The One Thing We Do Better Than Them (Besides Football)

As some commentators have noted, the election of Barack Obama has forced Europe to address one of its uncomfortable contradictions. This most progressive of continents has a reputation for being more enlightened than America. Indeed, their health-care policies, attitude toward gays, and work-life balance far exceed our stumbling, nineteenth-century approaches. In comparison to them, we look – and often feel – like beer-swilling cretins who fire shotguns at random while cursing out fancy book learnin’.

But there is one area where Europe can only gaze upon us in wonder. Believe it or not, we do a better job at integrating immigrants, promoting assimilation, and addressing racism than they do. Yes, even with all the screaming about Mexicans taking our jobs and Laotians refusing to learn English and Somalis creating their own ethnic enclaves and what have you, we’re far ahead of our European counterparts.

For starters, we have just elected a new leader who happens to be a biracial man whose father was an immigrant. I don’t see anything similar happening soon in Great Britain or Denmark. In fact, xenophobia is on the rise in Europe.

Or look at France’s National Assembly, which is the rough equivalent of our U.S. House of Representatives. Of its 577 members, only one is a minority. In contrast, of our 535 members of Congress, 75 are minorities (and 27 of those are Hispanics, thank you very much).

That’s just looking at the political breakdown of our leadership. There are other ways in which it is better to be a dark hue in America than it is in Austria, even though it’s clear that we have acres of room for improvement. Still, we’re farther along the path than many other nations are, and one factor for this headstart may be because of our view of immigration.

The writer Naomi Wolf points out several reasons why immigrants strive for a U.S. address, and why they tend to like it better here than in Europe.

First, Wolf points out that our national story is different. With the exception of Native Americans, we all came from somewhere else. To quote “Stripes” and the esteemed philosopher Bill Murray, our ancestors were “kicked out of every decent country in the world” (Ms. Wolf does not employ this reference).

Also, the values of immigration are admired – or at least the initiative and ambition of old-time Ellis Island immigrants are – while in Europe, immigrants are viewed with almost universal disdain. In addition, everyone gets to be hyphenated once he or she gets here (e.g., African American, Italian American, Asian American). See if you can find someone who considers himself a “Turkish German.”

Wolf also points that we emphasize values that everyone (in theory) can share, instead of focusing on a lineage of great kings or the specifics of a tiny geographical area, like they do in Europe. Finally, she stresses how the separation of church and state is vital to preventing a xenophobic culture, which is a point I’ve made several times in these posts.

Obviously, there are also geographical reasons why so many people from Latin America come here. There will never be an influx of Hondurans to, say, Belgium. But I imagine that if most of those Guatemalans who risk it all to emigrate could chose any nation on Earth, they would still look north first.

Despite the enormous obstacles that newcomers face here – some legal and necessary, others cultural and ugly – it’s better to be an immigrant in America than anywhere else. And it’s not just because we’re, you know, America – where everyone has nine iPods and drives hot cars and watches 188 channels of pornography and indulges in freedoms that terrorists apparently hate.

Really, you can have a good quality of life in Spain or Greece. But it would suck to start at the bottom in any of those countries, because that’s where you, your children, and probably your grandchildren will remain. That is often the case here, of course. But we at least offer the hope of progress, and as I can vouch from first-hand experience, one successful immigrant can create a situation where an entire family can thrive.

Is essence, perhaps the main reason America has always been a nation of immigrants is simple.

American is not race or an ethnicity. It is a nationality. More than that, it’s an idea.


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January 2009
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