In simplistic accounts of the question of segregation versus assimilation, it is often suggested that segregation is (broadly speaking) bad and assimilation (broadly speaking) is good. A Different Mirror shows that the reality of segregation versus assimilation was far more complex for those immigrating to America. In certain circumstances, some ethnic groups were encouraged or even forced to assimilate in a way that was detrimental to them. Other groups, meanwhile, were forbidden from assimilating and forcibly kept separate from white-settler society. The attitudes of ethnic groups themselves were similarly complex: the question of whether to assimilate or remain segregated varied across different groups, historical contexts, and individuals. Indeed, Takaki ultimately shows that segregation versus assimilation is perhaps a false binary, and that clinging to these two categories can preserve the (false) impression that the US is a white nation with marginal minority ethnic groups, rather than a diverse, multicultural entity that is as black, brown, Indigenous, Muslim, and Jewish as it is white.
Black and Indigenous people in the US have long faced contradictory treatment, on one hand forced to assimilate while simultaneously being forcibly segregated from white society. Both enslaved African and Indigenous populations were, for example, forbidden from speaking their own languages and practicing their own religions, instead forced to speak English and practice Christianity. At the same time, Indigenous people were also allotted reservations (from within their own stolen land) separate from the rest of the nation, whereas black people were segregated into ghettos and, during the Jim Crow era, prevented from using the same facilities as white people.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this contradictory treatment corresponded to contradictory feelings within black and Indigenous populations over whether assimilation was actually desirable. Some Native people ended up assimilating into white society—indeed, many were compelled to by virtue of the fact that their own ways of life had been destroyed by white settlers. Meanwhile, during and after slavery, many black people fought fiercely to be considered just as American as white people and to be accorded the rights and freedoms that this entailed. Conversely, there were (and remain) many Indigenous people who refuse to accept the validity of the American nation state and continue to fight for the land that was wrongfully taken from them to be returned. Similarly, during slavery and after abolition, there existed a minority of black people who believed that the descendants of the enslaved would never be treated justly in the US, and that the black population should thus return to Africa, their ancestral home.
Other groups possessed a similarly contradictory relationship to assimilation versus segregation, although this tended to take less extreme forms than it did for Indigenous and AfricanAmerican people. (The primary reason for this is that most of these other groups chose to immigrate to the US, so their existence in the country did not simultaneously constitute the erasure of their ancestral culture.) Some groups were enthusiastic about assimilation. For example, Jews arriving prior to the Second World War often embraced their new American identities and attempted to scrub themselves of signs of their “greenhorn” status. Others, however, did not always see assimilation as the goal of immigration. For example, in the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants established Chinatowns in different cities across the US. Takaki argues that this was actually a way for Chinese immigrants to mark the US as their home and express their intention to settle in the country for good. Indeed, this case shows that embracing the US as one’s home and contributing to American culture can mean preserving one’s difference and adding that difference to the “melting pot” of the nation.
One key way in which Takaki explores assimilation versus segregation is through Harvard University’s evolving admissions policy regarding different ethnic groups. In A Different Mirror, Harvard symbolizes entry into the (white) elite of the American nation state. Indeed, being accepted into institutions like Harvard could (up to a certain point) be seen as a measure for being accepted into whiteness. It is telling, for example, that Harvard’s President Abbot Lawrence Lowell “viewed the Irish favorably and highlighted Harvard's role in assimilating them into American society. ‘What we need,’ he had explained earlier, ‘is not to dominate the Irish but to absorb them.’” Meanwhile, Lowell restricted the number of Jews that could gain admission every year, aligning himself with Harvard students who declared that “Jews are an unassimilable race, as dangerous to a college as indigestible food to man.”
Ultimately, Takaki shows that it is best to let go of the binary of assimilation versus integration and to think in different terms wherein maintaining one’s distinct ethnic cultural status should not mean taking on a subordinate position in American society. Illustrating the possibility of a middle way, he describes teachers who encouraged their Mexican students to embrace both their Mexican identity and their status as American citizens. Similarly, he quotes an Afghan-American immigrant named Fatema who would like to be both Afghan and American. Afghans have “integrated” instead of assimilated, she explained, “Afghans have kept their uniqueness, the beauty of their culture, and at the same time have thoroughly functioned in today's society. I think that's what integration means.” As such, “integration” is presented as one possible third way between the difficult binary of assimilation versus segregation.
Segregation vs. Assimilation ThemeTracker
Segregation vs. Assimilation Quotes in A Different Mirror
“Race,” observed Toni Morrison, has functioned as a “metaphor” necessary to the “construction of Americanness”: in the creation of our national identity, “American” has been defined as “white.” Not to be “white” is to be designated as the “Other”—different, inferior, and unassimilable.
This demonization of Indians served complicated ends. The enemy was not only external but also internal. To the Puritans, the Indians were like Caliban, a "born devil": they had failed to control their appetites, to create boundaries separating mind from body. They represented what English men and women in America thought they were not, and, more important—what they must not become. As exiles living in the wilderness far from “civilization,” the Puritans used their negative images of Indians to delineate the moral requirements they had set up for themselves.
The planters had come to a crossroads. They could open economic opportunities to white workers and extend political privileges to them, but this would erode their own economic advantage and potentially undermine their political hegemony. Or they could try to reorganize society on the basis of class and race. By importing and buying more slaves, they could reduce their dependency on an armed white labor force and exploit workers from Africa, who could be denied the right to bear arms because of their race.
President Abbott Lawrence Lowell viewed the Irish favorably and highlighted Harvard's role in assimilating them into American society. “What we need,” he had explained earlier, “is not to dominate the Irish but to absorb them. We want them to become rich,” he added, “send their sons to our colleges, and share our prosperity and our sentiments.” In his opinion, however, such inclusionism should be reserved for certain groups. The "theory of universal political equality” he argued, should not be applied to "tribal Indians," "Chinese," or "negroes under all conditions, [but] only to our own race, and to those people whom we can assimilate rapidly." Lowell added that the Irish were unlike Jewish immigrants: they were Christian as well as culturally similar to Americans of English origin. The Irish could, therefore, become "so merged in the American people that they would not be ‘distinguished as a class.’”
What enabled businessmen like Crocker to degrade the Chinese into a subservient laboring caste was the dominant ideology that defined America as a racially homogeneous society and Americans as white. The status of racial inferiority assigned to the Chinese had been prefigured in the black and Indian past.
Though they imported workers along with supplies, planters were conscious of the nationalities of their laborers. They were systematically developing an ethnically diverse labor force in order to create divisions among their workers and reinforce management control. Complaining about the frequency of strikes on plantations where the workers were mostly from the same country, plantation managers recommended: “Keep a variety of laborers, that is different nationalities, and thus prevent any concerted action in case of strikes, for there are few, if any, cases of Japs, Chinese, and Portuguese entering into a strike as a unit.”
In their demand for a higher wage, the strikers explained: "We have decided to permanently settle here, to incorporate ourselves with the body politique [sic] of Hawaii—to unite our destiny with that of Hawaii, sharing the prosperity and adversity of Hawaii with other citizens of Hawaii." Significantly, the Japanese were framing their demands in “American” terms. They argued that the deplorable conditions on the plantations perpetuated an "undemocratic and un-American" society of "plutocrats and coolies." Fair wages would encourage laborers to work more industriously and productively. The goal of the strike was to create "a thriving and contented middle class—the realization of the high ideal of Americanism."
“We try hard to be American but Americans always say you always Japanese. Irish become American and all time talk about Ireland; Italians become Americans even if do all time like in Italy; but Japanese can never be anything but Jap.”
Expressions of resentment and ethnic epithets began to circulate: "Jews are an unassimilable race, as dangerous to a college as indigestible food to man." […]
President Abbott Lawrence Lowell announced that the college had a "Jewish problem" and led efforts to curb their enrollment. "It is the duty of Harvard," he wrote privately in a letter to a member of the Board of Overseers on March 29, 1922, "to receive just as many boys who have come, or whose parents have come, to this country without our background as we can effectively educate; including in education the imparting, not only of book knowledge, but of ideas and traditions of our people. Experience seems to place that proportion at about 15%."
For many Mexicans, the border was only an imaginary line between Mexico and the United States—one that could be crossed and recrossed at will. Living in El Norte, they created a Mexican-American world called the barrio.
In a letter to the NAACP, a soldier wrote: "I am a Negro soldier 22 years old. I won't fight or die in vain. If I fight, suffer or die it will be for the freedom of every black man to live equally with other races." Scheduled to be drafted into the army, a black youth declared: “Just carve on my tombstone, ‘Here lies a black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of a white man.’”
“There's one other great incident of humanity that I'm very familiar with, the three hundred years of slavery in my own country, where people for generations were not allowed to be free, subject to the dictates of another race. Held in bondage, forced to work, and forced to do what another person wanted you to do. And if you didn't obey, there were no laws against killing you and destroying your family. So I said, ‘As you talk, I see there's a close parallel between the history of my people in America and what's happened to the Jews in Europe.’”
“I think one man is as good as another so long as he's honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Will [Young, the Confederate veteran] says the Lord made a white man of dust, a nigger from mud, then threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.”
At a deeper level, the split between Jews and blacks reflected a larger ideological divide, as conflicting visions of equality emerged. The Civil Rights Movement had begun as a struggle for equality for blacks through integration, which was often defined as a condition of equality. To "overcome" meant to integrate the schools, buses, lunch counters, and other public facilities; this goal was expanded to include equality of opportunity for voting and employment. But in 1966, like earlier black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael and other young militant blacks issued a clarion call for Black Power […] Equality, for many black militants, now meant self-determination for blacks as a colonized people in America. The cry of black nationalism was for separatism rather than integration, and there was no place for whites, including Jews, in the movement for black liberation.
Facing a rising nativist backlash against illegal immigrants, many Irish newcomers joined Mexican Americans in demanding comprehensive immigration reform that would enable all of them to become legalized. In February 2006, fifteen hundred Irish participated in an immigration reform rally in San Francisco. One of them, Elaine, worked as a nanny. "We're all in the same boat," she told a reporter. "The Irish are lucky because we speak English and we're white. We do get treated better. But we [undocumented immigrants] are all hard workers. We all want a better life." Elaine explained that she would like to become a legal permanent resident so that she could build a stable life in her adopted country without fear of being picked up by immigration authorities. She also would like to take her six-year-old son to Ireland so he can maintain his ties to his grandparents and his Irish heritage.
Most of the shop signs in Westminster were in Vietnamese only. But the merchants of Little Saigon have begun to reach out for a larger customer market. In some Vietnamese stores, signs announce: "Se habla español.”
“Afghans have integrated instead of assimilated […] Fremont would be a good example. Afghans have managed to keep their culture and identity. It hasn't been lost in the idea of assimilation. That's when you totally and completely become the culture that you have immigrated to and completely lose your people's original identity. Afghans have kept their uniqueness, the beauty of their culture, and at the same time have thoroughly functioned in today's society. I think that's what integration means.”