The Melting Pot

May 2019


The Melting Pot (1908- ) is the idea that people come to the US from all over the world but melt into one people with one culture. The Italians, for example, learn English but give us pizza and spaghetti. The whole becomes greater than the parts, better than any of the old countries that Americans come from.

In 1845 Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote privately in his journal that Europeans, Africans, and Polynesians in North America:

“will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages, …”

American Indians need not apply, apparently.

In 1908 both the name and idea caught on from the play “The Melting Pot”. The Jewish American hero tells his Christian girlfriend, while watching the sun set behind the Statue of Liberty:

“Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross – how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.”

In 1916 Madison Grant was less upbeat in “The Passing of the Great Race”:

“We Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America ‘an asylum for the oppressed,’ are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss. If the Melting Pot is allowed to boil without control and we continue to follow our national motto [E pluribus unum] and deliberately blind ourselves to all ‘distinctions of race, creed or color,’ the type of native American of Colonial descent will become as extinct as the Athenian of the age of Pericles, and the Viking of the days of Rollo.”

His ideas about racial purity led to the death of millions of Jews.

In 1977 “Schoolhouse Rock!”, on US children’s television, sang of “Lovely Lady Liberty with her book of recipes”:

“America was founded by the English, But also by the Germans, Dutch, and French. … You simply melt right in, It doesn’t matter what your skin, No matter where you’re from, or your religion, You jump right into the Great American Melting Pot.”

I can still remember when I first learned about the Melting Pot: the words were coming out of the teacher’s mouth but it was like she could not see the Black half of the class. How in the world could she say Americans were melting into one people when they were mainly divided into Black and White? The Melting Pot seemed to be Whites-only.

White is right: In practice, the Melting Pot has pretty much become a marketing term for assimilation into Anglo-Protestant culture. And because that culture is built on racism, and because most immigrants these days are no longer White, that means most immigrants will never be fully accepted no matter how assimilated.