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Is America Still the World’s Melting Pot?

October 29, 2021

Anywhere diverse groups of people assimilate and blend together as one can be called a “melting pot”. Whereas many countries have a population made up of people who are similar in terms of race, religion, and culture, the melting pot of cultural assimilation was at the heart of people migrating to the New World. Rather than embracing its early multinationalism, America rather quickly developed as a nation of cultural differences that began to meld together. A steady flow of immigrants from all over the world brought component pieces of their own cultures with them, including their food, fashion, religion, music, and language. Throughout the eighteenth century, there was a strong belief that just like different metals that are melted together, the assimilation of differing cultures could result in a stronger alloy as everyone would meld together as Americans.

Lady Liberty Becomes the Icon for a New Beginning

As intimidating as it was to leave their native soil, immigrants moving to America believed in the opportunities they would have with a new start. A transition that would include the need to learn about the societal, economic, and cultural norms, which were already being adopted by the rapidly expanding nation. By the late 1700s, the influx of immigrants coming to the United States were expected to embrace the concept used to describe the rapidly growing nation. Most were moving to America with a similar dream of escaping the religious and economic struggles of their homeland to make a better life for themselves. By the late nineteenth century, a joint project between France and the United States would create an enduring and welcoming symbol for generations of immigrants. French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi designed a 300-foot tall copper statue  that was built by Gustave Eiffel and made of steel, cast iron and gold.

The Statue of Liberty was shipped from the Old Country and assembled on a pedestal on what was then called Bedloe’s Island. Often referred to as Lady Liberty, the neoclassical monument became the icon for the Melting Pot as it was one of the first visible sign of the new world that most immigrants would see. In 1904, a Jewish refugee Israel Zangwill, who immigrated to the United States to escape ethnic cleansing in his homeland of Russia, wrote a celebrated Broadway play called “The Melting Pot”. It told the story of an immigrant who found acceptance, love, and belonging in America, a country where the differences between ethnicity melted away as cultural exchange became the norm. President Theodore Roosevelt praised the idea and promoted the concept of a country that welcomed people from all over the world and encouraged immigrants to integrate themselves into the new society.

The Gilded Age Gave Rise to Social Criticism

The late nineteenth century in America ushered in an era of rapid economic growth, gross materialism, and blatant political corruption that highlighted troubling issues that the Melting Pot was facing. During the post-Reconstruction era following the Civil War, the population growth saw the rise of three distinct groups of people known as:

  • Old Immigrants – Early migration to the New World came mostly from Northern and Western European countries like England and Germany. Most were literate and belonged to the Protestant faith. Many of these immigrants were skilled laborers.
  • New Immigrants – Unlike Old Immigrants, the New Immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Asia and Latin America. Most did not speak English and were of Catholic, Orthodox, or Jewish faith. These were less skilled workers who found it more difficult to assimilate.
  • Nativists – The Nativists or native-born Americans (not the true Native-American Indians) could trace their ancestry back to the original colonists. Politically, they formed the “Know Nothing Party” who deemed immigration to be a social and economic threat to America.

The Gilded Age saw the onset of business tycoons (called Robber Barons) who made incredible sums of money in railroads, banking, oil, and other monopolized industries. However, political and social changes began to happen quickly during the Progressive Era in America as muckrakers began to expose corruption in big business and government.

The Great Migration, Urbanization and Nationalism

Prior to World War I, more than 90% of the African American population lived in rural areas of the American South. By the end of the Great Migration, more than six million African Americans had become highly urbanized with 50% of the population working in plants and mills in the north. This extreme population change meant millions of new immigrants would be competing with African Americans for jobs and scarce housing. This led to an era of ethnic tensions as groups of white and black Americans sought to defend their position in American society. With the industrialization of the U.S. landscape, our nation was drawn into a militaristic role that over the next century would see a Melting Pot of soldiers from differing cultures come together in victory and defeat. Although Americans would enter a golden age of prosperity and progress, important societal and cultural issues would emerge as the size of the Pot would continue to grow.

Civic leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and labor leaders like Cesar Chavez would launch cultural crusades as activists who truly believed that non-violent tactics were the only way to ensure peace and justice. Workers from city streets to the far-reaching corners of rural America struggled to gain nationwide support for the belief that every person could make a difference. Today, immigration to the United States is considerably more complex but the philosophy of the Melting Pot remains much the same. Nonetheless, any immigrant moving here nowadays will need to learn about all of our nation’s cultural, economic, and social norms. That has prompted a recent growth in English as a Second Language (ESL) learning platforms to help immigrants and refugees succeed in their journey to becoming an American. Having a positive encounter in and out of the classroom will help to promote respect and deepen the understanding between different cultures. Moreover, convenient sources of translations will definitely lead to better immigrant experiences for ease of cultural assimilation.

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