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Thoughts on American Assimilation Following the Brokaw Controversy

There is zero evidence to conclude Hispanics are assimilating at any slower of a pace than previous waves of immigrants. Still, the furor with which Brokaw’s comment were met seemed disproportionate to the offense.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
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Within hours of Tom Brokaw’s now infamous – and inaccurate – comments on “Meet the Press,” about Hispanic assimilation, social media erupted in disgust. Nearly every media outlet across the country was suddenly asking: Is suggesting immigrants assimilate inherently wrong or even racist?

In our swirling news cycle, it’s critical that we do not allow these cultural flashpoints to simply pop-up, dominate our collective psyche and then disappear. If we fail to process what’s actually happened and what it means, these debates become just another distraction which yields little societal progress, benefit or resolution.

While I do not personally know Tom Brokaw, everything publicly available about him, including testimony from close friends and colleagues, seems to confirm he is no racist. Given this, many have reframed the conversation to be about anti-Hispanic bias inherent in the American character, or rampant xenophobia in the era of Trump. Others have turned the whole debacle into an “illustrative” event that highlights unconscious white privilege.

First, let’s review what Brokaw actually said:

“Hispanics should work harder at assimilation...They ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all of their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities, and that’s going to take outreach on both sides, frankly.”

His premise is of course wrong. There is zero evidence to conclude Hispanics are assimilating at any slower of a pace than previous waves of immigrants. In fact, according to Pew Research, “Language use among Hispanics in the U.S. reflects the trajectories that previous immigrant groups have followed.” English use among Hispanics is naturally dominant by the third generation, i.e. for U.S. born children of immigrant grandparents.

Still, the furor with which Brokaw’s comment were met seemed disproportionate to the offense. Is it inherently racist to believe in assimilation? What if that question is raised in the context of debating the efficacy of President Trump’s border wall, as it was with Brokaw?

And here we’ve stumbled upon his real crime. In the era of Trump, for a white male to suggest that immigrants should learn English while discussing border security, it must of course be the height of bigotry and anathema to the spirit of America, right?

I do not pretend to know what was in Brokaw’s heart when he said what he said, but the rush to assume the worst of a man with no history of racism is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the entire debacle. As a Hispanic American who grew up in a predominately white section of Pennsylvania, I have a first-hand understanding behind some of the anger directed at Mr. Brokaw and his comments.

In spite of how justified our reactions may feel in the moment, we cannot yell out accusations of racism where none exists. It’s too powerful a word and must be reserved for only when it’s true and fitting. If not, it will lose its force. It is precisely in our current era of division that we must not forget our highest ideals.

If we’re honest, assimilation is as American as apple pie. We are the world’s melting pot for a reason, and generations from diverse backgrounds have worn this as a badge of honor. I am not naive to America’s racial shortcomings, but neither am I ignorant of this country’s unparalleled accomplishments. To give into the petty debate over the rightness or wrongness of assimilation is to completely miss one of the most beautiful, unique and unifying aspects of what it means to be American. Is it not the magnetism of the American culture which has drawn so many to its shores, to share in her blessings and to be fully and wholly attached to her promises and destiny?

Let us also remember that there is a difference between the beautiful multi-ethnic mosaic that America already is, and that of a “multicultural America” that some seem to want her to become. We are definitely multi-ethnic — and as a Hispanic American of Puerto Rican descent, I am very proud of this — but we are not multicultural per se, and that’s a good thing. America has a distinct and unique culture all its own.

This culture is not uniform just as France’s is not uniform among the French. It necessarily ebbs and pulses across geographies, states, and regions. But there is a central ethos tied to its founding story and its prodigious contributions to the history of the world. America is the only nation founded on an idea, and our most famous idea is that of a dream our country and ours alone made famous around the world.

E pluribus unum after all means “out of many we are one.”

Assimilation is beautiful.
Assimilation is necessary.
Assimilation is American.