Melting pot? Not in the USA. Yet. But coming soon?

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The U.S. as a melting pot, a harmonious and delicious blend of ethnicities from the world over, is a sturdy myth about this country that dates from its founding. The melting pot concept originated, Wikipedia says, in the 1780s, soon after the nation became one. That idea was solidified in a 1908 play of the same name.

“America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!” wrote the play’s author, Israel Zangwill. Only people of European ancestry were stirred into Zangwill’s melting pot. He seems to have been completely ignorant of the First Americans, the slaves dragged in chains from Africa, and the Chinese conscripts who built the railroads in the 19th century. And of course in 1908 the Latino influx, and the immigration of many more Asians and genuine Indians, was several decades away.

The melting pot was fed to me in elementary school, and perhaps to you too. A soothing ideal, but one that has been debunked repeatedly. The most recent debunking, published in December in the American Journal of Human Genetics and free to read, is perhaps the first one based on genetic science—although I’m not sure the researchers would welcome the interpretation that their study showed the melting pot to be largely still a myth, particularly for European Americans.

Genetic Debunkery

The research is noteworthy in particular because it is by far the largest U.S. population genetic study ever. Information about more than 150,000 study subjects who had consented to have their (anonymous) data used in research was drawn from the massive databases of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe. Previously, the country has been considered so messy, genetically speaking, that geneticists have avoided studying it, according to Joanna Mountain, senior director of research at 23andMe.

The study focused on self-identified African Americans, European Americans, and Latinos across the United States. But note that, huge as it was, the sample was also anything but random: It was heavily skewed, consisting as it did entirely of people who had the means to pay, often hundreds of dollars, to indulge their genealogical curiosity.

And the study subjects were overwhelmingly of self-identified European ancestry—148,789 of them. There were only 5,269 self-described African Americans and 8,663 Latinos. One of the authors, Harvard geneticist David Reich, acknowledged that the the work suffered from survey bias—although he also pointed out that the data were consistent with much smaller previous studies.

DNA originating in Europe, Africa, and the Americas was found in all three groups, but the proportions varied substantially. Comparatively few Americans of European descent—only 3.5 percent—possessed 1 percent or more African genes. (Even 3.5 percent is still a lot of people, of course, estimated at more than 6 million.) European Americans with African ancestry are found at the highest frequencies—about 12 percent—in southern states, the genetic legacy of slavery. So too the highest levels of African ancestry among self-reported African Americans, although that was on average less than 75 percent, especially among those in South Carolina and Georgia. (And less than 1 percent Native American.)

It is no secret that African Americans possess a lot of European DNA. In a way the study simply quantifies old news about American admixture. It’s long been known also that nearly all non-Hispanic whites have only European ancestry, but that many blacks have “white” genes because female slaves were simply chattel to their masters. It’s not really news either that these European genes among blacks vary with geography, being most dense, not surprisingly, in the former slaveholding states.

Latinos in the study, on average, possess 18 percent Native American ancestry, with about 65 percent European DNA and a little over 6 percent of DNA originating in Africa. That’s entirely in line with the population history of Latin America.

Beyond the melting pot

Although some reports have have treated the 23andMe data as confirming the idea of the U.S. as a melting pot, the geneticist-blogger Razib Khan argues straightforwardly that the study demonstrates that we’re not much mixed at all, especially European Americans.

“What genetics is showing is that in fact white Americans are shockingly European to an incredibly high degree for a population with roots on this continent for 400 years.” (Emphasis Khan’s.) It’s amazing, he says, that in the U.S. indigenous people had so little demographic impact and that more people with only some black ancestry still don’t self-identify as white. The reverse trends are common in South America.

History, he says, offers some explanation for North-South genetic differences. In the U.S., Native American populations were smaller and often killed off by wars and imported disease, which was less often true in South America. Also, the original European immigrants to New England had some of the highest birthrates ever recorded. In other parts of the country the new settlers sometimes consisted of entire European villages.

Khan’s theory about the explanation for admixture differences between North and South America is that lots of women were among European immigrants to North America, which reduced the amount of intermarriage and made it difficult for children of mixed ancestry to rise in society. But the mostly Spanish original invader/immigrants to South America were nearly all male and often polygynous. This explains why mixed-blood South Americans could become prominent and part of the elite. South American mtDNA lineages are mostly Native American because mothers were mostly Native American.

So the U.S. is still not really a melting pot today. But Khan forecasts that the reality soon will be much closer to that myth.

“If 23andMe did a survey of American genetics 25 years from now I’d be much more amenable to the interpretation that the media is putting on this survey.  In one generation the world of the Baby Boomers, American, black and white, will be gone,” he said.

Even many people who know that their ancestry is not entirely European will self-identify as white, he says. That will bring the situation in the U.S. much closer to the one in South America, where you’re white if you look mostly white and your ancestry is mostly European.

Tabitha M. Powledge is a long-time science journalist and a contributing columnist for the Genetic Literacy Project. She also writes On Science Blogs for the PLOS Blogs Network. Follow her @tamfecit.

Additional reading:

Claims that US is a genetic melting pot appear overblown–if you’re white. Genetic Literacy Project

Genetic Atlas: Human history of moving around and fooling around. New York Times

  • GaelanClark

    We are a vegetable soup. Dr Lawson, one of my best History professors coined this term for us.
    The broth…our collective “Americanism” holds us together and each of us is our own vegetable…some peas, some carrots, some potatoes, etc.
    A melting pot burns off all impurities and renders the final product indistinguishable from the rest….there are a few countries that come to mind within that context.
    The USA however is not and never will be a “melting pot”.

    • Hominid

      Not all the different veggies care for the ‘broth’ of Americanism (I thought I was the only one who used that meaningful term). Many of them don’t appreciate it or despise it – and their numbers are increasing.

      • GaelanClark

        “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”—-that IS the broth. It is also the root of our “exceptionalism”.
        I learned “Lawson’s Vegetable Soup” analogy 25 years ago at USF from Dr.Lawson (now at DukeU…I believe) and it has echoed true from the inception of our fantastic country.
        It matters not whom wants appreciate or despise it….those persons can be the onions or the cabbages…..they are however still part of the soup that makes our nation.

        • Hominid

          Nope! They are the part of the soup that is destroying our nation.

          • GaelanClark

            I understand your point. I just don’t agree fully with it. Eventually the progeny of those ardently against our culture and values will develop their sense of “right and wrong” by observing how the rest of this society lives, and they will like it.
            Of course there will always be a fraction of the total that will try to “destroy the nation”…they are not going to effect their will on us.

          • Hominid

            Wake up, Gaelen – it works the other way. They’ve already transformed the USA into a Eurostyle welfare-nanny-police state. We have a criminal, marxist administration. We have a culture of decadence.

          • GaelanClark

            Again, I don’t fully disagree with you….and that is what elections are for….if we don’t like certain policies, we then elect whom will change them. Those caught up in “welfare” and “nanny”isms will die and their children will want better for themselves.

            Again…”We hold these truths to be self-evident…”….this is the broth and it will never change in this country.

  • TrustbutVerify

    I can’t believe how the term “Melting Pot” is misconstrued here – but maybe that explains the state of affairs in politics and relative to immigrant communities. The melting pot was never about genetics or race – it was about philosophy. You come here to divorce the “Old World” philosophies of aristocracies, being responsible for the deeds or status of your ancestors (i.e., no way to rise in society), the doctrines of the peon and the peasant. It was a common ideal, America, and a common idea and promise – America. That is all America and American Exceptionalism has ever been about. Yes we have a big economy, yes you have the opportunity to become whatever your talents and skills and personality support, yes we have a gigantic military to keep us safe and a continental land mass separated from potential foes by oceans. But that isn’t what makes America. It is, and always will be, our shared dream.

    Too many people, from here and recent immigrants – mainly illegal – do not want to join our society. Many, including our President, want to “remake” our country, change our ideals, and are working through our educators and media to do so. To be a conservative is to oppose those ideas, to adhere to the visions of our Founders (no, not slavery before you say – but if you remember a great many of them did want to end slavery right there at the beginning…but as we know, they had to compromise with the South).

    There are huge numbers of Mexican and Central American latinos who do not want to be a part of our society – and they will tell you so. They are the ones the streets waving THEIR countries flags – all the time asking for the benefits of citizenship (especially financial) without the responsibilities. I have helped several illegal get their papers – hard working people who founded businesses and just want a chance. But they are buying into our system, not rejecting it and espousing “reconquista” like La Raza.

    We have no problem with controlled, legal immigration of people who want to come here and join our society and become Americans. But we don’t want to play host or sugar daddy to a bunch of people who just want to send money back home.

    • Hominid

      Everyone knows that – the authors are simply making the point that the spatial admixing of different cultures does not extend very far into the biological.

  • janvones

    What historically ignorant rubbish. Europe was wracked by barbarian invasions, ethnic, dynastic, and after the renaissance religious wars. Look at the 30 Years War or the history of Ireland.

    All that went away in the US.

    Ms. Powledge would have us discount that because Zangwill correctly identified the melting as mostly inter-European?

    No, we did not import Maoris and Hindus to the US in a forced breeding program. Our Bad. But at least we have Elizabeth “Fauxcahontas” Warren to offset the “problem”.

    • Hominid

      You completely missed the point of the essay.

  • Kevin Kent

    I had always interpreted the “melting pot” terminology to mean cultural, not genetic.

    • Hominid

      Correct. The authors are simply making the point that significant genetic mixing doesn’t necessarily follow from cultural admixing. Try to focus.

      • Kevin Kent

        The author is saying that the “melting-pot” is a myth. If the “melting-pot” is relating to culture rather than genetics then the idea is not a myth. Try to focus.

        • Hominid

          You’re focusing on a trivial, largely semantic part of the article rather than the main thesis of the essay. It’s not a political position so you needn’t react so viscerally. Try to be less superficial and emotionally-guided.

          • Kevin Kent

            In what way is my reaction visceral? And in what way did I ever imply that the author was being political?

            ctrl+f shows that the author used the word “myth” 3 times in the article discussing the “myth” of the melting pot, which would imply that it’s not a trivial, semantic part of the article. The reality is, no such myth has ever existed.

  • disgusted_by_the_elites

    Old white woman who intentionally misconstrued the term “melting pot” to have it fit her politics

  • CULTURAL melting pot. Talk about missing the point. If it weren’t a melting pot then it would be chunks of ethnic regions with their own language and values. Yet strangely enough most Pennsylvanians don’t know German, much less speak it and the Irish brogue seems to have worn off in Boston. And putting all Europeans into the same category is dismissing the differences between European ethnicity back in the Old World.

    ‘Cause they’re all just “white” so it don’t count, right?

    Oh, and I don’t know if this was tested for, but millions of us “white” Americans actually have native American ancestors. We just don’t go around claiming it for benefits or to win elections. But then, we generally “self-identify” as Americans, which includes all of it regardless of what race you want to shoehorn us into.

  • John Locke

    Israel Zangwill was not “…completely ignorant of the First Americans, the slaves dragged in chains from Africa, and the Chinese conscripts…”, he was merely claiming that Americans of European descent were “..melting and reforming…”

    How do I know? Because that is what he wrote in the paragraph that the author quoted: “…all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!…”

    It is better not to read more into a writing than what the author actually wrote, especially when the author specifically limits the context of his statement (ie using the qualifier “European” instead of “American”).

    • Hominid

      Yup! Too many folks react emotionally and misinterpret the point.

  • Red 2

    The article begins by explaining where the term melting pot came from. The origin is that the U.S. was described as a place where all Europeans were forming a melting pot. Then it goes on to describe how all white people are white without showing that, yes, the Europeans did form a melting pot in the U.S. The typical white person is a mix of several varried European countries. This is not usual in Europe where most people originate from only one country or area. Black people are also a melting pot in the U.S. with genetic material from all over the African continent (although the historic reason behind this is far darker). According to Pew research, in 2010 over 15% of marraiges in the U.S. were mixed race. That’s a pretty big number. The absurdity of this article is that it acts as if because most white people are white and most black people are black etc. in the U.S. then therefor it isn’t a melting pot, but the mere fact that it’s describing broad swathes of ethnic groups in simplistic terms such as “white” is evidence of how far off this article really is.

    • Hominid

      You humanists deny any evidence that belies your ideological fantasies.

      • Red 2

        The evidence points to me being correct. And what does humanism or ideology have to do with any of this?

        • Hominid

          The evidence points to you being INcorrect in every assertion you made. You’re so oblivious that you aren’t even aware that your expressed notions are based on humanist assumptions.

          • Red 2

            And yet you offer no explanations, just trolling statements.

          • Hominid

            You’re projecting – your post offers no explanations, only baseless assertions.

    • GaelanClark

      Bullshyt….Germans had their own neighborhoods….Italians…..Irish….Chinese….etc…etc…etc.
      they still do.

      • Red 2

        You are describing small enclaves in the midst of majority populations. While a small german neighborhood may have ethnically german people, the majority population is still white which is a mix of many different European ancestries.

        • GaelanClark

          And they hold onto their own traditions wherever they live…whether in the “small enclave” or in a suburb.
          You can think of a “melting pot” in relation to China….never the USA.

          • Red 2

            You’re still talking about a fraction of a population while ignoring the population as a whole. Germany is full of Germans. The U.S. is full of white people who have a little bit of German in them. Germany is full of German traditions. The U.S. is full of traditions that mix aspects of German traditions with the traditions of numerous other countries.

          • GaelanClark

            It really isn’t a hard concept to grasp. The problem is that people hold onto a misnomer, “melting pot”, created over 100 years ago and have no idea that a melting pot burns off all impurities so that the final product is exactly the same in shape and form. I don’t care to argue with you because it is pointless.
            You are wrong and you are unable to step outside of your paradigm created for you in the 6th grade. Some of us graduated and took real History courses.

          • Red 2

            LOL….now you’re just resorting to ad hominem attacks. I don’t deny that there aren’t limited enclave cultural and ethnic communities in the U.S. but there is no doubt that the majority of the U.S. population is a blend of many different ethnic and cultural groups. This is indicitive of the terms white, caucasion, black, etc. These generalized terms sum up the ethnic blends that make up the majority ethnic groups. And as stated in this thread, the number of mixed marriages in the U.S. is also very large which if that number continues or expands then even these large ethnic terms won’t be viable anymore. And culturally this is also true and can be seen in holiday’s such as Christmas and Easter in the U.S. which borrows traditions from a large number of different groups and blends them into a unified celebration.

          • GaelanClark

            My point is not an attack on your character. It is a fact of your circumstance, and is therefor a valid argument. I am not beholding to your lack of a higher understanding of History, and my merely pointing this out is a circumstance of whom you are.