In October 2022, Los Angeles’s ethnic politics cost city council president Nury Martinez her job. In leaked audio, Martinez can be heard discussing the city’s redistricting with two other Hispanic councilmembers and a Hispanic labor leader. In what she would later claim was a moment of frustration, Martinez called fellow councilmember Mike Bonin’s adopted son a “monkey”—Bonin is white, the son is black—and condemned Los Angeles district attorney George Gascón: “Fuck that guy, he’s with the blacks.”
It’s not surprising that ethnic solidarity plays a key role in the politics of remarkably diverse Los Angeles. More intriguing is the durability of the ethnic model in the United States. Group identity has been a central factor in urban political life since at least 1798, when the Federalists passed the Naturalization Act to constrain the voting power of immigrants (and thereby the Democratic-Republicans). In 1945, 21 years after Congress all but ended immigration to the United States, New York City’s powerful Tammany Hall allegedly nominated Vincent Impelliteri to be city council president because his name would sway Italian voters. Five years later, New Yorkers elevated him to the mayoralty.
Ethnicity in American politics has outlasted expectations. The immigration pause was instigated largely by fears that the newcomers who had arrived in the United States in a massive wave starting in the 1880s would not properly assimilate. Complementing this fear was a fervent belief in America as a “melting pot,” into which all the world’s nationalities would be poured, and out of which they would emerge, old attachments gone, as new Americans.
But “the point about the melting pot,” Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote 60 years ago, “is that it did not happen.” It was 1963, the year that the pair released their pathbreaking book Beyond the Melting Pot. The authors were then little-known academics, working in the Kennedy administration—Glazer for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Moynihan for the Department of Labor. Yet Beyond the Melting Pot would become one of the best-selling sociology books of all time, sparking renewed debate just a few years before America began its second great experiment with mass immigration. The book’s thesis was simple: the groups that had arrived here since the nation’s inception had not assimilated, in the sense of losing their old identity. Rather, they had taken on a divided status—half Old World, half New—that Glazer and Moynihan labeled “ethnicity.”
Beyond the Melting Pot has much to teach contemporary readers about how our own diverse society operates. Yet the book is also worth revisiting for what it left out. Since the civil rights revolution and the return of mass immigration, identity categories have changed. Race, distinct from ethnicity, has become increasingly salient. The ethnic model that Glazer and Moynihan document is, in many ways, a more palatable form of identity politics. Sixty years since its publication, the book can instruct us not just how group politics works, but how it could work better.
At a basic level, Beyond the Melting Pot is a collection of essays on five of the six major ethnic groups in New York City: blacks (then “Negroes”), Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish. A potential sixth chapter, on the Germans or Anglo-Saxons, was contemplated but omitted, suggesting that these “old stock” Americans were the background against which the other groups stood out. Each essay investigates the characteristics of a group, combining data available at the time (mostly the 1950 Census) with sociological research, history, and, in many cases, the authors’ own impressions. But Beyond the Melting Pot is not just a series of sketches. It is a book with a thesis: that the melting pot had not transpired as it had been imagined in the early twentieth century.
This contention defied the assumptions of many twentieth-century Americans. Between 1880 and 1920, America experienced its first great wave of immigration. Some 20 million people, most from southern and eastern Europe, arrived in a country of just 75 million, making a profound change to the demographic composition of the United States. The “chief concern” with this group for their contemporaries was “Americanization.” It was expected that the many peoples of Europe would shed their Old World identities and meld together, newly reformed as full Americans. The 1924 Immigration Act, effectively ending mass migration, was expected to accelerate the process.
Yet “the initial notion of an American melting pot did not, it seems, quite grasp what would happen in America,” wrote Glazer and Moynihan. Yes, ethnic groups did assimilate—to a degree. Language and cultural quirks faded, particularly after the first generation. But this assimilation process was incomplete, making immigrants “something they had not been, but still something distinct and identifiable.” This new category—not quite nationality but not wholly devoid of its influences—became the “new social form” of ethnicity, which Glazer and Moynihan believed would emerge in any diverse polity.
Glazer would later say that Beyond the Melting Pot was written in “a rather quiet point in the history of studies of American race and ethnicity.” In the introduction to Ethnicity, a collection of essays that the pair later coedited, Glazer and Moynihan noted that the term “ethnicity,” as they use it, was barely heard before the early 1950s. Beyond the Melting Pot was one of the first texts to observe that national identity had survived assimilation and had mutated into a new category of social and political significance.
What did Glazer and Moynihan actually say about their five ethnic groups? The pictures they painted will be familiar, perhaps best understood as statistically and historically validated stereotypes. The Irish were politically organized but lacked the will to rise above interest-group politics. Italians prioritized family, a nod to Edward Banfield’s notion of “amoral familism.” Jews were idealistic and education-oriented. Puerto Ricans were tied more to their island than to the mainland United States. And blacks struggled near the bottom of society because of external prejudice and their own community’s problems, particularly single motherhood (to which Moynihan would turn his attention two years later in a famed report written for Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration).
The Irish, Italians, and Jews, Glazer and Moynihan argued, proceeded through a process of partial integration. They began in straitened economic circumstances, similar to those that in 1963 befell blacks and Puerto Ricans. But they found an economic and cultural niche to occupy: neighborhoods of their own, businesses that were uniquely theirs, a way of life peculiar to their group but that fit within the broader harmony of life in New York City. This way of life was structured by the historical norms and family ways that their predecessors had handed down. It was natural to anticipate that Puerto Ricans and blacks would follow suit. As Glazer and Moynihan observed in the 1970 introduction to the book’s second edition, they saw no reason at the time of first writing that blacks could not follow the same process of ethnic integration and economic rise. Just as with the Italians, Jews, and Irish, blacks were poised to become another group among many in a multiethnic mainstream.
In their introduction to the first edition, Glazer and Moynihan called Beyond the Melting Pot “a beginning book”: an attempt to say something new about ethnicity as an important and persistent category in American political life. But as it turned out, they wrote just as ethnicity’s importance had begun to decline.
Glazer and Moynihan foresaw as much. In the book’s first edition, they acknowledged that ethnicity eventually fades, pointing to the Germans, who had, by that point, mostly lost their identification with their heritage (though the authors also envisioned a possible “resurgence of German identity in New York”). They predicted that in the long run, ethnic identity would be subsumed into racial and religious identification: “religion and race define the next stage in the evolution of the American peoples,” the book’s first edition concludes.
That turned out to be only half-right. In the 1970 introduction, Glazer and Moynihan observed that “race had exploded to swallow up all other distinctions.” Beyond the Melting Pot’s 1963 edition appeared before Freedom Summer, the Civil Rights Act, and the Watts Rebellion. Back then, it made “sociological sense,” Moynihan and Glazer wrote, to regard blacks as an ethnic group. “After all, Negroes themselves saw their place in the city in these terms, viewed themselves as fighting to improve their position not in an undifferentiated white society but an ethnically diverse one, and in such a society some groups, for some purposes, were allies.” The authors had, in other words, assumed that the blacks who had “migrated” to the north would undergo the process of ethnicization as other migrants did, becoming “one group in a society made up of self-conscious groups.”
Six years on, this hadn’t happened. Rather, blacks were becoming not an ethnic group but a “racial” one. In 1963, the pair had imagined that even blacks could be ethnicized, but “in 1969, we seem to be moving to a new set of categories, black and white, and that is ominous.” This racialization even threatened to swallow up other ethnic groups: “On the horizon stand the fantastic categories of the ‘third world,’ in which all the colors, Black, Brown, Yellow, and Red . . . are equated as the oppressed in opposition to the oppressing whites.”
The difference between race and ethnicity pertains to assimilation, which, Glazer wrote in a 1971 essay, suggests that “a group that was once considered in some measure outside the polity, economy, and society, is now considered inside.” This process of assimilating distinguishes ethnicity. In fact, assimilation was long the goal of “black leadership [who] for the most part, saw Negroes as outside, and worked at getting them inside.” But in the 1970s, Glazer wrote, “it is argued, to get inside, the way white ethnic groups have done, is either inconceivable because of white opposition, or undesirable because of black internal development.” Consequently, blacks remained a distinct category, defined in opposition to the mainstream: a race.
Why didn’t blacks assimilate as other groups did? Glazer would remain preoccupied with this question for the rest of his life, growing increasingly pessimistic. In 1997’s We Are All Multiculturalists Now, he blamed the multicultural education fracas on this failure, arguing that “multiculturalism is the price America is paying for its inability or unwillingness to incorporate into its society African Americans in the same way and to the same degree it has incorporated so many groups.” This partial capitulation in the multiculturalism wars garnered him outrage from the right and invitations to “diversity day” events from the left.
Set aside the question of why blacks did not assimilate, though, and consider the conceptual distinction between race and ethnicity that Glazer drew in trying to understand that question. Black racial identity, Glazer explained in an interview, “became the model. It became the model for a revival of feminism. . . . It became the model for all kinds of groups.” If the assimilation of blacks was always going to be harder than that of white ethnics, it does not follow that the anti-assimilationist conception of black identity denoted by “race” needed to expand beyond that group. Yet that is precisely what happened: rather than blacks assimilating, unassimilated blackness became the form out of which all other identity politics were made.
A book preoccupied with how the first great wave of immigrants had failed to “melt,” Beyond the Melting Pot was written on the precipice of the second great wave ushered in by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Between 1924 and 1964, roughly 7.7 million people—fewer than 200,000 a year—obtained lawful permanent-resident status in the United States. Between 1965 and 2020, the equivalent figure is 43.7 million, nearly 800,000 a year. Today, roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population was born abroad, three times higher than 1965 and roughly on par with the peaks of the late nineteenth century.
This new immigration has profoundly changed the nation’s demographic composition. As late as the 1960 Census, blacks and whites constituted 99 percent of the U.S. population. Hispanics were not even identified separately; when they were, in 1970, they were less than 5 percent of Americans. In 2019, that same figure was 18.5 percent. Asians went from one-half of 1 percent in 1960 to 6 percent. Nearly a quarter of Americans now hail from groups that were essentially absent from America before 1965.
The model of incomplete assimilation described in Beyond the Melting Pot may appear to suggest that these new Americans won’t assimilate any more completely than did the white ethnics who preceded them. But that would be too hasty, for the question remains open: Will these new immigrants count themselves as members of racial groups, or ethnic groups?
Race continues to be prominent in our national debate. Assimilation has rarely been a dirtier word. Contemporary progressivism collapses ethnic and national origin distinctions into racial blocs: witness the rapid adoption of such homogenizing terms as BIPOC (“Black, Indigenous, Person of Color”) and AAPI (“Asian American and Pacific Islander”). This racialization forms a central component of the “antiracist” strategy for political power. Sometimes, members of ethnic groups behave in ways the progressive racial cosmology fails to predict—when Cuban Americans vote Republican, say, or Chinese Americans oppose affirmative action. In response, progressive advocates call for racial solidarity to bring fence-sitters in line, or label them privileged beneficiaries of “multiracial whiteness,” an implicit charge of race treason.
This progressive strategy, argues Manhattan Institute president Reihan Salam, alienates many of the Americans whose families have arrived since 1965. Many nonwhite minorities depart from progressive orthodoxy on issues like affirmative action. As the Democratic Party has more thoroughly embraced “antiracism,” it has shed an increasing number of minority voters, from Hispanics to Asians. Salam identifies a countervailing ideology of “anti-racialism”: the idea that “heightened race consciousness—and the racialization of disparities and differences that would obtain in any culturally plural society—more often than not cuts against fostering integration, civic harmony, and social progress.” While antiracists insist that new Americans should spurn the mainstream, anti-racialists aspire to join it.
Anti-racialism is less an ideology than an expression of dissatisfaction with the notion of identity on offer to the new Americans. A successful anti-racialist politics requires not only a rejection of anti-assimilationism but an affirmative vision of identity within the mainstream. If Beyond the Melting Pot is to be believed, that alternative can’t be purely individualistic; group politics will always be with us. But the ethnicity described in Beyond the Melting Pot suggests a more palatable alternative to race.
As Glazer and Moynihan defined it, the ethnicization process appears alive and well. By the third generation, three in four Americans with Hispanic ancestry still identify as Hispanic. One-quarter identify themselves with their ancestral country of origin. Two-thirds of Asian Americans speak more than one language in the home, including a third who are native-born. And the new Americans are rising just as the old ones did. Consider the swift ascent of some Asian groups to the heights of economic success—Indian CEOs in the Fortune 500, for instance. Across various indicators, from incarceration rates to support for English as a national language, Hispanics increasingly resemble their non-Hispanic white counterparts.
These are hallmarks of the partial assimilation of the Glazer and Moynihan model: blending traits of the old country with the ways of the new one. City University of New York sociologist Richard Alba has argued that Moynihan and Glazer prefigured the notion of assimilation as a two-way process. Not only does a newcomer change to adapt to American society; American society also changes to adapt its “mainstream” to the influx of a new group. Of course, this assimilatory process can’t succeed without the defeat of the toxic, unpopular project of anti-assimilationism.
Ethnicity, as Glazer and Moynihan conceptualized it, provides a better way of thinking about modern multiracial America. A return to the ethnic model begins largely with emphasis: instead of generalizing about averages of racial groups, analysts should more closely inspect the tendencies of the ethnicities that compose them. Such analysis would reveal, for example, the stark difference in voting preferences between Vietnamese Americans—who preferred Donald Trump nearly two to one—and Indian Americans, who voted even more lopsidedly for Biden. Meantime, analyzing Hispanics as a bloc elides the real difference in interests and experiences between, say, Cubans and Guatemalans. The 2020 Census’s addition of national origin details to its standard race question creates a higher-resolution picture of ethnicity across the country.
It’s not enough, though, for observers to measure ethnicity. Another step would be for our culture to celebrate it. If we are all multiculturalists now, better to be a begrudging multiculturalist than a rabid antiracist. Rather than dismiss racial celebrations, multiply them, but with an inflection: celebrate Indian or Chinese or Korean identity, not “Asian Americanness” writ large. White ethnic groups, too, could benefit from this kind of attention, given the toxic effects of unadulterated white racial identity. Delicate questions would remain, for example, about English-language instruction in school or how explicit ethnic politics can become before they slip into counterproductive parochialism. But the basic point is clear: how to balance the old identity with the new is a better problem to face than the stark rejection of assimilation that currently infects American identity discourse.
New arrivals to the United States will never be perfectly like those who preceded them. The thing about the melting pot, as Glazer said, is that it does not happen—not perfectly, at least. Too often, the Left and Right offer bad responses to this reality. The Left’s anti-assimilationist tendency says that difference must be preserved at all costs and that hostility to the status quo ante is an affirmative good. The Right’s anti-immigration view, meanwhile, says that because newcomers will never be perfectly like the old stock, we should simply have no immigrants, seeking ethnic stasis for the nation. The anti-immigration approach represents a commitment to collective stagnation, nostalgic for an America that no longer exists. The anti-assimilation approach is a toxin in the body politic, making comity impossible
Moynihan and Glazer point to a middle way: the production of a new American, not the same as the old but still similar. True, blacks have not embraced the ethnicizing process. But that doesn’t mean that ethnicity is not a viable model for the millions of immigrants who have come here since 1965.
Top Photo: Italians, one of the five major ethnic groups studied in Beyond the Melting Pot, blended traits of the old country with the ways of America. (WALTER LEPORATI/GETTY IMAGES)