The term Americanization generally refers to the assimilation of immigrants into U.S. society, a meaning now endowed with negative connotations. The unpopular interpretation rests on its association with the Americanization movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement, particularly during and after World War I, advocated immediate and coercive assimilation through English language and citizenship programs to the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture, then considered by nativists to be superior. Thus, the Americanization movements became synonymous with forced assimilation, nationalism, and xenophobia.
Historically, several factors led to the escalation of nativist fears. First, specific circumstances in Europe, like the Irish famine and the change in British government policies, sent immigrants to the United States in exponentially increasing numbers. Between 1841 and 1860, over 1.7 million persons arrived. Second, the discovery of gold in California in 1848 initiated yet another new immigration stream, that of the Chinese. By the early 1900s, technological improvements and increased trade made travel much more affordable, leading to an unprecedented increase in the number of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe. The lack of knowledge about the new groups, as well as their different appearance and customs, brought about heightened concerns among native whites, particularly on the eve of World War I.
Nativist sentiments and social movements like the Know-Nothing Movement, established in 1850 with the motto “America for Americans,” defined a path for the first policy restrictions on immigration. In 1875, the U.S. government passed the first law directly restricting immigration by prohibiting the entrance of “convicts and prostitutes.” A few years later, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusionary Act passed, after the urging of California voters who overwhelmingly agreed with their Republican senator, Aaron Sargent, that “Chinese immigrants are unwilling to conform to our institutions, to become permanent citizens of our country, to accept the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and have indicated no capacity to assimilate with our people.”
On a larger national scale, the Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894 by a group of Harvard College graduates, many of whom believed in eugenics and Anglo-Saxon superiority, became among the first groups to demand the establishment of an entrance literacy test for all immigrants. They considered people from southern and eastern Europe (Greeks, Italians, Slavs, and Jews) to be an inferior race. American Federation of Labor leaders, believing that a large flow of immigrant workers could jeopardize the labor movement, supported the literacy test, which passed as legislation in 1917. Nevertheless, it did not inhibit immigration much, as most immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were literate by then.
Parallel with the push for immigrant restrictions were attempts to “absorb” the immigrants. The absorption process built upon the melting pot idea, at the time associated with a “pressure-cooker” Americanization. The public schools offered classes in English language and citizenship to new immigrants, with evening classes sponsored by businessmen, who did not want immigration restrictions but feared a radicalized labor force, given the rise of Bolshevism and the “red scare.” Private immigrant groups also offered educational programs that stressed the teaching of English and “civics” as the most secure road to Americanization. Creating further an atmosphere of urgency and necessity, the Americanization movement took upon itself to institute English language classes in factories. The first phase, starting in 1907 under the auspices of the YMCA, combined the process of naturalization with an industrial safety campaign. Employers supported this process, because it was essential that workers understand simple safety instructions to minimize work-related accidents. The second phase started in 1915 and became a central part of the “Americanization crusade.”
One of the most influential persons in the militant phase of the Americanization movement was Frances Kellor, an “authority” on immigration and immigrant legislation, advising Roosevelt on immigrant matters. In 1914, Ms. Kellor became vice chair of the Committee on Immigrants in America and, a year later, editor of its journal, Immigrants in America Review, which was devoted to Americanization. In the Yale Review of 1919 she wrote, “Americanization is the science of racial relations in America, dealing with the assimilation and amalgamation of diverse races in equity into an integral part of the national life.” This point of view was the apogee of the model of Anglo-conformity and the epitome of the Americanization movement, which, during and after World War I, called for the immediate “100 percent Americanization” of immigrants. Notably, most of these discussions of immigrant Americanization and assimilation excluded blacks as participants and as a topic in the debates. Consequently, Americanization became associated with racism, nationalism, and xenophobia.
Two additional historical processes solidified the unfavorable connotations of the term Americanization: the treatment of American Indians and the annexation of Puerto Rico. The process of naturalization for American Indians included destroying tribal organizations, repressing religious ceremonies, allowing only English in schools, and teaching about only white culture and history. The occupation of Puerto Rico was followed by discouraging Spanish cultural identification and traditions and enforcing the English language.
Whereas Americanization relates to a difficult history of coercion in the United States, the contemporary view of the adaptation, incorporation, and assimilation of immigrants into U.S. society is one of a voluntary process, through which immigrants make choices guided by rational strategies to improve their own lives. However, even the most sensitive approaches to immigrant incorporation cannot “save” the term Americanization. In more international interpretations, Americanization now means imposing U.S. culture, traditions, and the capitalist economic system on other countries around the world. It may thus be one rather daunting task to restore this term to a more lasting and positive meaning.
- Alba, Richard and Victor Nee. 2003. Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Downey, Harry. 1999. “From Americanization to Multiculturalism: Political Symbols and Struggles for Cultural Diversity in Twentieth-Century American Race Relations.” Sociological Perspectives 42(2):249-78.
- Glazer, Nathan. 1993. “Is Assimilation Dead?” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 530:122-36.
- Gordon, Milton M. 1964. Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion and National Origin. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Heer, David. 1996. Immigration in America’s Future: Social Science Findings and Policy Debate. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Korman, Gerd. 1965. “Americanization at the Factory Gate.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 18(3):397—419.
- Parrillo, Vincent N. Forthcoming. Strangers to These Shores. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
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