The Troubling Future of Ethnicity

by Philip Perlmutter

Mr. Perlmutter is executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 17-24, 1977, p. 718. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Political entrepreneurs are beginning to exploit the rise of ethnic consciousness in the U.S. Political ethnicity and conflict are certain to grow when government validates or legitimates racial, religious or nationality quotas, proportional representation, community control, communalism or sectionalism.

For all the beauty of ethnic, religious and racial diversities, there is a troubling aspect to the current rise of ethnic consciousness -- or, as it is sometimes called, the new ethnicity -- and that is the fact that it has become politicized.

Generally, those who talk and write about ethnicity fall into four broad and not totally distinguishable categories. There are the “old” immigrants or descendants of immigrants who are proud of their heritage and are beginning to reassert it with renewed passion and vigor. Never before have so many ethnic groups publicly declared themselves “beautiful,” and never before have they been so wooed and sought after by politicians campaigning for public office.

Second, there are the educational interculturalists who stress the unity and beauty of peoples and groups in all their diversity, and who call for mutual understanding, tolerance and respect. The third group can be called the ethnic romanticists, or romantic ethnics; their passionate appraisal of their own group virtues may seem, to outsiders or even to members of their own group, to have slight correspondence to reality. The fourth group consists of ethnic militants who assert the need for group action to ensure rights and gain political power.


The old ethnicists of the first group still abound, holding their festivals, celebrating their holy days, participating in their fraternal, cultural or benevolent societies, publishing their histories, and dreaming of involving their sons and daughters. For a significant part of their lives, they operate within an ethnic enclave. In Polish, Greek, Portuguese, German and French social clubs and organizations the old languages, stories, memories and folkways are nurtured; there people can meet and send their children to learn of the cultural and ethnic history of their forebears. The new interest in ethnicity has inspired them to speak out publicly, particularly on community arid political issues -- foreign aid, discrimination, busing. Americans of Puerto Rican, Italian, Chinese and Polish descent have taken surveys to determine how many of their own are employed in various professions.

Members of the second group advocate understanding and appreciation of all human groups, including their own. They believe that not only is human difference a healthy fact of life, but that individuals should understand the past and present dynamics of ethnic identity, relationships and groups, not only because it will make them more sure of themselves, but also because it will strengthen the democratic nature of tire total society.

Theirs is a universal vision which glories in goodwill to all and which leads to acceptance, understanding, tolerance and admiration of particular groups. Their philosophical guides are persons like John Dewey and Horace Rallen and the Judeo-Christian belief in the kinship of the human race.

The third group of ethnic advocates, who came into being in the 1960s, started with particular identities and sublimated them to a universal pattern of oneness. It is as if their group ontogeny recapitulated the phylogeny of all groups. They see in group similarities and differences a kind of epiphenomenal universality. Their advocacy of ethnicity consists of a combination of psychological awareness, historical recollection and sociological romance.

For example, Michael Novak contends that ethnicity does not necessarily entail speaking a foreign language, living in a subculture being a member of an ethnic organization, responding to ethnic appeals, or exalting one’s own nationality or culture; rather it embodies a growing sense of discomfort with the idea that one is supposed to he universalistic, “incited,” or like everyone else. For him, a positive ethnicity necessitates an appreciation for one’s historical roots, a growing self-confidence and social power, a sense of being discriminated against, condescended to, or carelessly misapprehended; a growing disaffection regarding these to whom one had always been taught to defer.

The last group is that of the ethnic-power politicizers, who claim not only that their group is beautiful, but also that the preservation, maintenance, enhancement and survival of their group depend upon the achievement of political power, whether it be through benign quotas, proportional representation, community control, caucuses -- or in a few cases, outright secession, rebellion or the use of violence. Within this group there is a further division between those who would rise armed force and those who would use the ballot box or constitutional reform to legitimate group rights and claims. What unites them is their advocacy of group rather than individual rights.


It is in the mounting protests, pressures and demands of ethnic politicizers and in society’s yielding to them that there are grave dangers to national well-being. Not only do such actions represent a radical departure from past times in America, when government refused to legitimate ethnic-group rights and claims, but they also encourage a polarization rather than unification of our diverse population -- a trend that can result only in the eventual creation of de jure ethnic and racial geographic enclaves and political parties, with the appointment and election of individuals mandated along racial, religious and ethnic lines. With such a system, this nation would be plagued with all the intergroup suspicions, resentments and conflicts that continue to characterize many parts of Europe, Asia and Africa.

On various levels of society we already see the introduction of racial and ethnic quotas, proportional representation, caucuses, preferential treatment, government subsidies and community control. If the Black Muslim call for the establishment of “a separate state or territory” supported by the government once sounded improbable, it sounds almost rational today as some ethnic leaders and intellectuals rationalize and legitimate political and ideological group claims. For example, Vine Deloria, Jr., has called for a restructuring of our national system, with groups rather than individuals regarded as the basic elements of the nation:

The contemporary interpretation of “we the people” in reality means “we the peoples,” we definable groups, and thus admits minority groups into Constitutional protection which they should have received as groups a century ago. . . . To continue merely on the basis of an abstract individual contracting with other individuals would he to court disaster[We Talk, You Listen (Macmillan, 1970) p. 52].

Ironically, such proposals come at a time when this form of government, which is but 200 years old, has been expanding rather than restricting freedom for all its citizens, and has been doing so despite massive immigration, legal and illegal, and despite having added “foreign” territories like Hawaii and Alaska.

The irredentism and revanchism of Europe have not taken root among Mexican or Spanish descendents in the southwest, nor have the Indians federated to expel all the “foreigners” -- some zoo tidllion -- who are on their lands. And instead of calling for autonomy, Hawaii and Alaska voted to join the union; Puerto Ricans continue overwhelmingly to vote down independence or “national liberation.”

If American democracy has generally eroded or transcended ethnic and racial separationist aspirations, it has also allowed them to survive and even flourish, but on a voluntary basis, so that many “ethnics” are more nationalistic in America than they were in the lands they or their parents left, where identities were usually grounded in family, village or town rather than in the nation as a whole.

In the desire for political expression of group identity there is a stage at which ethnic group aspirations can clash with and threaten the unity of the country. Such a situation can be fostered by governments which directly or indirectly aid the disaffected groups on the basis of their ethnicity in the hope that they will not rebel, riot or cause societal dislocation. Government can also validate group rights and benefits in exchange for ethnic votes and support.

Europe has been a maelstrom of such relationships which, in this century, resulted in the Balkan Wars and the breakdown of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The embers of ethnic autonomy and self-determination still smolder in Europe -- and periodically flare up in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Spain and Belgium. And on the North American continent, we are beginning to see the possibility of French-speaking Quebec’s separation from English-speaking Canada.


In America since the racial revolution -- and to some extent as a result of it -- political ethnicity has grown, encouraged both by groups and by the government. New ethnic associations have sprung up to defend and promote ethnic-group dignity, as well as to gain political power and position. Italians, Poles, Irish, Puerto Ricans and Indians are adopting the activist tactics and strategies of blacks and the research methods of the Jews. Demonstrations, confrontations and accusations have become common, as have. studies proving underrepresentation in jobs, income levels or housing. Negative overpercentages -- in crime and welfare dependency, for example -- are blamed on society. If the percentages are positive -- such as high numbers of college graduates, personal incomes or status jobs -- they are said to be due to individual achievement.

Ethnic-action associations and ethnic studies programs have been established on college campuses across the country. Increasingly, city, state and federal governments are funding ethnic projects, ranging from festivals to bilingual education. Courts and political parties have recognized and often validated racial quotas. Businesses and universities have instituted benign quotas and affirmative-action programs, which openly admit to hiring some minority group members while excluding other applicants solely on the basis of race or ethnicity. The same is true of political appointments on all levels of government.

These actions have inevitably led to numbers of court cases charging reverse discrimination, and to rivalry, resentment and conflict between majority and minority groups and among various minority groups themselves, each believing that their group is no less deserving of attention, privilege or preference than others. No longer is the complaint one of discrimination because of race, religion or national origin, but rather one of under- or overrepresentation by virtue of the group’s proportion of the total population. In recent years, blacks -- the most discriminated-against group in America -- have been charged with discrimination by other groups. For example, both the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have been accused of ignoring or discriminating against other minorities. In late 1975, the executive director of New York’s Congress of Italian-American Organizations charged that “white ethnics have been ignored in favor of Blacks and Hispanics” (Time, December 8, 1976). Boston’s Spanish weekly newspaper, El Mundo, in opposing “reverse discrimination,” noted that whites discriminate against blacks, blacks discriminate against whites, whites and blacks discriminate against Spanish, and Spanish discriminate against each other.

Certainly one of the most far-reaching actions ever taken by the government in dealing with ethnicity is the Justice Department’s April 1976 ruling ordering multilingual elections in some 513 political jurisdictions in 30 states. Election officials in those areas must henceforth issue all public announcements, notices and voting instructions in the languages of minority groups, including American Indians, Alaskan natives, Chinese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, and Americans of Spanish heritage. The basic purpose, said the attorney general, was “to allow members of applicable language minority groups to be effectively informed of and participate effectively in voting-connected activities” (New York Times, April 22, 1976, p. 25).

Instead of being viewed as threats to societal well-being or as radical departures from past history, such developments are defended as long overdue cultural affirmations which can only benefit America. Over and over, we are told that America is not a “melting pot.”


That some ethnic advocates distinguish between ethnic chauvinism and creative ethnicity is all to their credit. To the extent that they advocate the need for intercultural understanding, they are to be commended -- as long as the task is done voluntarily, without state or federal assistance. One of the distinctive characteristics of American democracy is its voluntary associations, which citizens are free to join or not to join. But what ethnic groups cannot or will not do for themselves to maintain their ethnic heritage should not be done by government.

Those ethnic advocates who think that government support will ensure their cultural survival are deluding themselves. For generations various public schools have taught “foreign languages” without significant success. Public-school French and German courses are as unsuccessful in producing fluent speakers of those languages as courses in Swahili, Gaelic or Yiddish would be. Even the old national churches have failed to teach significant numbers of their congregants Armenian, Polish, Russian or Latvian. Ethnic newspapers are either going out of business, beginning to publish partially in English, or switching entirely to English.

The only circulation increases in foreign-language publications are in papers published for recent immigrant groups, like the Spanish-speaking. However, as with past generations of immigrants, they will undoubtedly succumb to linguistic amnesia. Evidence of this trend is found in a recent survey of ethnic newspapers in and around Boston, which showed that the Lithuanian newspaper Keleivis has dropped in circulation from 7,000 in 1953 to 2,200 in 1976. “Every year we lost a little bit,” said the 83-year-old editor, pointing out that those who want to learn Lithuanian “are fewer than peoples who died” (Boston Globe, June 22, 1976).

The Finnish newspaper Raivaaja, which once had a circulation of 10,000, now has 2,500 and has reduced its frequency from daily to once a week. “The old immigrants, the people who came before World War I, are gone,” explained the editor. “First the men died, then the women, and their children are Americans, naturally,”

The Hellenic Chronicle, “America’s largest newspaper for Greek Americans,” is printed in English, as are the Jewish Advocate and Jewish Times. Liria, the only Albanian weekly in America, prints its four-page edition partly in English. Novidades, a Portuguese weekly, is considering publication half in English because “there are many people who do not read Portuguese but who are interested.”

It is against such a background that government support of ethnicity and concessions to particular ethnic requests, claims and demands become all too similar to the paternalistic actions of colonial powers, who gave cultural cake rather than economic bread to those they wanted to placate and control. Instead of combating ethnocentrism, the government appears to be reinforcing it. Rather than unifying citizens, it is fragmenting them. It is not the enrichment of ethnic heritage, but an ethnic politicization that is taking place.

Without governmental support, the future of ethnicity is not bright. First, there is in America an absence of territorial primogeniture, except for that of the Indians, and their chances of regaining control of their ancestral lands are quite limited; then, too, many Indians are leaving the reservations for the big cities. True, there are enclaves of Italians, Polish, Irish and Chinese, but their small size bespeaks the futility of any significant control outside their boundaries, and these groups’ second and third generations are moving to the greener suburbs beyond their communal turf.

In addition, various studies continue to show a decline in ethnic identity in the fourth generation, whose members are characterized by forgetfulness or ignorance of the parents’ language, customs, mores and values. Third- and fourth-generation ethnic sons and daughters do not affiliate with their ethnic group organizations, unless they are aspiring politicians trying to exploit their background for votes.

Third, the forces of assimilation are awesome. The melting pot is boiling, fueled by affluence or the opportunity to get ahead, the steady movement to the middle-class suburbs, the ease and inexpensiveness of road and air travel, the readiness to relocate to other cities and states, the decline of religious institutional power, the increase in education, the steady rise in interfaith and interracial marriages, the decline of foreign languages, the fracturing of the extended family, and above all, the expansion of personal freedom.

Such sociologists as W. Lloyd Warner, Leo Srole and Neil C. Sandburg believe that assimilation and acculturation are not likely to be reversed. Herbert Gans sees the “new ethnicity” as “a wishful extension of the nostalgia for simpler times that is gripping many Americans as their contemporary society becomes more conflict-ridden” (Ethnic Identity and Assimilation The Polish Community, by Neil C. Sandberg [Praeger, 1974], p. 74).


The danger to society is not in private, voluntary, visceral, cultural or intellectual ethnicity, but in the politicizing of those ethnic components which will move America from an open pluralistic society to a circumscribed plural one, where eventually force rather than consensus will be used to maintain national well-being.

By a plural society is meant one “comprising two or more elements or social orders which live side by side, yet without mingling, in one political unit” (Politics in Plural Societies: A Theory of Democratic Instability, by Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth A. Shepsle [Merrill, 1972]. p. 10). Such a society isolates the demands of its separate communities and fails to mold a common social goal; it also leads to intergroup conflict and the need to maintain order by force. On the other hand, pluralistic societies are defined as having “one or more relatively distinct subcultures, but their value systems are compatible with the national political consensus” (ibid., p. 16).

As Rabushka and Shepsle point out, what distinguishes the plural from the pluralistic society is the practice of politics along almost exclusively ethnic lines. In the plural society, political conflicts are perceived in ethnic terms. In contrast, in pluralistic countries, there are coalitions which often vary from issue to Issue, and ethnicity is not the determining factor. “Italian-Americans, for example, though they vote cohesively on some issues, often divide on a great many others. And in the United States, Italian and Irish highway contractors view themselves as businessmen, not ethnic representatives, in competition” (ibid., p. 20).

Thus, when a society is characterized by cultural diversity, politically organized cultural communities, prominence of ethnicity, and existence of intense ethnic preferences, political entrepreneurs will usually exploit them -- and that is just what is beginning to take place in America.

In newly independent nations, there seems to be at first a pattern of cooperation followed by fragmentation. Prior to national independence, there is ethnic cooperation, which sometimes carries over into the postindependence period, but an added element of ambiguity generates a feeling of loyalty to one’s own ethnic group rather than to. the new entity. For example, in Guyana, there are calls for Apanjaht -- voting for one’s own kind: in Sri Lanka, citizens have been urged to buy from Sinhalese only. Ethnic rivalry and competition develop; multiethnic cooperation and coalitions languish; electoral machinations and mistrust and the formation of ethnic political parties hasten the process.

Political ethnicity and conflict are certain to grow when government validates or legitimates racial, religious or nationality quotas, proportional representation, community control, communalism or sectionalism. To the extent it does so with any one group, to that extent will it trigger conflict with other groups.