Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
With her book of recipes
And the finest one she's got
Is the great American melting pot.
The great American melting pot.
Contrary to the common portrayal in many non-American media, "American" is not an ethnic group. The United States is not a nation with one predominating ancestry. According to the most recent census information, the largest ethnic groups in the USA are: "German" (15.2%), "African" (12.9%) "Irish" (10.9%), and "English" (8.7%). Of course, as these figures are self-reported, they should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, most demographers believe that the actual number of English Americans is considerably higher than the census figures indicate.
It's also worth noting that, despite our note above, large numbers of Americans with murky family backgrounds (believed by most demographers to come from Britain, Ireland, and France) do, in fact, self-identify their ancestry as simply "American", a phenomenon that is especially common in the South. Indeed, behind the four aforementioned categories, it's the fifth-largest ancestry category given on the census, at 7.2% of the population.
The US is a nation of immigrants. They come for a variety of reasons:
- The first African-Americans were forcibly brought over as slaves.note Recently, there are growing communities of African immigrants who are fleeing violence and poverty. These new immigrants, unlike most African-Americans, have no connection to slavery or the Jim Crow era, but they do marry into the older community with some regularity. The child of one such immigrant (who married into the "original" African-American community) was later elected and reelected President of the United States.
- In many major cities, there is a sizeable Caribbean-American community, made up of the migrating descendants of the Africans that were forcefully brought to the Caribbean. Many of these, coming from the former British Caribbean, are of partial Indian (as in from the Subcontinent) descent, their ancestors having gone to the Caribbean after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire as semi-voluntary indentured laborers and later married the African ex-slaves and their descendants.note
- The Chinese-Americans originally came to work on the transcontinental railroad and in the gold mines. Although Chinese immigration was banned from 1882 to 1943, the Chinese-American population has consistently grown, with immigrants moving to the United States primarily for education and work.
- The Irish-Americans fled famine and The Troubles. More recently, since the "Celtic Tiger" of the 90s and 00s crashed and burned during the Great Recession, young Irish people have increasingly come to the US—often as bartenders, usually on the East Coast or in Chicago—where the economic climate is slightly less crappy than Europe.
- The German-Americans mostly came for economic reasons, particularly dislocation during the industrialization of Germany. A particularly famous wave came over for political reasons in the late 1840s. This wave was composed mainly of young-to-middle-aged intellectuals, professionals, and revolutionaries, who had seen the Revolution of 1848 that they had supported crash and burn and decided to get out of Germany before anyone could hurt them. These "Forty-Eighters" often found prominent positions in society, industry, politics, and the arts in the new country, and were heavily invested in liberal causes like abolitionism, labor reform, and opposition to nativism, becoming among the staunchest supporters of the Union in The American Civil War as a result.
- The many Dutch-Americans also moved for economic reasons, although others, followers of the gereformeerde movement of Abraham Kuyper, came because they felt that the Netherlands was becoming too secular (these people settled in West Michigan). A lot of Dutch-Americans were here before the English, particularly in New York and New Jersey (which were formerly New Netherland). They came for many reasons, but usually to get rich. The New Netherland Dutch became a powerful and wealthy constituency in the US (for instance, the first person of non-British descent to hold the Presidency was Martin Van Buren, a Dutchman from Upstate New York);note a disproportionate amount of New York Old Money are Dutch (hence the long-forgotten joke about "Mrs. Van Whoozis.")
- American Jews mostly fled from various pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia, as well as coming over after The Holocaust.
- Polish-Americans fled from the chronic poverty and oppression of Tsarist Russia and Austria-Hungary. This is also true of a number of other peoples subject to the Russian Empire (e.g. Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Russians).
- The Cuban-Americans mostly fled Castro.note
- The Vietnamese-Americans fled the end of The Vietnam War.
- Some other European-Americans fled World War I.
- The Mexican-Americans came to the USA as cheap labor. A later group fled the Mexican economic crisis that lasted from 1982 to 1996. Most Latin Americans in general come to America looking for work. There are also a great many fleeing the drug wars raging in Mexico.
- The Italian-Americans mostly came to escape poverty, but a sizable number of them were actually people from the southern Kingdom of Two Sicilies escaping the Sardinian-led unification.
- The Arab-Americans are mostly Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians, and Iraqis, coming for reasons economic and political; originally they were mostly Christians fleeing the uncertain political climate of the late Ottoman Empire, while later arrivals are a mixed bag of Muslims and Christians escaping the region's sporadic warfare. However, another major group arrived for another reason entirely: the first Yemenis arrived because Henry Ford hated black people (and Jews, but that's another story), so he brought in Yemenis (and Lebanese, but a lot were coming anyway) over as cheap labor for his factories instead. This is a major reason that the city of Dearborn, Michigan (where the Ford Motor Co. is headquartered) is the largest Arab-American community in the country: the Yemenis and Lebanese formed a nucleus around which the community was built.
- The Iranian-Americans mostly came after the Revolution of 1979, fleeing the turmoil and the Ayatollah.note
- The US is also one of seven nations which every year accepts a significant amount of refugees from around the world: over the years these have included Hmong, Nepalis, Burmese, Karen, Somalis, Iraqis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and many many others.
Most of them, however, came and still come for one reason — to pursue The American Dream.
The Ellis Island Experience
The typical immigrant from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would be from a poor town in Europe. They'd save up their money and buy a one way steerage ticket across the Atlantic to New York City.
After seeing a brothel shaped like a giant elephant and the Statue of Liberty (in that order), they'd arrive at Ellis Island, where they would enter the large Immigration Building.note There they would be checked over medically. Sometimes they would also be administered an IQ exam—in English. After the exam, prospective immigrants would have a mark chalked on them relating to possible illnesses or health issues (pregnancy, mental retardation, etc.). Those suffering from transmissible diseases such as tuberculosis, or mental defects, were usually prevented from becoming US citizens and deported. That said, over 80% of arrivals were allowed in. If their surnames were too difficult for the immigration officer to spell, they would be changed to vaguely similar sounding names ("Anglicized"). Or so the story goes: in reality, the Ellis Island and other Immigration employees were usually competent in the languages that most of the immigrants spoke; usually, it was the shipping companies that got the names wrong, transcribing the names as they saw fit in their manifests, with the overworked immigration officials just taking the names from the manifest unquestioned without bothering to make corrections.
They'd arrive in America with a little bit of money and the clothes on their back. Depending on who is telling the story the money would end up vanishing to a conman or thief. Or it would be used to bankroll a business, or it would be used to fund a trip across the country.
Theory vs Reality
The Melting Pot describes how various groups of immigrants come to this nation and all became American. The special qualities, values and traditions of the various groups comprise the special nature of America in the same way various metals and chemicals combine to form unique alloys.
In reality, this does happen, but it is an incomplete assimilation. America has many areas where a group of immigrants settled in large numbers and left a unique stamp on the local culture and language. In large cities where immigrants are numerous, entire sections of the city have coalesced, creating sections knows as Chinatown or Little Italy. These enclaves at their best can provide a place for immigrants to cherish their ties to "the Old Country". Sometimes these communities can become ghettos, trapping the citizens within narrow boundaries both behavioral and geographic.
Although most of these communities don't last. The average American moves over 11 times in their lifetime with the majority of those relocations occurring in their mid-20's. It is because of this highly mobile and individualistic subset that most areas in the U.S. measure their demographic changes in a couple of decades rather than centuries. The 2010 census found that New York's "Little Italy" did not contain one single person who was born in Italy.
Immigrants may try to hide their country of origin in order to blend in. The process of becoming a real part of America can be difficult. Learning the culture and language and living with other groups can be challenging. Particularly when some of the other groups were "the enemy" in the Old Country.
Sadly, America has always been ambivalent about being a nation of immigrants. Since the country's founding, each successive wave of immigrants has been seen as dirty, uneducated, unwilling to assimilate, etc. by the rest of America, only to settle in and decry the next wave of immigrants. To illustrate this, can anyone think bad thoughts about folks of Germanic descent? Aside from, y'know, the obvious? There was a time when the German population were seen as less-than American especially during World War I. Schools stopped teaching German and foods like hamburgers and frankfurters were renamed "Salisbury steak" and "hot dogs" (the last name stuck)note note . Some states even banned teaching German or teaching in German, something the Supreme Court had to strike down later. Italian-Americans were also suspect, for a while. Even today, they're associated with The Mafia in some communities. Catholics (a group that just so happened to comprise Italians and Irish, as well as many "Bo-hunk" Central Europeans—Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, etc.—Anglos viewed as suspicious, plus a not inconsiderable number of Germans, as well) were viewed as agents of the Pope who were trying to overturn America's democratic institutions, and supported a church that was, in the view of many Protestants, theologically suspect at best and outright heretical at worst. San Francisco's Chinatown is a fabulous (and popular) place to visit, though it was initially born of a really vile set of racist immigration laws. Peculiarly, this could go both ways, benefiting some immigrants to the detriment of others; as we mentioned above, Dearborn's Arab community is, like SF Chinatown, awesome (although less popular), but was also born of really vile history—Henry Ford's hatred of black and Jewish people, which was typical if rather over-vehement for the time.
There is currently an intense debate regarding a large wave of immigration from Mexico into the United States. Depending on your point of view, this is either a human wave of a scale and immediacy so great that it might drown the economy, or it's the current group of starry-eyed immigrant Americans who will eventually take their own place in the grand American tradition of decrying the next wave of immigrants.
Note that this is a different attitude from the equally variegated next-door-neighbor country of Canada. Rather than a melting-pot, Canada promotes "multiculturalism"; the idea is that rather than everybody adapting the Canadian culture, the cultures remain and the only thing that is adapted are Canadian "values" (such as democracy, freedom, and other vague-sounding terms). The success of this approach compared to the "melting-pot"— or if there is any difference on the ground whatever between the approaches—is the subject of intense debate and many shouted insults.