Bryan Caplan  

Immigrants and American Culture

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While preparing for my upcoming talk on immigration, I decided to flesh out my claim that states with lots of immigrants are cultural beacons, and states with few immigrants are boring cultural wastelands.  It's even more true than I thought.  California and New York are clearly the cultural centers of the U.S. - and they have the highest foreign-born percentages in the country.  At the bottom of the list stand Wyoming, the Dakotas, Arkansas, Alabama, Montana, and at dead last, West Virginia.

Is the connection causal?  At least for food, clearly so.  And isn't that the only kind of local culture Americans really care to consume, anyway? :-)


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Muckdog writes:

Having a taqueria on every corner is nice. I will say that. But it seems to me that those boring states you mention are much more family centric than us here caught up in the hustle and bustle.

I think there are trade offs.

[mistyped url fixed--Econlib Ed.]

JPIrving writes:

I think it really depends what type of immigrants we are talking about. I was in the Burlington Vermont area this summer which has been picked by some wise planner as a relocation sight for several thousand west african muslims. For some reason I got the feeling that unemployable, burka and hajib clad women and hordes of illiterate children added less cultural vitality than say...Vietnamese immigrants would have.

Actually burlington's thriving and assimilated vietnamese population proves this...

Though perhaps Bryan draws distinction between "refugees" and immigrants.

I would also point to Berlin, which is host to hundreds of thousands of unassimilated Turks. Berlin is culturally vibrant but you would have to be naive to think the increased crime and social tension is worth the cheaper kababs. Actually this follows for almost any european city....

Eli writes:

I yield to no one in my enthusiasm for immigration, but it's likely that the causality runs at least partially in the other direction as well. If you are an immigrant with no ties, which part of the country are you going to want to settle in: the part that is fun or the part that is boring?

Robert Johnson writes:

Oh come on, Bryan! Don't you think that the immigrants and the culture might have both been caused by a third factor, e.g. economic dynamism?

Not to say I'm unsympathetic to the idea that immigrants are an important part of what makes America great, but I think it's also true that America attracts immigrants because it is great.

agnostic writes:

Except that none of the culture from California that anyone else values comes from Mexicans. High-IQ immigrants in Silicon Valley, yes, but not for anything cultural below the elite level.

People value pizza and burgers/fries more than Taco Bell, and that's the best case to make for Mexican contributions. Who listens to ranchero music? All the good music that's come out of L.A. or the Bay Area has been made by native-born whites.

Same applies to New York, although there's a non-trivial contribution from Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, but they're largely African rather than Amerindian by background, and Africans tend to be more culturally creative than Amerindians.

Because the low-skilled immigrants aren't making the cultural products from CA or NY that fascinates the rest of the country, obviously the causation goes the other way.

If you saw that robbers tend to flock to people who have some money vs. no money, would you throw your hands up in the air about whether or not being mugged made you richer? It's that easy to see in this case. When it comes to immigration, especially among economists, people shut their brains off.

agnostic writes:

And that superstar California music made by native whites is not even *influenced by* Mexican or Central American music, although a lot is influenced by West African forms.

The surfer culture, Valley Girl speak, everything else -- no trace of Mexican influence or causation, as your speculation requires.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

"Except that none of the culture from California that anyone else values comes from Mexicans."

Oh, so no one in California values tacos? Margaritas?

pushmedia1 writes:

agnostic, it could be that there's complimentaries where natives are the direct producers of culture but the immigrants enable this specialization.

Hyena writes:

Too many people are looking for immediate and direct cultural impact. A lot of the cultural impact will happen over decades; much of it is probably only the result of the second generation, which is well-positioned to exert influence over majority norms and tastes.

If we're looking for the impact of Mexican immigrants on California, we'd have to look at the Chicanos of the 1970s and the children of immigrants from the 1990s-2000s, who are just now coming online.

It's also trivially true that California's schools have degraded in quality over time. This would probably blunt some of the impact by promoting intergenerational poverty.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

Lordy Lordy Bryan, we need to get you into some of these Arkansas towns that are anything BUT white. Who do you think Tyson hires?

David C writes:

On that third link in the post, if you look at the 16 states with 10% or more of an immigrant population, only 4 have a more negative image of immigrants than the national weighted average. At least that's true for the two questions given. Those four states are Rhode Island (12% immigrants), Nevada(17%), Illinois(11%), and Colorado(10%). It seems people only dislike immigrants if they never have to deal with them.

Matt Flipago writes:

@agnostic
OHH those burgers and fries, and pizza, all came from white people in an isolated bubble.
Most people don't experience direct cultural conflict, but it often starts with immigrants, then whites tame it, and develop to make it see more normal to people in the rest of the United States. Like people were scared of jazz, until white people started taming it down with swing jazz, cool jazz, smooth jazz, third stream, and avant garde.(well avant garde isn't popular, but who cares)
So the fact that white people made the music doesn't mean it was a a sole product of White American culture. And latin flavored music is fairly popular in America, so I don't know what your talking about when you say it wasn't influenced. All artist look outward to develop fusion, because fusion is a hell of a lot easier then making something completely different.

I think Bryan is missing a VERY important factor. Population density. Cultural development rarely happen out in the sticks.

Fanwank writes:

“Cultural development rarely happen out in the sticks."

Philo T. Farnsworth invented the television while plowing fields. James Pemberton invented Coke as a druggist in a small town in Georgia. Sam Walton invented the largest retailer in the world in a small town in Arkansas (Wal-Mart is still largely rural).

If cultural development rarely happened in the sticks, civilization never would have gotten off the ground.

TimG writes:

@Matt Flipago

I don't understand your analogy at all. Who thinks that Jazz was a sole product of white people, or even a somewhat white invention? Do you have an example of something cultural that white people tamed where the original creation group hasn't received credit?

Second your conflating Latin and Mexican. Yes there are Latin influences in American music, but they didn't come from the 10s of millions of people of Mexican decedent in the US.

Alex writes:

Mexican and Latin cultural additions to CA:

1. Cinco de Mayo, which is like a new St. Patrick's Day.
2. Architecture (Spanish too).
3. Food and drink.
4. Mexican art and murals dominate in parts of SoCal and some of them are quite beautiful.
5. Dance. Latin dances are popular and becoming increasingly so.
6. Mexican and Latin style religious symbolism dots lawns everywhere.

And that's all I could think of in 30 second.

liberty writes:

Walmart is cultural development? One issue may be that nobody here has really defined what they mean by culture.

Bryan implies in this and previous posts that part of what he's talking about obviously does come from immigrants: a diversity of restaurants.

The causation certainly goes both ways in NY and California - immigrants go there, as do people from all over America, for what it already has. But then they do add to it -- it's hard to survive in NY without adding something. Many immigrants offer restaurants, creating the most amazing selection in the world, others offer stuff like Canal St. -- an amazing assortment of fabrics, plastics, art supplies, lumber, novelties, food, commercial supplies etc all along several blocks teeming with life and bustle, that truly adds something to NY. Other neighborhoods are similarly heavily influenced by the immigrants that settled there (Canal st. is in Chinatown).

The immigrants in NY obviously offer a lot - to music, to food (not only restaurants but food shops - bodegas, Asian groceries, etc), to other kinds of shops that cater to their unique demand, to the kinds of other things they tend to create and sell, and to the museums, concerts, galleries, theatre etc that they enjoy or perform.

Matt Flipago writes:

TimG, popular jazz at most moments was created by whites. Any of the musicians at the time hated the fact that whites became so successful, while equally skilled blacks were left homeless. People tend to give the original creators credit, although some people think that jazz isn't Black, and Pizza and Hotdogs weren't invented by Europeans. The Part that becomes solidified as American culture is commonly some warped version of something from outside America, which isn't to say it isn't American, invented by Americans, or somehow inherently worse then the original product.

@Fanwank
Invention of the the television isn't culture, that's an invention, the shows are culture.(And who bought the first 50% of televisions, people in cities) Coke didn't become part of American Culture, until after they got rid of the Coke part. And WALMART?!!?!? Walmart is not culture, it's a store. You must be grasping for straws if you can sit there and say Walmart is culture. "Cultural development rarely happen out in the sticks." I stand by that statement as the only thing close to culture you listed was Coca-cola.

Steve Sailer writes:

"California and New York are clearly the cultural centers of the U.S. - and they have the highest foreign-born percentages in the country."

California and New York were also the cultural centers of the U.S. in 1965, at the end of four decades of immigration restriction, so that's a humiliatingly bad argument to put forward.

There's no question that super-elite immigrants, such as Alfred Hitchcock or Christopher Nolan, are cultural assets. Yet, where's the evidence that immigration of the masses from Mexico and Central America has had even a noticeable positive impact on American culture? There are roughly 35 million people in America of Mexican and Central American descent.

In the Southwestern U.S., there have been Mexican-Americans in sizable numbers since the 1840s. Where are all the high achievers?

Where are all the famous Mexican-American men of letters? Richard Rodriguez emerged as a fine essayist in 1981 with Hunger of Memory. Three decades later, he still seems to be the go-to guy for well crafted writing on the Mexican American experience. There's just not much competition.

Many millions of Mexican-Americans grew up within 100 miles of Hollywood. Where are the Mexican-American directors? There are the three amigos of art houses, but they got started in the Mexico City elite. There are lots of talented people in Mexico, population 110,000,000, but most off them stay in Mexico. The only true Mexican American auteur I can think of is Robert Rodriguez (Machete).

Where are the Mexican-American screenwriters (and, no, Matt Yglesias's Cuban-Jewish dad doesn't count)?

Where are the Mexican American rock stars? There used to be Mexican American rock stars. Ritchie Valens had a big hit over a half century ago with "La Bamba" and died in Buddy Holly plane crash in 1959 at age 17. Los Lobos from East LA was one of the best bands of the 1980s.

Where are the Mexican-American Silicon Valley entrepreneurs?

Where are all the Mexican-American athletes? There were more famous Mexican-American athletes in the 1950s-1980s than today: Pancho Gonzales, Lee Trevino, Nancy Lopez.

Steve Sailer writes:

"1. Cinco de Mayo, which is like a new St. Patrick's Day."

Real Mexicans celebrate Mexican Independence Day in September. Cinco de Mayo was turned into a big deal by gringo liquor companies as an excuse for drunkenness. Big whoop.

2. Architecture (Spanish too).

Anglos in California fell in love with the Spanish Mission style and with a romanticized picture of Spanish (not Mexican) California in general following Helen Hunt Jackson's 1883 novel "Ramona." The apotheosis of the Spanish Mission style was the rebuilding of Santa Barbara after the 1925 earthquake. So, the Spanish influence on architecture was many generations ago.

3. Food and drink.

Sure, but tacos were generations ago in California. There are very few trendy Mexican restaurants on La Cienega today.


4. Mexican art and murals dominate in parts of SoCal and some of them are quite beautiful.

Some are nice, but Mexican graffiti more than balances it out.


5. Dance. Latin dances are popular and becoming increasingly so.

Most of these dances are Cuban or South American, not Mexican.


6. Mexican and Latin style religious symbolism dots lawns everywhere.

Not in my neighborhood! My neighbors would ostracize me if I drove down their property values by putting Mexican religious statuary on my lawn.

In general, Los Angeles's creative classes don't think about Mexican-Americans much at all today, other than as servants.

Bob Montgomery writes:
It's even more true than I thought. California and New York are clearly the cultural centers of the U.S. - and they have the highest foreign-born percentages in the country.
Consider me unconvinced. Follow the link, and the top 10 are, in order: California New York New Jersey Florida Hawaii Nevada Arizona Texas Massachusetts Maryland

California, New York, sure. But NJ, Nevada, Arizona, Maryland? I dunno...

As someone hinted at above, it seems like the real cause here is population density, and % foreign-born correlates with that.

Actually, I just used Excel to run a quick correlation between % foreign-born and 2010 population. The correlation coefficient was 0.65

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