Enrichment Assimilation, part 7


Cultural mixing is inevitable and has happened throughout human history. It is especially featured in a land of tremendous racial and ethnic diversity, like the United States. Consider the American South.

The South represents some of the most intense historic mixing of Scots-Irish, African, Native American, Spanish, French, and other peoples. Southern cultural influences also include hybrid results like the Creole, Cajun, and Seminole peoples. As the scholar John Burrison and others have shown, southern “foodways” heavily reflected African and African American influences in names and recipes such as goober, gumbo, turnip greens, and chitlins.¹ The banjo, as many have pointed out, originated in Africa — even though we often associate it with quintessentially “old timey” (and later bluegrass) southern or Appalachian white music.²

As historian Charles Joyner wrote in his 1999 book, Shared Traditions, “This mixing of cultural traditions . . . is more responsible than any other factor for the extraordinary richness of southern culture.”³ In other words, Enrichment Acculturation.

John Kunkel Small’s 1916 photograph of a Seminole family near Kendall, Florida. The Seminole were a post-contact people that included an inter-mixture of southeastern natives (mainly from the Creek tribes), runaway slaves, and a sprinkling of whites. (Wikimedia Commons image).

This history of cross-cultural influences in the South must include some serious qualifications, of course. During the antebellum period, immigrants generally avoided the region, mainly due to a lack of economic opportunities. No impoverished immigrant wanted to compete with slave labor, or the virtual slave wages of the Jim Crow era characterized by much tenant farming, sharecropping, and seasonal agricultural day labor.

Having said that, the entire history of rock’n’roll with its roots in southern blues and jazz, is as legendary as it is wonderful. Most if not all the musicians of the 1960s British Invasion seemed to appreciate this quite deeply. In another ironic twist, British musicians ended up teaching some Americans about their own heritage, when those Americans discovered that musicians like the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton were early admirers and imitators of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and the like.

For another example, let’s take Judaism and American Jewish culture. Jonathan Sarna noted the disproportionate representation of Jewish women in the American feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which in some ways would seem to epitomize the meeting of American and Judaic cultures.⁴ American Jewish women combined First Amendment ideas with the ancient rabbinical tradition of questioning authority, all in the context of the post-Civil Rights era. The development of the Reconstructionist branch of American Judaism, an independent organization after 1968, became another reflection of American-Judaic acculturation from this era.⁵ But outside of intellectual and scholarly matters, let us not overlook the love affair that American Jews have developed for that quintessentially American sport, baseball.⁶

Cross-culturalism also shows up in ironic places. Gerald Early illustrated that even the early, militant (pre-Mecca) Malcolm X who preached black nationalism and black separatism, was actually a penultimate American. Afrocentrism was an American phenomenon, not an African one. Pre-imperialism Africans were tribal, and thus featured the usual array of tribal rivalries, not some mythic unified past of the Afrocentric mold. Malcolm X followed the American example of white preacher Jonathan Edwards’ evangelism by romanticizing Africa as part of some lost Golden Age.⁷ But Early knew better. In 1992, he wrote, “Africanness is relevant to American blacks today only as a way of helping us understand what it means to be American.”⁸ For all the enormous suffering, slaves and the descendants of slaves cannot be separated from the very core of the United States as “a country dedicated to diversity, a nation of different peoples living together as one.”⁹ Early makes a crucial point. Enlightenment principles may seem like cruel theory, considering how actions contradicted them from the outset of American history, particularly in how certain whites treated non-whites. Yet the seeds of a later (and ongoing) flowering lay within them.

The late newspaper columnist, writer and historian Bill Hosokawa, unabashedly attributed the great success of Japanese-Americans to a mixture of both mainstream American cultural traits as well as those rooted in the old country, such as filial piety, a strong sense of family and family honor (and, by extension, a strong sense of community) as well an attitude of humility, duty, and making the most of difficult circumstances.¹⁰ “Isn’t the melding of cultures what America is all about?” Hosokawa asked.¹¹ Hosokawa praised the “happy combination of the more admirable of Japanese traits being nurtured in the freedom and openness of American society” as responsible for stellar success of Japanese-Americans.¹² Don Nakanishi readily acknowledged that a centrality of valuing formal education had served and was continuing to serve all Asian-Americans in their quest for success in the United States.¹³ This reflects the ancient Confucian emphasis on learning, which spread from China throughout East Asia.

Similar to Hosokawa, Sam Chan also expressed a pro-assimilation sentiment in a 1943 letter to his congressman, Representative B. Carroll Reece of Tennessee. Chan wrote, “I dislike to boast, but our people in America are loyal, honest, and obedient to your laws. No other race can show such an enviable record.”¹⁴ As Huping Ling has demonstrated, there is a deep tradition among Chinese immigrants to America for promoting assimilation into the mainstream through “Americanization” or at least “hybrid” social organizations that helped bridge the two cultures.¹⁵ Many Chinese intellectuals in particular saw themselves as cultural liaisons or cultural agents whose duty it was to help bridge the two cultures.¹⁶

By the way, something we should point out is how “mainstream” America could benefit by emulating more aspects of immigrant culture. For example, a sad and pervasive feature of American society has been what I call the “broken family” phenomenon. It shows up all the time among homeless people. Stunningly, Hispanics have (by far) the lowest rates of homelessness among any American demographic, and this includes migrant workers’ families.¹⁷ This is very, very important. Homelessness often creates a vicious-cycle that lasts for generations, with dire consequences for employment, education, and mental health, not to mention human trafficking, substance abuse, and suicide.¹⁸

In addition to Hispanic family cohesion, the “mainstream” could certainly benefit from emulating other cultural patterns, like Jewish and East Asian educational traditions. Or what about respect for elders? It seems that practically the entire world (except America) understands the importance of respecting elders. This is so deep in old cultures it regularly transitioned into ancestor worship, one of the oldest religious phenomenon known to humankind. And finally, how sad that readers of Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book (It Takes a Village) thought it was a revelation to discover “it takes a village to raise a child.” I imagine the rest of the world was scratching its collective head at this announcement, as if to say, “You Americans are just now figuring that out?”

The results of American assimilation are not always good, of course. Contrary to xenophobic myths, crime rates are lower among immigrants than the generation that follows them,¹⁹ despite that second generation attaining higher educational levels, and having increased income and home ownership than their immigrant parents.²⁰ Granted, statistics are complicated. But they can be interesting when combined with common sense and general historical knowledge. The famous Roseto Effect of low heart attack rates among a close-knit Italian-American community (located in Roseto, Pennsylvania) gave way to health rates similar to the national average after the subsequent generation of assimilated Italian-Americans merged into the mainstream.²¹ This loss of community and all its benefits in favor of American individualism has been a repetitive pattern throughout American immigration history.

We could go on endlessly with cross-culture enrichment examples. Ultimately all this cultural mixing becomes a story of American culture. We should be very, very proud of this rich tradition and its inherent cultural wealth. We should also recognize how this rich culture cannot be separated from socio-economic and political strife. African Americans produced a rich musical culture, in part, because white society once denied them access or admission to mainstream society and its possibilities of other cultural expressions. Oppress people, but the human spirit struggles to survive and express itself. Coming out the other end of that ordeal, creative arts can sometimes serve as a useful vector for further discussions about “behind the scenes” law and history that delves into this strife. This is how and why Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock can be very effective ambassadors against racism by making extremely funny observations about serious matters. Cross-racial or cross-cultural ambassadors are among the most under-appreciated aspects of Enrichment Assimilation.

The saddest story will be if, instead of Enrichment Assimilation being a lingering dream moving toward greater fulfillment, it becomes a fading one moving toward obsolescence.

See my List, “Enrichment Assimilation” for other installments in this series of excerpts from my unpublished book, Enrichment Assimilation: A Lingering American Dream, Copyright © 2019, 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.


[1] John A. Burrison, Roots of a Region: Southern Folk Culture (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 42, 44, 87.

[2] See Cecelia Conway, African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1995). For an update about “bluegrass,” see Editorial, “A Good Kind of Culture Clash,” Roanoke Times (July 27, 2018).

[3] Charles W. Joyner, Shared Traditions : Southern History and Folk Culture (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 40.

[4] Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Pr., 2004), 339–40

[5] Ibid, 247.

[6] Peter Miller, director, Jews and Baseball (Arlington, VA: Public Broadcasting System and Clear Lake Historical Productions, 2010).

[7] Gerald Early, “Their Malcolm, My Problem: On the Abuses of Afrocentrism and Black Anger,” Harpers Magazine (Dec. 1992), 63, 64, 70, 71, 72.

[8] Ibid, 72.

[9] Ibid, 72, 74.

[10] Bill Hosokawa, Colorado’s Japanese Americans: from 1886 to the Present (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005), 247, 248, 250.

[11] Ibid, 250.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Don T. Nakanishi, “A Quota on Excellence? The Asian American Admissions Debate,” in Contemporary Asian America: a Multidisciplinary Reader, Min Zhou and James V. Gatewood, eds. (NY: New York University Pr., 2000), 483.

[14] Sam Chan to Rep. B. Carroll Reece, June 8, 1943, 78th Cong., 1st sess., Appendix to the Congressional Record, page A2857.

[15] Huping Ling, Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration, and Community Since 1870 (Stanford: Stanford University Pr., 2012), 38–42, 149, 163.

[16] Ibid, 172, 173, 189.

[17] Edna Molina, “Informal Non-Kin Networks among Homeless Latino and African American Men,” American Behavioral Scientist 43:4 (Jan. 2000), 680; Neil Larry Shumsky, Homelessness: A Documentary and Reference Guide (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2012), 279–80 and chapter 39, “Homeless Latinos and a Different Perspective,” especially page 332.

[18] I deal with homelessness and some of its consequences at much greater length in my article, “The Homelessness Muddle Revisited,” The Urban Lawyer 49:2 (Spring 2017), 317–54.

[19] Rich Morin, “Crime Rises Among Second-Generation Immigrants as They Assimilate,” Fact Tank: News in the Numbers (Pew Research Center, Oct. 15, 2013).

[20] Paul Taylor, et al, “Second-Generation Americans: A Portrait of the Adult Children of Immigrants,” (Pew Research Center, Feb. 7, 2013), 7.

[21] B. Egolf, et al, “The Roseto Effect: A 50-Year Comparison of Mortality Rates,” American Journal of Public Health 82:8 (1992), 1089–1092.



Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.

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Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.