Dillingham Flaw Essay

Cheap Custom Writing Service

The Dillingham Flaw is a relatively new concept to describe a centuries-old phenomenon of faulty logic when nativists misinterpret and react to the presence of immigrants in their midst. It ignores diversity and assumes homogeneity, thereby setting a framework for negativity about newcomers.

The term draws its name from a special commission created in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt to look into the “immigration problem.” Chaired by Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont, the commission, over a 4-year period, listened to testimony from civic leaders, educators, social scientists, and social workers and made onsite visits to Ellis Island and New York’s Lower East Side. In 1911, the commission issued a 41-volume report of its findings. Unfortunately, the report was flawed in its application and interpretation of the data that the commission had so tirelessly collected. Social scientists agree that the commission erred in its use of simplistic categories for diverse immigrant groups. Their second error was in an unfair comparison of “old” and “new” immigrants despite the changed structural conditions and longer time interval that previous immigrants had to assimilate and achieve some measure of economic security.

Quite simply then, the term Dillingham Flaw refers to inaccurate comparisons based on simplistic categorizations and anachronistic observations. This erroneous thinking can occur in assessments of the past, present, or future.

The Past

Applying modern classifications or sensibilities to a time when they did not exist, or, if they did, had a different form or meaning is one version of the Dillingham Flaw. In this instance, we utilize our modern perceptions to explain a past that its contemporaries viewed quite differently. For example, today’s term British refers collectively to the people of Great Britain (the English, Welsh, Scots, and Scots-Irish). However, in the 18th century, British had the much narrower meaning of only the English, and for good reason. The English, Scots, and Scots-Irish may have been English-speaking, but significant cultural and religious differences existed among them and they did not view each other as “similar.” For us to presume that the colonial British, even just the colonial English, were a single cohesive entity and thus the 13 English colonies were homogeneous would be to fall victim to the Dillingham Flaw.

Similarly, we fall into this trap if we speak about either African slaves or Native Americans as single, monolithic entities. Such ethnocentric generalizations fail to acknowledge that these groups actually consisted of diverse peoples with distinctive languages, cultures, and behavior patterns. Similarly, European immigrants were not alike, despite their collective groupings by mainstream society. Instead, all of these groups—African American, Native American, and immigrant—were diverse peoples with many distinctions that set them apart from one another.

The Present

Similar misconceptions can, and often do, occur in one’s own time. Here, the faulty logic about the past just described is used to evaluate the present. Working from a false premise about past rapid assimilation and cultural homogeneity, individuals employ what they believe is an objective comparison with the present scene, which they find troubling in its heterogeneity and supposedly nonassimilating groups. Like the 1907 presidential commission (mentioned earlier in this entry), they are susceptible to mistaken impressions about a “threat” posed by recent immigrants whose presence and behavior they view as different from earlier immigrants.

The most common examples are expressed views that today’s steadily increasing ranks of Africans, Asians, Hispanics, and Muslims in the United States present an unprecedented challenge to an integrative society. Reacting to the increasing presence—even in many nonurban settings—of nonwhite newcomers speaking a foreign tongue, including many from a non-Judeo-Christian background, nativists view with alarm these demographic changes. Such fears are echoes of those raised about earlier groups, such as the racist responses to the physical appearance of southern Europeans or the anti-Semitic reactions to eastern European Jews. In reality, studies consistently reveal rapid English language acquisition among all immigrants groups and higher naturalization rates among non-Westerners.

The Future

Using oversimplified categorizations and imposing present-day sensibilities—the essence of the Dillingham Flaw—also can occur when individuals engage in demographic projections. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that Hispanics will compose about one fourth of the total U.S. population in 2050. Given past patterns and current trends, however, we cannot be certain that today’s group categories, such as Hispanic, will still be valid by then.

Currently, most white Americans bear witness to mixed European ancestry, but two generations ago, Americans of southern, central, and eastern European backgrounds were far more likely to be of a single national lineage and religion. Their single-group identities evolved into multiple-group identities, as large-scale intermarriages generated such a blending of peoples that “whites” and “European Americans” became synonymous. Further, their mixed heritage is now more likely to be passively acknowledged, except for occasional symbolic celebrations. It is no longer an element of everyday ethnicity, subcultural participation, or minority status.

Each succeeding year shows greater numbers of exogamous marriages among ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Therefore, it is not unreasonable, for example, to suggest—given the annual increase in Hispanics marrying non-Hispanics—that in two generations many of the descendants of today’s Hispanic Americans will claim a mixed heritage, partly Hispanic and partly non-Hispanic. Projections that the mid-21st century will find the United States with a one-fourth Hispanic population suggests a demographic categorization by today’s realities that may well not fit the reality then.

A similar argument could be made for other groups, as racial intermarriages continue to create a growing multiracial population. Using today’s categories for Americans living in 2050 can easily be another unwitting application of the Dillingham Flaw. Projecting our perceptions and the existing social distance between groups onto a distant future carries a presumption that they will remain the same. Our present-day categories may be inadequate or irrelevant to our descendants.


  1. Parrillo, Vincent N. 1994. “Diversity in America: A Sociohistorical Analysis.” Sociological Forum 9:523-35.
  2. Parrillo, Vincent N. 2008. Diversity in America. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

This example Dillingham Flaw Essay is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need a custom essay or research paper on this topic please use our writing services. EssayEmpire.com offers reliable custom essay writing services that can help you to receive high grades and impress your professors with the quality of each essay or research paper you hand in.

See also:


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality

Special offer!