The Melting Pot - Then and Now

By Brent Nelson
Volume 6, Number 3 (Spring 1996)
Issue theme: "Straight thinking on immigration"

In the history of ideas those which have the longest life are often not carefully articulated concepts but only images or metaphors. When they were pungently new, they were ideas that seized the imagination of the people. Years later the dead metaphors are still carried about in their cultural baggage.

Most tenacious in its hold upon the American mass mind has been the dead (because it is no longer visualized) metaphor of the Melting Pot. The "melting-pot" was first given currency in 1908 by Israel Zangwill's thus-named drama.

Henry Pratt Fairchild, professor of sociology at New The Melting Pot Mistake

By Henry Pratt Fairchild

New York Arno Press, 1977

226 pages, $23.95


Beyond the Melting Pot

The Negroes, Puerto Ricans,

Jews, Italians and Irish

of New York City (2nd edition)

By Nathan Glazer

and Daniel Patrick Moyniham

Cambridge, MA M.I.T. Press, 1970York University, in his book The Melting-Pot Mistake, published in 1926, noted that the "melting pot" was a symbol for which there was a need. It expressed a faith and a hope, according to which, in Fairchild's words, "America is a Melting-Pot. Into it are being poured representatives of all the world's peoples. Within its magic confines there is being formed something that is not only uniform and homogeneous but also finer than any of the separate ingredients. The nations of the world are being forged into a new and choicer nation, the United States" (p.10).

Although Zangwill himself later repudiated his early work by becoming a Zionist, the symbol of the Melting Pot was still alive in the popular mind when Fairchild wrote. Fairchild presented it as a fact, however, that "We know now that the Melting-Pot did not melt, but we are not entirely sure why," and expressed doubt that "so com-plicated a phenomenon as assimilation can be adequately represented by any symbol at all" (p.12).

Fairchild, writing only two years after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, was still aware of the need to convince a segment, perhaps a majority, of his readership of the need for immigration restriction. A later reader, however, can profitably read Fairchild not for what he writes about the explicit failure of the Melting Pot, but by observing certain implicit assumptions which inform his work from its beginning. Fore-most among these is the assumption that there is no break in the continuity of stages of development from primitive man to races, and from races to nationalities. All stages of development emerge from nature, in a continuing and continuous evolution.

Even while Fairchild wrote, this assumption of continuity was under attack by the school of Franz Boas, a cultural anthropologist. The success of the Boasians in establishing a new implicit assumption in the social sciences an assumption (not to be questioned) that there is a radical break between man in nature and man in culture has been fully chronicled by Carl Degler in his In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). Today's reader, raised to honor the Boasian assumption, may find Fairchild to be perplexing and perhaps disturbing reading.

Fairchild considers in a lengthy chapter "The Factor of Race," beginning with a portrayal of primitive man, whose physical features "resembled much more closely those of a gorilla or chim-panzee than a modern civilized man" (p.15). Today, this primor-dial origin is rarely cited in social science as significant to an understanding of the origin of society. It is assumed that society begins with primitive culture, and that primitive culture represents a definitive break from nature. It has been left to the sociobiologists, representatives of the physical science of biology, to re-examine social origins from an evolutionary standpoint.

While Fairchild notes that man is unique in spreading over the surface of the whole earth "without losing his specific unity," he believes that varieties, or races, although they are some-thing less than species, are none-theless important: "The primary basis of group unity is therefore racial" (p.21). Fairchild recog-nizes "yellow, brown, black, red, and white races," (p.22) roughly one for each continent. Within the white race, he recognizes Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterra-nean races (pp.43, 64, 94-102, 109-110). A significant section of his book (pp.94-106) is an at-tempt to assess the relative con-tributions of these three races to the American population.

Fairchild urges caution in making judgments about racial differences: "Just what the truly racial features of intellect, disposition, temperament, and emotion may be is still almost terra incognita." Nonetheless, whatever may be the results of research into this unknown terri-tory, "there seems to be little room for doubt that these psy-chical contrasts play a much more important part in imped-ing harmonious action between groups than the external or nar-rowly physical aspects" (p.32). This means that "the period of race contact," resulting from "the pressure of population," is one of "race conflict" (p.35).

Fairchild, however, is far from being the kind of racial determinist that Count de Gobineau, for example, is often caricatured as having been (Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, Paris: 1853). Fairchild notes that "Race is inherited, nationality is acquired" (p.42) and concludes that "as man has moved upward along his distinctly human path-way the influence of race upon his activities has steadily decreased in relative importance while that of nationality has correspondingly increased" (p.51).

The racial factor is not, however, annulled by that of nationality. On the contrary, the unity of nationality is threatened by racial disunity: "The essence of national coherence is a suffi-cient degree of recognized like-ness and community of interest in the great activities of group life to inspire a yearning for ‘togetherness.' a manifestation of the ‘we-feeling' as contrasted with the ‘you-feeling.'" The latter becomes excessively strong where racial differences are most stark: "William Graham Sumner used to tell his students at Yale that the United States had no claim to the name of nation be-cause of the presence of so large a negro population, the implication being that between the white and colored races there exist such lively recognitions of dissimilarity that they can never establish the degree of common feeling necessary to true national-ity" (pp.53-54).

Fairchild does not refer to "racism," a term not in use when he wrote, but does define "race prejudice" - "The trouble with the customary application of the term ‘race prejudice' is that a very large part of what it is made to refer to is neither racial nor prejudice. Taking the latter fault first, a prejudice in the strict sense is a pre-judgment, that is, a judgment made in advance of the evidence. Now the state of mind usually alluded to is not a judgment, but a feeling, and it does not arise in advance of the evidence. The evidence consists of the traits of a person recog-nized to be of another race. The feeling is a feeling of revulsion or withdrawal that arises sponta-neously under these conditions. It may vary in intensity and per-haps in quality according to the circumstances, that is, according to the sort of association, contact, or relationship that is in-volved in the meeting" (p.68-69).

Nation versus


Fairchild stresses "a clear distinction between the concepts of ‘nationality' and ‘nation'" (p.52). He uses the latter term in a sense which is rather uncom-mon today: "A true nation arises when such a group as has been described realizes its aspiration, that is, when a nationality achieves the political control of the geographical area upon which it dwells" (p.53). As exam-ples of nationalities which have failed to accomplish this, Fairchild cites the "submerged nationalities" of Eastern Europe.

Nationalities can perish if they are submerged for a long period of time and lack essential unifying ingredients: "When a nationality, for whatsoever reason, has only a few well-established common traits, it is essential that these should be of a fundamental character, includ-ing at least two or three out of the following list: language, religion, political ideas, basic moral code, family institution, class feel-ings" (pp.55-56). A common language and religion kept the Greek nationality alive during centuries of Turkish domination.

Fairchild recognizes an evo-lutionary factor in the survival of nationalities which socio-biolo-gists, fifty years later, defined as "inclusive fitness": "Sympathy toward the in-group and antipa-thy toward the out-group may be regarded as universal human traits" (p.59). "In the competi-tion of life between groups, altruism, patriotism, and social efficiency have survival value, and since these factors have been essential to the development of civilization the motive which underlies them, group sympathy, may be considered as having had a distinct usefulness" (p.61).

Applying these criteria to early America, Fairchild sees a nationality emergent in the colo-nies long before the war for in-dependence: "Quite early the colonists recognized the dangers inherent in too great numbers of foreigners, and in some cases attempted to limit their admis-sion by various means" (p.87). Even after other nationality groups began to enter the U.S. in significant numbers, they were generally of predominantly Nor-dic race. Hence, "the immigra-tion problem in the United States was not a racial problem previous to the year 1882" (p.105).

An influx of Alpine and Mediterranean elements came after 1882. "Beginning about 1882, the immigration problem in the United States has become increasingly a racial problem in two distinct ways, first by altering profoundly the Nordic predomi-nance in the American popula-tion, and second by introducing various new elements which, while of uncertain volume, are so radically different from any of the old ingredients that even small quantities are deeply signifi-cant" (p.112). The latter include "the Hebrews" (p.111).

The Immigration Act of 1924 used nationality as the clos-est practical approximation to race. It was discriminatory, but "it was recognized that quotas based on foreign-born residents exclusively were illogical and themselves discriminatory against the old stock. It was real-ized that the native population had at least as good a right as foreigners to be considered in determining the composition of the immigration of the future" (pp.132-133).

The Question

of Assimilation

At the midpoint of his book, Fairchild considers what assimila-tion has been in process, how it has been effected, and how it relates to the melting pot ideal. The latter represents a total assimilation since "A melting pot is not an end in itself. The purpose of a melting pot is to get the heterogenous substances into a form of unity and fluidity. But the great questions remain: What kind of a substance are you going to have when the fusion is complete? And what are you going to do with it?" (p.120).

Most evidently, the melting pot fails where languages and religions are involved. Two or more languages or religions never "melt" into one new language or one new religion (pp.144-145). "The process by which a nationality preserves its unity while admitting representa-tives of outside nationalities is properly termed ‘assimilation'" (p.136). But "the attempt to mix nationalities must result not in a new type of composite nation-ality but in the destruction of all nationality. No one of the com-ponents can survive the process if it is carried too far. This is the outstanding fallacy of the melting pot. It applies a figure that is appropriate only in the racial sense to a problem that is preponderantly national. It repre-sents unification in terms of a process which, for the greater part of the task of unification, will not work. If the truth were otherwise in this matter the history of the Balkans would have been very different from what it has been. The inhabitants of this unfortunate area are broken up into incompatible groups not by racial differentiations - most of which they would be quite unable to detect but by languages, religions, customs, social habits, and traditional group loyalties" (pp.150-151).

In the final analysis, assimilation contradicts the melt-ing pot ideal because, in assimila-tion, "The traits of foreign nationality which the immigrant brings with him are not to be mixed or interwoven. They are to be abandoned" (p.154). The melting pot, on the contrary, absorbs all characteristics, preserving them in a formless mass which represents a melting down of most or all of the characteristics of nationality.


Fairchild gives considerable attention to a critique of a concept seldom invoked today: Amer-icanization.1 Criticizing the Americanization efforts of his own day, he sees in them the error of equating information with national allegiance. Americanization sees assimilation as only an educational process, a voluntary process, "much like the act of conversion in an old-fashioned revival" (p.169-170).

Other flaws of the early Amer-icanization movement in-cluded an assumption that the fact of immigration indicates a desire to assimilate: "Unfortunately, the truth is that the feature of the American nationality which operates as the chief drawing card in the great majority of cases among the recent immigrants is the opportunity to make money" (p.175). This ob-servation is even more relevant after seventy years. Indeed, it is now almost incontestable.

Fairchild answers, as follows, the objection, still current at the end of the twentieth century, that an American nationality cannot be defined because only the Amer-ican Indians are true Americans: "To say that the Indi-ans are the only true Americans means that what constitutes an American is ancient residence upon a certain territory, which was not even called American until after the white men discovered it. According to this clever saying America is a piece of land, and nothing more" (pp.199-200).

America, however, is "not merely an aggregation of people" (p.200), but "something more than a governmental organization" (p.201). It is "a nationality, and fortunately also a nation. America is a spiritual reality. It is a body of ideas and ideals, traditions, beliefs, customs, habits, institutions, standards, loyalties, a whole complex of cultural and moral values" (p.201).

Again, Fairchild stresses that race, while antecedent to nationality, is not superseded by it: "-There can be no doubt that the founders of America expected it and intended it to be a white man's country, The calmness with which they closed their eyes to the presence of the Negroes in this white man's country did not alter their intentions any more than it provided an escape from the difficulties involved. There can also be no doubt that if America is to remain a stable nation it must continue to be a white man's country for an indef-inite period to come. We have enough grounds of disunion and disruption without adding the irremediable one of deep racial antagonisms. An exclusion policy toward all non-white groups is wholly defensible in theory and practice, however questionable may have been the immediate means by which this policy has been put into effect at successive periods in our history" (p.240).

Toward the end of his book, Fairchild takes note of factors which have now grown in weight at the end of the twentieth cen-tury. He concludes that "The discussion thus far has rested on the assumption that the impor-tance of national unity is axiom-atic. But there is a notable body of public thought, all the more influential because it pa-rades under the guise of liberal-ism, that questions the validity of this axiom" (p.247). Nonetheless, Fairchild gives no evidence of any awareness that the assumption of national unity would come under increasingly effective attack. He also refers to "Walker's law" that "the ultimate outcome of unrestricted immigration is a progressive deteriora-tion of the standard until no difference of economic level exists between our population and that of the most degraded communities abroad" (p.252). This, read now, seems to be a premonition of the two-fold impact of unrestricted immigration and free trade upon the living standards of the great mass of Americans who are non-supervisory employ-ees.

Finally, in the last para-graph of his book, Fairchild suggests that had the Immigration Act of 1924 not been enacted, the melt-ing pot might have worked all too well to destroy national unity because "what was being melted in the great Melting Pot, losing all form and symmetry, all beauty and character, all nobility and usefulness, was the American nationality itself" (p.261). The melting pot was a mistake, not a failure. Had it succeeded, it would have de--stroyed the Amer-ican nationality.

Failure of

the Melting Pot

Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, in the preface to their 1963 book Beyond the Melt-ing Pot, confirm that the melting pot has failed: "The point about the melting pot, as we say later, is that it did not happen. At least not in New York and mutatis mutandis, in those parts of America which resemble New York." The unmeltable ingredients, as gath-ered in New York City, are "the Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish" cited in the subtitle to Beyond the Melting Pot, which is a sociological survey of each separate group. Nowhere in this survey, however, do the au-thors suggest that the outcome of the melting process, had it happened, would have been a mistake. The cardinal assump-tion of Glazer and Moynihan about the melting pot, then, is something quite other than that of Fairchild.

Similarly, Glazer and Moynihan begin with another assumption directly contrary to that of Fairchild. They are Boasians, making no reference to physical anthropology and but little reference to cultural an-thropology. If race is found to be significant, as in the case of the Negroes, this is due to historical (i.e., cultural) happenstance (or, more appropriately, misfortune). The evolutionary paradigm (species/ races/ nationalities/ nations) which Fairchild brings to all points of his study is in-voked not even implicitly by Glazer and Moynihan.

Glazer and Moynihan are also, unlike Fairchild, agnostic about the definition of an American nationality. They conclude only that "Religion and race de-fine the next stage in the evolution of the American peoples. But the American nationality is still forming: its processes are mysterious, and the final form, if there is ever to be a final form, is as yet unknown" (p.315). Evidently, they see no incongruence between the existence of Ameri-can peoples, as opposed to an American people, and an Ameri-can nationality. Fairchild, of course, sees the two as mutually exclusive.

The authors find that "the word ‘American' was an unam-biguous reference to nationality only when it was applied to a relatively homogeneous social body consisting of immigrants from the British Isles, with relatively small numbers from nearby European countries" (p.15). With later immigration, it came to mean in legal terms a citizen, but socially it had lost its identify-ing power. "In the United States it became a slogan, a political gesture, sometimes an evasion, but not a matter-of-course, con-crete social description of a per-son. Just as in certain languages a word cannot stand alone but needs some particle to indicate its function, so in the United States the word ‘American' does not stand by itself. If it does, it bears the additional meaning of patriot, ‘authentic' American, critic and opponent of ‘foreign' ideologies" (p.15).

The authors see the Ameri-can peoples molded into as many different social-political forms: "The ethnic group in American society became not a survival from the age of mass immigra-tion but a new social form" (p.16). "Ethnic groups then, even after distinctive language, customs, and culture are lost, as they largely were in the second generation, and even more fully in the third generation, are con-tinually recreated by new experiences in America" (p.17).

On the basis of their study of ethnic groups in New York City, the authors conclude that ethnic groups have become "in-terest groups" (p.17). These groups resist assimilation in the sense in which Fairchild uses the term: "Conceivably the fact that one's origins can become only a memory suggests the general direction for ethnic groups in the United States - toward assimilation and absorption into a homogeneous American mass. And yet, it is hard to see in the New York of the 1960s just how this comes about. Time alone does not dissolve the groups if they are not close to the Anglo-Saxon center. Color marks off a group, regardless of time; and perhaps most significantly, the ‘majority' group, to which assimi-lation should occur, has taken on the color of an ethnic group, too. To what does one assimilate in modern America?" (p.20).

"Although Glazer and Moynihan wrote almost a third of a century ago, the problems they address often seem to be unchanged."

For Glazer and Moynihan, again unlike Fairchild, this ques-tion must remain a rhetorical one. They remain agnostic about the most central of questions. In their words, "this book is inevitably filled with judgments, yet the central judgment an overall evaluation of the meaning of American heterogeneity we have tried to avoid, because we would not know how to make it" (p.21).

In default, therefore, Glazer and Moynihan measure the assimilation of their five subject groups by applying to them the yardstick of socio-economic sta-tus. Their leading and implicit assumption is that any group's failure to attain median socio-economic status must be explained. Any such short-fall is evidence of a societal failure, a failure of assimilation. This as-sumption is, of course, the basis for affirmative action and other racial preferences, pro-grams implemented only a few years after the authors wrote. Glazer, therefore, in writing of "the Negroes," is slightly in advance of his time when he concludes that "the strictly legal approach to [racial] discrimination will have to be supplemented with new approaches" (p.41).

It now seems a wonder that the authors register concern that "In 1960 in the New York metropolitan area a quarter of Negro families were headed by women" (p.50). Today, when two-thirds of all African-Ameri-can births are to unwed mothers, it seems to be a wild daydream to hope that one could ever again be able to report such a statistic.

Although Glazer and Moynihan wrote more than a third of a century ago, the problems they address often seem to be unchanged. Thus, Glazer devotes considerable attention to Negro-Jewish tensions (pp.71-77), which have certainly not subsided. Of the inhabitants of Harlem, Glazer notes that "They lack only the ultimate power of expropriation, but if they did, Jewish and other white business might fare as badly in Harlem as the American investments in Mexican oil, or in Cuba" (p.74).

Another familiar problem is the slowing down of assimilation among Hispanics. The authors note that the ease with which Puerto Ricans can migrate from their island to New York and vice versa is a deterrent to assimila-tion and a new factor in ethnic history (p.100). In response, "The city government on its part encourages city employees to learn Spanish, and issues many announcements to the general public in both languages. Con-ceivably this will change, but Spanish already has a much stronger official position in New York than either Italian or Yid-dish ever had. This is one influ-ence of the closeness of the is-land, physically, politically, and culturally" (p.101).

In the case of two groups, there are remarkable differences between their circumstances in 1963 and in 1996. Glazer writes about the first of these, the Jews, as he writes about all other groups save the Irish, who are the subjects of Moynihan's con-tribution.

Glazer observes that "Inter-marriage, an important sign of integration, remains low among Jews. The 1957 sample census showed that about 3½ per cent of married Jews were married to non-Jews, and the proportion is possibly even lower in New York" (p.160). Glazer cites a study in New Haven showing no increase in intermarriage since 1930, "although in this period the Jews of New Haven became much more acculturated and pros-perous. This pattern sharply distinguishes the Jews of the United States from those of other countries in which Jews have achieved wealth and so-cial position, such as Holland, Germany, Austria, and Hun-gary in the twenties. There the intermarriage rates were phenomenally high" (p.160).

Much has changed in this regard since Glazer wrote. Now, rates of exogamy among American Jews are close to 50 percent. This high rate of physical assimilation brings the American Jewish experi-ence more into parallel with that of central Europe. High rates of exogamy would seem to guarantee the total assimila-tion of a group, but in the case of the Jews their rejection as a group by their central Euro-pean hosts fol----lowed the pe-riod, the 1920s, when seem-ingly they had won complete acceptance. In this respect, the Jewish experience calls into question the entire con-cept of what assimilation means.

Moynihan concludes that "The relative failure of the Irish to rise socially seems on the surface to be part of a gen-eral Catholic failure" (p.258). Moynihan's understanding of "a general Catholic failure," found corroboration as late as 1972 in Michael Novak's The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. In 1974, however, it was abruptly overturned when Andrew Greeley, a Jesuit sociologist, published, in his Ethnicity in the United States: A Preliminary Recon-naissance, his findings that Irish Catholics and other white Catho-lic groups earned average incomes higher than those of most white Protestant nationality groups.

White Protestants are men-tioned but rarely in Beyond the Melting Pot, and are the subject of one wildly inaccurate proph-ecy: "The white Protestants are a distinct ethnic group in New York, one that has probably passed its low point and will now begin to grow in numbers and probably also in influence" (p. 314). Doubtless, this, at least in part, reflected the belief that mediating figures similar to John Lindsay would emerge in the city's political future. Such was not to be.

Glazer and Moynihan's con-clusion attempts to define why the melting pot failed. Their reason remains ill-de---fined, how-ever conjectural: "We may argue whether it was ‘na-ture' that re-turned to frustrate continually the imminent creation of a sin-gle American nationality. The fact is that in every generation, throughout the history of the American republic, the merging of the varying streams of popula-tion differentiated from one another by origin, religion, out-look, has seemed to lie just ahead - a generation, perhaps, in the future. This continual deferral of the final smelting of the different ingredients  into a seamless national web  sug-gests that we must search for some systematic and general causes for this American pattern of subnationalities; some cen-tral tendency in the national ethos which structures people, whether those coming in afresh or the descendants of those who have been here for generations, into groups of different status and character" (pp.290-291)


"ethnicity and nationality are rather important factors"

Whatever this "central ten-dency in the national ethos" may be, the authors do not further define it. The simplest answer, of course, was one that was repug-nant to the creed of the New Fron-tier; i.e., that ethnicity and nationality are rather more pow-erful as factors than liberal think-ers had supposed them to be. This was the warning which Fairchild attempted to communi-cate. It is the conclusion, admit-tedly supported by a third of a century of hindsight, of William Pfaff in his The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Furies of Na-tionalism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).

Any attempt at the end of the century to revive the melting pot metaphor must be a feeble one. Under another name, "Trans-Amer-ica," - which is an adaptation of Randolph Bourne's 1916 vision of "Trans-national America" - Michael Lind seems to be making such an attempt. Lind's The Next Amer-ican Nation (New York: The Free Press, 1995)2 bravely affects to look to the future, but it offers little more than yet another re-furbishing of the melting pot ideal. Other authors, still fond of metaphor, have written of "the American salad bowl" or "the Amer-ican mosaic." Lawrence Fuchs, a political scientist, wrote of The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1990).

Lind's seems to be a faith, despite all, in the civic culture. That culture, in turn, is reduc-ible to nothing more than a be-lief in continuing socio-economic advancement for all, just something to keep everyone busy and out of trouble, some-thing like Gatsby's "the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us." Everyone must be kept running, never allowed to linger, to think, perhaps to wonder where, if any-where, it all might be headed. Disbelief, even lingering, might lead to a dispersal of the multi-cultural herd into contending packs. In a multicultural society, the civic culture can only func-tion if it is minimal in the com-mitment which it implies, a promise of bare civility rather than a loyalty to civilization.

Meanwhile, the meltdown of American nationality, of which Fairchild warned, proceeds apace. 

1See an article on Americanization by Otis Graham, Jr. and Elizabeth Koed in The Social Contract, Vol.IV, No.2, p.98.

2The Next American Nation was reviewed by William Chip in The Social Contract, Vol.VI, No.2, Winter 1995-96, p.148. There is an additional review by David Payne in this issue, p.231.

[Editor's note: Also on this topic: As-similation in American Life by Milton Gordon, New York: Oxford Press, 1964.]