Saturday, May 14, 2011

Asian-Americans: alien turned admired

Seeing race riots in Bradford, ethnic ghettos in Germany and Islamist bombings in Madrid, I worry sometimes about integration failures for modern immigrants in Europe.

Ethnic separatist movements exist still in countries like Sudan, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Scotland and Nigeria. We saw modern ethnic violence in Rwanada, Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Basque Spain, Afghanistan and so on: it seems that in many places ethnic groups still act towards one another with suspicion and antagonism, despite public political talk about relishing diversity. Writing in Foreign Affairs Magazine Professor Jerry Muller even argued that Europe's modern peace comes largely from its division after World War II into small, monoethnic states:

And a survey would show that whereas in 1900 there were many states in Europe without a single overwhelmingly dominant nationality, by 2007 there were only two, and one of those, Belgium, was close to breaking up. Aside from Switzerland, in other words--where the domestic ethnic balance of power is protected by strict citizenship laws--in Europe the "separatist project" has not so much vanished as triumphed.

This troubling argument implies that ethnic minority immigrants could continue having difficulty in being accepted, regardless of cheerful government talk about multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism. I worry too that modern political sensitivities about racism inhibit discussion of this topic.

Yet my fears are allayed a bit when I see some of past ethnic conflicts which today seem ludicrous. The US, for example, had a powerful anti-immigration movement in the 1840s, called the Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings were bothered by the mass-immigration of European Catholics into the Protestant-dominated US, particularly after hundreds of thousands of starving Irish began to flood the east coast during the potato famine. Catholic fealty to an Italian Pope seemed treasonous to Know Nothings, an indication that the new immigrant wave were loyal not to the US but to a foreign power.

The influential Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher wrote in A Plea for the West that American Protestants were naive to allow their children to be educated by treasonous Catholics. He denounced the newcomers:

The number of the immigrants, their lack of information, their unacquaintance with the principles of our government, their superstition and implicit confidence in their ecclesiastical teachers, and the dependence of these on Rome, and of Rome upon Austria,- all constitute an influence of dangerous action in themselves, and offers to the powers of Europe easy and effectual means of disturbing the healthful action of our institutions.... It is like a train of powder between an enemy's camp and our own magazine.

How similar this talk is to modern anti-Muslim rhetoric! Muslims, like the Catholics of old, are presumed by opponents to be loyal to Mecca instead of their new countries: ignorant, massive in numbers and superstitious.

Yet the Catholics of America were gradually integrated: John F Kennedy was a Catholic president little more than a century after the Know Nothings peaked.

The Catholics weren't the only scary immigrants. There were also Chinese and Japanese migrants who flocked to the west coast in the late 19th century, provoking anti-Asian legislation by the state. The Chinese queue, a long ponytail worn by men, was prohibited in San Francisco in 1870 - perhaps the burqa of its day. California banned marriage between Chinese people and whites in 1880 while the US Chinese Exclusion Act forbade further immigration of Chinese.

World War II fed fear of the Japanese minority, over one hundred thousand of whom were rounded up and kept in internment camps. The government posted crude anti-Japanese propaganda unthinkable in modern times:

By 2009 a survey by the Committee of 100, a non-profit Chinese-American organisation, found that most of this antipathy towards East Asians had vanished:

In 2001, 23% of the general population said they would feel uncomfortable voting for an Asian American as President of the United States. In 2009, that number has reduced to 9%.... Seventy percent of the general population believe the increase in Asian immigrants over the past ten years has been good for America, up from 49% in 2001.... In 2001, 56% of the general population believed that Chinese Americans have contributed much to the American culture; the number has now risen to 73% in 2009.

That survey found that Americans were still suspicious that Asian-Americans were more loyal to their country of origin than the US. Yet its results are overwhelmingly positive. Americans even thought that East Asians were less inclined to break the law than other Americans.

The rehabilitation of perceptions of Asians and Catholics in the US gives me some hope that the integration problems experienced in some European countries today will be solved with time. The US was multiethnic at an early stage, perhaps another century will work out the kinks on this side of the Atlantic too. Prof Muller warns that ethnonationalism remains strong in Europe, creating conditions less open to integration than in the New World. Perhaps, though, time will heal these fresh wounds.

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