The Great Melting Pot and Its Problem

Franz Boas

OLD WORLD TRAITS TRANSPLANTED. BY HERBERT A. MILLER AND ROBERT E. PARK.  Third Volume in a series of Americanization Studies. New York. Harper and Brothers. $2.50.

We have become accustomed to ominous predictions of the future of the population of the United States. The great melting pot in which so many "inferior" European races contaminate the superior Northwest European elements must turn out at the end an alloy in which the sterling qualities of the great blond Europeans are only faintly discernible. Instead of steadiness, weakness; instead of individual initiative, collectivistic complacency; instead of rational restraint, emotional yielding; instead of superior bodily build, a gradual degeneracy — such are the dire predictions of our pessimistic race-conscious prophets.

It is interesting to follow the development of this idea. It was first developed on broad lines and brought to general attention by the Frenchman, Gobineau; it found fertile soil in the thought of ante-bellum days in America, when the institution of slavery required some rationalizated justification that was most readily based on the attempt to prove the innate inferiority of the negro; it was further developed in Europe by the Austrian German of English descent, Stewart Houston Chamberlain, and it has found its newest and most emotional representation in the United States.

It is curious to note that the reaction grew apace with the growth of the idea of race superiority. The German, Theodor Waitz, was the first to express clearly the opinion that race achievement is not due to racial superiority, but a result of cultural history; and his fundamental thesis became the basis of all modern anthropological research into the cultural history of mankind. The German, Bastian; the Englishman, Tylor, the Americans, Morgan, Brinton and Powell; the Italian, Montegazza; in fact, modern anthropologists almost without exception consider themselves justifies in disregarding racial, innate inequalities as almost entirely irrelevant in the development of cultural history.

It is refreshing to find an author who looks at the problem of the future of the American people not from the emotional race-conscious point of view, but from the modern anthropological angle, who considers each immigrant element as impregnated with a certain traditional cultural heritage, and who investigates the processes by which a gradual amalgamation develops. This is the pre-eminent merit of the book, "Old World Traits Transplanted" by Herbert A. Miller and Robert E. Park, which has just been published. The authors frankly disregard innate differences that may perhaps exist, but press the purely cultural problem which is due to the transfer of the foreigner to American environment.

Before discussing the merits of their argument, it may not be amiss to make clear to ourselves the reason why the authors have the right to disclaim the importance of innate racial differences.

The opinion is quite untenable that racial mixture, such as occurs in America is a unique historical phenomenon. As a matter of fact, the history of Europe, as well as of other continents, shows that race mixture is the rule, not the exception. First of all we see that there are no hard-and-fast lines between any two human types. When we migrate from Europe into Asia, we do not strike a line at which the people show all of a sudden the characteristic Mongol type, but the change is very gradual. When we migrate from Northern India to Southern India, there are no sudden breaks, but only gradual transitions. In North Africa, changes from Mediterranean types to African types are bridged by many intermediate steps. Only in those places where, owing to recent migrations or to customary isolation, types come into contact that were in former times geographically far apart do not find sudden changes.

The history of various countries shows also clearly the progress of mixture. In Spain, for instance, which in modern times is one of the most secluded parts of Europe, we find in early times an aboriginal population called the Iberians. The Phoenicians, later on their North African cogeners, settled on the coasts of Spain; Celtic tribes came into the peninsula from the north; the Romans from Italy colonized the whole country to such an extent that the people adopted Roman speech; the Goths and other Teutonic tribes whose home was in the region between the Black Sea and the Baltic swarmed southward and even crossed into North Africa; the Moors came from Africa — in short, the early history of the Spanish peninsula has been such that the blood of practically all European types runs in the veins of the modern Spanish people.  In the Balkan peninsula we can follow waves of migration in even early times and continuing until the southward movement of the Slavs and the Invasion of the Turks. Even England has not escaped this fate. In prehistoric times there was a sudden intrusion of a foreign type that came presumably from Central Europe; later we have Roman colonization, Teutonic migration from all around the North Sea, and finally the Norman invasion.

Setting aside the negro, Indian, and Asiatic elements which present a separate problem, the elements which intermingle in the United States are in no way different from those that entered into the various European populations. The only difference that exists is that the rapidity of the process of mixture and the numbers involved are vary great, while in early times the numbers were, comparatively speaking, small and social barriers retarded the assimilation more than they do now.

Notwithstanding the large extent of ancient mixture, we think of European peoples as pure races. Evidently this though is based primarily on the stability of population which developed in Europe with individual landholding and with assignment of the serf to the soil. Since the Middle Ages, Northern Europe has and a stable population, and each nationality, particularly the landholding class in every village, is more or less and intensely inbred group. It is easy to substitute in thought the idea of purity for the idea of that kind of homogeneity which is due to long-continued inbreeding, and it is largely due to this condition that we consider European types as "pure" types. In reality, we may safely say that pure human types in the sense of types evolved by inner forces from single ancestral types are nonexistent.

From this standpoint, the racial problem may well be put aside. It is however, claimed that the racial types, no matter how they have originated, have not the same values. This question is also rightly disregarded by the authors. Our racial panegyrists take an attitude as though a racial type was a unit, as though every family conformed to what they please to describe as a racial type. As a matter of fact, every investigator knows that it is very difficult to find among a mass of individuals a single one who conforms to an ideal racial type, that the great majority rather deviate considerably in many directions physically as well as mentally. What we call a racial type is merely an impression gathered from the traits of a great many individuals that cluster close together and which we call their type. The actual investigation shows always a wide range of variation in each group. This variation is not only individual. It may also be found in family lines. The members of a family, representing as they do the same kind of hereditary constitution, are alike among themselves, and the variety of forms represented by the family lines in each population is very great. When the populations of Europe are compared, it is found that both physically and mentally the differences between "types" are very much less than the differences between individuals or family lines belong to the same racial type, so that it always happens that the series representing district types overlap, and many individuals of the "superior" series are inferior to those of the "inferior" series. The same is true of hereditary lines. The consistent eugenicist would, therefore, direct his attention not to the selection of the superior race, but to the selection of superior strains of all races — provided he can attain the consensus of opinion as to which hereditary traits are the best. In regard to mental qualities we find the same kind of overlapping not only between European types, but between all races — white, mongols and negroes; and for the whites particularly there is no evidence that racial types differ considerably in regard to they physical or mental makeup.

It is claimed, however, that of certain groups we obtain only those strains which are by heredity inferior. It may be agreed that in certain cases there has been on the part of European nations an unloading of undesirables which from the point of view of American society must be considered as objectionable. It is however, quite a different question whether these undesireables are by heredity representatives of inferior strains. They may be inferior, due only to social or congenital causes, without being encumbered by hereditary defects. The history of the Australian convict colony is not in favor of the assumption that undesirables may not be the progenitors of a race physically and mentally sound. It is true that psychologist claim that the results of their test indicate mental inferiority — for instance among Italians — but so far they have failed to prove to us that the difference in reaction is not largely culturally determined, and that the groups investigated may not be essentially the same, but that the test to which they are subjected are of such a nature, and the attitudes of the people are so diverse, that they do not respond in the same manner. The differences found between Northern and Southern negroes point distinctly in this direction. It may be admitted that the question is an open one. From the standpoint of the anthropologist the more likely interpretations of the results obtained is that, to say the least, a large part of the differences that have been found are socially determined, not due to inferior heritage. Even should we admit that we find hereditary differences, we must not forget that there are excellent strains in the "inferior" groups which excell the poorer strains of the "superior" groups

If these facts were more widely recognized, books like those of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, written in praise of the Great Blond Race, would no longer succeed in stimulating an unsound race prejudice.

"Old World Traits Transplanted," which is a volume of the series of Americanization Studies, is as sound in its premises as the books just mentioned are unsound. Without committing themselves to any theory in regard to innate differences, the authors study impartially, and by means of excellently selected documents, the attitude of the immigrant as due to the cultural complex which he brings from his home to this country. It is immaterial whether we agree or disagree with the sociological theory underlying the summaries, or whether we accept the statement that the present hodgepodge of European States is an "attempt to make racial and political boundaries more nearly coincide" (whatever the term "racial" may mean), and not rather an attempt to tear away and subject other nationalities as many Germans as possible — the facts are well marshaled and clearly put forward, setting forth the difficulties which the immigrant has to overcome in order to adjust himself to the new order in which he has come to live.

We might be inclined to point out that the difficulties which the authors discuss are not only one of the incidents of emigration, but that they occur in all periods in which there is a rapid change of cultural attitude. The experience of the orthodox Jews who cam to this country and who see their children break away from the faith of their fathers is merely a repetition of what happened in Western Europe in the period following the Napoleonic wars.

We should be inclined to emphasize more strongly than the authors do the effect of social antagonism which brings it about that groups inherently heterogenous are welded into a social unit by outer pressure. Many members of the group may feel primarily not as such but as individuals. The American attitude toward the negro, the modern revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and partly in America, are cases in kind.

It seems somewhat curious that the Mexicans of New Mexio, Arizona, and Colorado should be classed by the authors as immigrants in their country. We have accustomed ourselves to rail against those European nations that try to assimilate the groups that live within their boundaries and which do not conform as much to the Western European social, industrial and economic standards as do the rest of the people. Examples of this kind are the few Lithuanians in East Prussia; the Poles in the mixed lower valley of the Vistula. We forget entirely that we handle the same problem in our Spanish Southwest in exactly the same manner. There are schools in which ignorant teachers forbid children to speak Spanish, there is the successful political domination, and there is the strong resentment of the people themselves. For eighty years the Spaniards have preserved their cultural characteristics.

Notwithstanding minor differences of opinion we agree with all the main points of the book, which should be read by every one interested in the problems of immigration, and we may conclude with the authors:

Assimilation is thus as inevitable as it is desirable; it is impossible for immigrants we receive to remain permanently in separate groups. Through point after point of contact as they find situations in America intelligible to them in the light of old knowledge and experience, they identify themselves with us. We can delay or hasten this development. We cannot stop it. If we give the immigrants a favorable milieu, if we tolerate their strangeness during their period of adjustment, if we give them freedom to make their own connections between old and new experience, if we help them to find points of contact, then we hasten their assimilation.


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