E Pluribus Unum

Ethnic America By Thomas Sowell '58 Basic Books 296pp $16.95

'WE DO NOT LIVE in the past, but the past in us," said the historian whom Thomas Sowell quotes in the concluding chapter of Ethnic America. Yet, as Sowell points out, the United States is heir to many different pasts. Reaching as far back as the walled-in ghettoes of Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages and as far away as the countryside of feudal Japan, the history of ethnic America unfolds not only on the American landscape, but on all the continents of the world. Scotch-Irish pioneers settled the mountainous regions of Appalachia, while freed Black slaves migrated to the cities of the Northeast. Turn-of-the-century immigrants turned New York into the largest Jewish metropolis that culture has ever known; Japanese farmers transformed the valleys of California into the most prolific fruit-producing areas of the world.

The saga of the melting pot might rest as the most endearing of America's legends to its people, but only the most skilled raconteur of folklore could possibly weave the country's many pasts into a common present. The vestiges of a divided history appear all around us: ethnic differences often distinguish rioting, mob violence, and political lobbying as they do styles of eating and dressing. Yet, the vast divergence in living standards afflicting the country remains as the most constant reminder of our schizophrenic heritage. A visit to Roxbury or South Boston will show which ethnic group did not come over on the Mayflower. Whites have long outearned non-whites, and Jewish familes in particular earn nearly three times as much as their Mexican and Black counterparts. Alarming economic inequalities hardly comprise all the differences among ethnic groups; the virtues and vices of their progenitors have lasted generations to be handed down to present-day Americans.

Ethnic America is Sowell's chronicle of the peopling of America, a tale that has found as many different ways of telling as there are historians to tell it. High school text-books indoctrinate young students of our culture with the vision of the land of opportunity and the open frontier. Only recently have these hymns to the courage and resilience of hard-working people been toned down to accommodate the revisionist critique of American social history. In this perception, immigrant workers became prey for the big, bad industrialists who stilted the country's public education system and other institutions to channel a docile, well-mannered labor force toward a myriad of unskilled occupations. I.Q. testing and vocational training; the eugenics movement and the Jim Crow laws--all belong to an ideology of oppression that envisions America's oppotunity as an unfulfilled promise, a myth for the masses in despair.

Sowell's reading of American history pretends to sidestep these crevices of conflicting interpretations. He claims to present the conditions that brought different immigrant populations to the New World and their adaptation to its opportunities and frustrations objectively. To a large extent, he succeeds, for what he sacrifices in passion and fury, he compensates with the conviction of his honesty. What his narrative loses in style and wit--Sowell's is a turgid, textbook monotone--he gains in clarity and precision. "The history of American ethnic groups," says Sowell, "is the history of a complex aggregate of complex groups and individuals. It cannot be a simple morality play." He seeks to explain events from their causes, not to fit them into an ideological pattern. He desires to recount history as it happened, not as it should have happened.

And still a common thread runs through Sowell's narrative. His ideas find great popularity among the intellectual elite that currently makes economic and other policy decisions for our nation. President Reagen offered Sowell a cabinet post for more than the reason of his being Black, but for his conservative, Chicago school, credentials as well. As high standards of honesty and objectivity Sowell claims for himself, his message is tuned appreciably to readers of Public Interest. They all understand one thing: welfare assistance to the poor, affirmative action, federal educational assistance, and, most significantly, forced school desegregation, don't belong in Thomas Sowell's America.


HIS SECRET is to find a pattern in the absence of any that are visible. Sowell relates concisely how different immigrant groups brought different cultural traits with them that either impeded or buttressed their drive into the corridors of power and the coffers of wealth. His argument runs somewhat like this: a people living in their native land, in a certain part of the world, developed specific, well-defined habits and attitudes that assisted their endurance in that environment for hundreds of years. Some reason, often mere opportunity, leads many of them to emigrate to America, where those cultural traits remain to determine how these people play the rules of the game.

The Irish, his scheme goes, developed a staunch belief in the futility of concerted and sustained effort to do much good. Oppressed by an alien culture and political power, while mired in hopeless poverty, the Celtic natives developed habits and a frame of mind that characterized them in the New World as lazy and improvident. Signs reading, "No Irish need apply," that freely hung around Boston, reflected more than prejudice, but the honest judgement of employers who could only use national origin to screen for stable workers.

The traditional Celtic hostility to education and literacy is paralleled among the peasants of southern Italy, Sowell says. Oppression by feudal martinets engendered attitudes that resisted any conception of upward mobility. Education, as promulgated by either state or church, was an invasion of the sanctity of the family, the only institution southern Italians found they could depend upon in times of adversity. Sowell argues that the steamships bringing Italians to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century transported this faithlessness with them. It was the "bad" son or daughter who was selfish enough to desire college education instead of going to work immediately to support his family.

This aversity to schooling stands opposed to the experience of Jewish immigrants. Though most started as laborers, and many were in fact illiterate, their sons and daughters devoured the reading material of public libraries, while showing themselves conscientious pupils in the less-than-stellar public schools of their day. But Sowell dwells on much more than their cultural propensity for education; he sings the hymns that have distinguished the Jewish people for millenia: their resourcefulness, their adaptability, their reverence for knowledge, and their resilience in the face of oppression. His judgements are hardly fatuous, but the product of careful research and reflection. Sowell does a credible job purveying what usually passes for the stereotypes of certain ethnic groups as specific interpretations of their cultural inheritance. The Irish passion for alcohol may have arisen from the futility of life in a land where whiskey proved cheaper than bread, as Jewish resourcefulness and guile may have from centuries of oppression across the diaspora. Yet, drawing these traits in light of their cultural origins is hardly original to Sowell's treatise. His digging can only add little insight to legends that have been around for centuries.

NOBODY CAN REFUTE Sowell's ethnic history; the facts staring down our eyeballs make the stereotypes a lot easier to believe. His ideas are similarly impossible to prove. There lies Sowell's problem. Imploring readers to set aside prejudice, to look honestly at causes and effects, makes little sense when those "causes" must travel thousands of miles with the immigrants that populated America. The Italian suspicion of education and the feudal Japanese work ethic may have survived both their ocean voyages and their integration into the larger American society.

Sowell has much more up his sleeve than cataloguing the folklore of American history. Flashes of ideology filter through his vision of society, as blandly as he paints it. His is the ideology of the free market, one where different ethnic groups advance into the higher realms of society and economy only by playing by the rules. No one will deny hard work and perseverance as signposts to the path of success, but the world of Sowell and other "human capital" economists requires much more. The vital ingredient to playing the game in ethnic America has been investing in skills, and the most crucial viaduct, education. German Americans brought skills in both crafts and entrepreneurship from the old country and secured a place for their descendents. Jews and Japanese invested heavily in education and reached the pinnacles of the nation's affluence, leaving the Irish and Italians far behind. Sowell attributed the abysmal failure of most of the nation's Blacks to raise themselves out of poverty to their cultural traits. The legacy of slavery, he says, has been one of paternalism, lack of responsibility, per severance, and ambition.

THE AUTHOR FAILS to realize that his rigid portrait of ethnic America is as much a morality play as the others he wishes to refute. He implies throughout that the pasts of the different ethnic groups determine the groups' definitions of their roles and ambitions. Sowell can not explain why these traits and behavior patterns remain unadulterated by the vastly different society immigrant groups found themselves in. There is much in Ethnic America, but Sowell is too satisfied by his conclusion: that the men who have made America have been masters of their own fate, and of little else. He hesitates to question the persistence of Italians' strong attachment to their families, or Blacks' inability to break paternalism, and whether these traits are preserved beyond their control. Sowell's failure to address these issues betrays his willingness to accept differences that persist today. Few can doubt these to be the result of America's ethnic history, of many different pasts, but few can be as sanguine to think that there can be more than one American future. In the narrowness of his vision, Sowell creates yet another "morality play" from the divergent American pasts.