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The Melting Pot

The term “melting pot” is used to describe the process of Americanization, a means by which a burgeoning immigrant population was assimilated into American culture in the late nineteenth century. The image itself came from a play written by Israel Zangwill and titled The Melting Pot. While the plot of the play has long been forgotten, the metaphor that was at its core endures as an expression of one aspect of the American Dream.

A closer examination of the metaphor reveals some uncomfortable implications. The pageants inspired by Zangwill’s play were not an affirmation of the diversity of the influx of some 18 million new citizens who reached our shores from 1890 to 1920. Picture the image of strangely attired foreigners stepping into a large pot and emerging as clean, well-dressed, accent-free, “American looking” (for “American,” read “white Anglo-Saxon Protestant”) Americans. After all, a melting pot is the means by which ore is refined into pure metal, eliminating any impurities. America needed the immigrants to provide the workforce needed to become an industrial giant, but those immigrants had to conform to the ideal of those who owned the factories and mills. According to Benjamin Schwartz, “Americanization, then, although it did not cleanse America of its ethnic minorities, cleansed its ethnic minorities of their ethnicity.”

This could happen when minorities were racially similar to Anglo-Saxons. The turn-of-the-century wave of immigration was made up of Irish, Germans, Italians, East Europeans, Catholics and Jews. But the next huge wave of immigration was quite different. Since 1965 Asians and Latin Americans have comprised the bulk of immigrants, while African Americans have continued to struggle against the pervasive cultural racism that has prevented their becoming fully a part of the predominant white culture.

—Adapted from I Dream of A School: Mission Study on Public Education by Martha Bettis Gee. (General Board of Global Ministry, The United Methodist Church, 2004.)


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