Commentary Magazine


Beyond the Melting Pot, by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan

The Ethnic Group

Beyond the Melting Pot.
by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan.
Joint Publication of M.I.T. and Harvard University Presses. 360 pp. $5.95.

It was Israel Zangwill, the famous Anglo-Jewish writer, who coined the phrase “the melting pot.” In 1908 he used it as the title of a play that proclaimed “America is God’s Crucible . . . where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!” A “fig for your feuds and vendettas!” cries David Quixano, the Russian Jewish “pogrom orphan” who has escaped to New York—“German and Frenchman, Irishman and Englishman, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”

It has been a strange melt. Probably no other society, no other cosmopolitan culture, has produced a phenomenon comparable to the American ethnic group. The Rome of Constantine knew many different races and many strange gods, but the city remained predominantly Roman in its traditions and laws. In the Austro-Hungarian empire mingled dozens of different national groups, but its unity was spurious; once the imperial facade cracked, each group sprang into political life with its own national identity intact. America has truly been a melting pot, albeit not in the way that was originally foreseen. The distinctive language and culture of the immigrants were largely lost in the first and second generation. Yet, as Glazer and Moynihan write, “though stripped of their original attributes,” the immigrants “were recreated as something new, but still as identifiable groups.” They were “not a survival from the age of mass immigration but a new social form.”

Beyond the Melting Pot is a study of five such groups in New York; it is also a study of the ethnic pattern itself, of which New York provides richly diverse examples. Boston has its Irish, Buffalo its Poles, Chicago its Slovaks, but New York has all these and more. From the start there was never a single majority in the city. In 1775, less than half the persons in New York were of English origin; the others were Dutch, Negro, French, and the like. In 1890, the Irish and German-born, with their first descendants, comprised 52 per cent of the city’s population, but no other combination has approached that numerical majority since. In 1960, the breakdown was roughly 25 per cent Jewish, 16 per cent Italian, 14 per cent Negro, 10 per cent Irish, 10 per cent German, and 8 per cent Puerto Rican; the remaining 17 per cent were Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Slovaks, Macedonians, Cypriots, Syrians, Lebanese, French, Dutch, Czech, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican—and WASP.1 Equally important, 69 per cent have little more than the tie of one generation to the city: 19 per cent are foreign-born, 28 per cent are first-generation, 14 per cent are Negro (half of those above twenty years of age came originally from the South), and 8 per cent are Puerto Rican. The result has been an enforced pluralism where the consensus of democracy operates through an open and bold swapping of jobs, and status badges, among the ethnic groups. It is this rare rule of the demos which explains the vulgarity and the vitality of the city.

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Glazer and Moynihan have concentrated on the “internal” history of each of their groups—the Irish, Italian, Jewish, Negro, and Puerto Rican—in order to chart the complex emergence of this “new social form.” Yet the external dimension—the social life of the city itself—is also important. The shaping force it exerted upon the new ethnic communities beginning more than a hundred and sixty years ago was a paradoxical mixture of political equality and social discrimination. By the turn of the 19th century, the aristocracy of New York quickly lost political control of the city when the “ragged aliens,” having become citizens quite easily, could go to the polls. As Dixon Ryan Fox writes: “. . . when the naturalization law was changed, [DeWitt] Clinton’s friends assembled a society to school the immigrant in party politics to swell his following.” (This process is still being repeated today as in the recent proposal to change the literacy law so that those who are unable to read English but can read Spanish would be eligible to vote.)

But the WASPs remained the dominant cultural group and were able to impose their disdain of the immigrant and to enforce a pattern of racial discrimination against him. In the last century this rejection was quite vocal and open. For example, George Templeton Strong, an upper-class New York lawyer, a founder of the Columbia Law School, and a pillar of the community, wrote in his diary of 1838: “It was enough to turn a man’s stomach—to make a man adjure republicanism forever . . . Wretched, filthy, bestial-looking Italians and Irish . . . the very scum and dregs of human nature filled the Clerk of Common Pleas office so completely that I was almost afraid of being poisoned by going in.”

Discriminated against economically and socially, excluded from various professions and industries, the ethnic groups have readily used their political opportunities to advance the status and fortune of their leading members, which, in turn, has fostered ethnic loyalties and pride.

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But external pressure is rarely sufficient to sustain a coherent group feeling for any length of time. An additional factor—usually ignored but obvious when considered in context—is the psychological need everyone has for some specific group identity, a need that is not usually satisfied by the larger groups, be they national or religious. Though from one perspective, Great Britain is a national society, its Scottish and Welsh minorities nonetheless maintain strong separatist characteristics to this day; and even within England, the people of Northumberland and Yorkshire preserve their distinctive cultural traits. One can argue that this merely reflects the imprint of local cultures which may yet be erased by the mass media; however, this position slights the deep-rooted need of people to maintain some parochial marks—and to have them acknowledged as such by outsiders. These nuances of difference become cards of identity. Within the United States, the regional signs of being a New Englander, a Texan, a Southerner, a Kentucky hillbilly, have come to represent proto-group identities.

These identities are sustained not only by culture and language, particularly dialect, but perhaps most importantly by the continuity of family. In describing ancient Greece or Rome, the older social evolutionists would posit a series of stages from family to polity which they regarded as the process—exemplified in law—by which the larger social unit of the city or nation was created. And parochial group identity has been strongest where there has been a strong continuity of family (historically, in the upper classes through the property system) and of family relationships. The core of the Glazer-Moynihan book is their brilliant treatment of the nature of family patterns in explaining the persistence of ethnic groups.

Moreover, family patterns can help to explain not only the persistence, but also the variations of behavior of ethnic groups. For example, Glazer and Moynihan raise the question of why the Negro community has developed so few business enterprises (the basis for the economic growth of the Jews, the Irish, and the Italians alike), and find one answer in the fact that one-fourth of the 353,000 Negro families—in contrast to less than one-tenth of the white families—are headed by women. This single statistic sheds enormous light on group motivational patterns and economic behavior as well as on the problem of family instability among the Negroes of New York. To account for the differences between Negroes and Puerto Ricans in their economic initiative and purposes, Glazer and Moynihan point to the role within Puerto Rican life of the compadre and comadre, the “co-parents” from another generation, who give the family a more durable structure. Or in discussing the differences between Jews and Italians, where in both instances the family is strong and the emotional quality similarly high and uninhibited, they use the contrasting roles of the father-feared by the Italians, frequently ignored by the Jews—to explain the dissimilar achievement drives in the two groups. In the immigrant Italian family, achievement is measured concretely by the son’s contribution to specific family interests, and the father retains control, while Jewish parents are gratified symbolically by a son’s achievement, even when their own way of life remains relatively unchanged.

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The striking use of the “strategic statistic” from census data combined with social history gives the Glazer-Moynihan book a unique place in recent sociological literature. Its style has a special relevance to a major problem in this field, the growing divergence (in a distinction utilized by Robert Merton) between “academic sociology” and what might be called “sociography.”

Academic sociology is increasingly less interested in description and history; its method of studying ethnic groups would be to search for a formal set of typologies which could be related to analytical categories. Thus one might classify ethnic groups according to some “constructed” family types (e.g., “traditional” and “modernizing,” or “extended” and “nuclear”) and seek to relate these types to different kinds of social mobility (e.g., intragenerational, intergenerational, and the like) . Then one would specify a set of propositions that stipulate the conditions under which different rates of mobility within the different ethnic groups might be produced. Following the logic of this kind of inquiry, one would then seek to generalize further by applying these results to some more abstract variable such as the degree of social cohesion in a group, so as to explain variations in classes of phenomena.

To the untutored, particularly those who engage in sociology-baiting, all of this smacks of “jargon,” and when the analytical method is used by the semi-skilled sociologist it often produces little else. But in the hands of skilled practitioners like Durkheim or Robert Merton, it yields important results about such problems as suicide or delinquency or the social strains involved in the roles of scientists and professionals. Or, in S. M. Lipset’s work, it helps explain the variations in political structure between the United States, Canada, Australia, and the “mother culture” of Great Britain by tracing the vicissitudes of the idea of equality in each society.

The point to be made here is that there is no contradiction between the two approaches. The descriptive and historical method—the basis of sociography—is often richer and more lively because of its greater proximity to events, but it is also a necessary condition of the analytical, since the relevant typologies can be identified only after intensive “sociographic” work. A common failing among too many of the younger academic sociologists is the premature construction of formal categories before sufficient historical research has been done; thus their typologies are not genuinely abstract but merely empty. The strength of the Glazer-Moynihan book is that the shoemakers have stuck to their last and have done what they can do best: an informed, speculative discussion of concrete phenomena. Yet both authors are sufficiently versed in the formal sociological method to adopt a scheme which attempts to explain variations in group structure through the consistent use of a relevant variable—in this instance, the distinctive kind of family life.

The foregoing discussion of method inevitably slights the unusual variety and vividness of social observation which fills this book. However, two sections of Beyond the Melting Pot have already been adapted in COMMENTARY2—and its readers are able to appreciate these qualities for themselves. Also it is in these pages that one can digress to make some necessary remarks about the misunderstanding that currently surrounds the provenance of sociology.

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As for the future of New York’s ethnic groups, the influence of nationality, as the authors point out, is declining, and “religion and race seem to define the major groups into which American society is evolving.” This tendency is already apparent in the present generation: the Nazi experience has reshaped the Jewish community by increasing its self-consciousness, the school-aid issue has given a new solidarity to the Catholics, the northward migration has made the Negro politically influential and active. And these tendencies will continue. Glazer and Moynihan predict the formation in the future of a broader Catholic group in which distinctions among Irish, Italian, Polish, and German will be reduced by intermarriage; a Jewish community in which the line between descendants of German Jews and East European Jews is erased; a Negro class; and finally, a growing white Protestant group which will incorporate the German and Scandinavian Protestants with the Anglo-Saxon and old Dutch.

However, all this may be too one-sided. It pays little attention to the changing economy of America as a whole or the formation of a new kind of labor force which will have quite different impacts on the various groups. Further, Glazer and Moynihan fail to specify a time dimension. One of the reasons why the assimilationist or melting-pot vision proved inadequate was just this failure to appreciate the length of time it takes for pervasive social change to be accomplished. After all, most of the major ethnic groups in the city have been here for less than two full generations. And as for the Irish, whose cycle has been longer, its source of group coherence has been not only religion but also class; most of the Irish were workers, and it was this fact at least as much as the difference of religion that retarded their acceptance by the middle- and upper-class Protestant society. However, a large portion of the Irish community has now become middle-class, and the Irish-Catholic Church is changing as well.

The question this poses is whether religion and nationality will still be strong enough to mark off a group in political as well as social terms. My guess is that they will not. The changes in the structure of power created by the erosion of property as a significant variable and the striking emergence of technical skill as the necessary condition for holding high positions have already increased, as I have discussed elsewhere, the sense of “dispossession”—the loss of place and power in the society—that is felt by the older business and professional members of middle-class America. And the transformation of the labor force in which class society is increasingly becoming “color society” heightens the sense of resentment felt by the Negro community. It is these conflicts of class and color expressed through the political process which will become the crucible in the next fifty years. And it is in this way that America is likely to move beyond the old melting pot.

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Footnotes

1 white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

2 July and August, 1963.

About the Author




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