Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Is America Really More Diverse?

 The Last Yankee. A mainstream rural American, no doubt descended from “colonial stock,” arrives in the big city and finds himself surrounded by a motley throng of “new immigrants.” He's become a curiosity in his own country. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 8, 1888. 

It is often said that America is more diverse than ever before. There is no doubt this is true in an objective sense. Certainly, the population of the United States today comes from a greater variety of nations, languages, religions, and cultures than ever before. And yet, an argument can be made that we are not so diverse as we were in the early twentieth century when the majority of Americans could trace their ancestries to Europe.

To appreciate this idea, we must recognize that some of the largest countries of immigrant origin were far more heterogeneous than they are now. Germany is one example. Today, more Americans can trace their ancestry to Germany than any other country, but for most of the 19th century, Germany did not exist as a unified nation-state. What we now call a country was, in fact, a hodgepodge of more than thirty principalities and states. Immigrants who came here considered themselves Prussians, Hessians, Bavarians, and others. They differed from each other culturally and religiously. The German language may have united them, but the newcomers often spoke regional dialects and very few knew any English. 

Today globalization has smoothed over many localized identities. Relatively few newcomers come from isolated peasant cultures. This was not the case during the great waves of European immigration when most arrivals came to America’s cities from rural backwaters. The Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and social media, in general, have brought about a cross-cultural awareness, call it a cosmopolitanism, that did not exist, say, in 1888, when Matt Morgan drew the accompanying illustration.

American immigration shifted remarkably starting in 1882 when the federal government took control of admissions. Whereas most immigrants had come from northern and western Europe, the mix suddenly changed. The “new immigrants,” as they were then called to distinguish them from the founding “colonial stock” or “old immigrants,” seemed utterly alien to many mainstream Americans.    

Opinion writers and university professors thought America was heading down a dangerous road. The nation was abandoning our Anglo-Saxon roots in favor of a dangerous diversity.  Morgan’s humorous illustration conveys a bit of this dread. Front and center is a Yankee, not unlike the familiar depiction of Uncle Sam. Our Yankee looks like a dressed-up farmer, who has come to the big city, perhaps for the first time.

In the city, the Last Yankee becomes an object of curiosity to a multicultural crowd. Most of the gawkers are European in origin. Morgan knew his ethnic types. We see Scots, Dutch, German, English, Irish and more. We even see Black, Chinese, Arab, and Jew. The signs on the surrounding businesses declare American identities, but they, too, are something new—Germans brought delicatessens and Chinese, laundries. After the crowd has ogled this strange creature, they will return to their own kind. 

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