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New Patriots In Our Midst

4 minute read
Michael Elliott

Here is a tale of the academy that, if you follow its trails, will lead you to learned journals, dense footnotes and multivariate regression analysis. But stick with it. In 1996 Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard University published his enormously influential book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Buried deep in its pages was the claim that there is “some evidence” that “resistance to assimilation is stronger among Mexican migrants” than it was among other immigrants to the U.S. But Huntington offered no supporting data.

Well, he has now. In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, Huntington argues that the nature of Latin American–and especially Mexican–immigration to the U.S. distinguishes it from prior waves. “Many Mexican American immigrants,” Huntington claims, “simply do not appear to identify primarily with the United States.” Huntington says successful assimilation in the past is unlikely to be duplicated with today’s Latin immigrants. “This reality,” he writes, “poses a fundamental question: Will the United States remain a country with a single national language and a core Anglo-Protestant culture?”

The article is an extract from Who Are We?, a forthcoming book by Huntington that celebrates the importance of that Anglo-Protestant culture to American identity and attacks those who supposedly undermine it. The book is right to stress that the destiny of Mexican Americans is central to our future. But if you are going to claim that Mexican immigrants don’t want to be Americans, your argument had better be watertight. Despite many statistics, Huntington doesn’t make his case.

I asked two of the most respected scholars on Mexican-American affairs, Peter Skerry of Boston College and Rodolfo de la Garza of Columbia University, what they thought of Huntington’s piece. Skerry, author of the widely admired 1995 book Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, praised Huntington for addressing an important issue. But, said Skerry, “he pushes things too far. On questions of loyalty and the adoption of American democratic values, the evidence is that we don’t have a problem [with Mexican immigrants] up to now.” Skerry sent me a paper on the Resurrection Project, a faith-based organization in Chicago that works to integrate Mexican immigrants into neighborhoods–the sort of program of which Huntington seems unaware. De la Garza, who led the team that put together the landmark Latino National Political Survey more than a decade ago, was harsher. Huntington’s article, he said, would not have been published “if it were written by a minority–it’s that inadequate and weak, from a scholarly perspective.” Huntington makes no reference to the finding in the Latino survey that although 92% of Anglos expressed an “extremely strong” or “very strong” love for the U.S., so did 84% of Mexican Americans. The survey indicated that 91% of Mexican Americans were “extremely proud” or “very proud” of the U.S., compared with 92% of Anglos. De la Garza says there is no reason to think those figures have changed recently. For a 1996 article he co-authored, De la Garza analyzed the Latino survey data (this is where the regression analysis comes in) and concluded that “regardless of what languages they speak, whether they were born in Mexico or the United States … Mexican Americans support American core values at least as much as Anglos do.”

When I put to Huntington some figures that challenged his thesis, he said, “I don’t think any of these issues are black and white.” A central purpose of his article, he said, was to promote a “reasoned national discussion” on Mexican immigration. Fine. Trouble is, recent history suggests that such a rational debate is unlikely to occur.

Remember what has happened in the past decade, when several trenchantly argued theses have rapidly become conventional wisdom. One thinks of Francis Fukuyama (history has ended with the triumph of liberal democracy), Bernard Lewis (the rage of the Islamic world is a consequence of its own failure), Robert Kagan (Europeans and Americans are fundamentally different). All these authors make their case brilliantly, but none of their arguments are uncontested by serious scholars in relevant fields. They are popular in part because they provide wonderful material for Op-Ed columns and sound bites.

So think of this column as a pre-emptive strike to stop the same thing from happening again. Huntington’s claim that Mexican Americans don’t assimilate should not be accepted without challenge. (If George Will quotes from Huntington on Sunday-morning TV, my attempt will have failed.) And the media should stop treating clever but flawed scholarship as if it were Holy Writ, especially if an academic argument seems to question the patriotism of good people. You shouldn’t do that lightly, with or without dense footnotes.

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