The Problems of Assimilation in 19th Century America
The United States of America, from its earliest history, has been a melting pot. People from different backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, and nationalities have come to the “new world” for centuries, seeking new and better lives for themselves and their families. However, it is not always easy to blend in, to blur the lines between “foreigner” and “American.” Many ethnic groups had problems with assimilation. Some of the greatest barriers to assimilation were prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, and federal law itself.
Many ethnic groups ran into prejudice in America.
In the workplace, Jewish men and women ran into problems with others –
even those who shared their religious beliefs but not their nationality.
Irish immigrants met prejudice due to some of the darker elements of
their number. All groups ran into
problems with men like Madison Grant, who stated very simply that immigrants
were “of lower races” (Unger 139).
Discrimination was also a large problem, mostly because of prejudice.
In “A Bintel Brief,” which was an advice column in the Yiddish
newspaper Jewish Daily Forward in New York, Jewish immigrants to the
United States complain about having a hard time finding work because of their
religious beliefs. Other ethnic
groups, too, found it hard to get jobs outside of certain areas and fields of
employ. It was certainly very hard
for them to advance beyond the working class due to their status.
Men like Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant who later created a steel
trust and became a very wealthy man, are exceptions to the rule.
Stereotyping, a major problem for immigrants, also affected assimilation.
In a political cartoon by CJ Taylor that appeared in a 1889 issue of Puck
magazine, what appears to be an Irishman is shown refusing to assimilate by
jumping out a the mixing pot. This
was a stereotype of the Irish as hot-headed and old-fashioned.
So too did Jews find assimilation hard, based more on ethnic hatred among
Jewish communities and stereotypes from within that sphere than anything.
Stereotyping even occurred amongst immigrant communities themselves,
where “greenhorns” – new immigrants – were berated terribly and
stereotyped as less than nothing, no matter what they had been in their country
Even federal law became a barrier to assimilation when Congress enacted
laws to regulate immigration. A
prime example of this deals with peoples of Asian descent.
Assimilation for that particular group became nigh unto impossible when
they became isolated from extended families and their very culture by the
Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentlemen’s Agreement between the United States
and Japan. Both of these actions
severely limited the immigration of Asian peoples to the United States.
This caused many people from China and Japan to form communities of their
own with people from their own nations, creating places like Chinatown, where
they can preserve their religious and cultural practices.
In short, while some found assimilation easy, many found it difficult.
Reasons for this difficulty ranged from prejudice to federal law.
Many ethnic groups found themselves relegated to the lower echelons of
society simply because they left one nation for another, seeking a better life.
Cahan, Abraham. “A Bintel Brief.”
CJ. Political cartoon featured in Puck
Unger, Irwin and Robert R. Tomes (editors). American Issues: Volume II: Since 1865. Prentice Hall, New Jersey: 1999.