©2003 Hannibal B. Johnson
My 1960s-era elementary school social studies teachers routinely referred to America as the world’s great melting pot. The metaphor implicitly characterized the history of race and ethnicity in America as one of inclusion, adaptation, and, ultimately, assimilation. This simplistic, superficially appealing slant on American history did not jibe with my own experience. My reality consisted of largely segregated schools and housing, overt racism and discrimination, and economic inequity. I wondered why African-Americans had not quite melted in my teachers’ multicultural crucible. I pondered why we had not fully embraced-and had not been fully embraced by-the elusive American dream. Indeed, history and life in general made me wonder whether the mysterious concoction stewing in that great melting pot derived from a recipe that all but omitted African-American ingredients.
How could those teachers dutifully indoctrinate us with the melting pot mantra, knowing full well that little Black children like me had not, and likely would not, melt. Even though I stood out as one of a handful of African-American kids in my Mineral Wells, Texas elementary schools, and even though I excelled academically and socially, the prospect of full assimilation seemed Pollyannaish. I never overcame my difference. I always stood out. Within and outside the schoolhouse gates, the world sent an unmistakable message: The melting pot admixture repels that which threatens to darken the blend.
Even now, in Twenty-First Century America, the melting pot employs color control. Segregated schools still exist. Housing and neighborhoods continue to be remarkably racially homogeneous. Racism and discrimination, while palpably less overt, nonetheless continue to corrupt. Economic disparity persists. Total assimilation seems but a theoretical fantasy-mere figments of the imaginations of those with but a tenuous grasp on reality.
Diane Sawyer’s 1990s “True Colors” segment on the ABC newsmagazine Primetime Live dramatically illustrates the evanescence of African-American assimilation. Sawyer took two males-one White, the other Black-of roughly the same age, intellect, and physical attractiveness to St. Louis, Missouri. The men separately undertook some mundane but important day-to-day tasks. (To control for the time factor, the men undertook these tasks separately, but within minutes of one another.) They went to the same car dealership to inquire into purchasing a car. They went shopping. They answered employment ads. They sought out housing. Without fail, the White male received vastly more favorable treatment. The car dealer offered him the car both men wanted at a price significantly lower than the price quoted to the Black male. The same anxious sales clerk who cheerfully greeted the White male in the department store tailed the Black male from aisle to aisle. The White male received warm greetings and leads from an employment agency. He got job leads from a potential employer. The Black male heard warnings about “laziness” at the same employment agency. He heard, “Sorry, no jobs here,” at the same employment agency. The White male toured a vacant apartment. The landlord offered him a lease almost immediately. The same landlord coldly told the Black man, “No vacancies.” In the end, the two men, friends from the outset, compared notes. Each man expressed his astonishment-indeed, horror-at the extent of their differential treatment.
“True Colors,” the Diane Sawyer piece, cannot be dismissed as dated or anomalous. For most African-Americans, racism and discrimination continue to contaminate the American compound. Forget the melting pot. A more apt analogy-more accurate, less dismissive, and more empowering-of the history of race and ethnicity in America resides in the salad bowl.
I greatly value my identity as an American. I also value my identity as an African-American. I recognize that African-Americans have not, by and large, assimilated. But assimilation is only partially a choice. That which one aspires to assimilate into must be to some degree willing to allow the amalgamation.
Our lack of assimilation, dictated by a tortuous history of racism and discrimination, may not be such a bad thing. Assimilation, after all, requires sacrificing our cultural identity in favor of some imagined “average American” ideal. Without doubt, all of us, racial and ethnic identities aside, need to jump into the American mix. But we need not melt down so far as to lose our distinctive, defining culture and history.
What unites us-our shared humanity and our total embrace of America’s lofty ideals-trumps our important, real racial and ethnic differences. Our differences, though, do not magically disappear. We all benefit from understanding our rich diversity. We learn and grow by sharing all of whom and what we as individuals, and all of whom at what we as various “peoples” that make America great
The concoction in our mythical melting pot looks, feels, and taste like Pablum. Compare that with the richness and zest of the colorful assortment in my salad bowl. Each ingredient retains its individual integrity. Each ingredient adds unmistakable character to the whole. Together, they flavor a vibrant, all-American piece de resistance. Forget the melting pot. Make mine a salad bowl!