Assimilation: What Will It Mean for Affirmative Action?

Orlando Patterson, the well-respected Harvard sociologist, wrote an article in the New York Times this week in which he argued that immigrants from Latin America and Asia will assimilate into mainstream American culture (whatever that might be) in the same way as European immigrants from the late 19th and early 20th century had. Maybe he’s right. Although social scientists have argued that Latino and Asian immigrants will not be able to assimilate as rapidly as Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants because the former are not white, there is some evidence suggesting that the children of Latino and Asian immigrants are assimilating quite well. They tend to be English-dominant (many do not speak or understand their parents’ native language), they have high intermarriage rates (with whites primarily but also with other groups), and many reside in integrated or predominantly white neighborhoods—all indicators of assimilation. Many Latinos (approximately 50% according to Patterson) also self-identify as white, suggesting that their experiences might not be that different from those of European immigrants.

These facts notwithstanding, many Latino and Asian-American scholars would disagree with Professor Patterson’s assertion. They would point to continuing discrimination and evidence of implicit biases against Latinos and Asian-Americans and the widespread perception that these groups are not “really American,” as illustrated by the question “no, where are you really from?” when a person who does not look Black or White says that he is from Texas, California, or Kansas.

I don’t know whether Latinos and Asian-Americans will assimilate into dominant U.S. culture, but if Professor Patterson is right, one might ask what this should mean for affirmative action. The Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) upheld the limited use of affirmative action, relying, in large part, on the benefits to all groups of a diverse academic environment. If a group has largely assimilated, does this weaken the case—the diversity rationale—for affirmative action? Affirmative action serves to bring disadvantaged and underrepresented groups into dominant culture. If a group has assimilated, it is already part of that culture. Of course, Latinos and Asian-Americans are not homogenous groups and the experiences and likelihood of assimilation might be quite different for Cuban-Americans as compared to Mexican-Americans or Dominican-Americans, for example, or for Korean-Americans as compared to Vietnamese-Americans. If a Latina or Asian-American law school applicant is a member of a group that has largely assimilated, does that mean that she is no different (for purposes of affirmative action) than a first generation Irish-American or Italian-American? While the experiences of Italian-Americans, for example, are different from that of descendants of the Mayflower, these differences are rarely taken into consideration for purposes of affirmative action. If Latinos and Asian-Americans assimilate as European immigrants have, will colleges and universities have to search for minorities who are not assimilated in order to further their interest in diversity?

This question is further complicated by Patterson’s assertion that the African-American experience is fundamentally different from that of other minorities and therefore, African-Americans are unlikely to ever assimilate. He is not the only one to make this argument. In his book, Who Is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Non-Black Divide (2003), sociologist George Yancey argues that in the not so distant future, Latinos and Asians will assimilate into dominant American culture and come to be viewed as “White” just like Italian, Irish, and Jewish Americans. This argument fails to consider where darker-skinned Latinos and Asian-Americans will fit in—will they be able assimilate? However, if we accept, for the sake of argument, Patterson’s and Yancey’s prediction, I wonder whether this means that affirmative action should be upheld for African-Americans only because for everyone else, race will soon cease to matter. These are difficult issues.  I look forward to your feedback.

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6 Responses

  1. A.W. says:

    well, let’s not forget the other factor discouraging integration: we have encouraged in them active pride in their old country culture and language. i mean liberals fought hard to give us spanish language voting, driving tests, and so forth and so on, and then we scratch our heads and wonder why assimilation is going so slowly?

    my ancestors were not allowed to speak the language of the old country (excpet for the few englishmen on mother’s side). But many wish to discard completely the concept of a common language and a common culture. and of course the result is self-segregation, from which little good can result.

  2. “If a Latina or Asian-American law school applicant is a member of a group that has largely assimilated, does that mean that she is no different (for purposes of affirmative action) than a first generation Irish-American or Italian-American?”

    Evidence abounds that a LACK of affirmative action (based on race or ethnicity) usually accrues to the benefit of those of Asian descent and reminding me of the great Ronald Reagan’s reported response (while California’s governor) to the claim that admittance to Berkeley solely based on individual performance might result in a solely Asian student body: “So what?”

  3. Jd says:

    “They would point to continuing discrimination and evidence of implicit biases against Latinos and Asian-Americans”

    There was lots more discrimination against Jews and Italians 100 years ago, and almost no civil rights laws, but that didn’t stop them from assimilating.

    And what exactly IS the justification for giving affirmative action preferences to light-skinned Hispanics, but not, say, dark-skinned Arabs?

  4. So is the underlying fact to why other races will be able to assimilate and African Americans won’t is simply skin color??

  5. Nah, it’s just that admitting that they’ve assimilated means having to end affirmative action, and since affirmative action can never end, blacks can never have assimilated. Even if they have.

    You’ve got to avoid taking these sort of arguments too seriously, they’re just rationalizations.

  6. Joseph Slater says:

    In all honesty, if the Borg start assimilating us, we’ll have more pressing problems than revising affirmative action policy.