I would have guessed Tom Brokaw was one of us…he isn’t

I just heard that interview with Old Tom Brokaw in which he exhibited that common disease in the journalism profession, that attempt to sympathize with bad people to the point you lose sight of the fact that they are, in fact, bad, and you begin to share their views (see also Jonathan Haidt, who is not a journalist, but has acquired a terminal case).

And a lot of this, we don’t want to talk about. But the fact is, on the Republican side, a lot of people see the rise of an extraordinary, important, new constituent in American politics, Hispanics, who will come here and all be Democrats. Also, I hear, when I push people a little harder, “Well, I don’t know whether I want brown grandbabies.” I mean, that’s also a part of it. It’s the intermarriage that is going on and the cultures that are conflicting with each other.

I also happen to believe that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation. That’s one of the things I’ve been saying for a long time. You know, they ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities. And that’s going to take outreach on both sides, frankly.

If you don’t want “brown grandbabies”, that’s simply racism. No matter what shade their skin is, they’re still grandbabies, and still your grandbabies.

If you don’t like intermarriage, that’s simply racism. Don’t pick who you love by their skin color, and don’t demand your children share your weird racist color preferences.

Demanding assimilation is just another way of rejecting differences. That’s simply racism. I see Hispanic people moving into rural Minnesota, and while they may initially struggle with the language, they’re adapting quickly and their children are fluent in English. How fast do you expect them to “assimilate” anyway? Are you expecting them to abandon pride in their family and their heritage, too?

I’ve looked into my family history, and I see a series of Norwegian farmers who settled in Minnesota, and then kept bringing in Swedish mail order brides every generation, almost as if they were refusing to assimilate and insisted on Scandinavian families, rather than melding with the American mongrels. My great-grandparents’ house was full of yellow and blue and knick-knacks in Swedish and Norwegian, and they spoke with a heavy accent that was the result of a lifetime in exclusively Scandinavian-American communities. Were they bad assimilators? Am I unamerican because I still like the Nordic foods of my childhood and still celebrate Swedish/Norwegian traditions?

I don’t even know what “assimilate” means in the minds of these people. Liquify and blend? Because that doesn’t happen. We are who we are. Hispanic people are adding a new strand to our communities, and the only reason they might tend to vote Democratic is because Republicans think like Tom Brokaw. He can go back to celebrating his “Greatest Generation” while ignoring how awfully racist and sexist that generation was.


  1. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    What always gets me about the “they should learn English” trope is that if there’s any group that knows the value of speaking English in this country, it’s immigrants.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    I don’t even know what “assimilate” means…

    I means “act, dress, think, and speak just like I do.”

  3. hemidactylus says

    What? No fair skin Hispanics in our midst? I can think of one Hispanic demographic that is staunchly Republican. Not sure about Venezuelan exile politics in general. Latin America has much diversity. A Brazilian woman I dated knew Spanish but resented it being spoken because Portuguese was her preference. There are German towns in Chile.

  4. says

    Yes, this is quite ridiculous. All children of immigrants to the U.S. learn English, simply because children learn languages very easily (their brains are wired to do so) and they go to school. Latinos are no different in this regard. But in fact in Europe there are bilingual and multilingual nations — e.g. Switzerland, Belgium, Spain — and nobody says that everybody has to learn “our language.” Most people are bilingual or multilingual anyway. There’s nothing wrong with that.

  5. Akira MacKenzie says

    hemidactlylus @ 4

    There are German towns in Chile.

    NEIN! I am SWISS, not German! I vas a bellhop during ze var! I vas novere near Poland! Vat scar under mein arm vas from an childhood accident! I KNOW NOTINK! NOTINK!!!

  6. says

    Are you expecting them to abandon pride in their family and their heritage, too?

    Only if it’s non-white…

    You know, they ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English,

    One issue we tend to have with the parents of relatively recent immigrants is that they think that our extra lessons in German are holding their kids back in terms of learning the language and that it singles them out…

  7. andyo says

    That’s how I know when one of these white people don’t know any immigrant families. Does anyone actually know a child of an immigrant that doesn’t speak English? I am in L.A. I am latino and I speak Spanish as my first language, and I have never met a son or daughter of a Mexican, Salvadorean, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Argentinian, Chilean, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc. immigrant that didn’t speak English. Even more so, I don’t know any such first-immigrants that came as children not to speak English fluently.

    Where are all those un-assimilated children of immigrant all these racists are railing about? If there are immigrant children that aren’t getting assimilated now it’s because they’re being kept in cages.

  8. whheydt says

    My son’s wife’s family is from South America, so I’m ahead of the curve. His son is 1 year old now.

    As for language and assimilation… My mother’s parents were both from Denmark. They spoke Danish at home when their kids were young because the didn’t want the kids learning “bad English”. So instead they learned it “on the street” (no ESL or bilingual classes then–ca. 1920 or so). Mind you, when I knew my grandparents, their English was pretty good. Some accent, but not to the point of communications problems.

    Not sure how my German great-grandfather handled those issues (ca. 1870). Nor the French immigrant ancestors. The ones farthest back that I know of came here from Britain, though (ca. 1740).

  9. rietpluim says

    Assimilate into what, exactly? Why would Anglo-Americans be more American than Scandinavian-Americans? Let them learn Swedish, godamit.

  10. numerobis says

    Meanwhile, you read the immigrants’ editorials and they’re all about how the grandkids can’t even talk to grandmother anymore because they’re all assimilating so fast.

    This isn’t new either. You can read it in late-19th century Canadien newspapers in New England (“Canadien” being the francophones, not the English), and in late-20th century Cajun papers in Louisiana. I’m sure the same articles ran in the Scandinavian papers of Minnesota and the German papers of Pennsylvania in their day.

    If you want to see somewhere that doesn’t linguistically assimilate in North America, you need to look at the Francophone communities of Quebec and New Brunswick. To manage it you need to make a strong political decision and lots of external support (namely, we can get media from France).

    Even then, beyond the language, how francophone Acadians live in New Brunswick is almost indistinguishable from how anglophones live. Quebec is a bit different: still heavily influenced by the general culture of the continent but with a bit of French influence (not all of it positive: we often look to France for how to implement stifling bureaucracy).

  11. doubtthat says


    Was going to make a similar point. In all countries, in all of history, unless there is some structure put in place to stop it from happening (like slavery), “assimilation” is basically a 1/2 generation “problem”.
    Also, the only victims of immigration to the US are Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and the immigrants themselves who faced bigotry and xenophobia. American culture, however defined, has only benefited from bringing people into the nation and blending them with what came before – though that process, as I said, is often rough for the immigrants.

  12. whywhywhy says

    My grandparents spoke German and they were generations removed from when their ancestors came over. My apologies for being descended from obviously ‘anti-American’ folks.


  13. unclefrogy says

    how in the F***!? can anyone be expected to “assimilate” into “our country” when there are as many barriers put in place as the law allows and then some to keep everyone separate, superior and inferior?
    uncle frogy

  14. DonDueed says

    Frankly, I think all of us descendants of immigrants are pretty badly assimilated. Seriously, how many of us can speak Navajo?

    (Irony: the Navajo themselves are relatively recent immigrants to North America.)

  15. christoph says

    “Hispanic people are adding a new strand to our communities, and the only reason they might tend to vote Democratic is because Republicans think like Tom Brokaw.”

    Good point!

  16. says

    When great-great-grandpa arrived in Wisconsin, off the train from Ellis Island (where they told him, “squareheads go to Minnesota and Wisconsin”) and established his farm on former Lakotah land, he gave his sunday lecture – before anyone could eat – in Norwegian and said, “we are Americans now and we must learn the language and customs. This is the last time Norwegian will be spoken in this house.” Since he was notably hardass, that’s how it was.

    Meanwhile there’s Germantown, where the people only stopped speaking German when WWI started (coincidence!) and Pennsylvania Dutch country where I believe there is some of that language still spoken.

    Donald Trump’s grandfather appears to have dropped his German for American so he could talk to his customers, during the land-grab in California.

    The whole “they don’t speak the language!” Is bullshit. English and American English have changed a lot; nobody speaks like Shakespeare or Chaucer. And of course the real English made fun of how Americans talked. Plus ça change.

  17. deepak shetty says

    I don’t even know what “assimilate” means in the minds of these people.

    Its funny. Wouldn’t mixed marriages/relationships and mixed babies be the fastest way of assimilating anyway ?

  18. brutus says

    For the longest time, to be American was to be of northern European heritage and Christian. Nothing could be more obvious than the fact that the default is changing: a demographic wave is breaking over the country and changing the former proportions. Slicing and dicing by race, religion, nationality, or any number of other surface attributes are reinforced all the time by journalists and those who wear their identities proudly while fearing contamination from others not quite the same or even substantially different. It also misses the larger point that we’re all really just people and change is inevitable anyway. The quoted bits by Tom Brokaw are perhaps milder versions of racism, as his intent appears to be to preserve (the status quo) rather than victimize, but as you point out, it’s still pretty straightforward racism. Surprising that he could be so tone deaf about it.

  19. nomadiq says

    I don’t recall how many quinceañeras I came
    across when I lived in Los Angeles. But each time I did I would admire (maybe judge) the dress and hairdo, understood about 5 words of what was spoken – and went about my day. Because someone’s culture, even when I have no hook into it myself, is just fine with me. I don’t see why ‘assimilation’ should mean, ‘no quiceañeras’. Or, ‘you must talk all the time so I can understand you, even when you aren’t talking to me’.

  20. Snidely W says

    Tom Brokaw has never been a deep thinker. I’ve been trying to ignore him for decades but they keep bringing him back.

    I’m still waiting for the Amish and Mennonites to finish up on this assimilating.

    Whenever I hear anyone getting all hot and bothered about assimilating I can’t help but think of the Borg.

  21. says

    DonDueed @15:

    Irony: the Navajo themselves are relatively recent immigrants to North America.

    This is incorrect (from everything I’ve seen). It is true that the Navajo (and the Apache) only moved into the Southwestern U. S. fairly recently (1400s if I remember correctly). They came from Athabaska, and speak a version of Athabaskan.

  22. anbheal says

    Every Italian and Greek friend in my very ethnic city had a grandmother in the attic who spoke no English, parents who spoke thickly accented and often halting English, but were fine plumbers and electricians, and my friends all spoke perfect English, and went on to become engineers, doctors, merchant marines. My neighborhood was very Jewish, and it was the same thing — an altekacker and balabusta with a thick Yiddish accent, parents with that stereotypical diamond merchant on 47th St. Jewish accent, and kids who went to Ivies and spoke like Johnny Carson.

    The irony is all of the 7th generation Anglo meth monkeys across Dixie and the Midwest, living off government support in Mom’s basement, who still have no command of their mother tongue, and yes, are the only humans in history incapable of learning a second language, nor able to cope with another language being spoken. Why oh why can’t those Walloons learn Flemish is a lament you will never hear in Belgium.

  23. mnb0 says

    @5: “But in fact in Europe there are bilingual and multilingual nations.”
    In fact I’ve a very time to think of just one European country that’s monolingual. Perhaps Liechtenstein and/or Andorra. The Netherlands for instance is trilingual: Nether-Saxon (also spoken in Northwest Germany), Frisian and Low-Franconian (this is what’s usually called Dutch). Mind you, these are the official languages. I don’t count the people who speak Sranan (from Suriname) or Papiamento (from Curacao etc.

  24. Pablo Campos says

    @Andyo. You said exactly what I was going to say. I’m Hispanic as well and I know English better than many white people. Even my parents who immigrated here know a good amount of English. And this is considering they came from a very poor and remote mountain village in Mexico. As for this assimilation thing. It’s a misguided idea. Even nations like Japan, a so called monoculture is extremely diverse. There’s the Ainu in Eastern Hokkaido and Nemuro and then there’s the natives of Okinawa. Don’t even get me started on Central Asia as a great example of multiculturalism and cultural plurality being a given throughout its history and present. Basically most nations are ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse. It was throughout history and still is. Just another example of conservatives and racists ignoring reality.

  25. mcfrank0 says

    PZ: I just posted over at Echidne’s house that I started following blogs to find eloquent means of expressing my jumbled thoughts.

    For me, you really hit the nail on the head contrasting demands for assimilation from new immigrants versus “ethnic pride” and “family tradition” from folks who have been around for a couple, two, three generations.


  26. gijoel says

    Well, I don’t know whether I want brown grandbabies.

    Fuck you, you don’t get a choice.

  27. pilgham says

    As best as I can tell, “assimilate” is based on two things, language and income. I can sort of see language but most people who had to learn english as an adult seem to able to function most of the time. When filling out paper work, they are wise to get help. Especially these days when checking the wrong box can get you deported. And if they are trying to answer a question of any depth, they are going to need to talk in their language. Either that or you don’t let them express themselves on any matter of importance. I always suspect the second is what the Tom Tancredos of the world prefer. As for income, do we really have a problem with low income people only when they don’t speak English?

    Also, if the GOP really wants assimilation, stop rounding people up and deporting them every generation or so. That would help.

  28. justanotherjohn says

    Maybe it’s rich old white assholes from Martha’s Vineyard who should work harder at assimilation.

  29. jrkrideau says

    @1 What a Maroon, living up to the ‘nym

    If there’s any group that knows the value of speaking English in this country, it’s immigrants.

    I was listening to a CBC program about a fairly new suburb of Toronto that is very popular with Chinese immigrants. One woman from China was saying that she liked the area, the only problem was that there were too many Chinese immigrants. It made it much harder to learn English.

    @ 8 andyo

    Does anyone actually know a child of an immigrant that doesn’t speak English?


  30. marinerachel says

    I mean, I have to agree with him that lots of white people don’t want brown grandkids. I would never argue it isn’t racist. It is true though. Whole Lotta racists out there.

    We do have a couple immigrant communities in and around Vancouver that are sufficiently large and insular for immigrants’ kids born in Canada to not learn much English. The thing is I don’t care. My only concern with people not “assimilating” is their safety, which I do think they’re taking a chance on by not being able to communicate in English. That’s up to them though. I can’t get up in arms about the fact some communities aren’t interested in talking to me.

    The overwhelming majority of first generation Canadians would never dream of limiting themselves to their parents’ community by not learning English. Most are required to attend school in English (or French) anyways so it isn’t possible for them not to without forgoing a high school education.

  31. tacitus says

    My sister and her husband couldn’t have been more delighted to welcome their first brown grandchild into their otherwise all white family a couple of weeks ago. In this case, their granddaughter is half-Indian and they’re in the UK, but the same principle applies. The only difference to having a white baby is they’ll have a lot more family celebrations to attend, their daughter-in-law being from a Hindu family. I don’t think that’s an issue. They’ve loved learning their in-law’s culture and history.

    Back in college, at Manchester University in the UK, our nearest corner store was run by an immigrant Pakistani family. The grandmother didn’t speak a word of English and the father spoke good English but with a heavy accent, but his kids–if you closed your eyes when listening to them talking, you would have sworn they were from a family that had been in Manchester for generations.

    Then there’s a couple I know, immigrants from Hong Kong. Not only are their kids already fluent in Chinese and English, they speak Spanish as well. Only one of them has reached school age.

    No doubt there a small pockets of immigrants in some places that don’t want to assimilate, and there’s also no doubt that immigrants will bring change with them as the communities grow in size, but assimilation always happens sooner or later, even if the later is several generations. So, really, those who complain it doesn’t happen are either ignorant, or have an agenda…

  32. unclefrogy says

    So, really, those who complain it doesn’t happen are either ignorant, or have an agenda…

    have an agenda maybe?
    uncle frogy

  33. Reginald Selkirk says

    It Tom Brokaw were truly convinced that immigrants should assimilate, wouldn’t he give that interview in Iriquois?

  34. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    A note on the notion that the children of immigrants learn English effortlessly, or like natives: one thing that’s been clear since at least the ’90s is that superficial fluency in a language doesn’t mean that language isn’t a barrier to success in school. Kids need a rich foundation in language before they even get into the schools to succeed easily, and especially a rich vocabulary. Kids who come from homes where they don’t get that kind of input (regardless of the home language) struggle in school; kids who get that input (regardless of the home language–language and literacy skills can transfer relatively easily to another language, and it’s probably best for parents to talk to their kids in whatever language the parents are most comfortable in) have less trouble succeeding. So kids who come from homes where English isn’t spoken still often require linguistic support (and by extension, though this is a bit more tricky politically, the same holds true for a lot of kids who come from English-speaking homes). What’s also become clear is that that linguistic support is most effective when combined with learning content–learning math or social studies or science shouldn’t only be about learning the what, the how, and the why, but also how to read, listen, speak, and write about it.

    I know it’s not fashionable to praise W. Bush or No Child Left Behind, but one thing he understood is the needs of the children of immigrants in the schools, and one benefit of the law is that for the first time it held schools accountable for the progress of English language learners in academic English. The education of ELLs in the country has advanced considerably since the law was passed (though it still has a long way to go).

  35. magistramarla says

    Gijoel @ 28
    “Well, I don’t know whether I want brown grandbabies.”
    “Fuck you, you don’t get a choice.”
    My thoughts exactly! This is my husband’s favorite thing to say to people seeking advice about grandchildren.
    When my son’s first child was born nearly 6 years ago, his mother (a drop-dead gorgeous lady of Mexican, Spanish and Italian heritage – my son is a lucky man!), was concerned about the baby being confused by hearing two languages.
    I reassured her quickly. Since I’m a language teacher by training, I sent her copies of a few studies showing that bi-lingual kids do much better in school. Our grandson heard a rich mixture of Spanish and English from day 1. He quickly learned that I was “Gamma” and that his other grandmother was “Abuela”, and never made a mistake, even on the phone.
    He was accepted into a dual language pre-school because he tested as equally proficient in both languages. He’s now doing exceptionally well in kindergarten.
    We welcomed our second brown grandson last fall, and he’s so gorgeous that complete strangers say that he should be a model for print or TV ads. We know that he will be raised the same way as his big brother – with a deep appreciation of both of the languages and cultures of his parents.
    We now have 8 grandchildren. I love watching them growing up and learning to have an appreciation of the world around them.
    I’m sure that PZ is feeling the same about his two gorgeous grandbabies.

  36. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Come on, you are being rather unfair to Ol’ Tom. He is clearly quoting what Republicans say to him if he “pushes”. Read it again,

    Also, I hear, when I push people a little harder, “Well, I don’t know whether I want brown grandbabies.” I mean, that’s also a part of it.

    He is saying he hears racism from “the Republican side”.

  37. sherylyoung says

    My husband’s parents were refugees from Poland & got here in 1950. They were pretty traumatized still from WWII & settled in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago. My husband’s 1st language was Polish & he started learning English in kindergarten. By second grade he was translating for his parents. (It’s sad he never learned to read or write Polish.)

    I’d LOVE to have grandbabies of any color at all! If they end up being bi-lingual that’s even better.

  38. imback says

    I never suspected Tom Brokaw of being anything but a smarmy apologist for the status quo.