NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Has the melting pot gone the way of Joe DiMaggio and other images of a happier but irretrievably lost America? Some people think a truer metaphor is a laboratory beaker brimming over with explosive, immiscible chemicals in a high-stakes experiment that threatens to go awry. E pluribus unum , they fear, is being tragically reversed. Hardly a week goes by without another outbreak of ethnic conflict making the national news. Yet there is ample reason to believe that from many groups we can still forge one politically viable nation.
Ethnic conflict has always been with us, but lately it has become more noticeable, largely because of growth in the number of immigrants, their geographic concentration and their diversity, the politicization of ethnicity, and heightened competition among low-income groups.
In the 1980s we admitted about 8.5 million people, including 2.3 million under the 1986 amnesty law, and the trend was moving upward as the decade ended. This is almost double the total for the 1970s and close to the 8.8 million who came in the first decade of this century when immigration was essentially unrestricted.
The new immigrants are especially visible because they are concentrated in a small number of metropolitan areas. About 80% of the legal ones plan to live in six states; 37% plan to live in seven metropolitan areas in California. The undocumented, who depend more on informal job and protection networks, cluster even more than that; 42% of the amnesty applicants plan to live in those seven California communities. In cities like Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and New York, recent immigrants are already important forces in the local economy, culture and political system.
The newcomers are ethnically and linguistically distinct from most of the native population. In 1989 the top 10 source countries for legal (and amnestied) admissions were Mexico, El Salvador, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, China, India, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Iran. Although many are highly educated, on average they possess fewer skills than either the native population or the immigrants who came during the 1950s.
This remarkable diversity has two major causes: the 1965 amendments to the immigration law and the social chaos caused by the wars in Southeast Asia and Central America. The 1965 changes jettisoned long-standing national-origins quotas, which had favored immigrants from Europe and had permitted little or no legal immigration from Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and Africa.
Meanwhile, the stakes in exclusive group identity have been rising. Ethnic politics assumed new significance during the 1970s and '80s--affirmative-action programs in employment, school admissions and public services transformed ethnicity's social meaning. Ethnic self-assertion gained greater political weight through the coercive, symbolic force of law. Under the aegis of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department and the courts countenanced, and even required, gerrymandering of legislative districts in pursuit of racially and ethnically defined conceptions of political equality. "Official English" policies were adopted by a number of states, and bilingual education became a fiercely contested public issue.
Finally, the continuing decline of central cities and lower-class family structures casts a long, dark shadow over the searing process of group competition. Many blacks and Puerto Ricans mired in decaying ghettos resent the upward mobility of more recently arrived Asians, Cubans and Mexicans, who experience less residential segregation even at similar income levels. Competitive anxieties are driving deep wedges between these groups, as exemplified by their split over employer sanctions on the immigration laws and the recent redistricting struggle in Los Angeles County.
Ethnic conflicts must be understood in the larger context of our unique political culture. This culture is remarkably individualistic and competitive, nourishing a level of group loyalty and social fragmentation that other societies would find intolerable. Being a Frenchman, Briton or German is more confining and demanding than being an American. Unlike them, we do not subscribe to a common religious or racial heritage; instead, our cultural ideals are inclusionary: They accommodate everyone who will share the commitment to democracy, toleration, mobility and the rule of law.
U.S. citizenship is easy to acquire, hard to lose and imposes few civic duties. Assimilation, always difficult, is probably easier here than anywhere else: The political culture applauds parochial loyalties; the main pressure to assimilate is economic, not legal, and most Americans celebrate their own immigrant roots.