It is not easy to find the words that would accurately describe the current wave of ethnic feeling which seems now to be sweeping over America. Even the word “wave” may strike some as exaggerated. We live in a world in which the interplay among mass media, scholars, foundations, and the general public is so subtle and rapid that we are often left confused as to what is “really” happening. Thus, we know that the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations are funding a number of projects in the field of ethnicity. Some are research-oriented, some are oriented toward community action, some are oriented toward directing preexisting bodies of ethnic sentiment into a liberal political direction. In making these grants, are the great foundations responding to a sense of neglect in ethnic communities (or those claiming to speak for them) who have seen so much foundation money going in the past ten years to black and other colored minority groups? Are those grants activated by the fear of an anti-black backlash among working-class whites, and the hope of heading it off? Or are the new projects the creation of scholars and organizers who, at a moment when urban studies are down on the foundation market, and black studies are increasingly limited to blacks, see in ethnic studies a possible new frontier of expansion?

Obviously these and other cynical explanations will continue to suggest themselves so long as we have no very solid empirical understanding of just what the ethnic resurgence amounts to. We look at a book like The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics by Michael Novak—a liberal Catholic intellectual of Slovak origin to whom ethnicity has assumed an enormous new importance—and we wonder how representative it is of the feelings of other Catholic intellectuals, and whether it reflects in any way what ordinary Americans of Slovak origin are feeling.

One of the reasons it is so difficult to answer such questions is that the meanings of ethnicity have become so various. We are not dealing here, for example, with a mass immigration of very distinct ethnic types who have no doubt as to their identity. Blacks, Jews, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican-Americans have a sharply defined sense of identity, but for most other Americans ethnic identity is mixed and unclear. There are those Americans who have no ethnic identity at all, there are those whose ethnic identity is largely symbolic or latent (Germans? Scots-Irish?), there are those whose identities are strong but not sustained by organizational ties (Italians?), and those whose identities are weak but are so sustained (assimilated Jews?). No wonder we are at a loss in describing the present situation and projecting even slightly into the future.

Nevertheless, I think we can take as given the fact that ethnic feelings which not so long ago were dormant or latent or altogether nonexistent have in recent years become more evident, more urgent. Even if this has been stimulated or over-stimulated by the mass media, the foundations, and the remaining caretakers of ethnic interests delighted to cash in on a slight movement in the chart of ethnic feeling by immediately labeling it a substantial rise, it remains a fact. Taking this fact as given, then, I want to raise two sets of questions about it. First, is it honest? That is to say, is it a cover for racism, a justification for anti-black prejudice, or even (more benignly) a defensive reaction to black pride? There are other ways of being dishonest. Is the new ethnic assertiveness deeply felt? Is it simply fashionable or faddish or a grab for funds and other benefits? Second, what does the new ethnicity mean for the relations among the different groups in America, and for the future of the country? Does it mean more prejudice and more conflict? Does it threaten a balkanized nation, neighborhoods, schools? And if so, how are we to avoid the worst of these consequences?


Seven or eight years ago, when Martin Luther King marched in Chicago and Father Groppi marched in Milwaukee, both in largely working-class, low-income, white-ethnic areas, they were met with screams and posters declaring: “We want to save our homes,” or “Get out of our neighborhoods.” It was incidents like these that raised the question of honesty in connection with the new ethnic feelings. For what was there in the Polish or Lithuanian or Italian group and its culture that could justify such behavior? Most liberals answered, nothing. Just as the South had said it was protecting its culture in resisting desegregation, so was something similar now being said in the North, and for exactly the same reason: racism. In any case, how much Polish or Lithuanian or Italian culture actually existed in these areas? Who read Mickiewicz or Dante there? And if there was no real commitment to Mickiewicz or Dante, how could one pretend that those opposing black entry into their neighborhoods were fighting to maintain a culture?

Yet the word culture cannot be restricted only to the arts. It also means the way of life, the customs, the language—or if the language goes, the accent—the food, the stores, the weddings, the knowledge of how to approach a person on the street or how to address someone, and the comfortable expectation that one will oneself be approached and addressed in the same way. A known and experienced way of life is always of value to those who have been raised in it, and a reflexive effort to defend it demands at the least sympathy and understanding, if not necessarily acquiescence. It is true that any value may be inferior to any other and the Lithuanian neighborhood may have to go if another group is to have justice. But we cannot determine that in advance, and it is worth taking the initial claim seriously and sympathetically.

Those who believed that the new ethnicity was merely a cover for racism, however, advanced another argument. If, they said, the opposition in these neighborhoods to various forms of black entry were based on a desire to defend the ethnic culture, we would expect to find as much opposition to the entry of other ethnic groups. Yet those very areas in Chicago and Milwaukee that fought against King and Groppi were mixed. Lithuanians or Poles may have predominated in one or another neighborhood, but there were also Italians and Germans. Similarly, if we look at Canarsie in New York, where some years after the King and Groppi marches, a boycott was staged against the busing-in of more black students, we find that the opposing whites were not all members of a single ethnic group protecting its own way of life, but of two ethnic groups with very different ways of life—Jews and Italians. Surely, then, what we are dealing with here is white racism, pure and simple.

Once again—and without denying that racism played some part in these conflicts, though it is impossible to say how much or even how to determine how much—I think this is an inadequate explanation. For the truth is that certain forms of traditional behavior may be found among many ethnic groups, but not among all. Thus the kind of culture that was characterized by a strong-position for the father, the obedience of the children and the following by them of paternal occupations, the consequent rebellion of some against both the requirements of obedience and the insistence on respect for the parents' way of life and the father's occupation—this kind of culture was much better domiciled among the East European white ethnic groups than it was among American blacks or among Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans. Consequently, the culture of the Poles or of the Jews, for example, has not been seen by, say, the Italians to be as great a threat to their own culture as the culture of the blacks or Puerto Ricans whose traditions in many respects ran in almost the opposite direction. Against this threat the white ethnics have attempted to fight.

One problem with their effort, and indeed with any effort to defend the values of an ethnic culture in America, is that we do not in this country have an ideology and a rhetoric to justify such action. We do, on the contrary, have an ideology—the ideology of the melting pot—which justifies surrendering one's distinctive cultural traits, and assimilating to a common culture. This position has held sway in America for a very long time, but there are many indications that it is now crumbling. Consider, for example, that it was once axiomatic that all immigrants should be forced to learn the English language. Today a knowledge of English is still required for citizenship, but in New York State, at any rate, it is now possible to vote without demonstrating capacity in English. Bilingual education receives federal support. Whatever the future of Spanish will be, it already has a status very different from that of any earlier immigrant language.

Another aspect of this process of “Americanization” was the insistence that foreign loyalties be subordinated to American loyalties, or rooted out. This demand rings very hollow at a time when no one seems to know what American loyalties are any more. After what has happened to American patriotism in the last ten years, when our best educated youth paraded with Cuban or North Vietnamese flags, on what grounds can anyone be upset if Jews demand support for Israel, Irish for Ireland, Greeks for Greece? (And, indeed, when anyone does get seriously upset, it is usually because he opposes the political implications of such demands and not because they are demands in favor of foreign countries.)


But if the model of the melting pot and the rhetoric of Americanization are gone, we are still not very clear as to what will take their place, and this is perhaps why we are all in such confusion over ethnicity. Just as a simple “Americanization” has been rejected (even by the Congress of the United States, as we see from all the recent legislation supporting bilingual education, ethnic studies, and the like), so, too, we are presumably rejecting a simple “separatism.” Between the two are the misty reaches of “cultural pluralism.” Cultural pluralism was never a widely accepted ideology in America. Its biggest moment came in World War II, when, because so many nations had been overrun by Hitler, it seemed that America could be strengthened most not by insisting that everyone forget his national origins, but rather that everyone (except, of course, the Germans) remember them. But cultural pluralism more or less disappeared after World War II, and it was only in the past few years that it began to be revived. If the people fighting King in Chicago and Groppi in Milwaukee had been able to lean on the ideology and rhetoric of cultural pluralism, they would have been able to explain themselves better and to defend themselves more effectively against the charge of racism. Instead, many of them threw up their hands in despairing frustration at their inability to give sophisticated voice to their feelings and said, “Very well, then, we are racists.”


Yet even if the “pluralist” position of the white ethnic groups is not simply racism, or a cover for racism, the question of its honesty in another sense—the sense of depth or authenticity—still arises. Many spokesmen for the blacks and the Spanish-speaking groups doubt the sincerity of the white demand for special recognition of ethnic background, seeing it not as a cover for racism so much as a kind of “me-tooism” and a grab for federal and foundation funds. Where education is concerned, for example, many in the black and Spanish-speaking communities feel that they are more truly deprived than the white ethnic groups and that they therefore have a more solidly established right to an education which acknowledges their special cultural distinctiveness and which raises their group consciousness. The blacks point out that they were brought here as slaves, and the Spanish-speaking (Mexican or Puerto Rican) point out that they were conquered, whereas the white ethnic groups came as free immigrants. The blacks also say that their own culture was subjected to almost total destruction, whereas the white immigrants were allowed, if they wished, to maintain theirs—in churches, in afternoon schools, in parochial schools—and far from being forcibly deprived, voluntarily chose to assimilate.

I think there is a good deal of weight in the view that blacks and Hispanics (and American Indians) have a larger moral claim on American society than the white ethnic groups. At the same time, we should not exaggerate its weight. Many blacks, after all, were also free immigrants, from the West Indies and elsewhere. Most Mexican-Americans were free immigrants or the descendants of free immigrants, and all Puerto Ricans voluntarily chose to enter an English-speaking environment. And if the argument is that the black and Spanish-speaking immigrants were forced to migrate for economic reasons, so were the immigrant ancestors of the present-day European ethnic groups.

The fact is that we cannot separate ethnic and racial groups into two classes: those who have suffered, economically and culturally, in America, and therefore deserve redress, and those who have not. Perhaps at the extremes we might make such a distinction, but each group's history is so special that no such broad separation makes sense. Consider the Asian-Americans—Chinese and Japanese. They are neither European nor white; they did not come as slaves; they were not conquered; they did suffer race prejudice and, in the case of the Japanese-Americans during World War II, confiscation of their property and even incarceration; they do well economically and their children do well in school. To which class of immigrant groups do they belong?

In considering this question, we are brought to a more powerful argument that gives special weight to black and Spanish-speaking claims where education is concerned as against white-ethnic claims. This is the pragmatic argument that as a matter of fact black and Spanish-speaking children do poorly in school, and for that reason alone some special attention in the form of ethnic-studies programs is required. If the first claim is based on a past deprivation, the second is based on a present deprivation.

But since this is a pragmatic argument, there are pragmatic questions. Do ethnic studies actually help students do better in school? There are many reasons why they might, but none is decisive. According to one argument, the present curriculum is alien to the black or Mexican-American or Puerto Rican child, and because he cannot “relate” to it, he does poorly. But would an ethnically oriented curriculum be more effective in bringing the black or Spanish-speaking child to competence in what we may call the general curriculum (sometimes and improperly called the “white” or “middle-class” curriculum—improperly, because the ability to read and calculate is a general human need, not based on class or color) ? In my own case, growing up in a tenement in East Harlem, I read with wonder stories about children who lived in houses where they went upstairs to bed—to me that was romantic and the alienness made it all the more intriguing. But many children may be put off rather than attracted by the alien.

There is a second and quite different pragmatic argument for ethnic studies—not that they directly serve to make the curriculum more attractive and meaningful, but that they give a greater sense of self-respect to the child of a minority group and in so doing strengthen his ability to learn. And another variant of this argument says that if we have ethnic studies we will of course have more blacks and Spanish-surnamed teachers in the schools, thereby increasing the number of “role models,” which will again indirectly encourage the child to achieve more.

All this may well be so. It is true that Chinese, Japanese, Armenians, Greeks, and Jews—and several other groups too—did well in school even though nothing about their own history and experience was in the curriculum, and even though their own people were entirely absent from the ranks of teachers and administrators. But there are many ways of learning: perhaps the children of some groups or some children in all groups do need direct contact through the curriculum and in the school itself with their actual ways of life, with their own ethnic histories, and with adults from the same ethnic background. Here again we see that ethnic groups cannot be regarded as being like so many peas in a pod. Not only do they differ concretely from one another, but their differences may result in a variety of educational needs, such that some groups require ethnic studies and others do not. And if those who have no real need of such studies, or whose economic and political progress does not seem to have been badly hampered, ask for them anyway, is this not a case of “me-tooism,” or faddishness?

Yet in contrasting Chinese, Japanese, Armenians, and Jews—who have done well in school even in the total absence of any public recognition of their culture and group life—with blacks and Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans—who have done poorly and might be helped by a recognition of their culture and group life—we tend to forget that there are many groups in the middle—Poles and other East Europeans, Irish, Germans—whose achievement has neither been remarkable for speedy progress in the face of adverse circumstances, nor notable for backwardness. Would children of these groups be helped academically if recognition were given to their group character and their cultural background? Again it is hard to say. In any case, their demand for ethnic studies is generally based not on past political oppression or on present academic or economic deprivation, but rather on the idea that all cultures must be recognized as having equal significance and dignity and that all therefore deserve a role in education and in the curriculum.

Is, then, the demand for ethnic cultural components in the curriculum honest, serious, real? By certain standards the answer may be no, but the fact is that we are now living with a new standard of public discourse that forbids this kind of dismissal. A few years ago, when blacks demanded Swahili, it was simply not considered acceptable to reply that Swahili was not widely spoken, would not be helpful to future black economic and political progress, and was in any event not the ancestral language of American blacks. Nowadays, it appears, a cultural demand can no longer be weighed on the scales of seriousness and depth. Evidently all such demands are to be taken seriously. Indeed, the point about ethnicity and ethnic consciousness is that no group submits to the judgment of others. By their very nature ethnic claims do not allow of a universal scale against which they can be measured.

I am reminded of the first time Mao buttons appeared in Berkeley. They were then jokes—to those who wore them, and to those who saw them worn. A year later they were not jokes at all. They were worn with deadly seriousness, and those who wore them were ready to engage in desperate actions to demonstrate just how serious they were. Marx once said that the first time something happens in history it is tragedy, and when it is repeated it becomes farce. Today, in reversal of Marx, what starts as farce soon becomes serious—sometimes grimly and tragically so.

In short, with regard to the question of whether the new ethnicity is serious, my conclusion is that we (that is, informed public opinion) have given up the claim to know how to answer it. No matter how extreme or outlandish it may seem to begin with, if the demand is raised, persisted in, finds adherents, it is serious, or as serious as anything becomes in this world. There is no universal arbiter who decides which ethnic demands are serious and just and which are not, who honors those of the blacks, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, on the one hand, and rejects those of the Poles, the Irish, and the Italians on the other. Maybe there should be such an arbiter, but we would be deceiving ourselves to believe that there is.


Granted, then, that at least in principle and at least to begin with, all ethnic claims must be admitted, is this good for America? The question is so large that it may help to start with a more modest problem: is it good for education, for the curriculum? One difficulty already becoming visible is the crowding of the curriculum by the demand that all ethnic groups be recognized in, for example, the teaching of American history. Now it is one thing to include American blacks, who were here at the beginning, who were the victims of the major institution of slavery, who were a crucial factor in the most tragic and bloody of all American wars, who were the very basis of the distinctiveness of America's most distinctive region, the South, and who were—and are—deeply involved in the urban crisis which has agitated the nation for decades and will probably continue to do so for a few more. Moreover, as 11 per cent of the population—and 20 per cent at the time of the American Revolution—they exert a powerful claim for inclusion in our social-science curriculum.

But how powerful is the claim of other groups? Certainly the Irish and the Germans played a role in the urban history of the 19th century and the history of the opening of the Midwest. It is, however, hard to say whether it was significant for American development that such and such an immigrant group wielded pickaxes and laid the railroads and opened the prairie farmlands, as against what Americans of British origin did. Despite the fact that I have spent my life in studying and pondering the role of immigrant and racial groups in America, I remain doubtful that this aspect of the national life should be accorded the same importance as the traditional content of American history—the settling of the Thirteen Colonies, the Revolution, the making of the Constitution, the expansion territorially of the nation, the struggle over slavery, the Civil War, the industrial revolution, the entry onto the international scene as a world power, and so on. If the American history that was taught in the 1930's and 1940's were replaced by one that sectioned it up among the ethnic and racial groups, and made their fate primary—which is what is beginning to happen in our elementary and secondary schools today—I myself would not consider this an improvement.

I believe the “Americanization” of the immigrant was a great achievement, an almost unique and unparalleled achievement despite its harshness and arrogance. I am not sure that the immigrants who came to this country willingly, to work and to become citizens of a new land, were deprived when they gave up an old language for English, old cultures for a new emerging culture, old allegiances for a new allegiance. I am not suggesting that ethnic studies would undo this achievement; perhaps they would only introduce a proper balance. But the danger exists that they will end by creating a far greater distortion than the one they set out to correct. For if in teaching the history of the American Revolution, for example, we make it appear that George Washington and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were not much more important than Haym Solomon, Crispus Attucks, Pulaski, Baron von Steuben, and whoever else might be necessary to give every group in the nation a sense of sharing in our great founding event, we not only risk distortion, we risk weakening commitment to common political values, and we risk losing the sense of the United States as a country dedicated from its birth to distinctive and great ideals.

From the point of view of the schools this last may be the greatest challenge. The schools should be committed to honest teaching, but they also socialize children. With mathematics we have no problem, but with history and English we may have a great problem. In the universities it is clear that the analytical mode should prevail (though we are well aware that in recent years there has been a danger of advocacy dominating analysis in the colleges and universities, and not only in ethnic studies). In the elementary and high schools, however, we have always “advocated” democracy and liberty, and we have always inculcated a belief in the general goodness and Tightness of our country and of its role in world affairs. This advocacy is justified to my mind by the socializing function of the schools. But the pressure on textbook writers in many states today is in the opposite direction. They are being asked to substitute a new kind of advocacy which emphasizes the racist and ethnocentric aspects of American life—the narrowness and the prejudices of the founding fathers, the oppression and suffering of all minority groups, with each competing for the distinction of having been treated the worst by the “Americans.”

I believe a more honest picture can be given of our past and present, one into which the facts of ethnic diversity as a constituent part of American life, culture, and politics are introduced. But when each group can make a claim on the school to tell its story and highlight its role, distortion will inevitably enter in. The curriculum, like the voting districts, will be gerrymandered, and though no one yet proposes breaking it up to the point where each and every group gets its “proper share” (whatever that may be), we are already in danger of ending up with such a notion—and sooner than we might think.


There once were—there still are—mechanisms for reconciling the demands and needs in education of the larger community, with the demands and needs of each sub-community. There was the afternoon school supplementing the common school, and there was the parochial school, which accepted, along with its commitment to transmit a distinctive heritage, the obligation to transmit the general tradition. There is a great deal to be said for these compromises, and we might well think of ways to strengthen them instead of importing the work of the afternoon or parochial school into the common school.

Undoubtedly our children will have a different picture of the American past in 1975 than American children had in 1965. But I hope we will find as many people to be as concerned with the distortions of 1975 as there were to be concerned with the distortions of 1965. Whatever the attractiveness of the phrase, the United States is not, in reality, “a nation of nations,” nor do the overwhelming majority of Americans want it to be. One nation was created here, of many stocks. Some have altogether lost their original identities, some retain only nostalgic ties to what they once were, some are close to being peoples in the full sense. This is a complex reality, and it should not be suppressed. But neither should we be presented with a false and distorted picture in which every group is the equivalent of every other and in which our common heritage as a nation is either defamed or made to disappear.

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