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Trans-National America

Going to School: The African-American Experience

edited by Kofi Lomotey
State University of New York Press, 242 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America

by Richard D. Alba
Yale University Press, 374 pp., $35.00

A Curriculum of Inclusion: Report of the Commissioner’s Task Force on Minorities

New York State Department of Education, 76 pp.

From Gatekeeper to Gateway: Transforming Testing in America

National Commission on Testing and Public Policy, Boston College, 59 pp., $6.00 (paper)

Campus Ethnoviolence and the Policy Options

by Howard J. Ehrlich
National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, 72 pp., $10.00 (paper)

The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture

by Lawrence H. Fuchs
Wesleyan University Press, 640 pp., $45.00

Each year, this country becomes less white, less “European,” and less tightly bound by a single language. The United States now has a greater variety of cultures than at any time in its history. This has resulted largely from the recent rise in immigration, for the most part from Latin America and Asia, but also from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In addition, some Americans who were born in the United States are saying they can no longer identify with its prevailing culture.

One reaction has been to call for the recognition of heritages outside the Western world. Much of the debate has centered on classrooms and campuses, and particularly on curriculum and the composition of their faculties. However, it has also affected legislation, employment, and public policy. As with all such issues, advocates often claim they represent ignored and inarticulate constituencies.

1.

Last year, the commissioner of education for New York State released a report entitled “A Curriculum of Inclusion,” and designed to address the changing ethnic composition in the public schools. The document was prepared by a “task force” most of whose members were minorities. It gave scant attention to reading, mathematics, or scientific skills, but instead advanced the view that minority pupils have “been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression,” owing to the “Euro-American monocultural perspective” that dominates the current curriculum. This insensitivity, it asserted, has had a “terribly damaging effect on the psyches of young people” whose native “cultures are alienated and devalued.”

It is easy to question epithets like “monocultural” and “educational oppression.” One need only reply that Europe is a large and varied continent, stretching from Inverness to Istanbul, just as the “Euro-American” emigration ran from Spitsbergen to Salonika. Even so, it is not difficult to argue that Europe and many of its emigrants shared a common culture, tradition, and civilization. Moreover, this country’s schools have reflected the literary and scientific side of that tradition, which came with the first English settlers and has essentially endured.

Indeed, when immigrants arrived from rural Ireland and Sicily, the schools felt no obligation to adapt to their customs. Nor did educators devise special curriculums when they set up separate schools for liberated slaves or the country’s indigenous inhabitants. The schools were to act as the proverbial melting pot, which meant that the society was to be accepted as shaped by those who preceded. Few thought to ask whether this might have, as the New York report now claims, “a terribly damaging effect on the psyche of young people,” whose cultures were “distorted, marginalized, or omitted.” Still, the United States cannot be accused of false labeling so far as immigrants were concerned; they came here voluntarily, willing to abide by the rules.

Ours is much more an age of psychology and social science, of professional compassion and expressly ethnic politics. We also have a minor industry of writers eager to tell of injuries they suffered from having to conform to the dominant culture. Along with the strains of the loss of language and tradition have been strains between generations. But then the promise of America has been to offer the chance to make it on one’s own, which often involves loosening older ties. This erosion, some have argued, explains much of the aimlessness and self-indulgence so common in this country.

The New York report proposes to expand the school curriculum to give major attention to cultures outside Europe. In particular, pupils throughout the state are to learn much more about the customs and contributions of blacks and Hispanics, as well as Asians and American Indians. Nor will short summaries suffice. The report reminds us that Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Cubans differ in important ways, just as Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos should not be seen as a single category. One section insists that “curricular materials must be developed so there is equity in the coverage of…Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras.”

At the same time, it is not made clear how the self-esteem of youngsters from, say, Trinidad and Haiti would be enhanced by being taught about life in Korea and the Philippines. Some schools in New York now have pupils from twenty different countries. If all applicable cultures were to be covered, each could not get more than several minutes in a busy syllabus.

A reply to the report has come from a group of historians, organized by the education expert Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., alarmed that an official document “contemptuously dismisses the Western tradition”:

The Western tradition is the source of ideas of individual freedom and political democracy to which most of the world now aspires. The West has committed its share of crimes against humanity, but the Western democratic philosophy also contains in its essence the means of exposing crimes and producing reforms. This philosophy has included and empowered people of all nations and races. Little can be more dangerous to the psyches of young blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Indians than for the State of New York to tell them that the Western democratic tradition is not for them.1

This answer deserves respectful attention. It expresses the views of twenty-eight distinguished scholars, most of them liberal and all but two of them white. Their letter asks for more historical attention to immigrants and minorities, and many of them have done well-regarded work in these fields. However, the statement does not address the political issues and emotions underlying the dispute.

Jim Sleeper articulates much of the controversy in his well-argued The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York. He could be speaking of the Ravitch-Schlesinger statement when he remarks that he finds it “astonishing that whites who make so much of the importance of cultural moorings can reject the anger of blacks’ awakening to their own history of cultural devastation and of their heroic efforts to surmount it.” The authors of the New York State report, he writes, do not want the diverse heritages subjected to the analytical study advanced by professional historians. Rather, they want stories saluting the achievements of their people, accompanied by indictments of the Western record of slavery, colonization, and the destruction of native populations.

At issue here are different approaches to culture. The approach favored by the Ravitch-Schlesinger group emphasizes the books and ideas of scholarship, particularly historical scholarship, which may show the failure of Western culture and its leaders as well as its successes. They hope to introduce students to traditions and principles that might be instructive for any group seeking to claim its rights. The blacks and other minorities who endorse the New York report want to see the curriculum include positive accounts of the customs and conventions linked to their ancestral origins. The Onondaga Indians may not have produced writers comparable to Shakespeare, or the Kikuyu a philosopher comparable to Montesquieu, but their advocates are confident that they had art, values, and visions of life worth studying. What is not clear in such demands are the larger conceptions of the skills and general knowledge that students are meant to acquire through studies of these traditions. Presumably the reformers want students to emerge from school with more than a repertory of different ethnic understandings; but just what they hope for, apart from general pride in their ethnic backgrounds, is not spelled out.

2.

Going to School: The African-American Experience, a volume of essays by black educators, begins by acknowledging the gaps in scholastic achievement between blacks and other groups. Hence the need, the editor says in a preface, to “create an environment where African-Americans will be able to compete academically in America’s public schools.” The contributors take the view that “if students do not feel good about themselves, they will not do well,” adding that pupils “do better academically when they see themselves in the curriculum.”

Going to School differs from the New York State report in an important respect. Most of its contributors start with the premise that black students should be taught by black teachers in all-black public schools. Far from advocating a “multicultural” syllabus, it seeks a single program, attuned to “African-American cultural values.” In other words, it calls for black self-segregation, under the auspices and with the financing of the public school system.

Booker Peek, an Oberlin professor, begins his essay by distinguishing between “skills education” and “political education.” The former covers conventional disciplines, from basic reading and writing to programs preparing for professions. To Professor Peek, this kind of study “is no big deal…. Skills education is simply a tool that can be picked up or discarded as you may wish.” As he sees it, political education should be given more importance, since its purpose is to instill racial pride, stressing the accomplishments of African culture and the achievements of black Americans. “Political education has to be a total quest for liberation,” he concludes. “Political education is something that white society can’t give Black Americans.”

Many educators would probably reply that “political education” in this sense has no place in the public schools. They fear that ideology may impede objective analysis, and rhetoric supplant thought. But Janice Hale-Benson of Cleveland State University says in Going to School that ideology and rhetoric are already in the curriculum, although whites seldom see this. America’s public schools, she writes, “were designed for white children,” even if the word “white” is never used. She and the other contributors to Going to School believe that black and white Americans have distinctive cultures with relatively little common ground. Education for black children must strengthen their separate world and make them feel good about having this heritage.

The issue of “self-esteem” has played a central role in the multicultural controversy. The state of California has gone so far as to set up a “Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem” to examine the problem and recommend remedies. Who can object to people exploring their collective past and thinking well of themselves, so long as it does not take obsessive forms? The question for educators is how much attention the school curriculum should give to instructing young people in the sources of their identities in their ethnic and cultural ties. The contributors to Going to School, it turns out, are only concerned with the problems of blacks, whose sense of self-esteem has in the authors’ view been so threatened by white persecution, racism, and condescension that their education must stress pride in a distinctive African-American culture. There seems no doubt, moreover, that a segregated curriculum emphasizing what Professor Peek called “political education” can rouse youthful spirits. Academies organized by the Black Muslims have shown that this can be done.

The question is whether those who advocate a segregated curriculum are also concerned about, and capable of imparting, the technical skills required for modern employment. Professor Peek’s remark, quoted earlier, implying that preparation in science and mathematics “is no big deal” suggests that, at least for some, transmitting such skills is not a predominant concern. Other black educators may agree with the contributors to Going to School on the need for black cultural studies while also insisting that academic skills must be mastered.

Jim Sleeper argues that a more enduring form of self-esteem comes through personal achievement. One reason so many immigrants come to America, he notes, “is to enable themselves and their youngsters to win self-esteem by proving that they’re just as good as those who might undervalue them.” He recalls a class he taught in labor history at a New York City high school, where he tried to stir his Chinese-American students by telling them how their countrymen built much of America’s railroad system. They were polite, but they kept studying the chemistry books they kept open on their laps.

The last thing black Americans want to be told is how they should be more like the new Asian immigrants, who did not have to endure slavery and its after-math. Still, Sleeper is persuasive in saying that there is “a new, universal culture enveloping the globe,” and that native-born Americans of all races are short on the skills that culture expects, whether in mathematics, reading, or geography. For black pupils, he adds, attaining such mastery “ultimately requires the courage to ‘act white.’ ” Some black writers have been suggesting much the same thing, but it is hardly a message that the authors of Going to School want to hear.

The Milwaukee school system, at the behest of black groups in the city, has already decided to create two “African-American Immersion Schools,” designed to enroll only black boys in the elementary and middle-level grades. This is a far cry from 1954, when black Americans asked for a single school system, and won that right in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. However, banning legal segregation has not brought integration on a substantial scale. The reason, of course, is that white parents have done their best to ensure that their children will attend schools with few black classmates or none at all. The reaction of many blacks, understandable in the circumstances, has been that since whites don’t want to associate with them, they had better devise schools of their own.

Certainly, the settings in which to do so exist, and not only in Milwaukee. There are plenty of all-black public schools in the inner cities and the rural South. Others are predominantly black, with the remaining students usually Hispanic. The National School Boards Association has compiled reports on how many students attend schools where black or Hispanic pupils, separately or together, account for 90 percent or more of the enrollment (see Table A).

TABLE A

In Chicago, 81 percent of the city’s black children are in such schools. In New Orleans, the figure is 84 percent; for Atlanta, it is 91 percent. And in Newark, virtually all black youngsters—97 percent—attend segregated schools.2 In these and other cities, there are simply not enough whites to make an integrated public system. Moreover, even within schools that have fewer blacks and a white majority, dividing classes by “ability” can end up separating the races. This can continue in high school, where vocational and college preparatory programs produce a similar segregation. So a generation after Brown, black and white pupils seldom sit alongside each other in the classroom.

As matters now stand, however, even predominantly black schools tend to have largely white faculties and administrations. While black pupils account for 16 percent of total enrollments, black teachers hold only 8 percent of all faculty positions. Everyone agrees on the need for more black teachers; not just as models for black students, but also for the benefit of white pupils, who encounter too few black people in positions of authority. However, as of last year, fewer than 5 percent of undergraduates majoring in education at college were black. One cause of the low rate is that states have been introducing competency examinations for new applicants and to reassess teachers already on the rolls. Sad to say, the pass rates for black candidates have not been impressive, running as low as 15 percent in Louisiana and 18 percent in Connecticut. Black undergraduates have become aware of these figures, and this is one of the reasons that fewer of them are choosing teaching careers.

Some charge that the tests, which consist largely of multiple-choice questions, favor white candidates. Faustine Jones-Wilson, another Going to School contributor, sees them as “one more way of reducing the number of minority teachers.” Her position finds support in From Gatekeeper to Gateway, a report by a group calling itself the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy. It argues that machine-graded examinations can measure only a small range of human aptitudes and thus fail to recognize many talents. The report also reiterates the common charge that these pencil-and-paper tests “are culturally bound and almost always reflect the ‘dominant’ or ‘national’ culture in both form and content.” But if the tests reflect the “dominant” or “national” culture, it seems appropriate to ask whether we want teachers to be competent in those modes of reasoning and organization. If they are not, then how well will they prepare their pupils?

The report never really confronts this question. Instead, it picks a different kind of example. We are told that carpenters who want to remain eligible for employment must now pass an academic test, even though studies show that many black candidates who get failing grades had good on-the-job ratings from their supervisors. The chief reason appears to be that black Americans tend to be raised in segregated surroundings, where they grow up with less exposure to the analytical and deductive thinking that the tests expect. In fact, many blacks from middle-class families do not score on average as well as other racial groups, which suggests that even they reside outside the “dominant” culture.

Why use such tests, if many people who fail them would make excellent carpenters, perhaps even good teachers? Clearly, in my view, they should not be used to test carpenters. But many jobs today—including some in the construction industry—call for a mastery of language and for some skills associated with abstract reasoning. In The American Kaleidoscope, Lawrence Fuchs points to a New York City test for promotion to police sergeant. It too was accused of being racially biased, since many minority candidates did not get passing scores. So a new format was devised. Instead of having to read paragraphs of prose, those retaking the test were allowed to watch situations acted out on television tapes:

A new test sought to minimize the importance of reading and writing abilities by relying on videotaped scenes of police officers responding to various emergencies, but candidates still had to show that they understood such words as “relevant,” “disposition,” “unsubstantiated,” “tactfully,” and “interested party.” The results were disappointing for black and Hispanic candidates, who did not do nearly as well as the white police officers tested.

Everyone agrees that we need more police officers who can communicate with people in poorer and rougher neighborhoods. One could argue that the familiarity officers from these neighborhoods would bring to their work would compensate for lower scores in reading and writing. At the same time, we now expect even officers on patrol to be fully informed about serious constitutional matters. Investigations must be so conducted as to hold up later in court, where terms like “unsubstantiated” and “disposition” inevitably figure. More than that, officers must now write reports with sufficient precision to withstand severe cross-examination on a witness stand.

The Testing Commission makes the valid point that multiple-choice tests impose constricting technological patterns on knowledge and understanding. Certainly such tests have no place in a liberal arts education; and, as with carpenters, they can close doors to promising candidates. Even so, such tests also identify those willing to play by the prevailing rules, which require skills in logical reasoning and similar systems for organizing thought. So it is not clear what the commission had in mind when it chose to include the following passage in its report:

The Pascua Yagui, Northern Ute, and Red Lake Chippewa Nations have enacted educational codes that include the ability to daydream as a criterion for identifying gifted and talented students.

Perhaps we should reward a talent for reveries: it might make us a gentler nation. But it would also hasten the decline in our living standards, since we are already short on the skills needed to produce the goods and services that even today’s Chippewas and Utes expect in their lives.

3.

Most Americans have heard of “bilingual education,” but few have any idea of how it actually works. The most common method mandates school authorities to set up special classes for students who lack sufficient English to keep up with regular coursework. Given the pace of immigration, thousands of such youngsters show up at American schools every week, as often as not in the middle of the year. In earlier times, they were simply thrown in with other children, on the theory that they would pick up the new language on their own. Many did; but a lot also dropped out as soon as the law allowed, or even before. The “submersion”—or “sink-or-swim”—approach is no longer used. Indeed, it has been banned by court decisions and federal legislation, which require that bilingual classes be made available when needed.

We expect the teachers in such programs to be bilingual themselves: in English, of course, and in the native language of their pupils. However, the public has been led to believe that much of the instruction will be in English. To be sure, if teachers see bewildered expressions among their pupils, they can add explanations in Creole or Spanish or Korean. Given this approach, the theory holds, students will be able to cover subjects at the normal pace and keep up with their classmates in other school rooms. On its face, the plan seems sensible, given its aim of moving pupils to regular classes as soon as possible. It has even been argued that learning to read and write in a foreign language gives students confidence in their linguistic ability which can be converted into proficiency in English.

However, according to Rosalie Pedalino Porter in Forked Tongue, that isn’t how it works in practice. Mastery of English, she says, is not the principal goal in most bilingual classes. Many of those who have taken charge of the programs have a very different aim: to preserve the languages and cultures that immigrant children bring to school. Indeed, many “bilingual” classes are not that at all, but isolated enclaves within the public system. She claims that Boston’s experience is typical:

Several hundred students in the junior high schools had been in bilingual classes for seven years, despite the three-year legal limit for this special program. Yet even after seven years in the program they had still not learned enough English to be enrolled in a class taught in English.

Her claims are supported by a large-scale study which showed that “children were retained even after they had learned enough English to join mainstream classrooms.” More troublingly, it concluded that “most programs aimed to maintain minority languages rather than speed the transition to English.”3

Porter says that a “bilingual bureaucracy” has become the preserve mainly of Hispanic-American educators, who have built careers pleading a cause for a constituency that may not exist. In their view, the fact that a teacher is expert in the second language no longer suffices. They now demand that instructors themselves be from “the same cultural group” as their students, so they can simulate a classroom atmosphere congruous with the old culture. To achieve this atmosphere, some school systems have recruited teachers from abroad, including some who have only halting English. According to Porter, you could look in on lessons in some “bilingual” classrooms and think you were back in Haiti or Honduras.

As with the advocates of black self-segregation, the ideology of “bilingual” education claims it builds pride and self-esteem among youngsters who are looked down upon by other Americans. Ironically, this case for separation echoes the one made for integration in the Brown decision. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that children who were set apart could develop “a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Now we hear that placing new-comers in regular classes will have the same baleful effect.

Porter concludes by saying that most parents want their children to become proficient in English as rapidly as they can. This is clearly the case among Asians, as it is for most immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean. In fact, despite bureaucratic excesses, most youngsters do not languish in the special classes. Some never see them, especially in districts with so many new nationalities that they cannot create separate sections, let alone find teachers expert in Romanian or Laotian. All but a few youngsters learn English on their own, whether on the playground or by watching television. Indeed, they become sufficiently bilingual to serve as translators for their parents. But many of them have not been given the opportunities they deserve to perfect their skills in reading and writing. Forked Tongue makes a persuasive case against ethnic empire-building. It never really demonstrates that the bilingual programs have prevented the children of immigrant families from learning English, but it suggests that much time and money may have been wasted in classrooms where children were supposed to be learning to read and write English and did not.

4.

Campus Ethnoviolence, a survey of the nation’s colleges over a recent thirty-month period, is a disquieting volume. Sponsored by an organization called the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, and prepared by Howard J. Ehrlich, it cites some two hundred “incidents” involving ethnic or sexual bigotry at American colleges. While Jews and homosexuals were among those receiving threats, black students at predominantly white colleges suffered most of the harassment. Moreover, the episodes occurred not simply at provincial schools, but also such institutions as Stanford, Columbia, and Smith.

The incidents varied in extent and gravity. At least two colleges had cross burnings on the lawns of black residence halls. Elsewhere, a white fraternity gave a “ghetto party” with demeaning decorations; sorority members put on blackface for a musical program. The list also mentions threats to students. A black undergraduate at the University of Texas reported that he was confronted at gunpoint by two white students who, he said, wore Ronald Reagan masks. But few were that serious. The report gives just as much space to the assertion of a black library employee that his white supervisor “intentionally pushed a door into his back.” It also recounts an argument in which a white man shouted a racial slur at a black woman who had taken a parking space he had been waiting for. We are told of a black law student who claimed that her grades and test scores had been altered, but the report has nothing to say about the circumstances in which this incident took place. At another school, a student claimed that a professor called her a “black bitch” after she charged him with racism for not passing her in a class. The list has much in common with what the FBI once called its “raw files.” No complaints of racial prejudice by whites are mentioned; nor does Mr. Ehrlich allow for the possibility that that some of the reports could have been false or overstated.

Obviously, we have to be careful before dismissing any of these episodes as trivial or overblown. Clearly there is a cause for concern when the members of a fraternity organize a party with a racist theme. However, when told about the cross burnings, we are not told whether they were carried out by a few bigots or if they represented widespread sentiment. The report suggests that bigotry suffuses even sophisticated campuses. Following up a complaint that a Wesleyan University dean had used the word “nigger” while conducting a job interview, an investigation concluded that the campus as a whole evinced “a pattern of subtle institutional racism,” without citing any further evidence.

Another recent report, published by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, sees more than scattered incidents. Rather, it likens this country and its campuses to “a cauldron of simmering racial tensions.” One college president observes that many of his professors address their white students by their surnames, “while black students, when they are called upon at all, get a nod.” Another writes that on his faculty, “there are still whites who prefer not to have a black person as a colleague.”4

Many of us would like to feel that colleges show more civility than the workaday world. Of course, it must be kept in mind that most undergraduates are teen-agers, not a group notable for politeness or immune from displays of bravado. Still, there is something about a college setting which makes race a visible issue. For one thing, campuses tend to be closed-off communities, in which episodes often take on lives of their own. For another, students and faculty have much free time, a great deal of which they spend discussing the meanings of local events.

In fact, the evidence of university hiring goals suggest that most university administrators and teachers would like their schools to be more multiracial than they currently are. Colleges have been in the forefront of affirmative action, often on their own initiative. Even with money tight, departments are usually told that funds can be found for appointing black faculty members. Nevertheless, colleges are being accused of not having tried hard enough, and that their searches are confined to candidates who fit white specifications. As often as not, colleges with liberal reputations receive a greater share of recriminations, not least because protesters know how to play on the feelings of white students and faculty members, many of whom need little prompting to plead guilty to racism.

In fact, enrollments are more multiracial than at any time in the past. Twenty years ago, colleges were virtually all white, largely because most black students still went to black schools. At that time, fewer than 40 percent of them were at “white” institutions, where they numbered only 2.4 percent of total enrollments. Today, some 80 percent of college-bound blacks go to integrated schools, and they make up 7.4 percent of the total number of students.

Until relatively recently, black undergraduates who chose white campuses knew they would find few classmates of their own race. Most spent a lonely four years, whether in the classroom or residence halls. Misgivings about the curriculum were best kept to oneself. Things are now very different, thanks to the trebling of black undergraduates on integrated campuses. At many schools, there is now a large enough pool of black students for them to form their own associations and social centers, along with their own sections in the campus cafeterias. At some colleges, black freshmen come early for their own, self-segregated orientation sessions. This increased presence has had political consequences, with calls for more black professors and programs that reflect their racial experience.

Neither A Curriculum of Inclusion nor Campus Ethnoviolence deals with the concerns of white students. For one thing, they no longer dominate the college world as strongly as they once did. Nationally, their numbers have declined from 94 percent of all enrollments in 1968, to fewer than than 83 percent last year, in large part owing to the large number of Asian students. During the last dozen years, for example, the proportion of Asians in Harvard’s entering class has risen from 5.5 percent to 19.6 percent. At Berkeley, whites currently account for fewer than 40 percent of freshman admissions. Of course, some of the places they could once expect to receive have gone to Asians with better academic records; but other places have been given to black high-school graduates, who receive priority at Berkeley, while white applicants tend to be sent to other, less prestigious campuses in the state system. More than a few of the rejected white students, whose test scores were higher than those of the black students, feel that they suffer unfairly from affirmative action and other forms of favoritism that benefit their black classmates.

In addition, much of the behavior of white undergraduates comes as a reaction to the more assertive attitudes of many of today’s black students. To put the matter this way should not be construed as saying that the way some blacks behave justifies white bigotry; but it does offer some explanation. Cross burnings and “ghetto” parties are ways of telling black students that they have become too obtrusive, that they have misread the terms of their invitation. Or, to state these feelings more bluntly, that they wish to see their colleges remain “white” institutions, so blacks would do well to revert to the submissive attitudes of the past.

5.

Each year fewer and fewer white Americans identify with their European origins. The causes are not difficult to detect. Just as the passage of time dims memories of immigrant forebears, so intermarriage dilutes specific ancestries. Also, more of us live and work in heterogeneous settings, where earlier origins are increasingly irrelevant. Growing numbers of white Americans are becoming “nonethnic” in major respects, while others are approaching such status. The best evidence we have for such a trend comes from a Census Bureau survey conducted a dozen years ago, which asked a large sample of white adults to identify their national ancestries, in as much detail as they felt they needed. At that time, only 64 million individuals stated that a single European country represented their origins, whereas 83 million listed two or several countries, and another 22 million said they were simply “American.”5 By now, those last two groups command an even larger share of the white population.

Of course, there persists what might be called the white ethnic industry, which has political reasons for exaggerating the depth of ethnic sentiment. Encouraging people to think of themselves as “white ethnics” can be useful for politicians who want to divert their attention from economic complaints, often by sharpening racial divisions. Indeed “white ethnic” has become a code phrase for all middle-income whites who feel directly threatened by preferential hiring, increasing crime, and changing schools and neighborhoods. Richard Alba’s excellent Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America does much to deflate claims that ethnic loyalties are a control factor in American politics.

His study is academic and empirical, based on several hundred interviews conducted around the Albany area in upstate New York. He acknowledges that this region has more recent Americans—children and grandchildren of immigrants—than other sections of the country. But that is just as well, since his intent is to estimate the depth of ethnic identity. His research covered mainly Catholics of Irish, Italian, and Polish ancestry. (There were too few Jews in his sample to allow generalizations.) In their effects on character and conduct, Alba found that European origins represent “a small portion of the identity ‘masks’ individuals present to others.” To the extent that they behave in “ethnic” ways, this occurs “in private rather than public realms” and in ways that are “innocuous, unlikely to give offense.” In sum, “it is hard to avoid the conclusion that ethnic experience is shallow for the great majority of whites.”

As Table B shows, at least half of Alba’s respondents replied that they had had little or no involvement with the ethnic experiences described on his questionnaire.

TABLE B

Just how far this kind of survey can ascertain people’s true inner feelings is open to question. Do many of us really want to admit to an interviewer that we “feel curious about the ethnic backgrounds of other people”? Still, here as elsewhere, polling can provide a useful supplement to other observations.

The most common “ethnic experience,” Alba found, was partaking of “special foods or dishes,” which hardly seems a strong cultural force and, in any event, fewer than half of his respondents said they did so. In fact, the respondents who said they were drawn to traditional cooking were mainly Italians, whose cuisine is now largely familiar throughout America. No less striking is that so few say they feel a sense of solidarity with others of their background, whether public figures or personal acquaintances. And only one in ten included their ancestral town on a European trip.

Almost seventy-five years ago, Randolph Bourne published an article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “Trans-National America.”6 There he argued that the then dominant “Anglo-Saxon element” had lost its spirit and drive, and had thereby forfeited its right to delineate the overall culture. During the decade in which Bourne wrote, immigration had reached its peak. In his view, “our aliens are already strong enough to take a share in the direction of their destiny.” Indeed, the nation must call on these “new people…to save us from our own stagnation.” Bourne, himself of English stock, concluded:

We shall have to give up the search for our native “American” culture…. America is already the world-federation…of the most heterogeneous peoples under the sun…. The contribution of America will be an intellectual internationalism.

His thesis was both right and wrong in its implications for today. Certainly, Bourne was correct in stressing the need for immigrants to refresh the nation with new ambitions and energies. Many college teachers I know have the impression that each year native-born Americans, white as well as black, are putting less effort into undergraduate coursework and professional preparation, particularly when compared with Asian students. More encompassing studies show that Scholastic Aptitude Test scores continue to decline and that young people spend less time reading, whether for school assignments or on their own.

At the same time, the country has remained “Anglo-American” in many respects. Alexis de Tocqueville used just that phrase to describe the culture and character of this country a century and a half ago. As has been noted, most children of immigrants adapt to prevailing models for being Americans, a choice ordinarily encouraged by their parents. Moreover, as Jim Sleeper pointed out in The Closest of Strangers, many of these abilities and outlooks are no longer “white” or “Western” or “European,” but part of “a new, universal culture enveloping the globe,” which stresses not only literacy and numerical skills, but also administrative efficiency and economic competitiveness.

What, then, of the claims that most black Americans and some recent immigrants want more of their native cultures taught in the schools and recognized in the country at large? Ralph Ellison, raised in rural Alabama, recalled that reading Freud and Pound gave him a broader sense of life. Jamaica Kincaid still mentions Charlotte Brontë as her first literary influence. Amid the many ethnic claims now being made, it is not easy to ascertain who is speaking for whom or for how committed a constituency. We have still to hear from young blacks and the members of other minorities how they feel about the ethnic and educational demands being made in their name.

Letters

Race & Violence in the Schools January 17, 1991

Race & Violence in the Schools January 17, 1991

  1. 1

    Newsday, June 29, 1990.

  2. 2

    Gary Orfield and Franklin Monfort, Racial Change and Desegregation in Large School Districts (National School Boards Association, 1988), pp. 20–21.

  3. 3

    James Crawford, Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice (Crane, 1989), p. 39.

  4. 4

    The Lurking Evil: Racial and Ethnic Conflict on the College Campus (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 1990), pp. 105, 31, 49.

  5. 5

    Ancestry and Language in the United States: 1979 (US Government Printing Office, 1982), Table E.

  6. 6

    July 1916, pp. 86–97.

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