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The White Ethnic Revival

The leader of an anti-racism workshop in the 1990s once noted a disquieting inclination on the part white participants to dissociate themselves from the advantages of whiteness by emphasizing some purportedly not-quite-white ethnic background. “I’m not white; I’m Italian,” one would say. Another, “I’m Jewish.” After this ripple had made its way across the group, the seminar leader was left wondering, “What happened to all the white people who were here just a minute ago?”

The sense of a sentence like “I’m not white, I’m Italian” rests upon several historical preconditions, now loosely relayed in the term “ethnic revival”: the Civil Rights Movement heightened whites’ consciousness of their skin privilege, rendering it both visible and newly uncomfortable. The example of Black Nationalism and later multiculturalism provided a new language for—and perceived cache in—the specificities of an identity that was not simply “American.” After decades of striving to conform to the Anglo-Saxon standard, descendants of earlier European immigrants quit the melting pot. Italianness, Jewishness, or Greekness were now badges of pride, not shame.

“Identity” cannot accommodate the full circuitry of the new ethnicity or its social and political significance. Psychological yearning plays some part in the recovery of lost heritage, but so do wider cultural and institutional forces. After the 1960s the publishing industry, Hollywood, and television all lavished a new attention on ethnic particularity, at some times actually generating ethnic interests (Holocaust) and at others merely reflecting them (Moonstruck, Mystic Pizza). Sociologists and other academics forged a new consensus that America was less a “melting pot” than a “mosaic.” Teachers and students across the country agitated for Italo-American, Irish, and Judaic Studies. Immigration history flourished as a subfield, revising the national narrative and proliferating distinct “ethnic” histories. Ethnic merchandise and marketing practices appeared, from the kitsch shamrock key chain to the tourism industry’s “discover your homeland” packages in Ireland, Italy, or Lithuania. And the government itself became engaged in the construction and celebration of “immigrant heritage” in the Bicentennial, the Statue of Liberty Centennial Gala, and the Ellis Island restoration. Today Ellis Island greets more visitors as tourists than it processed as immigrants, even during its peak years.

Pinning dates on such currents is tricky, but one might begin with the summer of 1963 when, amid much fanfare, John F. Kennedy “returned” to Ireland after his clan’s century-long absence from the green fields of County Wexford. Kennedy had earlier called the United States “a nation of immigrants,” the title of his 1958 volume on the ethnic contributions to American life, and his Ireland visit lent this conceit a new stateliness, pomp, and circumstance. In a speech before the Dublin Parliament, Kennedy waxed eloquent on the special place America held in Irish history, and the special role of the Irish in America. Only a few years earlier one prominent sociologist had asserted with astonishing confidence that the ethnic group “had no future” in American life, that ethnic pluralists were “out of touch with the unfolding American reality.” But Kennedy’s Irish sentiments confounded such facile formulations. By the time Ronald Reagan “returned” to Tipperary and Michael Dukakis ran as “Everyethnic” two decades later, roots talk was everywhere.

The “new ethnicity” flowed from many tributaries. Its most politically potent source was the Civil Rights movement, which introduced a contagious idiom of group identity and group rights on the American scene. Its effect was electrifying not only for people of color, but also for white ethnics, whose inchoate sense of second-class status as non-WASPs required only the right vocabulary to come alive. The group-based mobilization of the movement, the group-based terms of its victories in 1964 and ‘65, and the group-based logic of rising black separatism all suggested a model for action. By 1970 the Ukrainian Weekly could call the notion of Ukrainian Power “a workable and quite feasible concept.” As black grievance achieved a new centrality in national discussion, the popular rediscovery of immigrant forebears also became a way of stressing, “We’re merely newcomers; this nation’s crimes are not our own.” On her heartfelt symbolic attachment to scenes such as the Triangle Factory Fire, writer Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz remarked, “we are so hungry for innocence that images of oppression come almost as a relief.”

Another impetus to ethnic revival was a powerful current of antimodernism, a common notion that ethnicity represented a haven of “authenticity,” removed from the bloodless, homogenizing forces of mass production and consumption, mass media, commodification, bureaucracy, and suburbanization. New pluralists looked to versions of ethnic “authenticity” as a salve to those post-industrial discontents spelled out in books like The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man . Markers of this tacit connection between ethnicity, “authenticity,” and antimodernism include the explicit appeals to mighty, blood-coursing tradition in popular mainstream productions like Zorba the Greek and Fiddler on the Roof.

A stream of popular literary and cinematic texts charted the rise of this new sensibility. After languishing in neglect for some decades, Abraham Cahan’s novels of the immigrant ghetto, The Rise of David Levinsky and Yekl, found their way back into print in popular paperback editions, followed soon after by Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Pietro DiDonato’s Christ in Concrete, Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, and many others. Fresh literary renditions of the ethnic saga like Mario Puzo’s Fortunate Pilgrim and The Godfather also found an eager readership. Audiences flocked to films like Funny Girl, Ragtime, and Crossing Delancey; and television programming turned away from the whitebread world of Ozzie and Harriet in favor of Bridget Loves Bernie, Welcome Back Kotter, Rhoda, Kojak, and Columbo—ethnic ancestors to Dharma Finkelstein, Ray Romano, and The Sopranos. As reflected in the media mirror, the image of white America looked more and more like a big fat Greek wedding.

These developments denote a change in personal feeling for some, perhaps, but a shift in public language for all. It was not the interiority, but the collectivity and the institutional basis of the ethnic revival whose reach in American political culture is most important. A new national myth of origins arose whose touchstone was Ellis Island, whose heroic central figure was the downtrodden but determined greenhorn, whose preferred modes of narration were the epic and the ode, and whose most far-reaching political conceit was the “nation of immigrants.”

The ethnic reverie conflates two distinct themes: immigration as geography vs. immigration as civic incorporation. It is only in the first sense that this is really anything like “a nation of immigrants”--everybody came from somewhere, whether from JFK’s New Ross, Alex Haley’s Kinte-Kundah, or across the land bridge from Asia. But this meaning has eclipsed the second, more profound meaning when it comes to comprehending the body politic. To construct “ America” solely through the eyes of the incoming European steerage passenger is not only to redraw a line around the exclusive white “we” of “we the people,” but to bowdlerize the pageant of the peopling of North America. Steerage, chains, whatever.

The ethnic revival’s political portent is immense. The iconic European immigrant has done double- or triple-duty in American racial politics. Despite recent fixations on Asian American success, for instance, European immigrants remain the nation’s real “model minority”: their saga supplies the “standard” template of incorporation and advancement against which all other groups are judged. It supplied the post-slavery, fresh-off-the-boat innocents who have become the most potent symbol in protests against affirmative action, busing, or reparations. In conservative populism white ethnics represent precisely those little people so in need of protection from the excesses of liberal social policy; and their exemplary mobility--from steerage to ghetto to suburb--is deployed in damning critique of both the contemporary welfare state and contemporary ghetto-dwellers themselves. Consequently, both the immigrant myth and immigration’s living descendants contributed to the swing vote which rendered the Republicans the majority party in the electoral realignment beginning in 1968. Indeed, had he lived into the 1970s and ‘80s, Malcolm X might well have relocated his famous quip about Plymouth Rock a few hundred miles southward down the seaboard: “We didn’t land on Ellis Island, my brothers and sisters—Ellis Island landed on us.”

Paradoxically, in recent decades the “good” immigrant of yore has also been pressed into service in denunciations of the “bad” immigrant of today. Apocalyptic anti-immigrant books like Lawrence Auster’s Path to National Suicide consecrate earlier waves of immigration even while deploring the present one by emphasizing the affinities between Europe and America: that “they were of European descent and came from related cultures within Western civilization made it relatively easy for them to assimilate into the common sphere of civic habits and cultural identity.” But this European tradition is an uncertain fabrication, and such assessments of Italian or Irish immigrants’ “related cultures” have less to do with their actual relationship at the time than with a perceived kinship only after a century’s hindsight. A hundred years ago American commentators sounded remarkably like Auster in their assessments of these incoming Europeans. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge found in the European immigrants “races most alien to the body of the American people”; they “do not promise well for the standard of civilization of the United States.” The Superintendent of the Census thought they possessed “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men [for] self-government.” Even the New York Times characterized these newcomers as “unwashed, ignorant, unkempt, childish semi-savages.”

If the first maneuver in recent nativism has been to forget the contemporary reception of European immigrants and the crisis their presence posed, the next has been to canonize their traits and their virtues. In memory, these “alien races” have become clean and moral and hugely striving; they have become joint-stock holders in a unified “European tradition”--they have become, in a word, “ America.” Nothing hinders white Americans’ even-handed acceptance of Third World immigration quite as stubbornly as the mythic, lavishly celebrated, and thoroughly naturalized icon of the European steerage passenger.

The roots obsession, then, has been no simple identity quest, nor can its impact be measured by the attendance at St. Patrick’s Day parades, by box office receipts for Jewtopia, or by the astronomical number of daily hits on genealogical websites. Rather, the ethnic revival recast American nationality, and it continues to color our judgment about who “we” are. Martin Luther King, Jr. decried the notion that this was a “nation of immigrants,” and he cautioned against the damning exclusions inherent in that conception. Citing the line inscribed on the Statue of Liberty which identifies her as the “mother of exiles,” King exclaimed that it is no wonder “the Negro in America cries, ‘Oh Lord, sometimes I feel like a motherless child.’” And yet as late as 2004, Republicans kicked off their national convention on the hallowed ground of Ellis Island. Amid pious talk of diversity, speakers appealed to Americans’ populist conceptions of “the people” by enumerating the many immigrant Bushes, Cheneys, Patakis, and Giulianis whose names grace Ellis Island’s “wall of honor.”

It was fitting, then, that during the Concert for New York in the wake of 9/11, among the most straightforward and applauded expressions of outraged Americanism was firefighter Michael Moran’s exhortation, “Osama bin Laden, you can kiss my royal Irish ass!” Like JFK’s “return” to Ireland in 1963, Moran’s proud Irishness expressed the conviction that to celebrate the hyphen is not to diminish anyone’s “Americanism.” But as our differential greeting of “illegal” Irish and Mexican immigrants affirms, not just any old hyphen will do. Such patterns of presumption and exclusion in our collective sense of naturalized Americanness should command the strictest attention, as should the mythology of the “nation of immigrants” that binds them. These more than anything else constitute the historical weave of that hypnotic political ideal, America.