Five Wedges That Crack the “Melting Pot” Meme

What enduring image bespeaks hallowed American exceptionalism – greatness fortified by immigrant labor – than Melting Pot? “Come, you poor, tired, huddled masses: acclimate, pitch in, and enjoy your share of Yankee treasure.” And scattered voyagers en masse exploited New World opportunities, by choice (fabled settlers, immigrants), indenture (poor whites), slavery (black, Native American, others) or conquest (southwest Hispanics).

Who said functional melting pots need volition or equivalence in transport or starting gates?  Drafted armies coalesce just like musicians at a jam session. Prosperity did (and does) bless scores of immigrants, some fat cats commanding wealth beyond dreams of avarice (a president, celebrities, predatory banksters, or high-tech innovators).  For the struggling 80% today, the results mirror the cracked Liberty Bell.

In fact, the fabled melting pot no longer serves its own citizen offspring. Immigrants aside, today’s bewildered youth not only search hard for decent work, but indentured graduates shoulder more debt than prospects. Domestic masses yearning to be freely hired got sucker punched, along with outdated come-ons: America, the equal playing field, where wealth is the reward for hard work; any child can gain citizenship, even the presidency; and parents struggle so children will live better.

Comatose American Dream

George Carlin cracks this bellwether: “The owners of this country know the truth: It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” A century of propaganda did lure foreign millions with steady work, plus “melting pots” of diseased, congested housing within company towns. Someone had to populate factories and plantations, build infrastructure (canals, bridges, roads and tunnels), fight the wars, and survive the twin blessings of boom and bust.

Rather than innovative melting pot, when unique ingredients strengthen the whole, economically America faces a distressed future, without vision or direction.  We are wasting potential geniuses by not educating them or keeping them under-employed.  Yet, for some groups, this is a Salad Bowl country wherein ethnic integrity prospers. Assimilation data is mixed: where else do urban China towns or Korean towns or Hispanic enclaves thrive, or ethnic/religious concentrations, like the Amish or Mormons?

Multiculturists savor “cultural mosaic,” a single unity that respects diversity of culture. Reactionaries still dream of America as Tomato Soup, blending new tribes (like spices) without diluting the purer (original, white, Yankee) base. Stephen Colbert envisions America as Lunchables, plastic wrapped, distinct entities thrown together, unified more by geography than conflicted cultural and political assumptions.

Five reasons why America’s melting pot fractured:

1) Joblessness.  Most immigrants dragged themselves here not just “yearning to be free” but desperate for hard cash from well-paying jobs – and a life befitting a land where streets are paved with gold. Decimate jobs, while dismissing our perpetual recession, and untethered folks don’t join the whole. Give people good jobs, and they’ll follow you anywhere. Promise work, then withhold, and the melting pot turns embittered Poor House.  Per the AP this week: “Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

That’s the 80% who melt in and out of poverty and deprivation, not prosperity. Second, the NY Times reported geography (and family income) dictate widely inequitable variations in future income mobility, better in cities, worse in rural areas: “On average, fairly poor children in Seattle — those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution — do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children — those who grew up at the 50th percentile — from Atlanta.”

2) Immigration Frenzy: Nothing like right wing stereotyping to shred togetherness, impugning Hispanics as undesirable, “illegal aliens,” even criminal drug mules. Nativist bigotry against immigration reform estranges newcomers from identifying with America or as Americans, even learning English –  and many socially-conservative minorities dread the violent, gun-crazed Anglo culture.

If eleven million undocumented remain perpetually off the rolls, how many will acclimate? Anti-immigration (and anti-minority, anti-government) manias defeat key job training programs that would lift entire communities. In unity there is strength as skilled workers attract employers, increase tax rolls and bolster community vitality (case in opposite point: Detroit). Indicting immigrants with a wide criminal brush reinforces that America, already tarred with an exclusionary past, now boycotts new blood and eager workers.

3) Racism: What better way to alienate minorities from belonging, even someday sharing benefits, than barring them from voting? Pile on the estrangement (and fear) spurred by headlines of brazen vigilantes like Zimmerman, free from penalty after gunning down an unarmed teen. Racism and injustice combine to show how vulnerable are perceived “others” (simply walking home) when dress, appearance or color can kill.

Think Trayvon Martin’s middle-class parents embrace America the melting pot?  Think estranged, permanently unemployable black youth won’t go insolently lawless? By denying education or work opportunities, urban, systemic racism reifies a permanent underclass: when poverty begets poverty, no positive melting pot (but the togetherness of prison) looms for those with nothing left to lose. Newly-disenfranchised southern voters must also wonder whether Jim Crow died or the Civil War ended.

4) Wedge Politics: Unrelenting, right wing divide-and-conquer politics, added to government-is-the-enemy harangues, destroy core beliefs that sustain community, if not a unified nation. Harshly-coded, wedge messaging confirms America as a zero-sum game in which (racist, white) groups only prosper by taking back their country, presumably stolen by upstart outsiders. Thus, why should Tea Party goons fund training for unemployed minorities (read: lazy, idle, welfare shills)? The white flight that dooms places like Detroit mistakenly assumes all won’t pay when a city goes under.

If a majority of gerrymandered House Republicans keep their jobs by dishing out racial attacks on minorities outside their district, then racism will approximate pandemics: a problem conceded on holidays but left to fester.  What Muslim or Asian, Indian or Filipino immigrant eagerly sign on when voices from inside discriminate and disrespect them?

5) Regional Tectonics: We are, by religion, ethnicity, culture and politics, a split country with half dozen regions that increasingly share mainly geography and history. Because unlimited corporate money efficiently captures counties and states, otherwise past centrist areas elected reactionary GOP governors who leverage divisiveness, come what may. The good news is that fanatics overplay, so, for example, the Republican war on women (and pregnancy) looks to boomerang, though only after causing much grief.

Can we rebuild coherence when one-third of the country stridently thrashes Constitutional abortion, voting rights, gay marriage, plus evolution and climate change, while righteously asserting the absurdity of Biblical literalism and the perfection of the “free” market system?  Can we survive House gerrymandering until after the next census, especially if the GOP captures the Senate in the next years? That will widen all growing cracks.

Educated at Rutgers College (BA) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D, English) Robert S. Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, U. Chicago) for business, founding and heading SOTA Industries, high end audio company from '80 to '92. "Writing for the public taught me how to communicate." From '92-02 he did marketing consulting, grant, and business writing. Since '02, he scribbles on politics, science and culture, looking for the wit in the shadows. Read other articles by Robert.