Commentary Magazine

The Ethnic Myth, by Stephen Steinberg

Back to the Melting Pot?

The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America.
by Stephen Steinberg.
Atheneum. 277 pp. $14.95.

This book is an attack on the doctrine of cultural, or ethnic, pluralism—an attack which is in principle long overdue.

As propounded by Horace Kallen in 1915, when New York City was teeming with immigrants, cultural pluralism was an argument against the idea of America as a “melting pot.” Kallen’s benign social intention was to help create an atmosphere in which immigrants and their descendants could have both respect and self-respect without trying to run away from themselves. His notion of “pluralism” thus appealed to the “charm of diversity” and to the contributions which people of different nationalities and religions could make on the highest level to the common good of the country.

Yet diversity, as we have since come to learn, has reasonable limits. Evidently in order for “cultural pluralism” to be viable, there must also be a fundamental “monism” at work in society to prevent it from disintegrating. If so, the ethnic issue is but a footnote to a more fundamental political issue. Can a liberal democracy survive if a large segment of the population neither believes in it nor has the habits, civic education, and personal stake in it necessary to make it work? This is the cluster of themes which any serious critique of cultural pluralism would have to deal with explicitly. Steinberg’s critique fails utterly to do so, in part because he is aiming at something else.

Steinberg conceives of his book as a polemic not against old Horace Kallen (whom he mentions only in the last pages) but against a number of contemporary writers, particularly Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, whom he accuses of “celebrating ethnicity.” Against both them and the “ethnic fever” which he contends they have stimulated, he proposes a speedy return to the old ideal of the melting pot. In his opinion, there is no basis for a genuine pluralism in America. The diverse cultures of the immigrants have worn thin, new generations have come of age which do not even know the languages spoken by their immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents, and the rate of intermarriage among ethnic groups has so increased that ultimate amalgamation is historically inevitable. Thus, to regard the framework of voluntary ethnic communities in America as a key feature of its society and politics—as Glazer, Moynihan, and many others have done—is to harbor romantic illusions and to crave a return to a past that cannot be restored.

But this charge is misplaced. The writers Steinberg opposes are perfectly aware that immigrant groups have become Americanized and have entered the middle class (Steinberg even acknowledges this). Moreover, to describe the working of ethnicity is not the same as to celebrate it. The Irish, to cite one example, have been around a long time, and their social situation today is far different from what it was in the 19th century. Yet it would be just as imprudent for a politician to insult them today as it was in 1884 when James G. Blaine lost the Presidency because of that fatal remark about “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” To the prediction that a hundred years hence the Irish will be so “amalgamated” they will not know what this remark signifies, it suffices to reply that they would know now. This, in a nutshell, is the political thrust of the recent studies of ethnicity, and it cannot be disputed.

In any case, Steinberg himself actually seems to be more nostaligic than are the so-called celebrators of ethnicity he castigates. It is not they but he who laments the disappearance of the rich heritage of the immigrants and the pre-industrial cultures of the native Indians. It is not they but he who takes such a dim view of contemporary American culture that after advocating assimilation for the length of his book he asks bleakly on the final page, “Assimilate into what?” When one contrasts this pessimism with the buoyancy of all those leaders, past and present, who have enthusiastically established communal centers and educational institutions for the fellow members of their ethnic groups, it turns out to be a very strange and soured “amalgamation” indeed that Steinberg is proposing.



Then what is the real basis of Steinberg’s quarrel with the students of ethnicity? It appears to be his conviction that the idea of culture, or ethnicity, or what used to be called in the 19th century “national character,” can be abused in a “conservative” direction—by serving as the basis for invidious comparisons among groups. Yet Steinberg is too much the social scientist to take leave of the term culture altogether. There are, after all, clearly observable differences in group behavior that cannot be denied, and they range from the apparently serious to the apparently trivial. Thus, the English form orderly queues at bus stops while the French, to avoid “friction,” have to take tickets in a numbered sequence from a machine (as New Yorkers do in busy food shops). Whether this trait in the English character may be attributed to the Magna Carta, to the climate, or to a diet of fish and chips is interesting to speculate about, but the point is that this is the way the English do things, whether one admires it or disdains it; and this behavior is stable enough to be unaffected in the short run even by political convulsions.

Accordingly, Steinberg accepts the term culture and uses it himself. He denies, however, that it has any genuine explanatory value. Culture itself must be explained by its “material,” i.e., economic, causes. For to invoke culture as the primary cause of the differences in behavior of different ethnic groups serves in his opinion to lay the groundwork for a new and pernicious form of Social Darwinism.

Thus, Steinberg does not deny that the Jews and Chinese in the United States have experienced more rapid economic mobility on the whole than have the blacks. But then he claims that to explain the differences among these groups on the basis of such “cultural values” as religion, respect for education, or family solidarity is to make culture or ethnicity into a “myth.” It is reasoning backward, inferring the efficacy of the “cultural values” from the fact of the group’s behavior. In making such an inference one is repeating the mistake of 19th-century racial theorists, only substituting culture for genes to explain why the successful succeed. In Steinberg’s view, what counts is not culture but such material circumstances as the possession of industrial skills at the time they were needed. Indeed, the “cultural” explanation is not only inaccurate, it also gives people who have succeeded in overcoming poverty a moral credit they are not entitled to.



Given this polemical intention, it is not hard to understand why Steinberg gives such high priority in this book to “demystifying” what he calls the “Jewish Horatio Alger Story.” If nothing else, he is determined to make it impossible for anyone ever again to hold the Jews up as a model for what minority groups can achieve in the United States. To this end, he stresses the fact that the immigrant Jewish poor, by and large, did not go to universities, which is true; that there still are poor Jews, which is true; and that there were Jewish prostitutes, burglars, and even gangsters on the old Lower East Side, which is also true. All this, he contends, shows the force of material circumstances versus “culture.”

Steinberg also feels obliged to rescue the ethnic honor of other groups from invidious comparisons that might be made with the “more successful” Jews. One chapter is concerned to prove that the Irish, who unlike the Jews and Italians worked as domestic servants, did not do so because of any “cultural” tradition of “doing degrading work.” Another, called “The Myth of Jewish Intellectualism and Catholic Anti-lntellectualism,” points out that since many Italian immigrants were illiterate peasants from the south, they should not be compared with Jews, who had the material advantage of being town-dwellers.

To clinch this last point, Steinberg is compelled to argue that many more Eastern European Jews came to this country from cities, and many fewer from rural villages—the shtetl celebrated by historians and sentimentalists alike—than is commonly supposed. He asserts that according to a Russian census of 1897, three-quarters of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement lived in “urban areas,” which would mean that they had access to modern industrial procedures. He also states that Jews in Poland had made a mark in textile manufacturing before the turn of the century, establishing themselves as operatives or owners in such industrial centers as Warsaw.

But would not the Russian census figures have included the shtetl, which means, after all, small town? Without examining the criteria used in this census, one has no way of knowing for sure. And as for the Jews in textile manufacturing, Steinberg fails to point out that they did not constitute a significant element in the mass emigration of Eastern European Jewry. For every Jew who had acquired genuine industrial experience in major Polish cities, there were dozens of others from small towns who had eked out a small living as petty tradesmen and craftsmen.

Steinberg does not apprehend the central point: that what enabled the shtetl Jew, who had never worked in a textile factory or even as a tailor, to get a foothold in America was the fact that he found here an Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking employer who was prepared to take him on and teach him a wholly new trade, in a workshop which was entirely Yiddish-speaking and where all the religious holidays were observed.

One need not drag in “culture” or even “ethnic solidarity” to understand this—the employer, who did not speak English too well himself, needed labor. Nor need one impute to the immigrant worker some abstraction like “middle-class values” to explain his industriousness. Such abstractions only serve to distort human reality. What really motivated the Jewish immigrant was not “the drive to get to the top” but the desire to earn a living, in order to support his family or to save up the price of passage to bring over his wife and children who had remained behind in Europe. This experience was the typical one for large numbers of immigrants. That Steinberg blurs it merely points up the lifeless quality of his excursion into the sociology of the Jews.

That same lifelessness is reflected in the disjunction he makes between “culture” (non-material) and “skill” (material). If the word “culture” means anything it means way of life. But who, from Aristotle to the present day, ever thought that the manner in which people earn their livelihood had nothing to do with their way of life? And who on earth would call the possession of a skill—which must be learned and hence requires some expenditure of personal effort—a “material” factor? Are human beings inert matter, simply acted upon by external forces, with no more inwardness than a rock?



Actually, the whole question of skills and industrial training seems to make Steinberg uneasy. In the case of the Jews he subsumes this category under the rubric of “material factors.” In the case of the blacks, however, he avoids any real discussion of vocational or industrial training since even to raise the subject is in his view tantamount to blaming the blacks for their plight. Steinberg deprecates job-training as a “liberal remedy” which limits itself to the “politically safe” goal of “reforming the poor”—whereas what is needed is to “institute sweeping changes that could redistribute income.” In this he differs sharply from black leaders like Frederick Douglass, who pleaded: “Try to get your sons into trades; of all men in the world who need trades we are the most needy.” Does this mean that Steinberg, unlike Frederick Douglass, thinks that blacks are unteachable? No, but it does mean that he draws no moral distinction between those who want to be taught and those who do not.

Toward the end of the book Steinberg acknowledges the existence of a “new” educated black middle class and he admits that it is not merely a “token.” But the only way he can account for the emergence of this class is to say that it “owes its existence to the ghetto revolts of the 1960’s,” when frightened corporations began to hire blacks. It is almost insulting to have to point out that there were many blacks before—long before—1960 who thought it worthwhile, both “culturally” and “materially,” to get an education whether or not they could be taken on as trainees in the management program of some corporation. For years black leaders have sounded such slogans as “Green Power Equals Black Power.” For years, too, they have been personally involved in promoting all sorts of communal improvement activities, though these activities may have been overshadowed by their public struggle against unequal laws. When slavery was still in existence, Frederick Douglass was giving his addresses to the free black communities in the North about the importance of education and self-help, and evidently saw no conflict between this activity and his Abolitionist agitation. One of the pathetic things about Steinberg’s book is that the people it is trying to protect from the pain of effort have far higher standards for themselves than he does.

Steinberg begins his book by saying that the Jews and Chinese cannot be used as models for change among blacks. By the time one reaches the end, one realizes that in the author’s opinion neither can the blacks themselves. There can be no such models, in his view, because there are no standards, ethnic or otherwise; these are an impediment to equality. But if an ethnic group cannot be regarded as the custodian of valuable standards which play something of a role in its own life, the possibility of trans-ethnic or universal human standards to which the members of all ethnic groups are in principle open does not even exist. Amalgamation then becomes indistinguishable not from equality but from equality at its lowest level. Thus, from every point of view, Steinberg’s attack on ethnic and “cultural” values goes up in smoke.

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