Section I: Immigrants, Ethnics, Americans

Ethnicity in the Perspective of the Sociology of Knowledge

R. A. Schermerhorn

After the passage of the McCarran Immigration Act, Marya Mannes burst forth in joyous song:

The blood that made this nation great
Will now be tested at the gate
To see if it deserves to be
Admitted to democracy.
Or rather to that small elite
Whose hemoglobin counts can meet
Requirements of purity
Consistent with security
And with that small and rabid mind
That thinks itself above mankind. (1959, 87)

This doggerel verse is a deft satire on the kind of people who somehow regard all newcomers to our country as ethnics but, simultaneously, in some vague way, regard themselves as non-ethnic. A false premise if there ever was one. Everett C. Hughes is entirely correct when he declares that “we are all ethnic.” (1952, 7n) In fact every human being, regardless of where he lives, or whatever society he belongs to, participates in four social structures, a kinship system, a territorial community, a system of social ranking or stratification, and an ethnic grouping. (Robin Williams, 1964, 355).

I mean by an ethnic group:

a collectivity within a larger society having real or putative common ancestry; memories of a shared historical past, and a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood. Examples of such symbolic elements are: kinship patterns, physical contiguity (as in localism or sectionalism), religious affiliation, language or dialect forms, tribal affiliations, nationality, phenotypical features, or any combination of these. (R.A. Schermerhorn, 1970, 12)

On this basis, all the following are ethnic groups: Japanese Americans, the French in Canada, the Flemish in Belgium, the Serbs in Yugoslavia, the Kurds of Syria, the Uzbeks of the Soviet Union, the Mongols of the Peoples Republic of China, the Koreans of Japan, the Parsis of India, the Kikuyu of Kenya, the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Aymara of Bolivia, and the Indians of Fiji. There are times when such a grouping constitutes a nation’s majority as in the case of the Mestizos in Mexico whose pride of ancestry induces them to speak grandly of their ethnic group as “la raza.” In nearly all cases, however, ethnic groups are a minority of the population.

What, then, is ethnicity? It is a synthetic term which refers to the fusion of many traits or components that belong to the nature of any ethnic group; thus ethnicity is a composite of shared values, beliefs, norms, tastes, consciousness of kind within the group, shared in-group memories and loyalties, certain structured relationships within the group, and a trend toward continuity by preferential endogamy. (L. Singer, 1962, 423n.11) Each of these traits has its own continuum of greater or lesser salience so that the values may be more or less shared, more or less important, awareness of the group’s distinctiveness may be high or low, memories of the group’s historical past may be bright or dim, group loyalties conceived as variables that can alter independently which is an important half-truth. The other half, however, is that all of the traits of ethnicity can also vary together; and that there is a threat, real or perceived, to the unity or survival of the group, the salience of all variables will go up concurrently. Conversely under conditions of assured safety and/or acceptance there could very well be little need to feel the need of in-group solidarity for the sake of protection. This would lower the necessity to stress the singular, intimate or exclusive properties of the group. If these suppositions are correct, then both ethnicity and its components are relative to time and place…Assuming that ethnicity varies and changes its nature with alternations in social structures and the climate of opinion, this would mean that to understand it properly requires, inter alia, an enquiry belonging to the sociology of knowledge. W.J.H. Sprott defines this mode of investigation as follows: “The sociology of knowledge…is concerned with the way systems of thought…are conditioned by other social facts.” (1954, 141)

My analysis today rests on an assumption about conditions in the United States between the turn of the century and our own year of 1972. I am assuming that the 1960’s, particularly the last part of that decade, constitutes a watershed of the twentieth century, so that (to use Sprott’s terms) the social fact before the late 1960’s constitute one cluster that permits a special set of inferences, while the cluster of social facts after the late 1960’s requires a different set of inferences whose meaning is now only dimly perceived, though the outlines of its significance become clearer as time goes on. The events of the 1960’s to which I refer are sometimes called the Negro revolution, though I suggest that the terms “revolt” or “insurrection” would be closer to common usage. While the Civil War or the War Between the States was the turning point of the nineteenth century in our nation, the black revolt is the critical juncture of the twentieth; it is an interesting but probably not significant coincidence that both these decisive events came in the sixties approximately a hundred years apart.

Although we are still too close to the startling occurrences of the 1960’s to make any final judgments about them, I believe that, taken as a whole, they correspond admirably to what Kenneth Boulding calls “thresholds” of social systems. Thus he mentions examples where societies cross certain thresholds of social conditions that precipitate qualitative differences affecting the entire field of human activity. As he puts it:

In the case of societies, soil erosion, increase in population density in limited agricultural areas, and erosion of ideologies or systems of legitimation are examples of continuous processes which may lead to discontinuous thresholds. On the other hand, discontinuous processes, certain one-shot events profoundly change the subsequent parameters of a social system. (K. Boulding, 1967, 107-8)

Such a threshold or turning point in the on-going life of a society is like a sluice gate for social alternatives and simultaneously does three things: it shuts off some alternatives altogether, narrows other alternatives to smaller compass, and opens up new ones. To put it in the language of athletics, it opens up a whole new ball game. But unlike the athletic metaphor the social conjuncture often changes the rules at the same time.

For the purposes of identification, I shall speak of the black revolt as the “crisis” or the “disruption,” synonymously. This will allow us to designate the period of 1900 to the 1960’s as the B.C. epoch–before the crisis; in like manner it is possible to call the era after the late 1960’s to the present and prospectively to the future as the A.D. era, i.e. after the disruption. A comparison of events and major social trends in the two periods will reveal, I believe, good reasons why “ethnicity” as a term in common usage, was hardly ever heard of in the B.C. era, while people are writing articles and books about it in the A.D. epoch.

I cannot do justice to the contrast between B.C. and A.D. in a brief discussion like this one, but a few highlights will show that America has turned a corner and the future is pregnant with different possibilities, for good or ill. The B.C. era was one of massive European immigration, two World Wars in Europe, and the spotlight on immigrants and refugees from southern and eastern continental areas. In the A.D. period the immigrant tide has receded with an increased proportion from the Western Hemisphere. During the B.C. epoch there was a pronounced rise of nationalism throughout Europe, partly abetted by American immigrants newly awakened to patriotism for their national homelands. Small wonder, then, that they became known as nationality groups in distinction from other minorities like the Afro-Americans, Mexican Americans, Indians or even the Jews whose nationalistic identification with Israel was a delayed reaction. However, in the A.D. years, the term “nationality group” is largely dropped in favor of the term “ethnics.” This cognomen now distinguishes them from the blacks who used to be Negroes. Pluralistic competitive politics helped create the first label while Elijah Mohammed and Malcolm X gave currency to the second.

Another striking contrast separates B.C. from A.D. In the former, the dominant ideology was assimilationism. Popular opinion showed tolerance for European immigrants only when they were willing to give up their language and foreign customs; self-effacement was the price of acceptance. With few exceptions, the newcomers found it expedient to adopt this viewpoint and thus win their eligibility for the title “American.” Even the intellectual community, led by Robert Park, viewed assimilation as inevitable in the long run and tacitly gave it approval. The same outlook captured the attitude of Negro leaders who opted for integration as their long-term goal–this being just one variant of assimilationism. Hardly anyone in the B.C. period questioned this widespread assumption except for a few scattered immigrant leaders, settlement workers and a number of prominent Jewish leaders, the latter denying it more for their own community than for others. However, in our A.D. period the current runs in the opposite direction as cultural pluralism and separatism capture the imagination of countless persons to whom a merger with faceless masses looks increasingly unpromising. Minorities of every kind are now resonating to the claims of the right to be different, authenticity, independence, autonomy, self-determination and self-sufficiency.

What was less obvious at the time, though more visible to us today, is that European immigrants were losing much of their culture at the time when blacks were gaining much of theirs during the B.C. era. Those arriving from Europe had, in each national group, a distinctive ethos on arrival–an ethos gradually lost to the extent that assimilation took hold and a substitute culture tended to replace it. Afro-Americans, on the other hand, forcibly separated from family and friends by their captors, arrived as atomized individuals without cultural ties to reinforce their need for survival. At first they were nothing but a social category without group consciousness or social bonds. But subject to the same fate, as they were, they could not help but react in concert–in the slave revolts, the underground railroad, the clustering into religious groupings, the migrations to cities, the sharing of sentiments in music–in these and many other ways they were gradually forming an ethos of their own. Singer has called this development “ethnogenesis,” i.e. “the process whereby a people, that is an ethnic group, comes into existence.” (L. Singer, 1962, 423)

In the B.C. era, the dominant ideology of Americanization regarded the process of change among minority groups as a simple, one-way movement toward a homogeneous set of beings called Americans. Anything short of that uniform goal would obviously be deficient, unfinished and incomplete. Those among the European newcomers who failed to go the full route were simply dubbed un-American; as for the blacks, Myrdal articulated what others were thinking when he called American Negro culture in the 1940’s “a distorted development, or a pathological condition of general American culture.” (G. Myrdal, 1944, 11, 928)

Today in the A.D. epoch, both those of European as well as those of African descent are vigorously denying such imputations from the dominant group. White ethnics repudiate the notion that they are un-American when they cherish and revive the folk elements from their past or celebrate their culture heroes who distinguished themselves in the past; and black ethnics refuse to be intimidated by terms like “exaggerated American” or “distorted American,” as they are awakening to full awareness of their historic culture-building process and, in a delayed appreciation of Garvey’s gross attempts at autonomy, are re-thinking their role as an ethnic group. But in our A.D. epoch, the current stress on cultural pluralism and ethnicity implies a renascence of an older ethos for those of European descent, but a budding nascence of a newly formed ethos for the blacks.

When we turn to politics we find a parallel contrast. During the B.C. period, the European ethnics participated primarily in the local arena through competition for recognition by the party machine. Early arrivals like the Irish took precedence and late comers had to fight their way in. At any rate ethnicity for the voter simplified his choice where issues were complicated or took second place. Recognition politics became the norm, with the development of the balanced slate. And as one political scientist well commented, “For the Irish, Jewish, Italian bright boys who pursue it, politics is a status-conferring occupation… As successful politicians, they can command deference from the greatest capitalists, the toughest union leaders, the oldest of the old families.” (J. Reichley, 1959, 104) With the coming of the New Deal, however, the fulcrum of power shifted to the Federal center and the last 30 to 40 years of the B.C. era have been spent in a herculean effort by urban ethnic politicians to come to terms with the new realities. In the meanwhile the black ethnics, flooding the cities as late-comers found their political gains retarded as both their votes and their leaders were coopted by party machines that gave major rewards to others. Paradoxically, however, the blacks thorugh a civil rights organization had brought pressure to bear in Washington even while weak at the municipal level, and through numerous Supreme Court decisions, established legal norms that would result in major gains at all local centers, provided they were enforced. And when such implementation was lacking the blacks took to the streets in new, and to the outsider, frightening forms of unconventional political participation. For those who had regarded voting and the accompanying accomodative politics as the only true forms of politics, such mass demonstrations were a serious threat to national order. However, those who took part in the marches and parades, inexperienced in conventional forms of politics and even distrustful of voting, could take special delight in what Bayley calls “coercive public protest” (D.H. Bayley, 1962) or Waskow speaks of as “creative disorder” (A .J. Waskow, 1966, 225) since it could be learned by anybody and often brought gains when nothing else did. Often this kind of pressure was put directly upon federal agencies, agencies that did not exist in the early B.C. years. (Litt, 1970, 147-149) Unfortunately the momentum and contagion of this popular activism could not be stopped before it exploded in the riots of Watts, Detroit, Cleveland and Newark. Those acts of violence are the watershed between B.C. and A.D.

They cannot be understood in a purely political context, however. Until we see the convergent economic realities, we overlook a really crucial variable. Historically the European ethnics entered the system when the economy was rapidly expanding and there was demand for unskilled labor. Before the turn of the century, most foreign born from Europe were operatives, manual laborers or domestic servants but by 1950 the occupational level of second generation Americans matched that of the nation as a whole almost exactly. (S.M. Lipset and R. Bendix, 1960, 104n-105n; and E.P. Hutchinson, 1956, 114, 115, 195, 216) Thus the European ethnics accepted equality of opportunity because the system worked for them, even in the depression when the New Deal boosted life chances for organized labor and the homeowner. Since the great majority of the European ethnics were Catholic, John Kane’s designation of the religious group as a lower-middle or lower socio-economic income group rising definitely in the system but at a relatively slow rate (Kane, 1955, 30, quoted in Litt, op cit., 133) is one that seems appropriate. The B.C. period, was therefore, a time of modest but solid economic gains, part of which included a substantial flight to working-class suburbs in the wake of black migration to adjacent areas. In the same historic phase, only a tiny elite among the Negroes advanced with the economy; the great masses have remained at the lowest occupational levels with many losing the little foothold they actually had. Blacks did not enter the urban labor market until it was fairly well preempted by workers from abroad. Though showing some advances in war-time they have not been able to sustain that advance, partly because of widespread discrimination on the part of employers and organized labor and partly for structural reasons as technological changes eliminate unskilled and semiskilled occupations (the very ones that gave European ethnics their start) at the rate of 35,000 a week or nearly two million a year. The economy forges ahead by reason of increased productivity which is a euphemism for job elimination at the bottom levels. This is where the bulk of Negro workers are found. During the 1950’s and 60’s when the courts and the national congress were enunciating new civil rights gains, federal promises raised the level of black expectations to new heights at a time when income levels were sinking and unemployment growing in the black community. Thus, “the gap between the income of white and Negro workers has been growing steadily greater. In Michigan, for example, the ratio of average Negro income to white income dropped from 87 per cent in 1949 to 76 per cent in 1958, and has continuously deteriorated since that time.” (H. Hill, 1965 quoted in N.R. Yetman and C. Hoy Steele, 1971, 455) Unemployment is regularly twice as high among blacks as among whites and among black youth of approximately high school age it typically reaches 25 per cent or more. (Ibid., 456)

From still another angle, the families below the poverty line in America, a goodly per cent of them black, have less income in proportion to their numbers than they had in the 1930’s (P. Roby, 1969) which means that the very poor have been downwardly mobile since that time. And as De Fleur and D’Antonio tell it, “The very fact that the society has preached upward mobility so loudly and so long increases the bitterness and frustration of those who find themselves cut off from the good things upward mobility can bring (though not from the mass media that advertise these good things) and thus contributes to the tendency toward alienation and conflict.” (M.L. De Fleur, W.V. D’Antonio and L.B. De Fleur, 1971, 231) It is realities like these that contributed more than their share to ghetto revolts of the 1960’s.

Before the B.C. era drew to a close, the European ethnics continued their glacial climb up the mobility ladder with more than half wending their way to the less affluent suburbs, often as a means of escape from the over-increasing tide of blacks moving into adjoining or common areas of residence. Like all recently poor, those of European ancestry were preoccupied with security, with preserving the gains they had won at tremendous cost to their parents and to themselves. What were these gains? Seniority at the plant, a slot for one’s son in the construction trades, a job at City Hall, in the civil service, in the city school system, at the fire station, on the police force, a house nearly paid for, an honorable discharge from the Army and a place of respect in the American Legion or the Knights of Columbus, influential friends in the City Councilor the precinct committeemen, and an informal network of political allies to get things done unobtrusively. To lose any of these would be to slip back–a future too shattering to contemplate. Yet toward the close of the B.C. epoch, many of these gains were seriously threatened, always, it seemed by the blacks who constituted one-fifth of the population of the 50 largest cities by 1960. Not only did the blacks inundate whole neighborhoods in the quest for housing, not only did they displace many older ethnics on city councils and precinct positions, they publicized issues instead of handling practical affairs through the old informal channels. Leap-frogging over the local authorities, they seized the ear of Washington and “Federal funds were used to create new store-front style agencies in the ghettos, staffed with professionals who helped local residents to find jobs or obtain welfare, or deal with school officials…they drew larger numbers of people into the new programs, spreading the federal spoils.” (F.F. Piven, 1972, 19)

In the A.D. era, those of European ancestry still left in the central city felt themselves beleaguered even more as Federal dollars were increasingly spent to spur blacks “to make demands on city services” and “Total national Welfare costs rose from about $4 billion to nearly $15 billion in 1970.” (Idem)

Perhaps more than any other circumstance, this has triggered a sharp reaction from European ethnics who suffer moral outrage when they remember their own deprivations and struggles. “Nobody ever gave us a handout. We made it on our own.” Why can’t they be like us?” became a national refrain growing louder and louder until it merged with the chorus of the A.D. period condemning the violence on city streets. Even more poignant came the plaint, “We never got our way by burning down buildings, by using brute force or mob violence. Until we have law and order, nobody will get what he wants.” This last was directed equally at street crime growing out of control as poverty deepened in the ghettos and the anodyme of drugs raised the level of thievery to an unprecedented height. Relief rolls, violence and crime became the symbols of the blacks to an increasing number of European ethnics who started buying firearms in preparation for the coming Armageddon.

It was in this overheated atmosphere that the new ethnicity was born. Mass media has been focussed so long on the blacks that those of European extraction had become forgotten men. Ponder what Michael Novak said about the Pole in America:

Those Poles of Buffalo and Milwaukee–so notoriously taciturn, sullen, nearly speechless. Who has ever understood them?…But where in America is there anywhere a language for voicing what a Christian Pole in this nation feels? He has no Polish culture left him, no Polish tongue. Yet Polish feelings do not go easily into the idiom of happy America, the America of the Anglo-Saxons, and, yes, in the arts, the Jews. (The Jews have long been a culture of the word, accustomed to exile, skilled in scholarship and in reflection. The Christian Poles are largely of peasant origin, free men for hardly more than a hundred years.) Of what shall the man of Buffalo think, on his way to work in the mills. departing from his relatively dreary home and street? What roots does he have? What language of the heart is available to him?” (M. Novak, 1971, 44)

It is to answer questions like these, to rescue men like these from hopeless obscurity, and to put them anew in touch with their own histories before they are engulfed by other concerns,…a veritable crusade for recognition of ethnicity has come to life in the A.D. era. Taking a leaf from the new federal politics, white ethnic leaders have made this into a campaign with national repercussions. The goals are both cultural and economic. On the cultural side are conferences like the one we attend today, or the Schweiker and Pucinski bills…passed by Congress to establish “ethnic heritage studies” in the public schools with the aid of federal funds. (H. Isaacs, 1972, 78) On the economic side “the drive is being directed by the National Confederation of American Ethnic Groups, a Washington-based association that claims a membership of 67 groups and 18.6 million individuals…It wants to become the conduit for Federal aid, and it wants white ethnic representation on such national boards as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.” (Wall Street Journal)

As an ideology ethnicity is therefore a response to the rather abrupt changes of the A.D. period. As a reaction it may itself become a causal element in a new national pattern. Interacting with political and economic activities, it contributes a unique element to a converging series of events that make up the formative stage of our A.D. era. At the moment the atmosphere is pregnant with possibilities, much like the physicists critical mass which can explode, fizz out, or burn steadily in new directions. So in the current scene, ethnicity appears on the knife edge of three possible tendencies, anyone of which may become dominant in the next year or two. I see these trends as polarization, proliferation, or pluralist alliance. These are major alternatives.

Polarization is always a strong probability when the economy falters. And in our paradoxical post-industrial society when the GNP keeps rising while the number of jobs keeps shrinking, rivalry for jobs becomes fierce as it takes on ethnic and racial overtones. Lionel Lokos, a leading writer of European ethnic heritage pictures the way such conflicts can polarize purely on the basis of color when he speaks of a plan to enlarge the number of jobs. He writes:

If the jobs program is not successful enough, it will arouse the fierce resentment of ghetto residents who will roundly denounce whitey for ‘jiving’ him again. If the jobs program is too successful, it will arouse the fierce resentment of white workers who will see a black skin as a passport to privilege in the plants and factories…And I am…convinced that the more favoritism that is shown the Negro, the more inevitable this tragic conflict will become. Call them the White Lower-Middle Class. Call them the White Working Class. Give them any name you like, but know that some of them are ready to fight–with a toughness, a fury, a recklessness, and a courage that are a match for the most militant black men in the ghetto.” (L. Lokos, 1971, 385, 387)

Those who are too complacent and who misjudge the depth of hostility already engendered over this issue should read Lokos’ cry of alarm. This polarization could expand even more widely. The notion of black power has now spread by contagion to catch fire in the red power of the American Indian and the Chicano power or Chicanismo of the Mexican American. In many cities a confrontation between white ethnics and non-white ethnics over employment opportunities is not entirely a fanciful picture. Until the economy improves at all levels, it is definitely an explosive prospect.

The second possibility is proliferation. This could easily occur…Experience with black studies programs irresistibly raises a great many relevant questions on how such educational experiments actually work. The most critical issue, of course, is making decisions on what leaders or experts will represent each ethnic community and what version of history will be taught in each. Since there are “fiercely contending sub-groups” in each minority, this could very well awaken old factionalisms and stir up new ones. Considering that there are scores of ethnic groups and a goodly number of factions in each, this could result in a bewildering proliferation of hundreds of groups gathered around the federal trough. There is danger that the current search for a new pluralism or a new ethnicity which depolarizes on social issues while repolarizing ethnically will be faced by just such a baffling multiplication of separate view points…In its attempt to by-pass the first alternative it could even make the explosion more likely.

A third possibility is that of a pluralist alliance. The demand for roots and for group identities that mounts like a crescendo in the A.D. era is not confined to white, black, red or brown ethnics but characterizes them all. Our time of troubles will not yield to Gleichschaltung, to a homogenization of our nation in the name of unity. That was possible in a European setting where the uniformity of language and culture permitted such a dream to exist. But if that was a false dream, even in Europe, it is far more illusory in a nation of nations, a people of peoples such as America has always been. In the face of those real forces that do appear to flatten us into leveled-out masses, the old individualism can no longer save us. We do need group reinforcement and we do need group identity to prevent our, being submerged. This pluralism, whose most creative form is ethnicity, is the first step to sanity. But only the first. If the meaning of ethnicity remains purely intrinsic, if it has no goal beyond itself, if it is exhausted in self-congratulation and bemused nostalgia, it will become like a stagnant pool whose look of outlet condemns it to final pollution. If, however it flows free, or to change the figure, if ethnicity becomes a tool, an agent for larger goals, it can lose its egoistic pretensions and contribute its rich resources to the major needs of a society growing daily more desperate. The confidence, poise and courage that come from a sure sense of one’s roots and identity need an outlet worthy of their merit. But it must be an aim big enough to challenge the most hardy spirits. I submit that the goal most likely to enlist the full energies of men in our time is a full-employment economy…Some ethnics, particularly the non-white forces are making revolutionary noises about this. If the European ethnics regard this as a threat and ally themselves with the establishment when, in reality, they have no more than a toe-hold there, they will be letting themselves be used as pawns in a battle where they find themselves no better off after a presumed victory than they were before. Richard Rubenstein has put his finger on the central issue when he declares:

If American workingmen…(and here his reference is largely to the European ethnics) are beginning to act in a dangerously racist fashion, this is not because they are canaille but because the present economic and political system has failed them as it has failed the blacks–because they feel compelled to defend the little they have against threatening forces, real or fancied. (R. Rubenstein, 1970, 186)

Thus until the poor and the recently poor, the deprived and the partly deprived, those at the bottom of the ladder and those on the first rung can align forces to demand a genuinely redistributive society, the nation will be engulfed by extremism of the right and left in a holocaust of mass destruction. Those who want to avoid Armageddon and have been awakened to a genuine self-respect in their own ethnic heritages can utilize their new-found freedom to make America a land where the sharing of affluence spreads more widely. This sort of pluralistic alliance can replace the old ruling coalitions that now rigidify our entire distributive system. It is a task which all ethnics will find rewarding and it will demand a new political coalition…So the pluralist alliance is a third possibility in the A.D. era. I share with you all the conviction that it is a long shot…

As Ralph Ellison once said, “America is woven of many strands: I would recognize them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many–this is not prophecy but description.” (Quoted in Dinnerstein and Jaker, 1970, 347)

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



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