Section II: Ethnicity as Concept and Process

Ethnicity and Cultural Pluralism

Israel Rubin


For the purpose of this discussion, I shall assume the validity of data–both systematic and impressionistic–that indicate a fairly recent change in the United States, from the erstwhile emphasis on melting all immigrants into a culturally homogeneous nation as soon as feasible, to acceptance, even preference, for cultural pluralism. The fact that a great deal of controversy still surrounds the subject, calls for more refined analysis. It is to this end that this essay is oriented. It is necessary to recognize that we are dealing with two dimensions, a normative one in which our inquiry revolves around the question whether or not pluralism is desirable, and a social-realistic one in which we focus on the problem of whether the actual trend seems to be in the direction of an ethnically pluralistic society. Though related, these are two distinct questions and require separate treatment. I shall proceed accordingly.

The Value Dimension: Melting Pot or Pluralism?

The change in our value system toward a more favorable stance vis-a-vis cultural diversity is relatively easy to follow. The components of this process are rather familiar and need to be reviewed here but briefly. Embarrassing as it may be to contemplate that before Hitler even emerged on the horizon, Americans had embraced (albeit in mild form) racist norms that later became the cornerstone of Nazism; the fact itself is barely deniable. The quota system instituted in the 20’s to govern U.S. immigration policy was clearly based on Gobineau’s and Chamberlain’s theories that postulate the superiority of Nordic peoples.[1] To be sure, there was a liberal variant of the value of assimilation in which desirability of quick assimilation was viewed in terms of superiority of Western culture and of opportunity for upward mobility.[2] It was the liberal variant that became the philosophical basis for the Americanization legacy handed to the public schools and settlement houses. However, the presence of the liberal version, instead of detracting us from recognizing the racist foundation of assimilationism, ought to emphasize the magnitude of the sentiment that prevailed in the United States between the two world wars. In a period that saw an American president become the champion of European nationalities’ right to political independence, the presence in this country of a large unassimilated immigrant population that was culturally remote from the dominant WASP strain, must have appeared to be such a threat to nationhood that the goal of quick assimilation attracted wide support, producing in the process the curious phenomenon of liberal intolerance.

Around World War II, the situation changed radically. Aside from the fact that both reduced immigration and the instruments created for the materialization of the melting-pot ideal effectively reduced the proportion of foreigners to natives, thus considerably lessening the concern with the former, an international factor entered the picture. German behavior during the War shocked the Western world into realization of where feelings of ethno-racial superiority might lead. The United States played a leading part in the struggle against Hitler’s Germany and, to boot, emerged from the struggle in the partially self-chosen role of leader of the “free world,” a role obviously incompatible with the theory and practice of ethnic intolerance at home. During the same period, developments in the social sciences, especially cultural anthropology, alerted us to the objectively unfounded nature of our ethnocentric attitude toward technically less developed cultures. Finally, our difficulties in areas such as race-relations and education underlined the inadequacy of some of our basic institutional structures, thus suggesting that a pluralistic setting that contains many alternatives may ultimately prove healthier than a sociocultural monolith.

Of course, assimilation has not disappeared as a value. Oddly enough, old-school liberals are today the most vigorous defenders of the earlier value, though they added a new argument to the old benevolent concern for the immigrants’ welfare. Pointing to both black racism among Afros and the equally aggressive reaction among some white ethnics, these liberals admonish us not to allow our enthusiasm for “ethnic virtues” render us blind to “ethnic poisons.”[3] The logic of this line of argument simply escapes me. If the tendency toward aggressive ethnocentrism that often accompanies ethnic identity justifies opposition to maintenance of ethnic identity, then why stop with ethnicity? What about religion and its poisonous side? Shall we therefore strive toward the elimination of religious pluralism? And why stop even here? Why not extend the argument toward all sub-cultural divisions along class, regional, and a host of other lines? Ultimately, consistency would demand that we carry this reasoning to the international scene, where intercultural hostility is at the root of all wars. The obvious solution is to make all mankind accept one culture, preferably ours, I assume. This frame of mind reminds one of Eliezer Steinbarg’s fable “The Awakening of the Forest” in which the new revolutionary fox proclaims that wearing of horns should be prohibited because of their offensive quality. Since then, the wolf really loves sheep. He merely wishes to remove their offensive-looking horns and it is not his fault that in the process he happens to destroy them.[4]

Thus, in spite of these liberal remnants of an earlier age, it seems safe to assume that the intellectual shift toward pluralism as a norm constitutes change toward a more humanistic appreciation of cultural diversity, a change that is virtually inevitable in the light of both social and intellectual developments.

Social Reality: Is Ethnic Pluralism Probable?

It is a different story when it comes to the matter of recent grassroot interest in ethnic identity. What does this new interest actually mean? What sentiments does it express? Simple schema will obviously not do. Should we, for example, wish to view the phenomenon as a mere counterpart of the liberalizing winds that found expression in the new value of pluralism, we run afoul of some facts that stare us in the face. Can we in all honesty stick the “liberal” label on, say, Slovaks who attempt to stir up sympathy for Tiso’s World War II period Nazi regime just because during that period Slovakia was nominally independent? Or, can we conceivably read liberal humanism into the vile antisemitism of the Leslie Campbells and LeRoy Joneses in the Black camp or the shady activities of the Jewish Defense League? Let me hasten to add that we find ourselves in similar difficulty if we try to reverse the label and view the current mood as a reactionary manifestation. One can just as easily produce evidence to the contrary. The point to be made is that the phenomenon we are observing appears, upon analysis, to be fairly complex and that if we are to comprehend it, simple characterization will just not serve our purpose.

When ideologies fail to provide an explanation for human behavior, sociologists often rediscover the principle that one of the founding fathers of American sociology has taught us at the beginning of this century, namely, that “the first task of life is to live. Men begin with acts, not thoughts.”[5] I suggest that in our quest for an understanding of the current interest in ethnicity we concentrate our search on social and individual needs, rather than ideologies, that are likely to be at the root of this interest.

In the literature on ethnicity the problem of “community” is frequently mentioned,[6] a problem that I wish to explore further. Suggestions are offered to the effect that ethnic consciousness constitutes a search for community, a search for identity with a social entity smaller than society as a whole. So far so good. But what about the nature of the need or needs that underlie this quest? Why should a citizen not be satisfied, with his identity as an “American”? Further, assuming we can isolate the underlying need, does the ethnic entity appear to be capable of satisfying that need? Without answers to these questions we are not even able to speculate about the prospects for the future of ethnicity in a society like that of the United States of America.

In a previous publication[7] I outlined a conceptual approach to the subject. The gist of that argument is as follows: If we accept Durkheim’s premise that “a society composed of an infinite number of unorganized individuals…constitutes a veritable sociological monstrosity,” we are led to the conclusion that structures mediating between the individual and the larger society–communities–are necessary in order to prevent alienation. I have further argued that in order for a given social organization to serve as an effective community it ought to possess five characteristics. First, it must be a concrete organization, as a mere “community of interest” is not likely to eliminate a sense of alienation. Second, it should be intermediate in size, large enough to convey a sense of significance, yet small enough to enable individual members to recognize personally at least a significant number of fellow members. Third, the organization should provide a setting for extensive social interaction of both the primary (congeniality) and secondary (business) varieties. Without a measure of congeniality it might be difficult for a member to develop a sense of identification with the organization, whereas without transacting some important business, an organization can hardly be expected to provide for its members a feeling of meaningful incorporation into the larger society. Fourth, growing out of the point just made, the organization in question must be in an institutional area considered important by the standards of culture. Thus, a religious organization can serve as community within a culture that considers religion important, an occupational association, where occupation is significant, and so on. Fifth and last, stability on both individual and organizational levels seems to be essential; neither an ad hoc organization nor one in which individuals belong but for short terms is likely to provide a vital link between individual and society. Finally, while recognizing what is essential, we come to realize what is not. Most importantly, territorial boundary does not appear to be a necessary ingredient. In fact, analysis of both the above-mentioned sketch and a variety of available data, suggest that the mobile conditions of modern life have rendered the locality-based community ineffective and that, therefore, modern man is in the process of finding substitute communities in such structures as professional and business associations. When we approach the subject of ethnicity with the above in mind, we gain some insights into the nature of the phenomenon, at the same time that we are led to serious doubts about the prospect for long-range persistence of large-scale ethnic identity in our midst.

To begin with, it seems plausible to suggest that the recent surge of ethnic sentiment–regardless of whether the cementing ideology in a given case happens to be liberal, conservative, or reactionary-constitutes a search for community. Ethnicity is, after all, a nonterritorial dimension. Ethnic organizations need not be territorially bounded and thus should be capable of providing for mobile modern man a relatively stable communal structure, one immune to the shattering forces of industrial society that play havoc with neighborhoods and towns.

Furthermore, the ethnic entity would appear to possess most of the necessary ingredients. The ethnic club is a concrete organization. It is usually of the “right” size. It, further, provides for both congenial primary interaction and secondary activity, especially in the important area of politics where ethnic organizations tend to be active. It has also at least the potentiality of stability, since the individual who identifies strongly with his ethnic group would normally do so for life, while the continued presence of sufficient numbers of ethnics ought to enable organizational stability. Finally, the just mentioned tendency to be politically active would seem to place the ethnic organization in an important institutional area, if not the most important one from our point of view, considering that the political process reaches to the very heart of the alienation problem.

However, as we tackle the problem of prospects for the future, we find ourselves in need of deeper analysis, the kind that would allow us a glance into the dynamics of the situation. Such analysis leads to some searching questions concerning the extent of validity of the above model. When we talk about future prospects, we are raising a qualitative as well as a quantitative question (even if we assume that we have settled the normative problem and reached some consensus on the desirability, or at least tolerability, of cultural pluralism). In addition to asking whether the ethnic frame of reference appears to be theoretically capable of functioning as community, we are also interested in the problem whether a large segment of the population is likely to retain a strong ethnic identity and thus search for community in ethnicity rather than (or perhaps in addition to), say, the occupational sphere. The qualitative and quantitative dimensions are, of course, inseparable. For in order to offer plausible speculation on the quantity, we need to re-examine the quality of the structure, to what degree it really meets the necessary qualifications for attracting large segments of the population. When we thus take a second look at ethnicity, it seems that its qualifications to serve as community leave much to be desired.

The ethnic frame appears especially vulnerable in the dimension of institutional importance. True, politics is very important, but is ethnic identity? Politics can be played through a variety of organizational structures. Clearly, in order for one to choose the ethnic club as his political medium, he must first and foremost have a strong ethnic identity; otherwise he is likely to prefer some alternative framework (religion or occupation, for example) in which he has a greater interest. Thus, we can argue that the primary emphasis on politics as such of ethnic organizations in the United States may be a weakness rather than an asset. A true ethnic community would need to have as its central focus the preservation of ethnic culture, rather than the election or appointment of ethnics to public office. Of course, preservation of ethnicity and the right to be different often requires political activity. However, this is of secondary importance and ought, logically, to be confined to defensive purposes, to instances where the leveling forces of the surrounding society and culture threaten either the right to be different or the right of those who are different to gain equal access to, say, jobs. The problem of primacy of focus is a critical one in this case, for without a strong desire to retain cultural difference, it makes little sense to exert political clout for gaining the right to be different. As for the struggle to have a few ethnics in public office, I agree with those who regard this as a mere symbolic issue that has little substance.[8]

Viewed this way, realistic conjecture about the future requires a shift in the focus of inquiry, from examining the theoretical capability of the ethnic organization to serve as community, to questioning the likelihood that a large number of individuals will choose to relate to the larger society via ethnic organizations.

At this juncture we need to pause for a moment and reflect on the nature of ethnic identity and its persistence over time. The way I understand it, a continuous identification with an ethnic entity entails positive valuation of that entity’s culture. Needless to say that I have in mind “culture” in the social scientific sense, the important components of which are basic values and behavior patterns. Promoters of ethnic culture in this country have too often dealt with what is popularly called “culture,” i.e., the fine arts and/or culinary habits. It is my contention that eating sausage, or appreciating Mickiewicz, without concurrent commitment to basic Polish values and behavior distinctly different from that of the surrounding society, should not be mistaken for a Polish identity of any significance.

By its very nature, remaining distinctly different from the majority, often requires sacrifice. An individual who wishes to hold on to differences must, therefore, feel so strongly about his chosen preference that he be willing to accept occasional hardships and feel that what he gets in return is well-worth the price he pays. This, I repeat, is in the nature of things, not merely an outcome of official policy. Of course, the values and policies of the host society may raise or lower lithe price” of being different, but it cannot wipe it out. An Amish parent may win the right to educate his children according to the tenets of his faith, but the necessity to forego the benefits of a tractor or an insurance policy are dictated by Amish values. An Orthodox Jew may force an employer to grant him the right to be absent from work on Saturdays, but it is Jewish Orthodoxy, not external antagonism, that forces its bearers to purchase higher-priced kosher food products or to close their stores and shops on Saturdays. I find it difficult to think of any true cultural distinction that does not impose some limitation.

Furthermore, the cost of being different increases if the difference is to be perpetuated over generations. The latter requires a massive investment of money and effort to build effective educational and communal structures for the socialization of the young in the minority culture and their insulation from the assimilating currents of the majority culture.

This view of the nature of sub-cultural identity adds a new dimension to our question concerning the likelihood of large-scale ethnic pluralism in our society. Our question must be rephrased to read, in essence: what are the prospects for wide segments of our population choosing their ethnic origin as a framework for community, considering that this involves a commitment to important cultural elements that are different from the larger culture and a concomitant willingness to pay the price of being different?

From the vantage point of those of us who advocate cultural pluralism, the answer does not seem to be very encouraging. We should not mistake the recent flurry of ethnic activity for a genuine quest for community via ethnicity. Nowhere on the present scene is there any indication of large-scale efforts in behalf of genuine cultural distinction along ethnic lines.[9] To be sure, some such attempts are being made. However, these are few and far between. Even among the two most notable exceptions, the Black and Jewish aggregates, where the quest for continued sub-cultural identity seems to be most widespread, one has the impression that when we dig underneath the surface we are likely to find considerably less substance than is apparent on first impression. On the Jewish scene with which I am personally familiar, only a small minority holds on to culturally sanctioned behavior patterns that are visibly different from those of the surrounding urban middle-class to which Jews overwhelmingly belong. I have the impression that the same is true on the Black scene (though, admittedly, my impression here is formed on the basis of considerably less experience).

The Black and Jewish cases bring to mind one more important problem that needs clarification. A decade ago, Milton Gordon[10] drew our attention to the necessity of distinguishing between cultural assimilation and structural amalgamation. He pointed especially to the case of American Jews, who are overwhelmingly assimilated culturally but for a variety of reasons restrict their primary group interaction to their fellow Jews. This appears also to be the case with most Blacks in this country who are assimilated culturally but segregated structurally. From our perspective, several points need to be made in this connection. First, while a plausible argument can be made for the right to remain structurally segregated, such segregation does not yield what we perceive to be the main benefits of cultural pluralism, namely, enrichment of the quality of social life through furnishing a variety of accepted cultural responses. Then, there is the question of how durable sheer structural segregation is likely to be. If we look at both of our above-mentioned examples, we cannot miss the obvious fact that in both cases external factors are largely responsible for the phenomenon. Thus, while no one can claim certainty, it is a fair guess that voluntary opting for segregation in spite of cultural assimilation is not likely to last beyond the vanishing point of anti-Black racism in the case of Blacks, and anti-semitism as well as Arab-Israeli hostility in the Jewish case. True, these external factors are not about to disappear tomorrow, and it may well be that a prolonged period of forced structural segregation may produce some new forms of sub-cultural varieties. However, it seems to me at least a bit awkward to build quasi-utopian projections of cultural pluralism on the hope for continued inter-ethnic hostility.

In sum, assuming a liberal-humanistic value premise, it seems difficult to defend an assimilationist position, short of proposing that the only road to elimination of hostility that results from culture difference–whether within a given political entity or worldwide– is to impose cultural homogeneity. Also, if one considers a number of problems such as the ones we face in the realm of education, one may plausibly argue that these problems result, at least in part, from being stuck in a rut created by imposed homogeneity, and that, therefore, the availability of cultural variety is bound to be beneficial.

However, desirability ought not to be confused with actual probability. Meaningful ethnic identity would seem to require commitment to distinct important values and a concomitant readiness to invest resources and effort on behalf of their preservation. This does not seem to be characteristic of the current scene. Rather, we are witnessing a variety of mere structural divisions maintained largely by present as well as memories of past external hostility. Thus, while the ethnic frame may potentially serve as community in a mobile society in which localities are becoming increasingly incapable of mediating between individual and society, it is not likely to serve that need on a very large scale once hostility from without has ceased or become sufficiently subdued. On the other hand, smaller pockets of unassimilated minorities appear likely to persist. One hopes that enlightened societies will be sophisticated enough to, not only tolerate, but actually encourage genuine expressions of the quest for cultural alternatives, without worrying either about occasional friction or lack of full participation that inevitably accompany genuine value difference. After all, not only have we not worked out formulae for total cultural homogeneity and assurance of full participation on the part of every sub-aggregate of a complex society (or world), but such formulae appear to a social scientist to lie in the realm of fanciful illusion.

This is a revised version of a paper presented at the National Conference on Ethnicity, Cleveland State University, May, 1972. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

  1. Gobineau, Joseph A., comte de. The Inequality of Human Races, tr. A. Collins. New York: H. Fertig, 1967. Chamberlain, Houston S. Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, tr. John Lees. New York: John Lane C., 1914. The quota system intended, quite openly, not only to reduce the flow of immigrants to this country, but to retain the ethno-racial balance and, specifically, not to let the "inferior" stock from eastern Europe pollute the high quality of the American population which was believed to be a result of the dominance of "superior" Northwest Europeans. There is a mountain of literature on the subject, both documentary and scholarly. For an adequate summary, cf. William S. Bernard, ed., American Immigration Policy: A Reappraisal. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950, esp. ch. 2--"The Quota System"
  2. In my own discipline, sociology, we can find an excellent example in Robert E. Park, the proponent of the well-known race-relations- cycle theory. Park can by no stretch of the imagination be labelled a racist and, yet, he often speaks in glowing terms about our "civilization" and its superiority over simpler cultures. As many students have pointed out, his entire theory which postulates the inevitability of complete amalgamation of minorities is obviously colored by his positive valuation of such amalgamation. Often the line between the biologically oriented racist and the culturally oriented liberal assimilationist is quite thin. For example, Park the liberal seemingly yearned not merely for cultural assimilation but also for biological amalgamation. Conversely many of the earlier racists acknowledged the primacy of culture. See, for example, John J. Commons, Races and Immigrants in America. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1967 (first published in 1907), who speaks matter-of-factly about "superior" and "inferior" races, also manages to acknowledge that "backwardness" is often confused with "inferiority" (pp. 208 and ff.), thus pleading for a greater emphasis on cultural assimilation than on biological amalgamation.
  3. Harold R. Isaacs, "The New Pluralists," Commentary 53:3 (March, 1972), pp. 75-82.
  4. Eliezer Stejnbarg, Mesolim I. Cernauti (Czernowitz, Romania), 1932, pp. 176-177.
  5. William G. Sumner, Folkways. New York: Dover Publications, 1959, p. 2.
  6. See, for example, Richard Koln, "Ethnicity in Society and Community," in Otto Feinstein, ed., Ethnic Groups in the City: Culture, Institutions, and Power. Indianapolis: D.C. Heath and Co., 1971, pp. 57-77.
  7. I. Rubin, "Function and Structure of Community: Conceptual and Theoretical Analysis," International Review of Community Development, n. 21-22 (1969), pp. 111-122.
  8. Professor Ronald Busch of the Political Science Department of Cleveland State University expressed this view in a paper entitled "Ethnic Assimilation vs. Cultural Pluralism: Some Political Implications," that he presented at the same conference in which an earlier version of this paper was read.
  9. Most of the recent data cited in support of the continued viability of ethnicity here (and which has come to my attention) deals with some continuation of structural separation and some persistence of attitudinal differences between descendants of various ethnic aggregates. Cf., for example, N. Glazer and D.P. Moynihan's study of the New York City scene (Beyond the Melting Pot. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1963) and A. Greeley's summary of his survey of five Catholic minorities ("Ethnicity as an Influence on Behavior," in Otto Feinstein, ed., op. cit., pp. 3-16). All this, I submit, does not add up to a viable ethnic identity that can serve as a basis for community.
  10. Gordon, Milton M. Assimilation in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.


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