The Role of Assimilation in American Life

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Assimilation has its roots from the Latin word simulare which means to make similar. US Immigrants are expected to behave like Americans over a certain duration of time, a process occasionally referred to as melting pot. America being a racially, religiously and regionally diverse country, the exact meaning of assimilation becomes vague. That is, what does it really mean to assimilate? How does an outsider eventually get to be labeled as having fit into the nation’s diversity? 

Some people posit that assimilation is met when one achieves a certain level of economic freedom and success, knowledge of the country’s culture and history, fluency in the country’s dominant language i.e. English and educational success. These measures seem feasible as they can be met overtime. For others, assimilation means much more than mere materialistic gain. It involves renouncing the ties and loyalty one feels towards their former country and place of origin. And there is also another group of thought that believes assimilation is achieved when one can integrate their new-found home and practices in the United States with their own personal beliefs. Gordon, however, classified assimilation as being either cultural or structural (1987). He defined defines cultural assimilation as the process of learning and acquiring the culture of Americans whereas structural assimilation was achieved when the immigrant had been taken up and incorporated by the major institutions of the society.

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The one thing constant in all of these understandings is Americans’ pride in being a nation made up of and filled by immigrants. The immigration process into America was both voluntary and involuntary. European immigrants moved freely from their initial homes into what is now America. This, however was not the same experience of enslaved Africans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans who were first conquered and forcefully driven from their own homes. Other times, the experience was half-wiling and this was the case for indentured servants from Ireland, Germany, China, and Japan who sought to earn enough to be able to buy their freedom from their masters. The American Dream, one of the country’s most loved ideas says that no matter where one comes from, if he or she puts in the work without any form of laxity, they will achieve success. It provided hope for all these individuals who either migrated in search of better opportunities, running away from injustices in their own homes or even those who chained in the bottom of ships and forced to come and plough American farms working as slaves.

The problems faced buy immigrants such as language barrier, harsh change of climate, inhumane treatment from white people et al. were the focus of studies conducted by early sociology schools such as the Chicago school. There was always the common belief that the process of integrating foreigners who arrived in the United Stated would be a process of assimilation. Sieber and Park (1950) of the Chicago School argued that race relations went through processes as stages of interactions where immigrants and racial groups progressed without the intention of going backwards. These stages were: contact, competition, and accommodation finally resulting in assimilation. According to them, both European and African American immigrants came from rural and undesirable backgrounds.

However, Americans bear a lot of distrust and suspicion for foreigners. Newspaper Cartoons in the 19th Century would depict newcomers with different ghoulish images such as drunken apes for Irish refugees and cannibals ready to swallow America used in place of the Chinese. American lawmakers on multiple occasions passed into law restrictive federal regulations that restricted and hindered the immigration of other people like the Chinese, Italians, Jewish, and Irish from entering the country. Most recently, there have been plans to ban Muslims from certain countries such as Iran, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia from traveling to the United States claiming that they were a source of potential terrorist attacks. The Great Depression also saw the deportation of more than one million Mexicans claiming they were responsible for the harsh economic times.


  1. Gordon, M. M. (1987). Assimilation in American life.. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
  2. Llopis, G. (2019, January 31). Yet Another Call For Assimilation in America, But Assimilation To What? Forbes. Retrieved from  

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