“I began by feeling that I was a Norwegian, then changed into a Scandinavian,
and have now arrived at being a generalized Germanic.”

—Henrik Ibsen

“Over the generations,” wrote Milton M. Gordon in his 1964 study of the assimilation of white ethnics, “the triumph of acculturation in America has been, if not complete, at least numerically and functionally overwhelming.” There was still communitarian or “structural” pluralism in white America, said Gordon, but this was to be understood within the overarching framework of assimilation into Anglo- American behavior patterns, self-image, and civic ideals.

That optimistic vision has been all but extinguished in recent years by open immigration—a policy that was launched just one year after the publication of Gordon’s Assimilation in American Life—and the fetish of “multiculturalism.” The unmeltable pluralism of whites and nonwhites has become our national obsession, and interest in white ethnicity as such has correspondingly declined. Indeed, when in more and more parts of the country white Americans have begun to seem like the remnant of a vanishing civilization, the subject of inter-white differences, or white anything, seems almost archaic.

But now Richard Alba, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany, returns to the neglected subject of assimilation among whites. Looking at such factors as ancestry, residence, education, and income. Alba finds that even the structural pluralism that Milton Gordon observed among Americans of European ancestry is rapidly eroding. Yet even as the objective basis of ethnicity has declined. Alba notes that a subjective sense of ethnic identity is persisting; at least half of native-born whites still think of themselves in ethnic terms. Alba’s main purpose is to determine the “personal meaningfulness or felt intensity” of ethnic identity, based on a study conducted among 524 residents of the Albany region in upstate New York. In this phenomenon of ethnic identity as distinct from traditional ethnicity, he sees the signs of a new ethnic group embracing all Americans of European descent. Less convincingly, he also sees grounds for discarding an essential component of Milton Gordon’s theory of assimilation.

Alba has some important and startling news to tell about ethnic change. Intermarriage is a key factor: one half of all native-born white couples have, no ethnic ancestry in common, while only one out of four couples have identical backgrounds. Interethnic mixture is rapidly increasing over time. Less than one third of whites born before 1920 had mixed ancestry; but 60 percent of those born after 1960, and two thirds of those born after 1970, are mixed. In some groups, the rate of intermarriage is even higher; two thirds of all Italian Americans born since 1940 are of mixed ancestry. The erasure of ethnic boundaries is making even the concept of intermarriage obsolete. In many cases people barely know the ethnic background of their spouse.

Ethnic solidarity, based on the sense of a shared heritage and destiny, is also declining. The dispersal of ethnic neighborhoods and occupational niches has meant the loss of common political interests. “The zone of common experiences that can be presumed for the members of any group has been steadily narrowed. . . . This means that when two persons with similar ethnic ancestries meet for the first time, there is little they can assume is common to them both solely on the basis of ethnic background.” Group identity has been drained of any larger meaning, reduced to a label. Almost the only remaining ethnically homogeneous organizations are churches.

The result of all this is that “ethnicity, once transmitted by a communal web enmeshing families, neighborhoods, and informal networks, is now dependent on the identities of individuals. Ethnic identity has become “Americanized,” no longer a given but a free assertion of individuality.

Yet Alba finds that the voluntary ways in which people still define their ethnic identity, such as ethnic cuisine and traditions, the use of words or phrases from an ancestral language, visits to an ancestral homeland, and so on, turn out to be “symbolic assertions of little practical consequence . . . a fragile and thin layer alloyed to a larger body of common American culture.” Many respondents who initially claimed that they kept ethnic traditions seemed unsure what those traditions were. Only 25 percent had had six or more “ethnically defining” experiences, while an equal percentage had had none. Only 27 percent had discussed their ethnic background with their children during the past five years.

Not surprisingly, ethnic identity is more important, or “salient,” among “new stock” Americans—Irish, Italians, Poles—than “old stock” Americans—the Dutch, English, and Scots whose ancestors arrived in the country before 1800. Among the groups of the old stock, only 10 to 20 percent feel ethnic background is “very important”; among those of the new, 40 percent. The 20 percent of whites who choose no ethnic identity, describing themselves simply as American, are mainly of old stock, as are the one-third of Alba’s respondents who were unable to identify the ethnic identity of their spouse. The strong appeal of ethnic identity is seen in the fact that individuals who are mixtures of old and new stock are more likely to identify as Italians or Poles than as English or Scots, “despite the higher percentage attached to early American origins.”

In seeking to account for the persisting attractiveness of ethnic identity among whites in the absence of traditional ethnicity, Alba hardly mentions what may be the most obvious explanation—the mounting numbers and power of nonwhite groups with highprofile ethnic identities. According to the “Diversity Project,” a study of student attitudes at the multiracial campus of the University of California at Berkeley, white students feel that not having an ethnic identity is a liability in a world where nonwhite students are “discovering and strengthening” their own identities. Whiteness, the students indicated, means “being without identity, without culture, ‘without color.'” One student remarked:

Many whites don’t feel like they have an ethnic identity at all and I pretty much feel that way too. It’s not something that bothers me tremendously but I think that maybe I could be missing something that other people have, that I am not experiencing.

Such considerations lend force to Alba’s most interesting suggestion—that the function of white ethnic identity today is to claim membership in a new ethnic group embracing all white Americans.

The members of this new group do not define themselves solely in terms of an “American” identity. . . . Rather, they continue to define themselves, to some extent at least, in terms of European points of origin. But, in contrast to the past, the different European ancestries are not seen as the basis of important social divisions; instead, they create a potential for social bonds having an ethnic character, founded on the perception of similar experiences of immigration and social mobility. This new group can be called, for lack of a better term, the “European Americans.”

The European Americans also fit the three classic criteria of an ethnic group: they define themselves in terms of common history (i.e., European origin, immigration, assimilation, and upward mobility); membership in the group is a badge of “social honor” by virtue of symbolic participation in that history; and the group is a carrier of economic or political interests.

However, Alba sees the European-American identity less as a carrier of parochial interests than as a model of assimilation for today’s Third World immigrants. “The thrust of European-American identity is to defend the individualistic view of the American system,” portraying the society as open to those who work hard and pull themselves up. The assimilation of European immigrants then becomes the new national ideal, preserving what is best in America by defining “a prototypical American experience, against which non-European minority groups . . . are pressured to measure themselves.”

The fatal flaw in Alba’s theory is that it ignores a key component of cultural assimilation—the adoption of the historical heritage of the host people as one’s own. As Renan said, a nation is defined not by blood ties as such but by a shared historical memory and a common heritage. If the influence of the new stock Americans has resulted in the immigration story supplanting the Founding heritage as the definitive American idea, then to that extent, cultural assimilation has failed.

It was once thought that assimilation meant becoming an American, which included identifying with American (and Western) history and its prototypical figures; now Alba tells us that assimilation only means becoming Homo economicus. Immigration, along with an attenuated view of assimilation that encourages the maintenance of ancestral identities, thus becomes the central American idea.

And as we all should know by now, it is only one small step from the “Nation of Immigrants” to the “Universal Nation”—a radical redefinition of America that mandates perpetual open borders and cultural suicide. “Diversity,” a vacuous concept that clears the way for every sort of ethnic imperialism and separatism, replaces the Founding tradition along with the Anglo-American virtues which that tradition honors. In the final analysis, the secular sanctification of the immigrant story, far from serving the cohesive and normative role that Richard Alba envisions for it, may only be leading the way to the ultimate submergence of both the Anglo-American and the European-American cultural identities in this country.


[Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America, by Richard D. Alba (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) 374 pp., $35.00]