed, as well as the same responsibility is shared (Yinger, 1981, p. 254). However, fully integrated minority that enjoys similar income levels with the host community (Sodolska, 1998, np) hardly exists, for minorities are known to get lower salaries.

2.5. Interracial marriage. To Gordon, interracial marriage was the final stage of marital assimilation. Three types of inter marriages can be singled out: interethnic, interfaith, and interracial. At the beginning of the 20th century, interracial marriage was rare due to anti-miscegenation laws. Only in 1967 this legal barrier was abolished, which led to a 2.2 percent rise in American interracial marriages in the 1990s. The positive outcomes of interracial marriage are traced in declining racial distances between the dominant white population and racial minorities, and in reducing interethnic distance (Padilla, 1980). In light of Qian’s research, the size of an ethnic group and region influence interracial marriage. Qian claimed that the best opportunities are in the West where one-third of the population is made by rapidly growing minorities, while the least likelihood of interracial union is the Midwest whose one-tenth of the population belongs to minority groups. Qian maintained that Hispanics and Asian Americans were more likely to be found in white neighborhoods than African Americans. Better-educated immigrants had a tendency to intermarry, as well as American-born minorities. Qian found that better-educated African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans married whites. Qian proved that in consistence with Gordon’s assimilation theory intermarriage increases racial contacts. However, Gordon’s theory was in sufficient in explaining why Hispanics and Asian Americans have low percentage of interracial marriages. Instead of Gordon’s theory, Qian resorted to the exchange theory that explains interracial marriage in relatedness to the exchange for higher racial status (Qian, 1999, p. 579). Qian confirmed that the processes of marital assimilation are still on the increase; he attempted at complementing Gordon’s theory of assimilation with the exchange theory in elucidating the mechanisms and causes of interracial exchange.

2.6. Assimilation levels. The opinion is expressed that constraints reduce with increasing assimilative levels. Stodolska studied changing assimilation levels in relatedness to the leisure behavior of immigrant groups. She pointed out that in North America people less socialize with neighbors, go to church, or participate in community events than in Latin America. All this the Hispanics bring to America. From Stodolska’s observations, Hispanic recreate in large groups on American campgrounds, which is not typical of the host community (Stodolska, 1998, np). It is interesting to note that assimilative processes concern remarriages of immigrants in the United States. Aguirre, Sainz, and Hwang have found that the systems of marriage norms of Asian Americans reflect their cultures and on-going assimilative transformations (Auirre, Saenz, & Hwang, 1995, p. 207). To Gordon, assimilation is a homogenizing process of fusion (Gordon, 1964, p. 115), which fails to explain American deliberation on multiculturalism and cultural diversity (Douglas & Yancey, 2004, p. i) All this points to assimilation-pluralism that is debated by current scholars and may change our understanding of assimilation levels.

3. The changing dynamics of assimilation

There is evidence that assimilation is changing its dynamics. First of all, the percentage of minority populations is increasing almost everywhere in the United States. To Stodolska and Alexandris, Californian whites comprise half of the state’s population. At the beginning of the 21st century, immigrant populations doubled in such states as Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah (Sodolska & Alexandris, 2004, np). Second, the assimilationist perspective developed by Gordon is criticized for its simplifications. In the last third of the 20th century, the United States was a pluralistic society with distinguishable ethnic identities. Third, a uniform host society, promoted by Gordon’s assimilation theory, may be a myth that supports stereotyping, ethnic prejudice, and discrimination. Fourth, American immigrants have demonstrated that they can adapt without adopting the mainstream culture. In this light, three models of assimilation processes can be singled out: 1) White Eurocentric immigrants acculturate and adopt mainstream values; 2) immigrants adapt by sticking to their own ethnic cultural identity; 3) mainstream values of substandard underclass are assimilated. Thus, assimilative processes have at least three main directions. The answer to assimilation theory criticism is the segmentation theory that recognizes selectivity of assimilative processes within a single ethnic group of immigrants (Sodolska, Alexandris, 2004, np). From this it can be assumed that Gordon’s assimilation theory needs revising and reevaluating.

In the contemporary, the process of assimilation changes its dynamics consistently. In actuality, assimilation occurs faster than it used to be before because the society grows more and more diverse. In this respect, the mainstream culture turns out to be in an advantageous position because representatives of the mainstream culture are in an advantageous position compared to minorities who face the problem to the adaptation of the mainstream culture along with the preservation of their own cultural identity. Representatives of minorities often face the problem of the preservation of their cultural identity and acceptance by the dominant cultural group or society at large. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the position of Arab Americans and their position in the American society after 9/11. After the terror attacks on 9/11, Arab Americans faced substantial problems in their relationships with the mainstream culture. The American society proved to be unprepared to the terror attacks and, being shocked by their disastrous effects, Americans had started to develop a negative attitude toward representatives of the Islamic world. In such a situation, Arab Americans became subjects to the severe criticism and suspicious and sometime violent behavior from the part of other Americans.

In this respect, it is worth mentioning the fact that some specialists (Orfalea, 2006) cite cases of violent attacks on Arab Americans which occurred shortly after 9/11. The attacks and the resulting disintegration of Arab Americans from the American was the result of the fear of Americans of radical Islamists, whom they believed to be extremely dangerous to the extent that Americans had started to associate Muslims with terrorists, although these two concepts have nothing in common. At the same time, such a shift of the attitude of Americans to Arab Americans revealed the consistent shift in the identity of Arab Americans and their perception by the American society. In fact, instead of the national identity Arab Americans had started to slip toward religious identity because Americans associated them with or identified them as Muslims above all, whereas Arab Americans had also started to view their religious background as a distinct part of their identity.

As a result, under the public pressure the dynamic of assimilation of Arab Americans had started to change. To put it more precisely, their assimilation and integration into the American society had slowed down substantially since 9/11 because of the change of the attitude of Americans toward representatives of the Arab American community, whereas members of this community, who actually had a different religious background, faced the problem of their identification. On the one hand, they could not identify themselves with Americans or, to put it more precisely, the mainstream culture of America, while, on the other hand, they could not associate themselves with Arab American community because this community was viewed by Americans as the Muslim community. In such a situation, Muslim Arab Americans focused on their religion as their identifier which shaped their cultural identity. Being rejected by the American society, they had little option but to slip toward their religious identity, while their ethnic identity proved secondary to them.

Obviously, the change of the dynamics of assimilation influenced consistently the position of Arab Americans in the US. This change proves the fact that the dynamics of assimilation does differ and the dynamics of assimilation can change under the impact of various factors, including external factors such as terror attacks that have changed the attitude of Americans to Arab Americans. In addition, specialists (Shaheen, 2001) point out that internal changes within the community can also provoke the change of the dynamics of assimilation. For instance, the deterioration of the socioeconomic situation within a community can lead to the consistent change in the assimilation of the community into the mainstream culture or dominant ethnic group. To put it more precisely, the deterioration of the socioeconomic situation leads to the pauperization of the community. If the community is located in a limited area and is not integrated into the society at different levels, representatives of this group tend to marginalization. Their low social status and numerous economic problems, such as unemployment, provoke a consistent slowdown of the assimilation of the community because the community is viewed as marginal. This means that the society rejects representatives of this community because of their low social standing. In addition, often representatives of minorities living in poverty stricken-neighborhoods are inclined to criminal activities because it is the only way of survival for them if they do not have job and means for living. As a result, unsurpassable barriers on the way of representatives of minorities to the integration into the mainstream culture arise.

Furthermore, immigration can have a significant impact on the process of assimilation. In this respect, it is possible to refer to studies concerning ethnic minority groups and their integration into the mainstream society at different generational levels (Orfalea, 2006). To put it more precisely, researchers (Shaheen, 2001) studied the level of integration and assimilation of representatives of ethnic minority groups into the American society depending on their age and origin. The origin means that researchers took into consideration whether representatives of ethnic minority groups are the first generation of immigrants or they were born in the US and are the second or third generations of immigrants living in the US. In fact, the study focused on the immigration to the US from the Arab world. Researchers (Orfalea, 2006) have found out the fact that representatives of different generations have a different level of assimilation and integration into the mainstream society. The representatives of the younger generation, who were born in the US and were the second or even third generation of immigrants in the US, proved to be more assimilated and integrated in the mainstream society. Moreover, representatives of this part of immigrant population faced the problem of their cultural identity to the extent that often they faced the problem of a split cultural identity. The latter means that representatives of minorities have to develop different models of behavior, the one they used in their native ethnic group, when they were in their families or within their community, and the other they used, when they interacted with representatives of the mainstream society, including their peers, friends and other representatives of the mainstream culture. As a result, they grew more and more assimilated and integrated into the mainstream society, whereas some of them became fully assimilated, especially in case of mixed marriages. As for the elder generation, representatives of this generation were the first generation of immigrants and they preserved their original cultural identity. As the Arab American community was studied, the elder generation of Arab Americans associated themselves with the culture of their native country, where they were born and lived a large of their life, where their identity was actually shaped. However, researchers (Shaheen, 2001) revealed the fact that the first generation of younger Arabs is different from the elder generation of Arabs, even though the latter were also the first generation of immigrants. The problem was that their religious views were often different for the younger generation was inclined to more radical religious views than the elder generation. This attitude was, to a significant extent, shaped by the hostile attitude of Americans to Arab immigrants after 9/11. Therefore, immigration plays an important part in the assimilation and integration of minorities in the mainstream culture, it can either facilitate transnationalism or make it more complex or even prevent it pointblank.

4. Influences on mainstream society: possibility of the split into Anglo and Hispanic America

It can hardly be argued that present day America is a multiethnic and multiracial country whose identity is defined in the concepts of culture and creed. Samuel P. Huntington claimed that the United States can be divided into two distinct cultures, traditional American and Hispanic. Huntington paid attention to the fact that Hispanics were able to live in their own enclaves, rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. (Huntington, 2004, p. 30) Huntington’s viewpoint promoted the idea that assimilative processes in the 20th century America were selective. Facing each other, minority resists assimilation but adapts to the American mainstream culture, while the mainstream majority declares respect of multiethnic and multiracial structure of the United States.

Immigrant cultures have undoubtedly enriched the key elements of Anglo-Saxon American culture which were the English language, Christianity, the rule of law, the work ethic, and creation of a heaven on earth (Huntington, 2004, p. 30). However, Huntington is right to oppose assimilation to multiculturalism and diversity, transnational cultural Diasporas, the increasing number of immigrants with dual nationalities, and the development of cosmopolitan identities. In his opinion, which can be supported, the United States’ national identity is likely to assimilate to the globalization processes. Huntington wondered whether the United States would remain a country with a single national identity or would eventually split into two languages and cultures of Anglo and Hispanic America (Huntington, 2004, np).

In our opinion, if such a question is asked, it should be put in a wider perspective of overall assimilative processes that will bring peoples together beyond national borders. In this relation, the position of the English language as the lingua franca of the modern world is not likely to diminish the dominant position of American mainstream culture, which can function as a leader tolerant to cultural diversity both at home and abroad. In this case, assimilative processes will be directed towards universal values that can be associated with American values.

On the other hand, the rise of competing minority majority Hispanic culture in the bilingual context, which in itself is the marker of assimilative processes, is also different from the home culture of these immigrants. In other words, Gordon’s theory of assimilation cannot be easily rejected. Naturally, assimilation processes can change their direction, but these changes are consistent with their nature. It is true that concentration of minority populations slows assimilation. Cubans from Miami, Mexicans from Southern Carolina, Dominicans and Puerto-Ricans from New York are large bilingual, bicultural communities. Also, Gordon could not foresee the increasing rates of illegal immigration from Mexico, which began after 1965. On the whole, Gordon’s assimilation theory has been worked out in relation to any state that welcomes immigration; what is more, Gordon intended to view assimilative processes from the historical perspective and excelled in it; still, in a rapidly changing world the concept of assimilation should be rediscovered and reinterpreted. In this, the best way is to include Gordon’s theory in multidisciplinary studies that will enrich the assimilationist paradigm and integrate it into new theories of integration that could be either assimilative globalization or global assimilation.

5. Current applicability of Gordon’s theory

5.1. Multicultural educational policy: from an assimilationist to a liberally pluralistic multicultural approach. Gordon’s theory of assimilation lays a foundation of multicultural education policy in the 21st-century United States. D.E. Washburn grounded in Gordon’s Anglo-conformity, melting pot, and cultural pluralism the possible approaches to American multicultural education: Anglo-conformist, culturally pluralistic, liberally pluralistic, and corporally pluralistic. In his opinion, a dominating Anglo-conformist approach, which he calls the essentialist, assimilationist, anglo-conformist nightmare (Washburn, 1995, p. 3) should be avoided; in contrast, preferences should be given to a liberally pluralistic multicultural approach that provides progressive, reconstructionist, and multicultural education (Washburn, 1995, p. 3). Washburn argues against Gordon’s concept of ethclass (Gordon, 1964, pp. 51-53) that is ethnic makeup of segregated along ethclass lines society (Washburn, 1995, p. 12). He is against artificial division into ethclasses. As a result, American society lives with the assimilationist mentality that has institutionalized Anglo-Saxon, middle class, and mainstream culture (Washburn, 1995, pp. 1-2). Gordon’s concept of the ethclass is used in the two race-class interaction approach which analyzed Black political involvement in American life (Danigels, 1982, p. 532).

But this assimilationist mentality is behind real processes that make an ethnic minority the dominant population in many American states.

For example, Los Angeles and San Antonio have African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans in such numbers that they outnumber the mainstream white population (Washburn, 1995, p. 4). It is not by chance that in the 1990s there were attempts at restricting immigration from third world countries, for these potential immigrants are likely to have a long period of assimilation into the mainstream culture. In other words, Washburn warned against an assimilationist approach that, in his viewpoint, does not meet the educational multiculturalism of the present day. Based on Gordon’s principles of anglo-conformity, melting pot, and cultural pluralism, Washburn, however, put them in the context of changes that Gordon might have not taken in mind. Washburn predicted that the United States would become a minority majority country (Washburn, 1995, p. 18) in the 21st century. Under these conditions, Gordon’s liberal pluralism, or the absence of discriminatory laws (Gordon, 1964, p. 51), will facilitate cross-cultural communication in a changing structurally pluralistic, multicultural American society. It can be assumed that assimilation needs reinterpreting as not being subdued by the dominant white culture but being assimilated into American multicultural pluralism under the umbrella of American ideals understandable to both majority and minority groups.

5.2. The alternative pluralistic perspective. Although the assimilative perspective has dominated for a long time, the applicability of Gordon’s straight-line assimilation theory is now questioned. Gordon claimed that eventually ethnic groups assimilate (Gordon, 1964, p. 159). However, within this conventional assimilative process several deviations can be traced. First, ethnic differences across generations are preserved with persistence. To Zhou, instead of convergent assimilative tendencies, numerous examples of divergent tendencies can be given (Zhou, 1997, np). Second, the idea of the so-called second generation decline can also be argued. It is refuted by the processes of education-driven mobility, succession-driven mobility, and niche improvement (Zhou, 1997, np). Third, peculiarities of immigrant adaptation reveal amazing success of immigrant whiz kids that outdo their white counterparts. For example, the list of top-ten award winners of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search is dominated by immigrants (Zhou, 1997, np). Zhou perceived American society as a collection of ethic and racial minority groups, as well as the dominant majority group of European Americans (Zhou, 1997, np). Zhou’s pluralistic perspective can be supported for the following reasons: 1) minority groups should be treated as a part of American society, not an assimilating community; 2) minority groups may resort to selective Americanization; 3) eventual assimilation is doubtful (Zhou, 1997, np).

In other words, while assimilation focuses on convergent tendencies, the pluralistic perspective concentrates on interrelatedness of convergent and divergent processes.

6. The future of the theory of assimilation

Gordon’s book remains a detailed assessment of immigrant assimilation in the United States (Ellis, 2005, p. 466) that has described the way a multicultural society gradually emerged in the United States. Many scholars have proved that modern ethnicity has the plural and hybrid character. There is a tendency of a highly integrated minority community, like it was with Mexican Americans, to be less influenced by assimilative processes than under condition of low integrated communities. Strong resistance to assimilation is mostly due to a balanced interaction of community and individual levels (Sanders, 2002, p. 327). It is an open secret that those immigrants who want to be assimilated without influences of their immigrant community better incorporate into the mainstream culture whose values they accept as their new reality and the new way of life. Although assimilation is believed to be obtained in the second or third generations, modern non-assimilative tendencies among certain minority groups that, as a rule, have heightened visuality, can be traced in American life. The future of Gordon’s assimilation theory, as it seems, is in the development of ethnic-assimilation theory (Shaull & Gramann, 1998, p. 47) that is based on the consumption of assimilation-pluralism. P.D. Salins can be supported in his idea that a new meaning of assimilation based on human dynamics should be developed. Thus, in his opinion, assimilation might be viewed as more akin to religious conversion than anything else. (Salins, 1997, p. 48)

7. Conclusion

     In conclusion, the present essay has explored Gordon’s assimilation theory from the perspective of its consistency and further development in current research. It has been found out that Gordon’s theory is often referred to as the basis on which new modified theories of assimilation are built. It can be assumed that in today’s American life assimilative processes compete with non-assimilative tendencies, which diminishes the established dominant role of the dominant Anglo-Saxon, white, and protestant culture. Anglo-conformity gives way to a multiethnic, multiracial society flexible in its assimilative powers and united under the idea of American national identity whose multiethnic component plays an important role in modern conceptualization of assimilation. Gordon’s idea of assimilation has undergone considerable changes and it is likely to be revised, for the present world with its globalization processes and global assimilation towards universal human values that can be shared by all is apparently moving in a new direction. Without rejecting Gordon’s principles of assimilation, it is necessary to develop his theory as an interdisciplinary study that takes into account multifaceted approaches to the assimilation-pluralism problem. Finally, the problem of assimilation is closely associated with the relationships between minorities and the mainstream society. in this respect, the example of Arab Americans shows that, under the pressure of the mainstream society, they slipped from ethnic identity to religious identity imposed on them by Americans.

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