While visiting Trenton recently, I saw—and realized—that the US is at the threshold of a social reconstruction, similar to the one that occurred from the 1870s to 1920s when millions of immigrants arrived. They were profoundly different from the dominant Anglo-Americans. A painfully constructed nation, founded by expatriates and led through a civil war by their descendants, was flooded with penniless Germans, Italians, Russians, Poles, Greeks, Portuguese and Chinese. Emma Lazarus’ poem ("huddled masses") at the foot of the Statue of Liberty is accurate.
The medical and educational resources available to the public were overwhelmed by clashing languages, customs and needs of large, sprawling family groups settling in cities, towns and rural areas. Pennsylvania, New York, New England, the south, the midwest and recently established states west of the Mississippi swelled with foreigners.
Add to the annual transatlantic human waves the ongoing reconstruction of the south. The absorption of poor whites and freed African slaves combined with immigration to create a complex social challenge unique in human history.
Blending divergent, mutually unintelligible cultures into the established order was helped greatly by churches and the philanthropic community. In particular, medicine and education were revolutionized to accommodate the new masses, both north and south. Hundreds of new hospitals, clinics, schools and colleges were built in a matter of a few years. Agriculture was also transformed with the arrival of the foreign farmers and peasants, mainly from Europe. Burpee played a role in adapting European vegetables to the radically different US climate, as well as breeding more productive varieties to yield larger harvests for the new farmers.
Vast Latin American, Central European and pan-African neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn, and an enormous supermarket devoted to Korean, Chinese and Japanese vegetables, signify an upheaval in US demographics. Our future society is Asian, African and Latin American, with the descendants of the UK and Europe in the minority. Although I have read about this coming population shift for 20 years, I didn’t see it in person until quite recently.
Just as the mainly Protestant churches and various business-based philanthropies joined with (or in some cases led) government in the late 19th century to accommodate new arrivals from distant countries, the Catholics are performing the primary role now. But these various institutions are not strong enough to transform US education and culture to meet the needs of these new neighbors. Arabs, East Indians, Chinese, and Southeast Asians—they have no interest in the progressive education methods popular in the US for the last 100 years. Far from it: they will home school before allowing their kids to be left in a typical public school. I’ve studied the subject closely, both here and in southern California. Over half of my staff are immigrants. The challenges in public education reform are increasing.
If anything, the new citizens can teach the old ones a few new tricks. These welcome arrivals are mostly religious, traditional and extraordinarily dignified considering their circumstances. They are prodigious in intelligence and industriousness. They become excellent politicians as well as business leaders. They raise productive, happy and successful families. We not only owe them the opportunities of our Constitution when they embark on the path to citizenship, we also need their help. Their infusion of new blood will be a lease on life for our nation. However, we must treat them the way Lincoln would have treated them: liberation from oppression is essential to our civilization.