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Why Can't They Be Like Us? America's White Ethnic Groups, by Andrew Greeley

Inventing the Ethnics

Why Can’t they be Like Us? America’s white Ethnic Groups.
by Andrew Greeley.
Dutton. 223 pp. $6.95.

Andrew Greeley is one of the few sociologists who, for several years, has emphasized the continuing importance of white ethnicity in American society. The present book, dedicated to Daniel P. Moynihan with a boisterous invocation of “the ancient saints of Erin,” was evidently written in the flush of what is surely an intellectual’s greatest pleasure—to wit, the pleasure of being able to say “I told you so.” Greeley is not to be begrudged this pleasure. He is fully entitled to it, as his fellow sociologists and others pounce upon the “ethnics” with the same alacrity that accompanied their previous “discovery” of the blacks.

Ethnicity is not an exclusively American phenomenon, but it has been of peculiar importance in this “nation of immigrants.” Following Max Weber, Greeley defines an ethnic group as “a human collectivity based on an assumption of common origin, real or imaginary.” Following E. K. Francis, Greeley points out that such collective self-identification constitutes an attempt to retain, under new conditions, at least some of the cultural traits of the old peasant community. Thus it would be a mistake to understand ethnicity as a simple continuation of traditional patterns of self-identification and conduct. It is a new sociocultural construction, undertaken precisely because the old continuity of the traditional patterns has been disrupted. In America this disruption was brought about by migration. Ethnicity, therefore, is a phenomenon that arose among immigrants on American soil; as such, it did not exist in the countries of origin. An analogous phenomenon is “nativism” in societies undergoing the shocks of modernization: “Nativism” is not simply the continuation of traditional ways, but a novel affirmation of these ways in the face of a powerful threat. Both ethnicity and “nativism” are original reconstructions, despite their appeal to the “old country” and the “old ways.”

It is in this sense that the words “assumption” and “real or imaginary” in the above definition are important. An individual from a Sicilian peasant community, prior to migration, identified himself in terms of family, clan, and village, at best in terms of region. Only in America does it begin to have meaning for him that he is “a Sicilian,” let alone “an Italian.” Ethnicity thus involves the adoption of new identities. It also involves the adoption of new cultural styles. East 86th Street, in New York City’s Yorkville, not only bears little resemblance to today’s Germany, but just as little to any past Germany. Rather it represents a reconstruction of Germany by the imagination of German ethnics in America, a Germany of the mind and of nostalgic fantasy. To say this, however, in no way denies its reality—an American reality, that is.

The bulk of Greeley’s book consists of evidence that ethnicity is still an important facet of American life and of argument that, on balance, this is a good thing. Contrary to what has been a widespread belief until recently, ethnicity is not disappearing. There continue to be significant differences among ethnic groups, in matters ranging from income levels (more than three times as much for Irish as for French-Canadians) to responses to physical pain (Irish suppress, Italians exaggerate it). One important expression of ethnicity is identification with a neighborhood (Greeley calls this “social turf”), an identification that becomes more militant in the measure that the ethnic character of the neighborhood is threatened. This threat has mainly come from blacks in recent years, and the recent resurgence of ethnic feeling can to a considerable extent be understood as a reaction to the black movement.

Greeley does not deny the potential of ethnicity for bigotry and divisiveness, but he accents its positive contributions. In a highly mobile and anomie-ridden society, ethnicity provides many people with a degree of stability and with what Erving Goffman has called an “identity kit.” This is a very useful social function, and Greeley comes very close to saying that if ethnic differences had not existed, they would have had to be invented. Only if people have some sort of home base by which they can locate themselves in society, will it be possible for them to identify themselves comfortably with wider solidarities. Greeley cites the Jews as a prime example of the successful realization of this formula. This also has its positive political uses. A city in which ethnic groups are organized for collective bargaining (as in Chicago) is easier to govern than a city composed of unorganized, amorphous masses (like Los Angeles). Greeley bids us recognize the wisdom of the old Democratic party politicians, who have always understood this instinctively, and he is vociferous in his scorn for the liberal reformers and their ignorance of the ethnic realities. It may be added that one can concede this point without necessarily sharing Greeley’s apparent admiration for Mayor Daley.

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This is a timely, well-written, and provocative book. It has some weaknesses and it raises some questions. The weakest and most irritating chapter is the one in which Greeley argues that intellectuals constitute an ethnic group. The intent of the chapter (which previously appeared in the New York Times Magazine) is obviously polemical. Greeley is saying that intellectuals too live in ghettos among their own kind, that they can be as bigotry-ridden in consequence as any ethnic, and that there is both irony and moral ambiguity in the way intellectuals look down upon “other ethnics.” All this is quite true, but it is unfortunate that a piece originally written as a tongue-in-cheek sermon is now incorporated in a book of serious analysis. Once having made this choice, Greeley feels obligated to speak of the “intellectuals’ ethnic group” all through the book, which makes no sense in terms of his own definition of ethnicity and which confuses the argument.

A more serious weakness is what Greeley implies for the future development of American blacks. He analyzes ethnic assimilation in a series of steps, from phase 1 (“cultural shock”) to phase 6 (“emerging adjustment”). There is the strong suggestion that these steps are something like a law of American society, so that all groups will go through an essentially similar development. Greeley says it is his “guess” that blacks are now moving from phase 3 (“assimilation of the elite”) to phase 4 (“militancy”)—evidently with the implication that, eventually, they will proceed the rest of the way to “adjustment.” Perhaps this is the way it will be. Or perhaps this is where Greeley (along with many others) is indulging in some wishful thinking. It is possible that, despite the angry separatist rhetoric in the air today, blacks will follow the patterns of white ethnic groups and eventually settle down to a more or less happy modus vivendi with the overall society. It is also possible, however, that at least part of the rhetoric will be fulfilled in the construction of rigidly segregated social and economic, perhaps even political, institutions. The latter scenario would be a consummation of bitter irony, because it would institutionalize the very condition of “internal colonialism” against which the rhetoric is directed. It is a possibility to be resisted with all available means. Such resistance, however, is not aided by the notion that, through some sociological law, the blacks will eventually go the way of the Irish and the Italians, and that therefore the separatist rhetoric need not be taken too seriously.

The book also raises some questions. Greeley is undoubtedly right when he says that “ethnicity is one of a number of ways in which Americans may identify themselves and which they may use as part of their self-definition.” He might have pushed this insight, further by pointing out that other identifications are possible and by stressing more strongly that ethnicity is, after all, neither an inevitable nor an irreplaceable “assumption.” Other identifications, “real or imaginary,” might come to the fore. For example, if the present dropping-out movement among upper-middle-class youth should result in a counter-culture of sizable proportions, new ideological criteria for self-definition in America might come into being. As a New York City taxi driver recently put it, with enviable sociological sophistication: “I don’t think, in the end, that the fight will be between black and white, young and old, or between nationalities. In the end, I think, it’ll be between those who don’t want to work any more and those of us who’ll still be working.” (He added: “And I think we’ll win.”) In other words, repudiation of or allegiance to the Protestant ethic may become more important for self-definition than ethnic identity. In this scenario it is even possible that the old category of “working class” may attain unexpected social reality, albeit in a sense diametrically opposed to its Marxist usage.

Be this as it may, we can be confident that white ethnic groups will be in the public attention in the next few years. Greeley is right in welcoming this. He would also agree that there are dangers.

The organization of increasing sectors of our public life by “totemic clans” (Greeley’s own term) is not an unambiguously delightful prospect. It is also possible that intellectuals, rejected by the blacks and put off by the counterculture, may jump on the bandwagon of a new mystique of ethnic populism. We need not worry, though, that Greeley might become the prophet of such a new movement. He is too good a sociologist, he has a healthy sense of humor, and he is effectively protected from the prophetic role by a thick armor of irrepressible Irish contrariness.

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