Sure, an astronomer (say) can tell you with exactitude when the next solar eclipse will occur. Still, most people don't feel strongly about the timing of eclipses. It's easy to be objective when you deal with things rather than with people.
In contrast, human beings get passionate about what is uncovered by social scientists. In fact, much of what social scientists have learned has been gut-wrenching for the researchers themselves, who typically fall well to the left politically.
Social scientists can't always overcome their biases. But when they do, the results are admirable.
The newest example: the impressive multi-generational study of Mexican-American assimilation carried out by two UCLA sociologists, Vilma Ortiz and Edward E. Telles of UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center.
Their 2008 book, Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race, decisively concludes a long-running debate about Mexican immigrants.
Telles and Ortiz write:
"Despite sixty years of political and legal battles to improve the education of Mexican Americans, they continue to have the lowest average education levels and the highest high school dropout rates among major ethnic and racial groups in the United States. … However, leading analysts, apparently believing in the universality of assimilation, argue that this is the result of a large first and second generation population still adjusting to American society. … These and other scholars predict that Mexican Americans will have the same levels of education and socioeconomic status as the dominant non-Hispanic white population by the fourth generation."
East Coast pundits, such as Michael Barone and Tamar Jacoby, frequently imply that, while Mexican Americans may appear to be lagging alarmingly, that's mostly because they've all just recently arrived from Mexico.
After all, whoever saw a Mexican in New York, Washington, or Boston before the last decade or two? So their future is wide open! This will catch up by the third generation, or maybe the fourth—but in any case, Real Soon Now.
Due to "the great, slow, mysterious absorptive alchemy of assimilation" (to quote Jacoby's review in National Review of Barone's 2001 book The New Americans, the descendents of Mexican immigrants will no doubt be flourishing just like the descendents of the Ellis Island immigrants.
So why enforce the borders? …
To natives of the Southwestern United States, like myself, this conventional wisdom that Mexicans are just newcomers who will turn into Italians or Jews in "only" three or four generations is simply Eastern ignorance.
Mexican Americans are new to the East, but they've been in the Southwestern U.S. since before there was a U.S. The 1920 Census found one million Hispanics in the U.S.—that's an ample sample from which to draw conclusions.
Social scientists in the mid-20th Century paid intense interest to European ethnic newcomers and African Americans. But Latinos were largely overlooked. Telles and Ortiz note that Mexican Americans "were well off the radar screen of the largely Eastern and Midwestern-based social sciences. At best, they were viewed as some inexplicable frontier anomaly."
This lack of awareness still allows Eastern writers descended from Ellis Island immigrants to spin fantasies about the benign long-run effects of Mexican immigration, based largely on ethnocentric nostalgia about their own lineages' spunky underdog wonderfulness.
Indeed, many Eastern elites seem to regard expressions of skepticism about illegal Mexican immigrants as personal insults directed at their beloved ancestors. They're more concerned about the issues of 1908 than of 2008.
During the Great Society, UCLA organized the first major survey, the Mexican American Study Project. In 1965, UCLA academics interviewed 1576 individuals of Mexican descent in the two largest Mexican American metropolises of the time, Los Angeles County and San Antonio. …
This kind of cross-sectional analysis is valuable but it's not totally definitive about assimilation. For that, you need longitudinal analyses that follow people over time. However, surveys that cover decades are extremely expensive. …
Fortunately, workers in 1992 stumbled upon the 1965 survey forms in a storage room at the UCLA library. Sociologists affiliated with UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center came up with the audacious notion of searching out the original respondents, then interviewing them again, along with some of their children. This would turn the old 1965 cross-sectional study into a much-needed longitudinal one.
This would allow progress to be tracked across four generations. And researchers could even inquire about the children's children, extending the analysis out to a fifth generation since immigration. …
Telles and Ortiz write with justified pride: "As far as we know, this research design is unique and for many reasons it is the most appropriate for addressing the actual intergenerational integration of immigrants and their descendents." …
Their multiple regression analyses show that the key factor, driving all the others, is education. They conclude:"Throughout this book, our statistical models have shown that the low education levels of Mexican Americans have impeded most other types of assimilation, thus reinforcing a range of ethnic boundaries between them and white Americans."
As is well known, American-born Mexicans average more years of education than do their Mexican-born immigrant ancestors. Unfortunately, as Telles and Ortiz report, the third and fourth generations of Mexican Americans do not continue to close the gap relative to non-Hispanic whites: "In education, which best determines life chances in the United States, assimilation is interrupted by the second generation and stagnates thereafter."
The fourth generation (whose grandparents were born in America) was particularly unaccomplished: "Sadly and directly in contradistinction to assimilation theory, the fourth generation differs the most from whites, with a college completion rate of only 6 percent [compared to 35 percent for whites of that era]."
The fourth-generation Baby Boomers averaged 0.7 years less schooling than the second and third generation Mexican Americans born in the same era.
Telles and Ortiz found: "…the educational progress of Mexican Americans does not improve over the generations. At best, given the statistical margin of error, our data show no improvement in education over the generations-since-immigration and in some cases even suggest a decline."
In 2000, the UCLA interviewers also asked the Baby Boomer children of the original subjects about their own children (i.e., the grandchildren of the 1965 respondents). These grandchildren (who are third to fifth generation Mexican Americans, Generation X-ers born in the 1960s and 1970s) "seemed to be doing no better than their parents" at graduating from high school.
But, don't worry, be happy. The sixth generation will assuredly get it into gear and catch up with the American mainstream. Only evil, uncouth people could possibly doubt that. Ask Michael Barone.[Email Barone]
In Generations of Exclusion, Telles and Ortiz have created a monument to disinterested, objective social science.