Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America, Richard Alba, Yale University Press, 1990, 374 pp., $35.00
In an era in which the ethnic demands of everyone but white people are the subject of such obligatory interest, it is a pleasant surprise to find a book about the ethnic identities of Americans of European descent. And if, as the flyleaf claims, the author goes on to explore the dawning consciousness of whites as “European-Americans,” the book would seem promising. Ethnic Identity is, in fact, a useful analysis of what white Americans think about their European origins, and the book is worth reading for that. As a reflection on rising white consciousness, it is no more than one would expect from a mainstream university press.
The author, Professor Richard Alba, has based his book not only on general sources but on a detailed survey of white ethnic identity that he carried out himself. His primary message is simple: The American melting pot has been a roaring success, so long as its ingredients have been white. With the exception of Jews, virtually every group of European immigrants has, within three generations, become largely indistinguishable from the others. The old English stock painlessly absorbed immigrants from northern Europe, and even digested the southern and eastern Europeans and the Irish without much more than a gurgle and a case of heartburn.
As Professor Alba points out, the ultimate test of assimilation is the ease and frequency of intermarriage. On this score, there is virtually no European group that has failed to mingle with the rest. Three quarters of the marriages of white people today cut across lines of European nationality. Indeed, as the author argues, at this rate the very notion of European ethnicity is blurring.
Only Jews, with an intermarriage rate of only one quarter to one third, resist the final step to assimilation, and this resistance weakens only slightly in succeeding American-born generations. Jewish endogamy is even more remarkable, since a group that is no more than 2½ percent of the population would normally have a very high rate of marriage outside the group, if only because of the scarcity of potential spouses. Jews also differ from other European immigrants in that their levels of education and income far outstrip those of any other ethnic group.
Professor Alba is candid enough to contrast the otherwise rapid and essentially uniform assimilation of Europeans with the very different experiences of other racial groups. Hispanic immigrants, for example, do not show anything like the same patterns of education, income, and intermarriage as Europeans, even after three generations and more, and blacks are even less a part of the American mainstream. To his credit, Prof. Alba refrains from the usual bromides about how these groups can be expected to be absorbed eventually, just as Poles and Italians have been.
The United States has lost the old conviction that all newcomers must be made over in the same Anglo-Saxon image. Were this ever even theoretically possible for non-European immigrants, the disrepute into which the very effort has now fallen guarantees that assimilation will not take place.
As for white ethnics, the findings of Prof. Alba’s own research are always interesting and sometimes surprising. The widespread notion of the third generation trying to reestablish the ethnic identity that the previous generation had tried so hard to leave behind is apparently a myth. Interest in one’s European origins can reawaken in members of any generation, but European ethnic identity declines steadily over time. Italians and Irishmen cling to their Europeanness more firmly than others but they, too, eventually melt into the pot.
Another finding that runs counter to popular belief is that an interest in European ethnicity increases with education. Despite the common view that “working-class ethnics” are the staunchest remnants of Europe-in-America, according to Professor Alba it is the best educated who cultivate an interest in their European origins.
Professor Alba also reports that it is women who are the guardians of European ethnicity. Without their determination to cook the foods and observe the celebrations of their ancestors, an occasional outburst of European sentiment from the father is unlikely to have much effect on children. Nevertheless, Professor Alba finds that in the case of ethnic intermarriage, when the husband insists on keeping his own ethnicity, his wife is likely to oblige. Swedish wives learn to cook ravioli and English ladies learn Irish jigs to please their husbands. In mixed marriages, children are more likely to identify with only a single ethnicity, and this is likely to be that of the father.
Nevertheless, in all cases, Professor Alba’s research demonstrates what everyone knows to be true — that European ethnicity is receding dramatically. Americans of European origin now tend to have what can be called “symbolic” or “voluntary” ethnicity. For the most part, their Europeanness is something that is more a decoration than an essence, and is something they may deny or claim entirely as it suits them. European ethnicity has become so symbolic and so voluntary that virtually any white person can appropriate most any part of it for himself. Professor Alba quotes a notice from an Albany newspaper that sums up what European ethnicity now means in America: “The German-American Club of Albany will observe St. Patrick’s Day with a dinner-dance on March 19.”
Though Professor Alba does not explore this, a similar ethnic merging is taking place among Hispanics and, to a lesser degree, among Asians. Just as the musicians in a “German” band are as likely to be English, Irish, or even Czech as they are to be German, the members of a Salsa band may well be a mix of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans. Despite the current fashion of pooh poohing the melting pot, it has hardly gone out of business; there is simply a separate pot for each race.
It is in this context that Professor Alba hazards a few timid observations about a dawning pan-European ethnicity. As non-white immigrants pour into the country, and as old country identifications wane, whites increasingly see that the contours of the new melting-pot identity match those of the frontiers of Europe. Though Professor Alba anticipates a broad European-American ethnicity, he seems to be confused about what this means: “An attraction of finding common ground as European Americans is that it avoids the obvious pitfalls of a merely racial identity as “whites’.” Since the “pitfalls” of such an identity are so “obvious,” Professor Alba never explains what they might be.
We are told that since a European-American identity is made up of the remnants of “symbolic” ethnicities, it is likely to be weak. Here again, in trying to distinguish between European-American identity and white consciousness, Professor Alba may be fashionable but he is mistaken. The racial fault lines in this country are only widening. As Poles, Hungarians, and old stock Dutchmen find that their interests are not those of blacks, Hispanics, or Filipinos, it will become increasingly clear that the culture uniting European-Americans cannot easily be separated from race.
Professor Alba is right to acknowledge the decline of old-country ethnicity and has an inkling of what will replace it. But the European-American identity he describes will arrive with far greater strength and with far more consequences than Yale University Press is likely to concede.