AT the turn of the century, America was often referred to as the melting pot, where people from diverse lands came together to form a vibrant new nation. The process has often been characterized by conflicts and resistance, but the melting pot has been an essential - and successful - aspect of American culture.
Waves of immigrants have often caused concern among those already living here, not least of all because newcomers are potential competitors for jobs. In a February 1992 Gallup survey, 62 percent said "immigrants take the jobs of United States workers." Yet, Americans appreciate the contribution immigrants make to our country. In the same Gallup survey, 61 percent said, "immigrants help improve our country with their different cultures and talents." Nearly half of those interviewed in a 1986 Roper survey said that "our melting pot culture of people from all over the world" is a major reason for America's greatness, while only 16 percent said it is not a reason. Fifty-seven percent of those interviewed in a November 1991 Marttila and Kiley poll said that racial diversity has made America a stronger society.
In order to take people from many countries and form them into an effective citizenry, these diverse ethnic groups (as well as those from various economic levels) must share an attachment to the new society and accept the nation as their own. In effect, the groups become equally pro-nation. Historical studies have testified that the process worked in the past, but some observers have expressed doubts about its continued effectiveness.
Recent survey data indicate that the melting pot still works. A wide variety of social and economic groups demonstrate commitment to American nationhood. When asked in a May 1991 Gallup survey how proud they were to be Americans, more than three-quarters said they were "very proud," another 19 percent "quite proud." White and black, high and low income, Protestant and Roman Catholic, all said they were very or quite proud in numbers above 90 percent.
Nor was this merely a reaction to the Persian Gulf war. In 1981, when Americans could hardly have been called optimistic, the responses to a slightly different question showed the same widespread pride. Given a choice among three alternatives, only 9 percent of those interviewed in the May 1991 Gallup survey chose the most negative response: "In many respects, certain other countries are better than the US." Only 9 percent of blacks chose this rather mild criticism, which is significant. Moreover, more t han 70 percent of each group said that US school children should be required to pledge allegiance to the flag.
Diverse groups not only give abstract assent to the concept of nation, they also come to share central political values. In the words of British philosopher and writer G. K. Chesterton, "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed." Once again, recent survey data demonstrate that the process at work in the past still operates in American society.
Central to the American creed is the belief that hard work pays off and that opportunities exist for people to better themselves. By combining six years of the National Opinion Research Center's (NORC) General Social Surveys, we can look at how various ethnic, racial, religious, age, and income groups responded to a question that asked whether people get ahead by their own hard work or by lucky breaks and help from other people. Two-thirds said hard work was more important, only 14 percent said luck and help were more important, and 20 percent volunteered that both were important.
No group gave less than 57 percent agreement to the view that hard work was more important. In each of five major ethnic/racial groups in a 1984 NORC survey, 73 percent or more agreed that "what one achieves in life no longer depends on one's family background, but on the abilities one has and the education one acquires."
A MAJOR national survey of the principle Hispanic population groups in the US adds more evidence that the melting pot is still working. A team of social scientists, headed by Rodolfo O. de la Garza, found that while there are some differences among the Hispanic groups, on the whole both attachment to the US as a nation and commitment to core values like economic individualism are very high in the Hispanic communities.
Speaking in Washington in March 1991, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher echoed the idea of America's creedal origins and its success:
"No other nation has been created so swiftly and successfully. No other nation has been built upon an idea - the idea of liberty. No other nation has so successfully combined people of different races and nations within a single culture."