An American Tradition Worth Breaking
Here’s one of life’s great mysteries: Why does a nation of immigrants continue to fear and vilify the immigrant? While this is a difficult phenomenon to comprehend, it is also a self-defeating American tradition that needs to be abolished once and for all.
From day one, American’s have been fearful of foreigners. Colonial charters and laws for example, contained specific language precluding Roman Catholics from gaining political power. At the time, the mistrust of Catholics was such that in 1642, the Colony of Virginia enacted a law prohibiting Catholic settlers. Every post-colonial immigrant wave, it seems, was met with similar resistance. A century later, Benjamin Franklin voiced his concern over the potential impact of German immigrants on a predominantly British culture. In the mid-1800s, Irish immigrants were labeled lazy drunks, and “NINA” signs reading Help Wanted – no Irish need apply” were widespread. In 1893, the New York Times called Italy “the land of the vendetta, the mafia, and the bandit.” At the turn of the century a new wave of predominantly Russian Jews — were considered too different ever to assimilate into American life.
American history proves just how baseless these concerns truly were. Today, German-Americans are the largest of the ancestry groups reported by the US Census Bureau. German Americans, like every other immigrant group, proved that they could not only assimilate, but more importantly, had much to offer the American experiment. German Americans established the first kindergartens in the United States, introduced the Christmas tree tradition and are responsible for such “American” staples as the hotdog and hamburger.
The Irish have also contributed immeasurably to American culture. They gave us Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, author and poet Edgar Allan Poe, artist Georgia O’Keefe, Walt Disney, and the glorious sound of bagpipes that filled the air on the day this Cuban immigrant wed a bride who descended from the Emerald Isle.
Italians and Jews have each made outsized contributions as well. We owe a debt of gratitude to Jewish immigrants for the iconic “blue jean,” the polio vaccine, and the theory of relativity, to name but three.Italian Americans such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett and Perry Como each defined American music. Their songs, often written by Jewish songwriters, have become the cornerstone of what critics refer to as the Great American Songbook. How’s that for irony?
Studies prove conclusively that today’s immigrants from Latin America and Asia are assimilating quickly and contributing to society in equally meaningful ways. Latino influence is felt from the dance floor to the dinner table and recently in our most important boardrooms. Roberto Goizueta became the first Latino CEO of a major American company in 1981 when he was named CEO of Coca-Cola. Since then United Airlines, General Motors, Sprint, AT&T Mobile, Eastman Kodak Company, Ryder Systems, Express Scripts, Automatic Data Processing (ADP), GameStop, and Commercial Metals Company are just a few major American companies lead by Latino CEO’s. By the way, good luck fielding a Major League Baseball All-Star team or an NFL roster today without Latino players in the line-up.
The fact of the matter is that immigration is not the problem; but rather a large part of the solution. Successive immigrant waves have kept our country demographically young, enriched our culture and increased our GDP, greatly enhancing our influence abroad, thus providing the United States with a demonstrable economic edge.
As Americans, I believe its time we break with tradition and end our fear of the foreigner. History clearly proves they give far more than they take and in the end we become a far better nation. After all, we have so many other traditions to be proud of. Let’s continue celebrating the 4th of July and Thanksgiving, while once and for all leaving our xenophobic fears in the past.