Section IV: Ethnic Dynamics in American Society

Ethnic Politics and the Persistence of Ethnic Identification

Michael Parenti

A question that has puzzled students of ethnic politics can be stated as follows: in the face of increasing assimilation why do ethnics continue to vote as ethnics with about the same frequency as in earlier decades?…

Part of the reason for the persistence of ethnic voting may rest in the political system itself. Rather than being a purely dependent variable, the political system, i.e., party, precinct workers, candidates, elections, patronage, etc., continues to rely upon ethnic strategies such as those extended to accommodate the claims of newly-arrived ethnic middle-class leadership; as a mediator and mobilizer of minority symbols and interests, the political system must be taken into account.

Raymond Wolfinger suggests several further explanations, which may be briefly summarized as follows: (a) “Family-political identification.” Voting studies show that as many as four-fifths of all voters maintain the same party identification as did their parents, a continuity which is not merely a reflection of similar life conditions but is in part ascribable to the independent influence of primary group relations. (b) “Critical elections theory.” The emergence of highly salient ethnic candidates and issues may cause a dramatic realignment so that a particular party becomes the repository of ethnic loyalty even after the ethnically salient candidate and issues have passed. (c) “Historical after-effects.” Partisan affiliations, as Key and Munger have demonstrated for Indiana, persist generations after the reasons for their emergence have ceased to be politically relevant. Thus “even when ethnic salience has faded, …. its political effects will remain.” (d) “Militant core-city residue.” The ethnic community may retain a group awareness despite a growing class heterogeneity because the assimilationist-minded will advance to the suburbs while those among the upwardly mobile who choose to stay in the ethnic city settlements are more likely to be the most strongly in-group oriented….

Yet, after all is said and done, I cannot free myself from the suspicion that perhaps a false problem has been created which can best be resolved by applying certain analytic and theoretical distinctions, supported by data that extend beyond the usual voting studies. If, in fact, it can be demonstrated that assimilation is not taking place, then the assimilation theory as propounded by Robert Dahl, along with Wolfinger’s alternate explanations are somewhat beside the point. And the question, why do ethnics continue to vote as ethnics despite increasing assimilation, becomes the wrong one to ask–because the answer may simply be that minorities are not assimilating….

The confusion rests, I submit, in the failure–common to many of us political scientists, and even to some sociologists and anthropologists–to make a conceptual distinction between “acculturation” and “assimilation.” The distinction is crucial in reading correct meaning into our data and in guiding us to fruitful theoretical conclusions. For while it is established that ethnics have accommodated themselves to American styles and customs (acculturation) by the second generation, and while perhaps they may enjoy increased occupational and geography mobility, it is not at all clear that they are incorporating themselves into the structural identificational-group relations of the dominant society (assimilation). On close examination we find that the term “assimilation,” as commonly used, refers to a multiplicity of cultural, social and identificational processes which need closer scrutiny.

I. Acculturation and Assimilation

At the outset, it is necessary, as Talcott Parsons and others have urged, to distinguish between cultural and social systems: the cultural is the system of beliefs, values, norms, practices, symbols and ideas (science, art, artifacts, language, law and learning included); the social is the system of interrelations and associations among individuals and groups. Thus a church, family, club, informal friendship group, or formal organization, etc., composed of individuals interracting in some kind of context involving roles and statuses are part of the social system, or one might say, represent particular sub-societal systems within the society; while the beliefs, symbols, and practices mediated and adhered to by members of the church, family, club, etc., are part of the cultural system or sub-cultural systems within the total culture. By abstracting two analytically distinct sets of components from the same concrete phenomena we are able to observe that, although there may often be an important interraction, the order of relationships and the actions and conditions within one are independent of those in the other. Attention to this independence increases analytical precision.

What was considered as one general process becomes a multifaceted configuration of processes. And if it can be said that there is no inevitable one-to-one relationship between the various processes, and that imperatives operative in one system are not wholly dependent upon the other, then ethnic political behavior becomes something less of a mystery. For ethnic social sub-systems may persist or evolve new structures independent of the host society and despite dramatic cultural transitions in the direction of the mainstream culture.

Since early colonial times, nearly every group arriving in America has attempted to reconstruct communities that were replications of the old world societies from which they had emerged. With the exception of a few isolated sectarian enclaves such as the Hutterites,
the Amish and the Hasidic, they failed to do so. If culture is to be represented as the accumulated beliefs, styles, solutions and practices which represent a society’s total and continuing adjustment to its environment, then it would seem to follow that no specific cultural system can be transplanted from one environment to another without some measure of change. Unable to draw upon a complete cultural base of their own in the new world, and with no larger constellation of societal and institutional forces beyond the ghetto boundaries to back them, the immigrants eventually lost the battle to maintain their indigenous ways. By the second generation, attention was directed almost exclusively toward American events and standards, American language, dress, recreation, work, and mass media, while interest in old world culture became minimal or, more usually, non-existent. To one extent or another, all major historical and sociological studies of immigration and ethnicity document this cultural transition of the American-born generation.

However, such acculturation was most often not followed by social assimilation; the group became “Americanized” in much of its cultural practices, but this says little about its social relations with the host society. In the face of widespread acculturation, the minority still maintained a social sub-structure encompassing primary and secondary group relations composed essentially of fellow ethnics….

From birth in the sectarian hospital to childhood play-groups to cliques and fraternities in high school and college to the selection of a spouse, a church affiliation, social and service clubs, a vacation resort, and, as life nears completion, an old-age home and sectarian cemetary–the ethnic, if he so desires, may live within the confines of his sub-societal matrix–and many do. Even if he should find himself in the oppressively integrated confines of prison, the ethnic discovers that Italian, Irish, Jewish, Negro and Puerto Rican inmates coalesce into distinct groups in “a complex web of prejudices and hostilities, friendships and alliances.”….

II. Heterogeneity within the Homogeneous Society

Could not such unassimilated sub-structures be more representative of a time when urban areas were segmented into ghettos untouched by post-war affluence, upward occupational mobility and treks to the suburbs? This is the question which seems to anticipate both Dahl and Wolfinger. In actuality, while individual ethnics have entered professional and occupational roles previously beyond their reach, minority group mobility has not been as dramatic as is often supposed. A comparison of first and second generation occupational statuses as reported in the 1950 national census shows no evidence of any substantial convergence of intergroup status levels. The occupational differences among ethnic groups, with the Irish as a possible exception, remain virtually the same for both generations, leading C.B. Nam to observe that even with the absence of large-scale immigration, “the importance of nationality distinctions for the American stratification system will remain for some time to come.” If today’s ethnics enjoy a better living standard than did their parents, it is because there has been an across-the-board rise throughout America. Fewer pick-and-shovel jobs and more white collar positions for minority members are less the result of ethnic mobility than of an over-all structural transition in our national economy and the composition of our labor force.

Furthermore, despite the popular literature on the hopeless homogeneity of suburbia, suburbs are not great social melting pots. Scott Greer, after noting the breakup of some of the central city ethnic communities, cautions: “The staying force of the ethnic community (in suburbia) must not be underestimated.” The good Catholic, for instance, “can live most of his life, aside from work, within a Catholic environment,” in a sub-societal network of schools, religious endogamy, family, church, social, athletic and youth organizations, and Catholic residential areas. Similarly, Robert Wood observes that suburbs tend toward ethnic clusters. In the more “mixed areas ,” ethnic political blocs are not unknown. As in the city, the tension between the older resident and the newcomer sometimes reinforces ethnic political alignments and ethnic social identifications. Minority concentrations are less visible in suburban than in urban areas because less immigrant and second-generation persons reside there. Lieberson’s study of ten major metropolitan areas shows that the groups most highly segregated from native whites in the central city are also most residentially concentrated in the suburbs, so that suburban patterns bear a strong similarity to those found in the city.

Finally, residential segregation is not a necessary prerequisite for the maintenance of an ethnic sub-societal structure; a group can maintain ethnic social cohesion and identity, while lacing an ecological basis. The Jews of Park Forest live scattered over a wide area and “participate with other Park Foresters in American middle-class culture,” that is, they clearly are acculturated. Yet in one year a Jewish sub-community consisting of informal friendship groups, a women’s club, a B’nai B’rith lodge and a Sunday school had emerged. Similarly distinct Lutheran and Catholic social groupings also had developed in which national origin played a large part. (Religion, according to Herbert Gans, was not the exclusive concern of any of the three groups.)

The neighborhood stores, bars, coffee-shops, barber shops, and fraternal clubrooms which serve as social nerve centers in the ecologically contiguous first-settlement urban areas are difficult to reconstruct in the new topography of shopping centers and one-family homes, but they are frequently replaced by suburban-styled church, charity and social organizations, informal evening home-centered gatherings and extended family ties kept intact over a wide area with the technical assistance of the omnipresent automobile. The move to second and third settlement areas and the emergence of American-born generations, rather than presaging an inevitable process of disintegration has led to new adjustments in minority organization and communication. Even when most of the lifestyles assume an American middle-class stamp, these in-group social patterns reinforce ethnic identifications and seem to give them an enduring nature. Today identifiable groups remain not as survivals from the age of immigration but with new attributes many of which were unknown to the immigrants. In short, changes are taking place in ethnic social patterns, but the direction does not seem to be toward greater assimilation into the dominant Anglo-American social structure.

In addition to the movement of ethnics from first settlement areas to the surrounding suburbs there is a smaller “secondary migration” to the Far West. What little evidence we have of this phenomenon suggests that highly visible acculturation styles do not lead to the loss of ethnic consciousness….At the same time, the emerging political articulation of Mexican-Americans throughout the Far West should remind us that growing acculturation often leads to more rather than less ethnic political awareness.

In general terms, the new “affluence,” often cited as a conductor of greater assimilation, may actually provide minorities with the financial and psychological wherewithal for building even more elaborate parallel sub-societal structures, including those needed for political action. In prosperous suburban locales, while the oldest and most exclusive country clubs belong to old-stock Protestant families, the newer clubs are of Jewish or varying Catholic-ethnic antecedents. Among Chicago’s debutantes, established “society,” primarily Anglo-Protestant, holds a coming-out at the Passavant hospital ball. Debutantes of other origins make do with a Presentation Ball (Jewish), a Links Ball (Negro) and the White and Red Ball (Polish). Similar developments can be observed in numerous other urban and suburban regions. Rather than the expected structural assimilation, parallel social structures flourish among the more affluent ethnics….

If ethnic social relations show this notable viability, it might also be remembered that ethnic sub-cultures have not been totally absorbed into mainstream America. Numerous writers have observed the influence of ethnic cultural valuations on political life, causing one to conclude that not only is there slim evidence to show that assimilation is taking place, but there is even some question as to whether acculturation is anywhere complete. Acculturation itself is a multifaceted process, and even as American styles, practices, language, and values are adopted, certain ethnic values and attitudes may persist as a vital influence; for instance, the attitude that fellow-ethnics are preferable companions in primary group relations.

…In sum, cultural belief systems or residual components of such systems may persist as cultural and political forces independently of objective an material factors.

III. Identificational Durability

From the time he is born, the individual responds to cultural cues mediated by representatives that help shape his personal character structure. As Parsons suggests, beside the distinction made between the cultural and social systems, one must take into account the personality system. Insofar as the individual internalizes experiences from earlier social positions and sub-cultural matrices, his personality may act as a determinant–or character interpreter–of his present socio-cultural world. To apply that model to our present analysis: ethnic identifications are no matter of indifference even for the person who is both culturally and socially assimilated to the extent that his professional, recreational, and neighborhood relations and perhaps also his wife are of the wider White Protestant world. A holiday dinner at his parents’ home may be his only active ethnic link, or it may be–as Stanley Edgar Hyman said when asked what being Jewish meant to him–nothing more than “a midnight longing for a hot pastrami sandwich”; yet it is a rare person who reaches adulthood without some internalized feeling about his ethnic identification. Just as social assimilation moves along a different and slower path than that of acculturation, so does identity assimilation, or rather non-assimilation enjoy a pertinacity not wholly responsive to the other two processes.

There are several explanations for the persistence of individual ethnic identity in such cases. First, even if the available range of social exposure brings a man into more frequent contact with out-group members, early in-group experiences, family name and filial attachments may implant in him a natural awareness of, and perhaps a pride in, his ethnic origins. An individual who speaks and behaves like something close to the Anglo-American prototype may still prefer to identify with those of his own racial, religious or national background because it helps tell him who he is. For fear of losing my identity some individuals have no desire to pass completely into a “nondescript” non-ethnic when the “search for identity” concerns many, an identification which is larger than the self yet smaller than the nation is not without its compensations….

As long as distinctions obtain in the dominant society, and the foreseeable future seems to promise no revolutionary flowering of brotherly love , and as long as the family and early group attachments hold some carry-over meaning for the individual, ethnic identifications and ethnic-oriented responses will still be found even among those who have made a “secure” professional and social position for themselves in the dominant Anglo-Protestant world.

IV. Conclusion

By way of concluding I may summarize my major propositions and discuss their broader political and theoretical applications.

1. If the wrong question is asked, then the answers are irrelevant. If our conceptual and analytic tools are insufficient, then we fail to do justice to our data. The question of why ethnics continue to vote as ethnics despite increasing assimilation focuses on a false problem because minority groups are not assimilating. Using an admittedly simplified application of Parson’s model, we arrive at the hypothesis that the cultural, social and personality systems may operate with complex independent imperatives to maintain ethnic consciousness. Assimilation involves much more than occupational, educational and geographic mobility. From the evidence and analysis preferred in the foregoing pages, there is reason to believe that despite a wide degree of second and third generation acculturation: (1) residual ethnic cultural valuations and attitudes persist; acculturation is far from complete; (2) the vast pluralistic parallel systems of ethnic social and institutional life show impressive viability; structural assimilation seems neither inevitable nor imminent; (3) psychological feelings of minority group identity, both of the positive-enjoyment and negative-defensive varieties, are still deeply internalized. In sum, ethnic distinctiveness, can still be treated as a factor in social and political pluralism….We can see that (a) increases in education have not necessarily led to a diminished ethnic consciousness; indeed, the increase in sectarian education often brings a heightened ethnic consciousness. (b) Increases in income and adaptation to middle-class styles have not noticeably diminished the viability and frequency of ethnic formal and informal structural associations. Such stylistic changes as have occurred may just as easily evolve within the confines of the ethnically stratified social systems, thereby leading to a proliferation of parallel structures rather than absorption into Anglo-Protestant social systems. (c) Geographical disperson, like occupational and class mobility has been greatly overestimated. Movement from the first settlement area actually may represent a transplanting of the ethnic community to suburbia. Furthermore, as we have seen, even without the usual geographic contiguity, socially and psychologically contiguous ethnic communities persist. (d) Inter-group contacts, such as may occur, do not necessarily lead to a lessened ethnic awareness; they may serve to activate a new and positive appreciation of personal ethnic identity. Or intergroup contacts may often be abrasive and therefore conducive to ethnic defensiveness and compensatory in-group militancy. Perhaps intermarriage, as a genetic integration (for the offspring) will hasten assimilation; where hate has failed, love may succeed in obliterating the ethnic. But intermarriage remains the exception to the rule, and in the foreseeable future does not promise a large-scale structural group assimilation. Furthermore, in the absence of pertinent data, we need not assume that the offspring of mixed marriages are devoid of ethnic identifications of one kind or another.

2. While not denying what was granted earlier, namely that the political system itself may be an instigator and fabricator of ethnic appeals, we would do well to avoid common overstatements along these lines. It is quite true that politicians are capable of amazing alertness to ethnic sensibilities even in instances where such sensibilities fail to materialize. Yet in the light of the above discussion it would be unduly hasty to conclude that politicians betray a “cultural lag” or perceptual laziness by their continued attention to ethnic groups. The political organization attempting to mobilize support faces the problem of having to construct definitions of its constituency which will reduce the undifferentiated whole into more accessible, manageable, and hopefully more responsive components….More specifically, he must find means of making his constituency accessible to him in the most economical way. Given the limited availability of campaign resources and the potentially limitless demands for expenditure, the candidate is in need of a ready-made formal and informal network of relational sub structures within his constituency. He discovers that “reaching the people” is often a matter of reaching particular people who themselves can reach, or help him reach, still other people….

That many urban and suburban politicians persist in giving attentive consideration to minority social groupings in American-born constituencies, then, may be due less to their inveterate stupidity than to the fact that ethnic sub-structures and identifications are still extant, highly visible and, if handled carefully, highly accessible and responsive. The political practitioner who chooses to ignore the web of formal and informal ethnic sub-structures on the presumption that such groupings are a thing of the past does so at his own risk.

3. Historically, the theoretical choice posed for the ethnic has been either isolated existence in autonomous cultural enclaves or total identificational immersion into the American society. We have seen that neither of these “either-or” conditions have evolved….In reality a person experiences cumulative and usually complementary identifications, and his life experiences may expose him to some of the social relations and cultural cues of the dominant society while yet placing him predominantly within the confines of a particular minority sub-structure. For the ethnic, a minority group identity is no more incompatible with life in America and with loyalty to the nation than is any regional, class, or other particular group attachment. A pluralistic society, after all, could not really exist without pluralistic sub-structures and identities. Ethnics can thus sometimes behave politically as ethnics while remaining firmly American….

The disappearance of ethnicity as a factor in political behavior waits in large part upon total ethnic structural-identificational assimilation into the host society. Perhaps even in that far-off future “when national origins are forgotten, the political allegiances formed in the old days of ethnic salience will be reflected in the partisan choices of totally assimilated descendants of the old immigrants.” If so, then the forces of political continuity will once more have proven themselves, and ethnicity will join long-past regional ties, wars, depressions, defunct political machines, deceased charismatic leaders and a host of other half-forgotten forces whose effects are transmitted down through the generations to shape the political continuities and allegiances of all social groups. But before relegating them to the history of tomorrow, the unassimilated ethnics should be seen as very much alive and with us today.

Taken from American Political Science Review, 61 (September, 1967), 717-26. Reproduced with permission from The American Political Science Association.



Allinsmith, Wesley and Beverly. “Religious Affiliation and Politico-Economic Attitude,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 12 (1948), 377-389.

Arc, M. “The Prison ‘Culture’ From the Inside,” New York Times Magazine, February 28, 1965, p. 63.

Baltzell, E. Digby. The Protestant Establishment, Aristocracy and Caste in America, New York: Random House, 1964, p. 357.

“Life and Leisure,” Newsweek, December 21, 1964.

Chyz, Y.J. and R. Lewis. “Agencies Organized by Nationality Groups in the United States ,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1949, p. 262.

Corey, Lewis. “Problems of the Peace IV. The Middle Class,” Antioch Review, 5:68-87.

Ellis, John Tracy. American Catholicism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Etzioni, Amitai. “The Ghetto–a Re-evaluation,” Social Forces, (March, 1959), 255-262.

Fuchs, Lawrence. The Political Behavior of the American Jews, Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1956.

Gans, Herbert J. “Park Forest: Birth of a Jewish Community,” Commentary, 7 (1951).

The Urban Villagers, New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962.

Glazer, Nathan and Daniel P. Moynihan. Beyond the Melting Pot, Cambridge: M.I.T. and Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 13-16.

Gordon, Milton M. Assimilation in American Life, New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 34.

Greer, Scott. “Catholic Voters and the Democratic Party,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 25 (1961), p. 624.

Handlin, Oscar. Boston’s Immigrants, A Study in Acculturation, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, rev. ed., 1959.

The Uprooted, New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1951.

Hiestand, Dale. Economic Growth and Employment Opportunities for Minorities, New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

Hyman, Herbert. Political Socialization, New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1959.

Key, V.O. Jr. “A Theory of Critical Elections,” Journal of Politics, 17 (February, 1955), 3-18.

Key, V.O. and Frank Munger. “Social Determinism and Electoral Decision: the Case of Indians,” in Eugene Burdick and Arthur J. Brodbeck (eds.), American Voting Behavior, Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1959, pp. 281-299.

Kroeber, A.L. and Talcott Parsons. “The Concepts of Culture and of Social System,” American Sociological Review, 23 (October, 1958), 582-583.

Lenski, Gerhard. The Religious Factor, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1963, rev. ed., pp. 268-270.

Lieberson, Stanley. “Suburbs and Ethnic Residential Patterns,” American Journal of Sociology, 67 (1962), 673-681.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. The First New Nation, New York: Basic Books, 1963, pp. 11 0- 129.

Moore, Joan W. and Ralph Guzman. “The Mexican-Americans: New Wind from the Southwest,” The Nation, May 30, 1966, pp. 645-648.

Nam, C.B. “Nationality Groups and Social Stratification in America,” Social Forces, 37 (1959), p. 333.

Park, R.E. and H.A. Miller. Old World Traits Transplanted, New York: Harper, 1921.

Parsons, Talcott. “Malinowski and the Story of the Social System,” in R. Firth (ed.), Man and Culture, London: Routledge and Kegan, 1960.

The Social System, Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1951.

Rosenthal, Erich. “Acculturation without Assimilation?” American Journal of Sociology, 66 (November, 1960), 275-288.

Shannon, James P. “The Irish Catholic Immigration,” in Thomas T. McAvoy (ed.), Roman Catholicism and The American Way of Life, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1960, 204-210.

Spectorsky, A.C. The Ex-Urbanites, New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1955.

Stonequist, E.V. The Marginal Man, A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict, New York: Scribner, 1937.

Thomas, W.I. and F. Znaniecki. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 5 vols., Boston: Badger, 1918-20.

Warner, W.L. and Leo Srole. The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1958.

Whyte, William Foote. Street Corner Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1943.

Whyte, William H. The Organization Man, Garden City: Doubleday, 1957.

Wolfinger, Raymond E. “The Development and Persistence of Ethnic Voting,” this Review, (December, 1965), 896-908.

Wood, Robert C. Suburbia, Its People and Their Politics, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1958.

Yinger, J. Milton. “Social Forces Involved in Group Identification or Withdrawal,” Daedalus, 90 (Spring, 1961), 247-262.


Ethnicity Copyright © 2020 by Michael Parenti. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book