"Tthe years to come may see a new populist revolt, driven by the resentments of working-class Americans of color.”
For too long, liberals have suggested that only cruel, racist, or nativist bigots would want to restrict immigration. Anyone motivated by compassion and egalitarianism would choose open, or nearly-open, borders—or so the argument goes. Now, Reihan Salam, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, turns this argument on its head.
In this deeply researched but also deeply personal book, Salam shows why uncontrolled immigration is bad for everyone, including people like his family. Our current system has intensified the isolation of our native poor, and risks ghettoizing the children of poor immigrants. It ignores the challenges posed by the declining demand for less-skilled labor, even as it exacerbates ethnic inequality and deepens our political divides.
If we continue on our current course, in which immigration policy serves wealthy insiders who profit from cheap labor, and cosmopolitan extremists attack the legitimacy of borders, the rise of a new ethnic underclass is inevitable. Even more so than now, class politics will be ethnic politics, and national unity will be impossible.
Salam offers a solution, if we have the courage to break with the past and craft an immigration policy that serves our long-term national interests. Rejecting both militant multiculturalism and white identity politics, he argues that limiting total immigration and favoring skilled immigrants will combat rising inequality, balance diversity with assimilation, and foster a new nationalism that puts the interests of all Americans—native-born and foreign-born—first.
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About the Author
Review Institute policy fellow. He is a contributing editor at The
Atlantic and National Affairs. With Ross Douthat, Salam is the
co-author of Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working
Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday, 2008).
Read an Excerpt
The Unfinished Melting Pot
In his 1908 play The Melting Pot, the playwright Israel Zangwill painted a romantic portrait of an America where Mayflower descendants and newcomers would come together as part of a compound nationality: "Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross-how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame!" Yet the melting-pot ideal has long since fallen out of style, and it is easy to see why. For one, it was always conspicuously incomplete.
Looking back, the United States wasn't much of a melting pot in the early 1900s, even if we limit ourselves to people of European descent. Though the country did attract large numbers of migrants in that era, mostly from Europe, many were sojourners, who came to the United States for a number of years to make their fortunes before returning to their homelands. Then there were the many migrants who lived among their co-ethnics in flourishing ethnic enclaves, which were regularly replenished by new arrivals. At their most vibrant, these enclaves were social worlds unto themselves, where migrants could speak their native languages and worship in familiar ways. Marrying outside one's own ethnic community was often frowned upon.
Only years later did the melting really begin in earnest. Following the immigration restriction legislation of the 1920s, European immigration slowed drastically, and ethnic enclaves around the country were no longer being replenished. The children and grandchildren of European immigrants became much more likely to marry outside their ethnic tribes. While the offspring of these mixed marriages might have held on to some symbols of their cultural inheritances, they tended to identify more as American than anything else. By the 1950s, Americans from many different European ethnic groups were becoming part of a new compound ethnicity: they became, in short, white people. And for most whites, at least, midcentury America was defined by high and rising incomes and the widespread availability of dignified work. This era gave rise to the New Deal, and laid the economic and cultural foundation for the American Century.
The melting pot of old was whites-only, and most white Americans embraced racial segregation and the broader subjection of African Americans and other disadvantaged minorities to an inferior status. Indeed, part of what built solidaristic ties between native whites and European immigrants was common racism against blacks. In the decades since, most Americans have come to reject this whites-only conception of what it means to be an American without finding a broadly shared vision that can take its place. Some Americans, particularly older whites, look to midcentury America as their ideal, and see rising ethnic diversity as a threat to the country's predominantly white character. Others, mostly on the left, reject the idea that America should be understood as a single cultural nation, choosing instead to see it as a multicultural republic, in which separate and distinct groups vie for equal dignity and respect. What is missing is a more unifying understanding of American nationhood.
To that end, the country needs a more expansive "melting pot" ideal, one that includes the descendants of slaves and of newcomers from around the world. As Michael Lind, who has championed this ideal for decades, has argued, the melting pot stands for "the voluntary blending of previously distinct groups into a new community"-a "great American mix" that draws on dozens of ethnicities and religious traditions. It is an ideal that rejects the arbitrary racial categories that have become so central to our cultural and political discourse. By emphasizing all that Americans have in common, and the fact that integration and assimilation can, over time, deepen our shared cultural bonds, the melting pot ideal can pull us back from the brink of ethnic and class conflict.
The alternative to a new American melting pot is, I fear, an even more dangerously divided society. Lately, thinkers of various political stripes have taken to declaring that America is already in the midst of a kind of civil war. The conservative social critic Angelo Codevilla, writing in the Claremont Review of Books, warns that America's left-wing ruling class is waging a "cold civil war against a majority of the American people and their way of life." On the other end of the political spectrum, journalist Peter Leyden and the political demographer Ruy Teixeira argue that our latter-day civil war pits retrograde white conservatives who fear the future against a multicultural alliance of pro-innovation progressives. While Codevilla calls for lowering the temperature of America's cultural struggle, Leyden and Teixeira see victory in sight. For them, the only way forward is for the country's progressive majority to rise up and vanquish its aging white reactionaries once and for all. The shock of Trump's election has led many Americans, on the right and the left, to long for the metaphorical destruction of their domestic enemies. We see this in recurring fantasies of secession, and in an endless parade of fictional portrayals of nightmarish American futures, from The Purge to The Handmaid's Tale. Though it is still rare to hear respectable people say they want their political rivals dead, partisan enmity is such that it is not hard to imagine we will soon get there.
And, as Lind suggests, the false belief that America's racial and cultural boundaries are fixed is making matters worse. If non-Hispanic whites are an impermeable, unchanging group, it stands to reason that those who belong to it would be alarmed by the fact that they will soon lose their majority status to a collection of hostile ethnic others. In an ethnically divided society, to be outnumbered is to be afraid. But if the boundaries between groups are fluid, and if distinctions between whites and nonwhites can be expected to fade away over time, as they would in a melting pot society, such concerns would be greatly reduced. Which will it be?
The Coming Crossover
Consider that among Americans under the age of eighteen, non-Hispanic whites will be in the minority by 2020. Shortly thereafter, in 2032, a majority of working-age adults without college degrees, a decent proxy for the country's non-elite workforce, will be people of color. As older, whiter generations fade away, they will be replaced by younger, less-white generations. This generational replacement will take place regardless of what happens to future immigration levels. As I write, the median age of non-Hispanic whites is forty-three, while that of Hispanics is twenty-eight. The median ages for blacks and Asians were thirty-three and thirty-six, respectively. What this means is that a higher proportion of Hispanics, and to a lesser extent blacks and Asians, are of childbearing age as compared to non-Hispanic whites.
Will the coming majority-minority crossover be positive and peaceful? The answer will depend on the pattern of assimilation during the coming decades. If newcomers are incorporated into the mainstream, the majority-minority crossover will be a non-event, as we'll wind up with a more expansive melting-pot majority, which will include Americans of all sorts of different ethnic backgrounds, non-European ethnic groups included. The bright lines separating disadvantaged groups from the mainstream will blur. But if newcomers instead find themselves marginalized, a much grimmer future lies ahead.
We see glimpses of this future in our most prosperous cities. Recently in Los Angeles, reporters Andrew Romano and Garance Franke-Ruta profiled anti-gentrification protesters, many of them second-generation Americans, who are adopting more radical methods to defend their neighborhoods, as they see it, from affluent outsiders. Some of their tactics seem faintly comic, such as the expletive-laced T-shirts condemning hipsters. But others involve threatening supposed interlopers and vandalizing property.
One could dismiss the new anti-gentrification radicalism as hooliganism. Romano and Franke-Ruta are more sympathetic, pointing to anger and disaffection among "poorer, nonwhite millennials who tend to live in major cities," and the soaring poverty rate among young adults with no more than a high school education, which, they note, increased threefold from 1979 to 2014. They observe that "roughly 70 percent of black families and 71 percent of Latino families don't have enough money saved to cover three months of living expenses." The same is true for only 34 percent of white families. This contrast between wealth and poverty is particularly pronounced in gentrifying neighborhoods. "Ultimately," Romano and Franke-Ruta warn, "the fight over gentrification is what the fight over income inequality in America looks like up close today: a clash between the economic forces transforming our cities and a young, diverse, debt-saddled generation that is losing faith in capitalism itself."
The activism we're seeing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other hotbeds of gentrification will spread. The visible manifestations of racial inequality are inciting many young Americans of color, and will incite them further as America goes through what some are calling "the Great Wealth Transfer."
Over the coming decades, baby boomers are set to pass on $30 trillion in accumulated wealth to their heirs. But this $30 trillion won't be divvied up evenly among younger Americans, for the obvious reason that rich boomer parents are disproportionately white, college-educated, native-born, and married. Families headed by someone who is middle-aged and was born to white parents, at least one of whom went to college, have a median income of $113,618. That is 2.7 times the income of nonwhite, non-college educated families. Meanwhile, the expected net worth of the most privileged is a full 14 times higher than that of the least privileged, at $374,640 compared to $26,718, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
In short, some people start out well ahead, even before their own education and accomplishments are taken into account. "Some of the inherited advantage," posits the St. Louis Fed, "plausibly flows through greater monetary transfers (in gifts and bequests) and more-intensive childhood investments, particularly in education, provided by college-educated parents who also are, in general, wealthier than nongrad parents." Beyond that, such families have greater savings, which can make them more resilient in times of trouble.
And then there are the millions of Americans living on the edge of poverty, many of whom are low-skill immigrants. Of course, most immigrants aren't fighting gentrification in the streets, for the obvious reason that they are typically more concerned with providing for their families. Indeed, the great appeal of newcomers as workers is that relative to native-born workers, they will do any job and live in the most insalubrious conditions. This is especially true of low-skill immigrants, who greatly increase their incomes by moving to the United States, even when they are among the poorest of America's working poor. That's part of why the political influence of the newcomer working class is so muted as compared to the established working class. Low-income immigrants tend to naturalize at low levels, in part because many are so poor that the cost of naturalization is daunting, and naturalized citizens vote at lower rates than the native-born. Meanwhile, unauthorized immigrants have even less influence. If they were citizens raised with an expectation of fair and equal treatment, they would undoubtedly demand better wages and working conditions from their elite employers, and they'd have the political muscle to get their way at least some of the time. But, instead, they are forced to toil in the shadows. The relative powerlessness of foreign-born workers is a big part of what's made America's cosmopolitan cities so attractive to high-skill professionals.
But the citizen children of these workers won't be nearly as quiescent. Many of the poorer, nonwhite young people driving the new anti-gentrification radicalism are the children of low-skill immigrants who came to the United States with hope and stamina for sacrifice. It is possible to celebrate their sacrifices while recognizing that their children might reasonably have different attitudes toward their own economic travails. As someone born and raised in neighborhoods transformed by low-skill immigration, I can confirm that: "You're better off than you would have been had you been born in the Third World!" is not a satisfying riposte. "Gee, thanks. I also can't afford my rent."
Most of the poorest Americans are nonwhite, and that majority will continue to grow through the 2020s and 2030s. Assuming present trends, meanwhile, America's rich will continue to be overwhelmingly white. Do you think working-class young Americans of color will shrug and accept their inherited disadvantage? Or will they be drawn to politicians who promise to do something about it, even if it means breaking with the established order?
It would be one thing if these young people were confident that mainstream Americans saw them as their equals. A lot of the time, though, they're not. In December 2017, Conor Williams, a liberal policy analyst and former schoolteacher, interviewed a group of high-achieving young students of color at a Brooklyn charter school. All were from immigrant families. One of them, Esther Reyes, offered a heartfelt, stinging critique of the idea of the American Dream: "[T]he American dream we see in movies or in shows or in books, it's an American dream for white people . . . I think we could make a new version of the American dream if we wanted to, but just because of its history and the way that people have used it in the past, I don't think it exists."
Her doubts about America's promise are widespread among children raised in working-class immigrant households, and they didn't begin with the Trump presidency. Barring real reform, these young people will find themselves in a punishing economic environment, and they will have every reason to resent a power structure dominated by people who don't look like them and who aren't invested in their fate.
Immigrants are not to blame for the challenges we Americans face, which we have inherited from our forebears, and which we have made worse with our shortsightedness and greed. However, our current immigration system is increasing both the number and the share of children being raised in low-income households. If the children of immigrants were immune to the ill effects of growing up poor, this wouldn't be cause for concern. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Today's poor immigrants are raising tomorrow's poor natives, and we aren't doing nearly enough to break the cycle.
Just as Donald Trump's election spoke to the rage and disaffection of older whites in the heartland, the years to come will see a new populist revolt, driven by the resentments of working-class Americans of color. Imagine an America in which wealthy whites and Asians wall themselves off from the rest of society, and low-wage immigrants and their offspring constitute a new underclass. Working-class Americans of color will look upon their more privileged fellow citizens with envy, if not resentment, and better-off whites will look upon their poorer brown and black counterparts with fear and suspicion. Whites will embrace a more hard-edged white identity politics, and they will see efforts to redistribute their wealth as acts of racial aggression. Class politics will be color politics, and extremists on the left and the right will find millions of poor, angry youth willing to heed their calls to battle.