"Why can't they be like the rest of us?" That is the often pained question when the dominant group in society finds itself unavoidably and for the first time living, working, playing, or in school alongside other groups that are racially, ethnically, or culturally different.
Yet at the same time, more and more Americans are going out of their way to be "unlike the rest of us," in proclaiming their ethnic difference. A random sampling at Woolworth's in downtown Boston shows that people can buy plates for their cars with the following inscriptions: "Black is beautiful"; "Afro"; "Puerto Rico"; "Irish power"; "I'm Italian"; "It's great to be Greek"; "It's exciting to be Polish"; and "Portuguese power-r-r-r-r." There is incidentally social significance that these plates are to be found at Woolworth's but not at, say, Bloomingdale's
Paradoxically, many of the same people buying the plates are among those asking that tell-tale "Why can't they be like the rest of us?" Two recent and simultaneous developments are partly responsible for its being asked so insistently: first, the upward mobility of blacks, admittedly limited yet still unprecedented; and second, the speed with which Asians and Hispanics (above all, Mexicans) are becoming an important and upward thrusting component in American society. It is a question with a special edge of fear when the "they" are physically different -- as blacks, Asians, and most Hispanics are.
Since the 1960s that fear helps explain:
1. Outbreaks of racial violence in urban areas across the length and breadth of the US, less frequently involving whole city blocks than a decade and a half ago but now apparently shifting into a more selective pattern of sniping or assassination, primarily against blacks. To this has been added recently a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
2. White flight to the suburbs -- usually away from blacks and Hispanics in the inner cities.
3. White resistance to forced busing as a means to secure racial balance in schools, epitomized by the persistent bitterness attending the issue in Boston's predominantly Irish South Boston district. (There are, of course, whites to insist that race has nothing to do with their opposition to busing.)
4. Inter-ethnic friction outside the usual pattern of white-back confrontation and symbolized by the slogan "Kill Hispanics" which appeared this summer on a wall in Boston's predominantly black Roxbury district. (In fairness to Boston's blacks, it must be said that on walls in their city can be found far more frequently graffiti directed just as offensively or threateningly against "niggers.")
5. Most recently, a swing of white "ethnic" voters -- for example, Irish-, Italian-, Greek-, Polish-, and even Jewish-Americans -- away from the Democratic camp, their traditional political home alongside blacks, to help give Republican Ronald Reagan his landslide victory in the presidential election.
Over the past decade the heightening of ethnic consciousness has been most marked among just these white ethnic groups -- particularly at the social level which might be tempted to buy those plates at Woolworth's. The importance of these groups as a factor in national politics was recognized, perhaps belatedly, by President Carter when he brought into the White House at the beginning of this year a "special assistant for ethnic affairs." He is the youthful Stephen Aiello, an Italian-American and former president of the New York City Board of Education.
Dr. Aiello says that for the purpose of his office "ethnic-Americans have been defined as persons of Eastern European, Southern European, Middle Eastern, and Asian backgrounds."
(The people of Middle Eastern background in this case are not Jews but Arab-Americans. Jewish-Americans have been taken care of by a special adviser designated for that exclusive purpose on the Carter staff. In the Carter White House there have been special assistants for black and for Hispanic affairs, while a member of special assistant Anne Wexler's staff has handled native American [i.e. Indian] affairs. The groups who thus have had access to the Carter White House on the basis of their ethnicity will certainly be watching to see how President-elect Reagan will deal with them.)
Dr. Aiello says ethnic consciousness is a two-edged sword. If handled wrongly, he explains, it can lead to ethnocentricity and set group against group -- as suggested by both the "Kill Hispanics" and antiblack slogans in Boston. If handled rightly, it can provide "a multi-ethnic cultural experience."
Across town from the White House in Washington, D.C., has sat throughout the Carter administration as an assistant secretary of housing and urban development another Italian-American, Msgr. Geno Baroni. Like Dr. Aiello, he is a specialist on ethnic and inter-ethnic problems. From 1967 to 1970, Monsignor Baroni was director of the urban poverty task force of the US Catholic Conference.But he still looks and talks like the street-wise neighborhood priest he was before appointment to the Carter administration.
Lively observations bubble out when Monsignor Baroni, the son of immigrant parents talks. "The word 'ethnic,'" he says, "drives many people nuts . . . . In this country, it was never kosher to be ethnic. It's such a hot issue that we ignore it . . . . We still have no language for it . . . .
"Politicians at election time eat pizza and matzoth, but they still can't put it al together. The only political language they seem capable of using on ethnic questions is chauvinistic. They tell each ethnic group: 'You're the best.'"
John Kromkowski, president of the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs in Washington, D.C., echoes this. He says: "Ethnicity in America is more than food , fun, and famous people."
Monsignor Baroni has a persuasive explanation for the white ethnic explosion of the past decade. In the 1960s, he says, the intellectuals and social engineers, the academics and the mandarins of the federal bueaucracy looked at American society and saw that it had come a long way toward ensuring the honoring of the promises of the Constitution for virtually all the republic's main ethnic components -- except the blacks. So the intellectuals and the mandarins decreed and sought to implement a pattern of social-engineering to redress the political, social and economic wrongs suffered so long by blacks.
The great flaw, Monsignor Baroni says, is that the academics and social engineers avoided for themselves and their families the burdens resulting from the imposition of their social-engineering programs. Those burden he says, landed squarely on the people living closest of all to both blacks and Hispanics -- and who were not a lot better off than they.
Who were these people not much better off? Most frequently, Monsignor Baroni asserts, they were first and second generation Eastern and Southern Europeans. That, he says, is why the white ethnics have insisted now on being heard -- and why conservative Republicans have been able to appeal to so many of them successfully to desert the liberal Democratic camp. For years, white ethnics had been in alliance in that camp with both the blacks and the social engineers. But these two latter groups are the ones that the ethnics have now come to resent and fear the most. tinued from page 12)
Resented with almost equal intensity (this writer would add after talking to white ethnics both on and away from the East Coast) is the media. Singled out for particular censure is the press in that Eastern part of the US that Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona once wanted to saw off and push out to sea.
Ed Marciniak, the sensitive yet hard-nosed Polish- American president of the Institute of Urban Life and professor or urban studies at Loyola University in Chicago, criticizes the mass media as a third force in US politics never disciplined by the responsibilities and accountability of elective office.
Professor Marciniak says the media, print and electronic, bewail the harmful recent intrusion of single-issue causes into American political life.But, he says, single- issue politics have always been a part of American life, reaching a zenith in the 1960s with the civil rights movement. And who, he asks, played a bigger role then in making civil rights a single issue than the very same media that today object to other people pushing single issues?
The media come in for criticism not only from white ethnics, but from blacks and Hispanics as well. This across-the-board criticism focuses on: a perceived combination of an inability by the media completely to abandon stereotypes; a failure to understand or come to grips with the subtleties of ethnicity; and a general superficiality -- a superficiality dictated to electronic journalism partly by the narrowness of the time-slot within which complicated issues have to be dealt with in the nightly television network news, on which most Americans rely for their information.
Television also comes in for criticism on a special count. It performs poorly, according to its critics, in a role that it has never consciously sought but rather has had thrust upon it: its role as sole remaining coast-to- coast vehicle for conveying a national culture, given the increasingly troubled state of the public-school system that once did the job.
Harold Fleming, president of the Potomac Institute in Washington, D.C., an organization concerned with opportunities for racially and economically deprived minorities, says: "Television is now the one common exposure Americans have."
This has been brought home to the writer on air travel in various parts of the US since the showing of "Shogun" as a five-part nightly blockbuster on NBC television back in September. Among fellow-passengers on flights in succeeding weeks, there were nearly always one or more clutching a paperback copy of the James Clavell novel on which the television drama was based.
It was network television, of course, that gave what is now called "the roots syndrome" its first national and trans-ethnic impetus in 1977 with the dramatization of Alex Haley's novel "Roots."
Dr. Kromkowski argues that a sense of roots is essential for stability, quoting the French writer Simone Weil's aphorism that it is the uprooted who uproot others. Yet while thus implicity accepting the beneficent effect of the televised dramatization of "Roots," he is critical of the overall impact of television.
"Is mainstream America meretricious?" he asks. "Does it exist other than in images on television? . . . Blacks, to mention only one ethnic group, inevitably ask just where are those places seen on television, particularly in commercials, where blacks and whites so amicably socialize together."
William McCready, who heads the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, says television is in a "Catch-22" situation. It has become the main information source for the general public, and its critics expect it to function as such responsibly. But television is constrained by time limits to be shallow. As a result, he says, the general run of television till now has proven unable to discuss sensitively or in depth ethnicity or the pluralism which is part and parcel of American culture.
Next: Competition to make it into the mainstream