One of the great myths of our time is the belief in the great melting pot of American ethnicity, into which have been blended the cultures and values of disparate peoples from the world over.
While no one can ignore what is one of the most noble and dramatic stories of mobility, both geographic and economic, in modern history—the rise to middle-class status of the bulk of the descendants of European and Asian immigrants to the United States—no one should presume that this transformation represented some kind of natural process of uplift which lies latent within the principles of the U. S. Constitution and the philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism. Rather it represented specific individual and group struggles to overcome specific obstacles at one point in history.
The standard melting pot story certainly does not do a very good job of describing the experience of blacks in twentieth-century America. Regarding this history we have developed another myth—perhaps the second greatest of our current historical myths. This fiction holds that, while there was certainly much racism and discrimination which prevented blacks from full participation in the melting pot’s economic reward, prior to the civil rights movement and the legislation of the 1960s, the enactment of that enlightened legislation has now removed the previous barriers and created a situation where the melting pot can again do its work.
Why the Melting Pot Failed Blacks
I believe this notion is woefully simplistic, for several reasons. First, the fact of skin color is a basis for separation qualitatively different from those traits which distinguished the earlier ethnics. Second, there is the fact that the blacks did not migrate to the industrial centers of America from eastern Europe, but from the South of the U.S. They did not come as foreigners, grateful for the willingness of the host country to accept them, but as citizens of the host country fleeing its oppression. This reflected itself in a sense of entitlement among blacks, evidence of which can