#96, April 12, 2006

From Melting Pot to Vindaloo


            “But State is essentially a concept of power, of competition; it signifies a group in its aggressive aspects.  And we have the misfortune of being born not only into a country but into a State, and as we grow up we learn to mingle the two feelings into a hopeless confusion.”

                                                            – Randolph S. Bourne, “The State.”[1]



In 1908, Israel Zangwill coined the term “melting pot” to describe the United States.  Zangwill, an English Jew, had been shown around New York City and all its ethnic enclaves by none other than the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens.  On his return to England he wrote the play “The Melting Pot” about immigrants to the United States, which, after becoming a hit on Broadway, continued to shape American self-perceptions as well as the image of United States held by Europeans.[2]  The image projected of immigration was one that largely corresponded to that drawn by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, with families and ethnic communities being broken down and a process of assimilation occurring among the immigrants.[3]


Randolph Bourne’s perception of immigration was a different one altogether from Zangwill’s.  Where Zangwill saw a process of assimilation, Bourne, the New York Progressive intellectual, found strong bonds of ethnic identity remaining among the immigrants.[4]  Attracted to German philosophy, like many other Progressives, he also recognized that its influence in the United States, along with German culture generally, had been strong, and that Germans had not been melded down into a bland ethnicity.  While the Germans have since come to represent the archetypal assimilationists, this was very much a post-World War I phenomenon, and so not apparent to Bourne who died during the flu epidemic of 1918 (though he would have predicted this development in the kind of onslaught he witnessed Germans facing in the “100-percent Americanism” campaigns undertaken during the period of American involvement in that war).  From such observations, from his special interest in and attention to Jewish-American culture, and his recognition of the existence of strong Irish religious, political, and social organizations, Bourne formulated his ideas about cultural pluralism.[5]


To some extent, American perceptions about immigration have swung between these two polls (between assimilation and cultural pluralism) ever since.  There have been those who have seen American society becoming devoid of culture and fundamentally materialist – conforming either to a modernization school, which tends to celebrate this development, or (as for Oscar Handlin) the romantic school, which waxes nostalgic about the world that has been lost.[6]  In food terms, since the metaphors seem to have originated in either food or gardening, immigration has created a society rather like a pea soup.  There may be some small lumps remaining – the remnants of “Old World culture” – but, by and large, the texture is pretty uniform (and often not especially attractive).  Other immigration scholars have seen the remains of a great deal of cultural heritage and, again in food terms, have resorted to the tossed salad image (when they haven’t turned to art and ideas relating to mosaics or tapestries).


Political alignments do not conform to these two polls, however.  It is possible to describe immigration in accordance with either perception and remain in opposition to opening doors to immigration into the United States.  An opponent of immigration might see it as both producing a “mongrel nation” (assimilationist), or breaking down the core values of a former elite in a sea of hyphenated Americans (pluralist).  Proponents of immigration, meanwhile, may describe it in assimilationist terms, like Theodore Roosevelt for example, but will more often now have a cultural pluralist sensibility.[7] 


What is missing from this dichotomous picture, something to which Randolph Bourne would have been sensitive, is the influence of power relations in the society into which immigrants are moving and the degree to which social norms deriving from historical developments in that society would influence the process of immigration and acculturation.  It would be safe to assume that the assimilationist model incorporates power more easily than the pluralist one, as it may well be either the appeal of power or fear of exclusion from it (and its exercise by others) that drives the immigrants’ move towards assimilation.  It is certainly also true that social historians have tended to shunt power relations (or the “big picture”) off to the margins in their discussion of immigrant culture.  But this attention to power doesn’t necessarily make the assimilationist model more accurate.  There is a distinct possibility that under certain conditions the kinds of power relations that drive the assimilationist impulse may also promote cultural pluralism.


Here, we are moving into the terrain that Bourne might have incorporated in his category of the State.[8]  For Bourne there was a clear distinction between a nation, or a country, and its state.  The former might be considered Civil Society, in which the various social groups, the different classes and ethnic groups interact in order to promote their own self-interest.  The state would be embodied most especially in a nation’s executive’s practice of waging war, but would extend to evidence among the society’s population, for example, of patriotism and flag worship.  So one could see in peacetime a possibility for democratic interaction between groups as they negotiate with each other for society’s perquisites.  But, in wartime, all democracy would be pushed to the background in the herd mentality’s worship of the state (or fear of deviating from such worship).  Thus, one could see German-Americans and members of the working class, who would, under normal conditions push, for their rights as minorities or as workers (and who would be given space to do so), suddenly coming under assault from the policing power mobilized by the state, and by those who were unwilling to consider either that the state might not be their exclusive property or that it might possibly be wrong to engage in a particular war.  Indeed, part of the respect Bourne showed for Jews in the United States derived from his sense that they were more firmly embedded in the nation because their allegiances lay elsewhere, so that they were less likely to be susceptible to the wiles of the state in which they lived.[9]


Living through the First World War, which had such a great impact on the way immigration would be viewed in American society, Bourne was seduced by the obvious connection between the state and making war.  The phrase, “War is the health of the state,” which he coined, is a clear reflection of this.[10]  But, if we take Bourne’s analysis out of its wartime context we can see that it still has relevance to analysis of immigration.  Bourne wrote that the state was a “mystical conception” which influenced people to the degree that those people shared statist idealism (in the Rooseveltian manner, believing in conformity to a singular purpose – most evident, he felt, among the elite), or were forced to do so by social convention or desire to conform.[11] As such, the state in this broader sense can incorporate notions about the definition of “American”, which may indeed come from foreign policy (diplomatic and warlike interactions with other nations), but can also derive from the conventions of that society.  In this case, I believe it is important to comprehend the degree to which the state is formed around notions of race and gender that prevail within a particular society.  These notions are, I would argue, of sufficient weight in American society (and others also) that they take on the level of significance that war, to which they may be related, takes in Bourne’s analysis.


To explain this, let us provide two examples.  The first relates to the issue of race in the aftermath of the Civil War and following the failure of Reconstruction.  The other is a related issue that speaks to changing notions of masculinity and femininity.  We should view these in turn. 


First, race.  The major wave of immigration occurred in the aftermath of slavery and emancipation.  It was to some extent, at least, shaped by the need for labor among capitalists at a time when they were constrained, at least initially, in their pursuit of cheap labor.  In other words, it was not just the Southern employer who was constrained by the need not to replicate a system of slavery; northern employers, having taken the high ground over the superiority of free labor as opposed to slave, could not comfortably reduce their laborers to a condition of emiseration.  Of course, this restraint was short lived.  As workers began to organize and push for improved working conditions in industrial sites, the commitment of northern capitalists to Reconstruction in the South began to wane, to the same degree that they wished to crush the northern labor movements.  As David Montgomery showed so clearly in Beyond Equality, the 1870s witnessed the end of Reconstruction in large part because the labor strife in the North made it clear to northern capitalists that their interests lay with the plantation owners and merchants of the South, rather than the freedpeople.[12] 


With the influx of new immigrants into the United States, brought in both because of the rapid industrialization increasing demand for labor, and the constant desire of capitalists to undercut the price of their laborers with the introduction of (what under strike conditions would be called) scabs, a competitive condition was created between those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.  Immigrants were forced to live in conditions that would have been seen as degraded as those slaves lived under.  The new immigrants were described in racial and gender terms that were reminiscent of slaves.  Sometimes, the immigrants were brought into close physical proximity with African Americans and a more direct system of competitive race relations developed.  It is within this crucible that the need to create a category of “white” encompassing European immigrants, however lowly, and excluding African Americans, Asians (mainly from China and Japan), and American Indians, was felt.  Without slavery and the manner in which it was terminated the development of a category of whiteness would have occurred differently, and the category itself would have been formed along different lines.[13]


Second, gender.  Race is commonly added to the story of immigration, so that an exception of one sort or another is made for African Americans.  That exception may be that they came to the United States under forced conditions and so their experiences differed markedly from the immigrants, or it may be that white racism kept them apart.  But, whatever it is there will be a common division between the immigrants and African Americans, and many will feel comfortable keeping them apart, as one might see perhaps in the common division between ethnic studies and African American studies programs.  But gender is seldom brought into the analysis, unless it is considered important to study the lives of immigrant women.  And, even then, it is only certain kinds of gender relations that get considered, and the way in which gender (seen in overarching, discursive terms, rather than attached to particular groups of people) shaped immigration is seldom considered.


In fact, gender and race intersect quite neatly in the world emancipation made.[14] The slave was emasculated; so was the wage slave in the north.  The immigrant was in danger of seeing, as Handlin so vividly described it, his power wane and his authority in the family diminished.  In this regard, the agency that was being stripped from him was his masculinity.  He was being reduced to the condition of dependent, in a culture that, in part because of the presence of slavery (to the master or to the King), placed a great deal of emphasis on the republican value of independence.[15]  The loss of culture, then, coincided with a loss of male authority, and the easiest resolution for this predicament was an attempt to place tighter controls on women (often doing so in the name of cultural tradition).  Thus, the accentuation of culture, making the group seem distinct (in many instances creating a bastardized version of the national or ethnic tradition), would be done in order to create distance from stereotyped perceptions of African Americans, and would therefore be a key to the process of whitening. 


The resulting influence of these two concepts, which like war itself are in constant conflict with fundamental notions of democracy and equality, is such that cultural pluralism is promoted by the desire among immigrants not to be absorbed into a feminized and racially denigrated lower class.  Instead, they will want either to promote their own ethnic identity when times warrant doing so, or under different conditions (think GI Bill of Rights and suburbanization following World War II) absorb themselves into a remasculinized and white middle class. 


“America” is not a melting pot; nor is it a stew – it’s a vindaloo.  The “thikhat” (hotness) comes from imperial spices – gendered and racialized spices that emerged from the legacy of slavery and the aftermath of emancipation.



[1] Randolph S. Bourne, War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays (New York: Harper, 1964), p. 68.

[2] Israel Zangwill, The Melting-Pot (New York: 1909, 1923); Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp.50-51.  For Lincoln Steffens’ description of his tour of New York City, showing Zangwill the sights, see Autobiography.

[3] Upton Sinclair, The Jungle.

[4] Bourne, “Trans-National America,” in War, pp. 107-23.

[5] Bourne did not celebrate immigrant cultural formation within the United States, but rather thought these were overly conservative and out of step with the cultural formation going on in the country of origin.  As such Jewish-American culture was to be valued because of the Zionist sentiments among American Jews for a Jewish State in the Middle East.  This dual allegiance enabled Jews to be less parochial than some other immigrant groups, and made them central to his notion of a “Trans-National America”, and his desire that Americans should have a dual allegiance with another nation. What was absent from Bourne’s thinking, however, was the possibility that in a process of growing globalization, the conservative American ethnic groups could have an influence on the way the nation’s from which they originated developed.  This is a phenomenon that will be witnessed repeatedly throughout the twentieth century. 

[6] Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted.

[7] For Roosevelt’s views on immigration, see Gerstle, The American Crucible, pp. 14-80.

[8] Bourne, “The State,” in War, pp. 65-104.

[9] “The Jew and Trans-National America,” in Ibid., pp. 124-33.

[10] Ibid., pp. 69.

[11] Ibid., pp. 69 & 87.

[12] David Montgomery, Beyond Equality.

[13] The literature on the creation of whiteness is large and growing.  For compelling work in this area see, Roediger, Wages of Whiteness; Ignatiev, How the Irish became White; and Berger, White Lies.

[14] See When and Where I Enter.

[15] While most of the republicanism literature has attempted to fit American workers into artisanal pigeonholes ignoring race (e.g., Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic), its most compelling contribution may, in the long run, be paving the way for studies examining masculinity and independence within the context of a slave society.  See Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom.