THE CHICANO DIFFERENCE?...

THE CHICANO DIFFERENCE? David Frum tags me with glossing over some wage data in regard to the assimilation debate. He doesn't challenge the point about language use, so I'll take it that he's conceding this point to me. Frum observes that intergenerational Latino-Anglo wage convergence has slowed markedly since 1980 or so, which seems to be true. He attributes this to the difference between the older, Cuban-dominated Latino population and the newer, Mexican-dominated Latino population. That, however, just seems to beg for a further explanation of what about that difference makes a difference. Having some Cuban ancestry myself, I'd be open to a pure ethnic superiority argument on this score, but Frum attributes it to the fact that the Cuban immigrant pool is allegedly more urban than is the Mexican one, though I don't know of any data on the urbanness question.

Here's a different explanation. Inequality has increased remarkably over the past 25-30 years in America and social mobility has consequently declined. These trends have taken place across the board. Consequently, Mexican-American families that start out near the bottom of the economic totem pole are now assimilating (as witnessed by the language trends) into a new, contemporary America that doesn't feature very much intergenerational income mobility. If this bothers Frum -- and it does bother me -- then I'd exhort him to join me in supporting a robust inequality-curbing program featuring universal health care, rules aimed at making it easier to unionize, more attention to the absurd levels of executive compensation in America, higher taxes on investment income, asset-building programs targeted at the poor, etc., etc., etc.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that we've left assimilation behind as a topic here to a large extent. I think that when people worry that Mexican-Americans "don't assimilate," the worry is that they're not learning English. You walk into one of our country's newish Spanish-speaking enclaves and worry that the country's becoming Balkanized. When you learn that the Spanish-English transition is following the same pattern as the Polish-English, Italian-English, and Yiddish-English patterns (my great-grandparents spoke Spanish, my grandfather was fully bilingual, my dad overwhelmingly speaks English but knows some Spanish despite a lack of formal instruction, and I learned some Spanish and more English in school), then you stop worrying. Inequality is a different problem. I propose coping with that problem by adopting measures aimed at raising the living standards of working class Mexican-Americans, and African-Americans, and Euro-Americans, and Central American-Americans (surely not the right term), and so forth. Frum proposes to deal with inequality by . . . keeping the Mexicans in Mexico where they'll be even poorer.

--Matthew Yglesias

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