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History of African American Assimilation in the U.S.

2746 words (11 pages) Essay in History

08/02/20 History Reference this

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Assimilation & Pluralism

     The United States of America is home to over 326 million United States (U.S.) citizens as well as to tens of millions of people from all over the world. The assimilation process of many of the ancestors to today’s citizens and migrants to the U.S. has been and continues to be an undertaking that is unique to each group, based on their ethnicity, heritage and cultural background. Assimilation is defined and understood as a process in which formerly distinct and separate groups come to share a common culture and merge together socially (Healy & Stepnick, 2016). As a culturally diverse society goes through the assimilation process, the differences among those groups have a tendency to decrease. “One form of assimilation is expressed in the metaphor of the ‘melting pot’, a process in which different groups come together and contribute in roughly equal amounts to create a common culture and a new, unique society” (Healy & Stepnick, 2016).

     As a society, we as Americans often envision the American experience of assimilation as a welcoming experience that migrants fully embrace. We all often hear the phrase “we are a nation of immigrants”, which is both truthful and a falsehood once we actually dissect the phrase under a metaphorical microscope. The reality is that on the surface, the U.S. is a melting pot but there are thousands of sub-cultures within the U.S. culture with comprise our society.  

     There are specific racial groups within the U.S. culture that have suffered immensely throughout their collective assimilation processes.  Be it through no fault of their own, but rather because of the intentional and institutional actions and policies of those in the majority. American history has provided us all with evidence that the melting-pot theory is stemmed with an European-centric slant: “For better or worse, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition was for two centuries—and in crucial respects still is—the dominant influence on American culture and society” (Schlesinger, 1992).  Contrary to popular belief and the images that are portrayed to the world that the U.S. is comprised of a “melting-pot” of people from a vast majority of countries, assimilation in this country has generally been a largely one-sided process which is actually described as Americanization or Anglo-conformity.

     The U.S. has blatantly taken the approach to expansion by forcibly conquering lands that were previously occupied by natives of those lands rather than accepting the equal sharing those lands and natural resources. American history has taught us that assimilation in the new world was specifically designed to expand the legacies of the European culture that were cultivated during the infancy years of American society. Under what was termed as Anglo-conformity, those who migrated to the U.S. were expected to adapt to Pseudo-Christian culture as a precondition for acceptance into society as well to gain access to suitable employment, societal recognition, better educational opportunities for their families and communities as well as inclusion into the Anglo-American culture. The history of assimilation in these United States has most often translated into minority groups being forced to forego their cultural traditions and inculcate themselves into the accepted Anglo-American culture.

     Robert Park, a renowned Sociologist was a firm believer in, and argued that assimilation was an inevitable process in American society.  He attempted to justify this theory by arguing that in a society where the national political system is based on democracy, fair and blind justice, as it is in the United States, all those who reside in this country would eventually secure equal treatment under the law.  He was of the belief that in an industrial economy such as that of the United States, people would tend to be judged on rational grounds, that is, on the basis of their abilities and talents and not by ethnicity or race (Healy & Stepnick, 2016).

     Pluralism, on the other hand, has always existed when groups who occupy and share the same space (community/country) coexist but maintain their own individual identities.  Most sociologists who dive into the theory of pluralism often begin their research with philosopher Horace M. Kallen. Kallen, who was a firm believer in that, no person or group of people should have to subdue, surrender or set aside their personal culture(s) and traditions in order to fully integrate into American society.  Kallen personally rejected the Anglo-conformist model that most who assimilated to the U.S. believed that had to adopt to fit in.  He was of the belief and argued that at its core, American values encompassed separate ethnic groups, countless forms of religious beliefs, different languages and cultures, all of which ultimately were the cattalos of this nation’s idea and belief in democracy thriving and spreading across the globe.   

     By the nature of the meaning of the term, we’ve come to understand and witness that in a pluralistic society, certain groups have the tendency to remain separate as well as maintaining their cultural and social differences, which in turn solidifies over time.  Assimilation in the U.S. has been throughout its history, such a powerful theme that in the decades following the publication of Horace Kallen’s analysis, popular support for pluralism was marginalized for a variety of reasons. Although, in the past thirty years or so in the U.S., there has been an uptick in the interest in pluralism and ethnic diversity, mostly because the assimilation process predicted by Park (that many Americans assumed would happen) has been stifled.  With an every growing and culturally diverse U.S. society, pluralism is making a comeback today.  

     Structural pluralism, which translates to when there are minimal cultural differences within a society, but the ethnic groups within that society occupy different locations within the social structure. This is a practice that is extremely prevalent in most rural areas throughout our country. Louisiana is literally the perfect example of such a practice, where people of different ethnic groups speak with the very same accent or twang, they all enjoy in partaking the same types of food (Louisiana cuisine). They also pursue and share the same individual and collective goals for themselves and their loved ones, although they often gravitate to and embrace structural pluralism.  They most often also subscribe to the same ethical values and share the same familiar morals, but maintain separate organizational systems, including different churches (the most segregated hour of the week), community clubs, and residential neighborhoods.  Under the umbrella of structural pluralism, the different ethnic groups exercise and implement a common culture but do so in separate locales, very rarely interacting with other groups who may be executing the same activity.  Virtually every ethnic group in this country has, at any given moment throughout its history, has members of that ethnic group who are assimilating into larger society and others who are preserving their personal traditional cultures.

Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson

     The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which were collectively known as the as “Civil War” Amendments were specifically designed to ensure that equality for recently emancipated African Americans would be protected and preserved.  The Thirteenth Amendment abolished and banned slavery and all involuntary servitude, except in the case of punishment of a crime; which in my personal opinion is simply a loophole for institutional slavery, but I digress. The Fourteenth Amendment defined a U.S. citizen as any person or persons born in, or naturalized in the U.S., which overturned the Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) Supreme Court decision which ruled that black people born in the U.S., were not eligible for citizenship.  The Fifteenth Amendment prohibited any state and/or the state government from denying any U.S. citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s race, color or past servitude. 

     During the years post Reconstruction (1865-1877) in the American south, white supremacists implemented the practice of violence and intimidation to intentionally oppress African American citizens. When white Americans reestablished their foothold and control of the Southern states’ governments, they passed and enacted laws that specifically targeted and oppressed African Americans and other people of color through the practices of segregation and disenfranchisement. The U.S. Supreme Court presided over and ruled in 1883 that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which identified that all races were entitled to equal treatment in public accommodations, that the law did not apply to individual citizens or businesses or corporations. This ruling provided continued institutional confusion, individual interpretation(s) and legal conflicts pertaining to the constitutionality of segregation until it was legally challenged by a Louisiana man by the name of Homer Plessy. 

     In the year of 1892, Mr. Homer Plessy boarded a train in New Orleans, Louisiana and intentionally took a seat that was specifically reserved for white patrons only.  Plessy, who was a man of 12% African (black) decent and 88% European (white) decent, but was classified as being black by established Louisiana law, in an act of civil disobedience, refused to remove himself from the seat and car designated for whites only.  His actions were intentional in order to trigger a legal battle specifically challenging the constitutionality of the practice of segregation. In 1896, after years of court appearances and continued legal battle in multiple trial and appeals courts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was a fair institutional practice, and was not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which required all states to provide equal and fair protection to all its citizens under the law. 

     This ruling was a bellwether for both Northerners and specifically Southerners that the federal government was unwilling to challenge segregation or the institutional oppression of African American citizens who lived in the South. “In the eyes of the vast majority of white Americans, the refusal of the southern states to fully free or enfranchise former slaves and their descendants was not an issue worthy of any further disruption to the civil stability of the United States. Black Americans were exchanged for a sense of white security” (Blackmon, 2008).

     After the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision, segregation became even more prevalent throughout the country through a slew enacted laws and social customs known as “Jim Crow.” Educational institutions, both basic and higher learning, hospitals, transportation services, eating establishments, etc., were all segregated. Individual literacy tests, ethnic poll taxes, and other so-called grandfather clauses not only prevented African Americans from exercising their rights to vote in local, statewide, and national elections, but also prohibited them from serving on juries during trials or to run for public office within their communities. “The slavery that survived long past emancipation was an offense permitted by the nation, perpetrated across an enormous region over many years and involving thousands of extraordinary characters.” (Blackmon, 2008)

     From the east coast to the west coast and every state in between, many municipalities, cities and states across this nation could and most often would, impose legal penalties against citizens for informally or socially interacting with members of a different ethnic group or race. The most obvious types of laws addressing interaction forbade interracial marriage and ordered owners of businesses and public institutions to ensure that their black and white clientele were separate at all times. Examples of simple yet outrageous “De Jure Segregation” aka Jim Crow laws are provided below:

“It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.” (Smithsonian – NMAH, 2018)
—Birmingham, Alabama, 1930

“Marriages are void when one party is a white person and the other is possessed of one-eighth or more Negro, Japanese, or Chinese blood.” (Smithsonian – NMAH, 2018)
—Nebraska, 1911

“Separate free schools shall be established for the education of children of African descent; and it shall be unlawful for any colored child to attend any white school, or any white child to attend a colored school.” (Smithsonian – NMAH, 2018)
—Missouri, 1929

“All railroads carrying passengers in the state (other than street railroads) shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races, by providing two or more passenger cars for each passenger train, or by dividing the cars by a partition, so as to secure separate accommodations.” (Smithsonian – NMAH, 2018)
—Tennessee, 1891

     A century and a half ago, African Americans were primarily a race isolated in the southern-rural region of the U.S., who suffered from the brutality and institutional targeted isolation by the laws of de jure segregation.  They wereexploited by the southern agriculture industry, and intentionally blocked from the better-paying industrial and manufacturing jobs throughout urban areas.  As a minority group that had suffered significantly from the colonization process, African Americans entered the 20th century continuing to face extreme inequality, blatant institutional obstacles placed in their path to upward mobility, relative powerlessness, and sharp limitations on their freedoms. “Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South—operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial farmers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations. Where mob violence or the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens periodically, the return of forced labor as a fixture in black life ground pervasively into the daily lives of far more African Americans” (Blackmon, 2008).

     The practices of racial discrimination were less prevalent outside the Southern States but was still implemented when it pertained to education, community living and suitable employment. In communities across the U.S., property and business owners would sign agreements called restrictive real-estate covenants. These contracts targeted and barred African Americans and other groups-including Jewish Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans from seeking to secure access to many neighborhoods that were deemed to be for “whites” only.  An example of this common practice was an agreement in Arlington County, Virginia, in the 1940s, which stated that when a white American purchased a home or property, they had to agree to never sell their home or property to “persons of any race other than the white Caucasian Race.” The de jure segregation policies and laws that resulted from the Plessy v. Ferguson  case would remain in effect and unchallenged until Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which did away with those policies, practices and laws.   

     Although, the assimilation process can be and provide a powerful image in our society and across the globe, the reality melting pot process is much more colored, which it should be. The continued journey to racial and ethnic equality in the United States, where we strive to continue to form a more perfect union is not an easy battle and will persist for many years to come, but progress is made every single day.  


  • Blackmon, Douglas (2008). Slavery by another Name: “The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II”. New York, NY: Doubleday Broadway Publishing
  • Healey, Joseph F. & Stepnick, Andi, (2016). Diversity and Society, Race Ethnicity and Gender, 5thed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. (1992). The Disuniting of America, Reflections on a Multicultural Society, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  • Smithsonian National Museum of American History, (2018), Separate is Not Equal,
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