Section I: Immigrants, Ethnics, Americans

Ethnicity and History

Carlton Qualey

The historian of ethnic groups in the United States has usually started as a historian of emigration from a foreign country or of immigration to the United States. Much of the literature of the field of ethnic history has therefore to do with backgrounds of the groups in the United States. Frequently immigration history and ethnic history are combined in the same volume. The author goes back to the homeland to ascertain the reasons for emigration, takes his emigrants across the ocean, traces them to their various areas of settlement, and seeks to determine the degree of their adjustment to the new environment. The latter aspect has been called acculturation and assimilation. Much of the literature of the field of ethnic history has been by Americans. Only lately have historians abroad awakened to this important aspect of world history, especially in the Scandinavian countries but also in Great Britain, Ireland, the Low Countries, West Germany and Italy. Under United Nations auspices, studies of world migrations have been made. New perspectives are therefore coming into view. The movement, distribution, settlement, resettlement, adjustment, group life, intergroup relationships, and persistence of ethnicity of each of the population groups have become a world phenomenon and must be studied as such.

The approach of the historian to ethnic groups is necessarily different from that of other disciplines, for it incorporates them all. The primary difference lies in the factor of time. The historian is concerned with process, with change, with persistent indeterminacy, and with the necessity of continual rewriting. There can be no fixed model for any society or group. Experience with historical data has taught the historian to be eternally vigilant and skeptical. Experience has also taught him not to exclude anything, nor to overlook any possible explanation. As new sciences, such as psychoanalysis, have come forward, the historian has had to find out what the new fields have to offer. It is with these cautions as to the historian’s method that I venture to make some observations on the study of ethnic groups.

The historian’s experience in the study of ethnic groups in the United States leads him to skepticism as to the permanence of group identities. He finds pluralistic nationalism a questionable concept while observing at the same time that cultural pluralism has been a universal phenomenon which has been a positive rather than a negative factor in the development of any people. He finds sociological models interesting but unconvincing, as for example “the European peasant” or another writer’s “primordial ties of the peasant commune,” in characterizing permanent qualities of any group. Historical investigations have not supported such models.

For over three centuries America was virtually an open society. Anyone could come or be brought. The only requirement was acceptance of English common law which, after 1776, modified by state and Federal constitutional practice, became American common law. There has been a good deal of continuity of legal practice from the colonial period to the present. This was true of the reception of new citizens. Naturalization was about as easy as could be found anywhere in the world. As population spread, broached the Appalachian barriers, flooded out over the Old Northwest, the Old Southwest and South, the Middle West, the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific Coast, and finally the mountains and the Great Plains, the immigrants became amalgamated with the native-born in a vast army of occupation. The movement was like an enormous flood, with heavy flows here, trickles there, mountain barriers and headlands turning directions and containing settlement. Lands, jobs in the new factories, mercantile enterprises, professional services, transportation, growth of cities–in these and countless other occupations the immigrants took as great a part as did the native-born. In fact, a great many of the native-born were second or later generation immigrant stocks. Which brings me to a major interpretation: that immigrants, after a brief interval of adjustment on arrival, became part of the American population and should be called migrants along with the other peoples already here. They were no longer immigrants. All the forces that operated on native-born and previous arrivals influenced the erstwhile immigrants. To think of these people as immigrants is inaccurate. They were Americans seeking adjustment to new environments and new people…

As Frederick Jackson Turner long ago suggested, American history in this view becomes a vast, heterogeneous, incredibly complex process of inter-action and inter-mixing of varieties of national and racial groups, these in turn being moulded by the physical and geographic conditions of any particular area of settlement and life. The dynamics of this vast process were primarily economic: lands, jobs, law, management, privilege. It was a market economy, governed by the rules of the market. Many profited; many were exploited; many could not adjust to the increasingly rapid technological and social changes.

To these circumstances must be added a further consideration: most of the immigrants to America did not come with any strong notions as to nationality. There was little ethnic self-consciousness except in localities. Much of the nationalism of ethnic groups was an American development. Most of these people were villagers, with attachment to a village or district. They were not Norwegians but Bergenser; not Germans but Wurtemberger; not Irish but from County Cork; not Italians but Neapolitans. Nineteenth century nationalist movements in Europe were of the middle and upper classes; they did not much affect the farming classes. When this is realized, the basis for ethnic grouping becomes even more unreliable. One gets down to small district loyalties, local dialects, and narrow horizons.

The one thing that attracted people together was similarity of language. Even though the local dialect might be different from others to the point of almost sounding like a foreign language, if the roots of the language were the same the people from one district of the homeland could communicate with those from another district. Gradually the terminology became generalized into major ethnic language groupings. The immigrant found that he was an Italian or a Pole or a Swede. Newspapers in the homeland literary language came out and had the effect of homogenizing the local languages. The church sermons, the parochial school instruction, the language used in the stores and the coffee shops–all tended to have a unifying effect. Soon came the burial societies, the fraternal societies, the singing groups, the athletic societies, the insurance organizations and ultimately the political clubs. Eventually, homeland political movements sought funds from relatives and acquaintances in America, and the sense of loyalty to a nationality became solidified. A new sense of ethnic pride arose, not unlike the chauvinistic nationalisms plaguing Europe, and antagonisms toward other ethnic groups developed as each became involved in whatever was the current quarrel abroad. American ethnicity was in many respects quite an artificial creation.

Still another factor created these ethnic loyalties and sense of being different from other Americans. There was a long interval between colonial immigration and the huge influx of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Between 1775 and 1840, the number of immigrants was relatively small. Several generations of “old stock” Americans intervene between the colonial and later immigrations. By the time of the mass immigration of Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, and the later Slavs, Italians, Jews, Poles and others, there had developed a certain degree of self-conscious “Americanism,” expressed in the first crop of histories of the United States, new geographies, newly formulated ideals by Jefferson, Emerson, and Whitman, and a new sense of nationalism expressed by Jackson and Webster. The great ideals of the age of enlightenment were being brought into reality by a new American people. De Tocqueville expressed it in his panegyric to the American Democracy. The old stock Americans were mainly white, Protestant, northern European, and devoted to the English common law. They conceived of America as an inherited land and of themselves as a chosen people. When new people came it was expected that they would learn from old stockers and would gradually conform to the model established by the founding fathers.

When in fact the first large immigration in the nineteenth century consisted of poverty-stricken, Catholic Irish, followed by masses of Germans, half of whom were Catholic, old stockers became alarmed, and the nativist “Know Nothing” movement of the 1850’s came
briefly to mar the welcome accorded the newcomers. Later in the century, when large numbers of Italians, Jews, and other eastern Europeans came with seemingly alien creeds, the American Protective Association, and in 1894 the Immigration Restriction League, sought to shut the doors against them. It was feared that America was being engulfed by dangerous and inferior peoples. A new racism developed which glorified the Nordic peoples and regarded the peoples of the Mediterranean and of central and eastern Europe as inferior.

Alongside all of this old stockism was the old problem of the blacks. In a spate of idealistic reform, the old stockers of the North had helped to free the blacks of the South, but the coming of countless numbers of strange immigrants caused the New Englanders and others to re-examine their attitude toward the blacks as well. When white supremacy was restored to the South by 1877, these old stock reformers acquiesced in a new set of institutions that kept the blacks in a subordinate condition until the mid-twentieth century. In fact some of the nineteenth century immigrants joined the older stockers in these attitudes. Nativism has been a major factor in creating ethnic self-consciousness. Only gradually have these prejudices shown signs of wearing away.

Some of the ethnic groups were gradually eroded by amalgamation into the mainstreams of American life and thought of themselves primarily as Americans with only small regard to any ethnic heritage. In fact, large numbers of persons had such a mixed heritage that it would take a skilled genealogist to disentangle the strains. Other groups, with different reasons for each group, continued to feel themselves excluded from full equality and opportunity: the blacks, the Chinese; the Japanese; Mexicans; American Indians; and certain of the white ethnic elements of the population. In reality, it would be only a matter of time before these would follow the paths of earlier groups to full integration in the American population. If they were not to do so, we could become another Austria-Hungary. The main motifs of American idealism have, however, been against such a development.

It is at this point that your historian should point out some of the dangers as well as the acceptable features of ethnicity. First the positive aspects.

The coming of millions of Europeans, Latin-Americans, Asiatics and Africans to America brought a tremendously rich variety of cultures and customs. To list all the nationalities, localities, districts, provinces, cities, towns, villages, sects, races and linguistic varieties would take all day. It is a kaleidescopic scene that one observes as one studies the vast folk migrations. There was nothing like it before in the world’s history. At least 50,000,000 came in the century after 1815, and this does not count the huge importation of slaves and the white immigration of the colonial period. It is not surprising that early-comers felt as though they were being engulfed. But the country was so huge, its resources so enormous, and its potentialities so great that there seemed to be room for all. America was a vast undeveloped area. To millions it was the Biblical New Canaan. To investors it was a bonanza land. To land-starved farmers it was the end of the rainbow. To hundreds of thousands its wages surpassed imagination, even though the wages might really be low. To frustrated heads of families it meant a future after all for the children. To religiously persecuted–the Mormons, the Jews and others–America was the new Zion. To political refugees here was a new experimental laboratory. To the established classes of Europe, America was a dangerous threat, and they favored a Southern victory in the American Civil War. For America embodied all the ideals that had been expressed in the Renaissance and the Reformation, the Age of the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. That many did not find America the land of their dreams was inevitable. The fact that millions did find a new life in America seemed more impressive.

It must be kept in mind that for thousands of these people, the coming to America was not their first move. They had tried other “greener pastures.” Thousands of Irish annually crossed the Irish Sea to work in Great Britain; other thousands of Poles annually worked on the Junker estates of eastern Germany; thousands of Southern Italians migrated annually to harvest fields in France and Spain or to the industrial cities of the Rhineland. The assertion of one historian that the immigrants mainly came from the peasant heart of Europe without previous movement does not hold up well under scholarly examination. Large numbers had never been peasants. Large numbers had moved once or several times. The real fact is that a comparison of conditions at home with the opportunities believed to be found in America, despite the dangers of the voyage, made the decision to emigrate almost compulsory. Had they found a destination of equal promise closer to home, they would undoubtedly have gone there. In fact, as many moved into the cities of Europe as emigrated. It was not American liberty that these people wanted but economic opportunity. It was in most cases not religious freedom they sought, but a place to follow their particular beliefs. It was not to set up a new society that they came, but to preserve the old. A good deal of present-day ethnicity derives from this conservatism.

But to stay with the positive aspects, when these millions arrived in America, their first stop was rarely their last. Even the pauperized Irish, after a few years, joined in the restless movement of the American people in search of new opportunities. Mobility has been a prime characteristic of the American population, and the immigrants joined older stock Americans in moving to new frontiers and new cities. New lands, new railroads, new mining areas, new industrial centers–these were the lodestones. Despite the grossest kind of exploitation in many instances, there was the opportunity to move: and move they did. Only slowly did they settle into more or less permanent communities. Some congregated with people of their own language but a great many scattered and became unidentifiable as belonging to any ethnic group. The cultural heritage usually lasted through the first and second generations, but began to lose ground in the third generations and after. The key to the survival lay in the preservation of the language. As long as a new supply of immigrants came into any ethnic community, the language tended to be preserved longer. There are numerous examples of this in Cleveland. Where no newcomers reinforced its use, the language tended to die. This is characteristic of the Scandinavian communities of the upper middle west. The major factors in the loss of language were the public schools and the requirements of doing business. The younger generation found the old language embarrassing and irksome. Their schoolmates ridiculed them as foreigners. By the fourth generation, much of the use of the foreign language in a great many ethnic groups had disappeared. This was of course a great tragedy, for the rich literature of each culture was thereby shut off to the newer generation. They were culturally deprived. With the decline of the use of the language came the gradual death of the foreign language newspapers of the United States. Where once there were hundreds, with dozens for each group, there are now only a handful. Gradually also the churches dropped use of the foreign language as the older generation died and the younger generation could not understand. However, the death of the language took a long time, and during that time a rich immigrant-American or ethnic-American literature came into being: newspapers, periodicals, novels, dramas, poetry, songs. Such great epics as O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth came out of the use of a foreign language in a new land. Each ethnic group has its library of publications as a treasure house of cultural enrichment.

To this literary treasure must of course be added the incredibly varied folk art: painting, sculpture, architecture, dress design, and food preparation. One need only go to any ethnic group museum today to find ample documentation for the generalization that the immigrants enriched America culturally. On national or church festival days these inherited folk arts are brought forth, and we are privileged to revel in the rich colors and imaginative designs.

The immigrants brought even more substantive assets, chief of which were new technologies: in mining (especially the Cornish), in engineering (the Germans, Scandinavians, Italians), in the needle trades (the English and Jewish), and an almost infinite variety of agricultural skills. There were few technical schools in America until late in the nineteenth century. It was in many cases graduates of European technical high schools who supplied the skilled knowledge for the new American industrial system.

One hesitates to fall into the “contributions” error in dealing with ethnic groups, for that would involve an almost endless list of items and persons and would really only prove that all immigrants were worthwhile to remind ourselves that these millions of people were not all the same, that they brought distinctive customs and cultures, that they varied greatly in political, economic and religious heritage, and that many of them, like all peoples, were perhaps not the best of citizens. They were people who wanted to improve their condition.

There are, however, negative aspects of ethnicity, and one must draw attention to them even though they are highly controversial. The principal negative features of ethnicity come under the headings of economic, political, religious, chauvinism, romanticism, and the emigre syndrome. Under economic there is the primary problem of exclusive housing communities. Anyone familiar with racial problems in the United States knows that ethnic areas have been centers of resistance to racial balance in housing. It is equally well known that ethnic groups are organized to exert political pressure and legal obstruction to prevent low cost housing from being constructed. Exclusion of blacks from labor unions is another example. This is not to say that ethnic groups are the ones guilty of these practices, but they have been rather conspicuous.

The national political parties have for a long time had nationality committees, set up to appeal for votes to ethnic groups by appealing to their interests and prejudices. In addition, ethnic groups have been organized, especially in some cities, to have a great deal of power at the polls. I have in mind such situations as the Irish in Boston, the Italians and Jews in New York, the Poles in Milwaukee, and others. When ethnic groups lend themselves to this kind of activity, they tend to fractionize American society and to give an artificial longevity to any ethnic group involved. Participation in American democratic processes is greatly to be encouraged, but not for the purpose of perpetuating ethnic differences. Rather than such activities it would better behoove the ethnic groups to get together with others to seek means of cooperation in solving America’s social problems.

It is notorious in this Judeo-Christian nation that the churches have been centers of segregation. This has been true not only of the white churches but also in reverse of the black. It is a matter of record that churches with strong ethnic concentrations have been racially exclusive. It seems that it is all right for an Oriental to be admitted, perhaps because of the missionary traditions, but not for a black or a West Indian. On a recent television panel there appeared three black clergymen to discuss racism in the churches: a Presbyterian, a Roman Catholic, and a black Jew. All testified that they would be unwelcome in most white churches. The churches must search their own consciences, but ethnic groups need to be especially vigilant to avoid this type of discrimination, for they themselves can suffer the same treatment.

A common complaint against ethnic groups comes under the heading of chauvinism. This means excessive pride in one’s nationality, a sense of superiority over other groups, and a tendency to belligerent assertion of group privileges and so-called rights. Manifestations are to be found in the group literature, the group programs, in lack of cooperation with others, and continuous self-admiration. Arrogance and uncritical adherence to the group values and purposes seem to characterize chauvinism.

Under the heading of romanticism one may place those who seek to make permanent, and even separate their group identities. Some black organizations have advocated separation of the black community and the formation of a black state. There have been white ethnic groups that have sought a separatist nirvana. Such unrealistic romanticism is not only self-defeating but it gets no one anywhere. We live in a shrinking world and an increasingly associative society. Separatism is obsolete and unworkable.

The last negative aspect I will mention is not a new phenomenon. It occurred strikingly among German-Americans with the arrival of the Forty-Eighters. This is the assumption of leadership in ethnic groups of recent intellectual emigres. By recent I mean since World War II. These probably well-intentioned individuals seem to wish to revive in ethnic-Americans loyalty to old-country values and aspirations. They fail to realize that there is a large generation gap–sometimes several generations–between themselves and the members of the groups to which they appeal and for which they presume to speak. It is perhaps difficult for them to understand the degree to which members of ethnic groups have shifted toward American values and practices.

Enough has been said to illustrate the dangers inherent in any set of attitudes that will cause a group to set itself apart from others…We are proud of our particular ancestry and are happy to be associated with so many different ancestries. We are not a melting pot, nor are we really a national-pluralistic society, and certainly not a multi-national nation. We are a people of a great many and very mixed strains. We all subscribe to certain basic American beliefs: that each individual has the right to fulfillment to the limit of his or her abilities; that each person has the constitutional right to full civil liberties; that each of us under our constitution is entitled to the full protection of the laws, regardless of condition; and that we are each of us living in an experimental democracy which has not yet reached the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. In such a society, beset as we are with countless economic, political , and social problems, it would seem to me important to stress essential questions involving the dignity and brotherhood of man, and those elements of our society which are constructive, to those things which are good and beautiful, and to eschew those things which promote suspicion or a sense of superiority or a sense of being alien.

In my many years of study of ethnic groups, I have found them to be fascinating varieties of human experience and a very important part of our history. I would like them to continue to be the part of our history. I would like them to continue to be the vital and constructive elements of American life that they have been, for the most part, during their existence in the United States.

A paper presented at The National Conference on Ethnicity at The Cleveland State University on May 12, 1972.


Ethnicity Copyright © 2020 by Carlton Qualey. All Rights Reserved.

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