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By Bruce Oatman (Fordham University)


Erica Ward is a sixteen-year-old high school student who lives in a small town in New York State. For a recent school history project she was asked to count the different ethnic groups from which she is descended. After discussing this question with older relatives, she put together this list:

• Nationality groups—English, Dutch, German, Irish and French.

• Racial groups—white, black and Native American.

• Religious groups—Catholic Christian and at least five types of Protestant Christian: Baptist, Mormon, Methodist, Congregationalist and Unitarian. In addition, some of her cousins are Jewish.

Erica's earliest known ancestor to migrate to the New World was Dutch, and landed in New York in 1678. The most recent migrant was a German who came to Philadelphia in about 1848. Of course her Creek Indian ancestors have been in America for thousands of years.

According to the 1990 census, about one- quarter of Americans trace their dominant ancestry to Great Britain. Half are descended from people from other European nations. The remainder are descended from Native Americans, Africans, Hispanics and Asians.

For 300 years, the coming of different groups to the United States has involved their

struggles to make a living and to be accepted as equal partners in American life. Many immigrant groups have moved from a position of disdained outsider to one of full participation in social and economic life; some other groups have yet to complete this journey.


The United States is a country of many ethnic groups. An ethnic group is made up of people who share one or more characteristics which make them different from other groups. They may share specific racial or physical traits, speak their own language or practice a distinctive religion. They are usually bound to one another by common traditions and values, and by their own folklore and music. Some of their activities may be determined by unique

institutions, such as a complex family structure or the social practices within their communities. Members of an ethnic group tend to see themselves—and to be seen by outsiders—as separate from other people.

The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups lists 106 major groups in the United States today, including Native Americans, Albanians, Afro-Americans, Arabs, Burmese, Chinese, Eskimos, Filipinos, Greeks, Irish, Italians, Jews, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Swiss. There are really more. For example, there are more than 170 different Native American tribes. For the sake of simplicity, the encyclopedia treats them as one. In the same way, Syrians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Palestinians are all counted as Arabs.

Most members of ethnic groups long established in the United States have lost much of the distinctiveness of their culture. Third generation Germans, for example, may only speak English and may think of themselves as "plain" Americans. Third generation Chinese, however, often retain their language and many cultural and family traditions. They will usually define themselves as Chinese-Americans.

Members of most ethnic groups are full participants in the broad tapestry of American life, even if they keep alive many of their old traditions. The Irish, Danes, Germans Italians, Poles, Jews, Mormons and Catholics, for example, have moved into almost all social, economic and political sectors.

Some ethnic groups, however, suffer disadvantages which continue to keep them from freely participating in some areas of American professional and cultural life. Poverty and all the deprivation that goes with it often make it more difficult for black Americans and Puerto Ricans to acquire the social and educational skills needed to enter more desirable and more highly paid occupations. Racial prejudice and discrimination against blacks, Chinese and Native Americans has often meant that many members of those groups have been forced to live and work in narrow sectors of American life. Recent Hispanic immigrants, such as Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, also have encountered discrimination based on their ethnicity.

Those ethnic groups which suffer systematic economic or social disadvantages are called minority groups j About one of every five Americans is a member of such a group.

In the past, many minority groups overcame the barriers that confronted them. The Irish, the Italians and the Germans, the Catholics and the Jews all faced hostility and discrimination which severely restricted their opportunities for decades. In time they largely overcame these barriers and became fully integrated into national life. There are many signs that today's minorities are following the same path. For several decades, it has been an official aim of public policy to encourage such an outcome.


Among the major European powers that attempted to settle North America, Britain was the most successful. Its colonies in Virginia (1607) and Massachusetts (1620) laid the

foundation for the experiences of ethnic groups in the following centuries.

The English language, as well as English laws, and social, economic and religious customs were successfully transplanted to the New World. All of the groups which followed these earliest colonists were measured by their adherence to English standards. This meant that later immigrants had to undergo a period of adjustment during which they were treated as outsiders. During the colonial period Germans, Scotch-Irish, French Protestants and others had to undergo these trials.

The colonists' relations with the Native Americans were full of conflict from the beginning. This was because the two communities did not share the same social and economic values. When the colonists found they could not turn the "Indians" into trading partners, they perceived them only as an obstacle to a more rapid exploitation of the land by Europeans. As many thousands of immigrants were brought to the colonies in the first few decades, they entered an intense competition with the Native Americans for land. By the 1670s, the pattern had been set: Most territorial or economic conflicts between whites and Native Americans were settled by force of arms. That practice continued for 200 years.

Slaves had been imported from Africa into Virginia by Dutch and Spanish traders as early as 1619. Later in the same century, immigration from England slowed, while the need for cheap labor increased. This led to an enormous increase in the slave trade after 1662. Most of these Africans were imported to work on large agricultural plantations, but they soon were found in a wide range of craft and service occupations. In 1671, one in 20 residents in Virginia was black; by 1770, four in 10 were.

One of the longest lasting aspects of the subjugation of blacks and Indians was the common European view of them as uncivilizable, naturally cruel and simple- minded peoples. In one form or another these racist ideas must still be combated today.


The patterns of the colonial period long endured. Immigration was encouraged when people were needed—to settle the newly annexed lands of the Northwest Territories in the early 1800s and to help build canals and, later, railroads, for example. The new immigrants were usually poor and found themselves on the bottom of the social and economic scale. Over the course of a generation or two, most European immigrants could merge into the larger Anglo-American society and escape the burden of minority status. This was not possible for Afro- American slaves and for Native Americans.

While ethnic and minority groups were struggling with one another for economic security, the new United States had become the most democratic nation on earth. Free competition encouraged people to feel that each person's ideas (and efforts) were worthy to be judged against every other person's ideas.

The recognition that the rights of each citizen depended upon maintaining the rights of all was a central theme in the Declaration of Independence (1776). In that document, each

citizen was declared to have natural rights to the security of life, the exercise of social and political liberty, and to the pursuit of the economic goals of his own choosing.

The Declaration also asserted that "all men are created equal." It may seem strange that this idea was emphasized in the presence of slavery and a clear inequality among actual groups. However, the writers were repeating a view which was already a fundamental ideal within the American system. A Massachusetts legal code of 1641 had asserted the right of every person "... whether inhabitant or foreigner to enjoy the same justice and law that is general for the colony."

Ideas have real consequences, even when they only imperfectly describe the world. One consequence of the idea of equality in American history is that all groups have felt free to struggle to raise their economic and political status in relation to other groups.

A great influx of immigrants occurred after 1820. The opening of the territory in the West and the development of industry created new opportunities for millions of people. By 1850, the population numbered 23 million. Only 10 years later it totalled 31 million.

Between 1840 and 1860, Europeans from Ireland, Germany and Great Britain came in great numbers to the United States. A few of these came to escape religious or political persecution, but most sought greater economic opportunity.

Most of these immigrants landed at one of the five major American ports: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans. New York was the nation's largest city and led all the others as a center of commerce and industry.

Many immigrants remained in the cities. Others moved inland and to the West. By 1860, immigrants and their children were a majority of the population in New York, Chicago and New Orleans. Jobs were created as fast as boats could bring people to fill them. Except for the port city of New Orleans, the South attracted few settlers, since it provided little industrial development to create jobs.

The Germans were the largest 19th century immigrant group. They settled in a wide range of locations. By the end of the century they made up the largest single foreign element in 26 states. They worked as farmers, craftsmen and professionals, and came from all classes of citizens in their native land.

The Germans attempted to retain their language and their traditional ways of life. They created communities with old-world institutions such as concert and lecture halls, schools and theaters, beer gardens, and social and athletic societies. They were both Protestant and Catholic.

In contrast, the three million Irish who came to these shores in the 1840s and 1850s were almost all poor and had been peasants in Ireland. They were also Catholic. This aroused a great deal of fear and anxiety among native Protestants. Poor Protestant workers felt threatened by the willingness of the Irish to work for low wages.

The Irish were the poorest of the 19th century immigrants. They were crowded into the eastern port and industrial cities, where they formed a readily available unskilled labor market for the growing industrial enterprises.

For decades this combination of poverty, Catholicism and economic rivalry led to the

hostile isolation of the Irish. As a result, the Irish suffered the worst discrimination of any immigrants of that era.

The coming of the Civil War (1861-1865) provided the most serious American domestic crisis since the Revolution. This crisis was brought about by a national rivalry between the agricultural slave-owning states of the South and the industrializing states of the North. America's acquisition of vast territories extending to the Pacific Ocean led to a conflict between those who wanted to extend slavery to the new lands and those who did not.

In order to protect their interests, 11 Southern states withdrew from the Union. The war that followed not only abolished slavery but also guaranteed the continued expansion of industry. This led directly to another increase in immigration after the war had ended.

The abolition of slavery created the largest minority group in the nation's history. In a period of only a few years, millions of ex- slaves entered a world where in principle, they were free to compete with all other groups for jobs and other resources. They were greatly handicapped, however, by inadequate education, an agrarian background and widely held prejudice among the other ethnic groups in the United States.

Even before the war had ended there were riots in many cities, often led by the poor Irish, whose low economic position made them feel most threatened by competition from the waves of black job seekers.

In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was moved to reaffirm the underlying ideals of the American Republic in his famous Gettysburg Address. He spoke of the United States as a nation "... conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."


The demand for workers created by the industrial growth after the Civil War could not be met by native labor alone. Between 1880 and 1930, more than 25 million people came to the United States. In addition, many freed slaves moved to Northern cities, as did many white rural dwellers.

At the end of the 19th century, immigrants began to come from areas that had been little represented in earlier periods. Mexicans moved northward into the southwestern states. Millions of Italians, Slavs and Eastern Europeans, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Greeks, Armenians and other groups made the journey to North America.

New York was still the largest port of entry. By 1930, 75 percent of New Yorkers were foreigners or the children of foreigners. Most were Italians and East European Jews.

Italians were the largest group of new citizens. Like the Irish of 50 years before, they were mostly poor peasants. They found work in the United States in construction and heavy industry and on the railroads.

The second largest group were two million Jews from several countries of Eastern Europe. Most settled in and around New York City. The experience of finding themselves a minority group was not new to the Jews, whose history in Europe had been that of suffering from prejudice and discrimination.

Most arrived in poverty. Jewish men worked as skilled or semiskilled laborers. They found jobs in light industries such as clothing, cigar and toy manufacturing. After two or three generations, many Jewish families had found a solid foothold in the middle class.

The third major group which arrived in the early decades of the century were the Slavs. These included Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians and people from what today is Yugoslavia.

After 1910 and continuing until the 1970s, black Southerners took part in a large internal migration to the North. Their reasons for moving were similar to those of so many others: to improve their condition in new surroundings and to escape from unpleasant situations. In this case, the persistence of southern racism and the mechanization of southern agriculture made the uncertainties of the North seem mild by comparison.

The adjustment of the various minority groups varied widely. All groups faced prejudice, not only from more established groups, but also from one another. But until the economic depression of the 1930s, unskilled jobs existed everywhere in the country.

Low wages for long hours in unpleasant, sometimes dangerous, surroundings was the common situation of the immigrants. Reform movements in all the major cities in the early decades of the century led to some improvements in working conditions. There were also improvements in housing, public health and sanitation.

Social workers established community houses to provide recreational and educational services. These supplemented the activities of the social and self-help organizations, including churches, that were established by each ethnic group.

Most of the new groups wishe^l to retain their traditional ways of life as much as possible while coming to terms with the realities of American life. Many of the associations that they formed to aid themselves remain active today, long after the children and grandchildren of their founders have become comfortably situated and regard themselves as "typical" Americans.

The greatest outside influence on the children of the immigrants after the turn of the century was the newly expanded system of public education. The public schools saw their role as one of "Americanizing" those children by providing a door into the larger society. They were very successful in achieving this goal.

Next to the church and school, the ethnic newspaper was the most important educational influence in the communities of newcomers. The papers helped their readers to engage successfully in individual and group struggles in the economic and political arenas.

The urban Irish proved to be the ethnic group most skilled at political action. They created complicated political organizations within the Democratic party and dominated the politics of larger cities for decades. Their political "machines" functioned like huge welfare agencies. They distributed jobs, food, advice and favors of all sorts. It was only when public agencies took over many of these functions and when new ethnic groups moved to the cities that the Irish declined as a political force.

After a generation or two, most ethnic minority groups had considerably improved their economic situations. Their success

depended upon their acceptance of dominant American cultural traditions. This meant that there occurred a progressive loosening of strict ethnic ties among most groups. The twin themes of social acceptance and ethnic loss have been reflected in popular literature for more than a century.


The Second World War (1939-1945) and the 20 years which followed were times of rapid economic expansion in the United States. Tens of millions of American workers were able to move into the middle class. Young Italians, Irish, Jews and others found it easier than ever to get the education and skills that would let them improve their situations. The "minority" classification of these groups became steadily less important. Large numbers of Hungarians who came to the United States in the mid- 1950s also moved quickly into the mainstream of American society.

Yet other disadvantaged minorities remain. Black Americans are only now beginning to overcome the effects of 250 years of slavery. The continued movement of blacks to the larger cities since 1945 has coincided with the loss, because of increased technology, of the unskilled jobs that served other groups as the first step up the economic ladder. Since the 1950s, Black Americans have been moving into the mainstream of American life. Though a fairly large black middle class has emerged, many blacks continue to exist on the economic margins.

Millions of poor Mexicans and other Hispanics have entered the country in recent years, along with more than one million Spanish-speaking American citizens from Puerto Rico. Hispanics are now the fastest growing minority group in the United States. Many have found it difficult to move out of marginal positions, though one notable exception to this statement are immigrants from Cuba who have, in a relatively short time, established themselves in business and professions and gained both affluence and political power.

The situation of the Native American, many of whom must choose between living on reservations or moving outside remains difficult, as well.

New waves of immigrants have recently begun to arrive from Korea, the Philippines, Haiti and Southeast Asia. These groups, following the pattern set by earlier waves of immigrants from China and Japan, are establishing themselves in small businesses, working tirelessly, and investing all of their efforts and money to ensure that their children receive the education and learn the skills necessary to build a prosperous and satisfying life. They are only the latest to seek a new life on these shores. They will almost certainly not be the last.


Since the 1940s, the federal government has taken a very active role in providing ways for the poor and disadvantaged to move into the social and economic center of American life.

Special efforts have been made on behalf of blacks, whose heritage of disadvantage has


made them unique. President Truman's integration of the armed services in the late 1940s was an important step. Another was the ruling of the United States Supreme Court in the 1954 school desegregation case. The Court ruled that "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. People cannot be deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Constitution."

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a "war on poverty." He was prompted by a wide protest movement whose aim was to secure full civil rights for blacks and other deprived Americans. Johnson declared:

"... our goal—an America in which every citizen shares all the opportunities of his society, in which every man has a chance to advance his welfare to the limit of his capacities. We have come a long way toward this goal. We still have a long way to go."

In the last 20 years, certain people who feel themselves systematically disadvantaged have argued that their situation is similar to that of ethnic minorities. Women have successfully lobbied for the full range of jobs and pay that are available to men. Women have won the right to be covered under the antidiscrimination statutes of the civil rights laws. They can sue for redress if they believe they have been denied rights generally open to men.

Other groups have made similar claims. Older people are fighting against mandatory retirement rules; other groups have organized to fight the systematic discrimination that they face.


Future success in raising the economic level of blacks and other minorities depends largely on the growth of the economy. When economic life falters, group conflict and prejudice increase. This is because people see themselves as competing for the same scarce resources, such as jobs.

The American economy is undergoing an historic transformation. Traditional industrial jobs are being lost to other countries. The recent enormous growth of jobs has been concentrated in service sectors. Many of these jobs require skills beyond the level of many ethnic minority members.

Many people are also trapped by poverty in the central areas of large cities, where few new jobs are being created. The social demoralization of some ethnic minorities is also a barrier that keeps them from taking advantage of actual opportunities that are available to them.

The belief in an essential equality among all people has been part of the cultural heritage of Americans since the founding of the United States. Many efforts have been made in recent decades to reform social and economic life to conform to the ideal. Today, despite vigorous debate over specific programs and policies, all levels of government regard aid to the disadvantaged and the enforcement of antidiscrimination laws as very important areas of their activities.

The social drama of the struggle for equality and acceptance will continue, as it has for over 300 years. As always, the leading roles in this drama will be played by ethnic groups, old and new


Suggestions for Further Reading

Foster, David William.

Sourcebook of Hispanic Culture in the United States.

Chicago: American Library Association, 1982.

Glazer, Nathan.

Ethnic Dilemmas, 1964-1982.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Sowe 11, Thomas. Ethnic America: A History. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Thernstorm, Stephan et al., eds.

Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic


Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Waltzer, Michael et al.

The Politics of Ethnicity.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.


Date: 2015-02-28; view: 2207

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