Michael Valenti on enduring stereotypes : When acculturation isn't assimilation

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martin dufresne
Michael Valenti on enduring stereotypes : When acculturation isn't assimilation

Italian American Identity: To Be or Not To Be
Michael Parenti, August, 28 2009, ZSpace

In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was the accepted view among many social scientists that, as ethnic assimilation advanced, ethnic group identities would fade away. But in fact, ethnicity continued to impact significantly upon political life. Why was that?

Acculturation and Assimilation

In 1967, I published an article in the American Political Science Review arguing that assimilation would not wipe out ethnic politics and ethnic identities in the foreseeable future because assimilation was not happening.

I suggested that we needed to distinguish between culture and social systems. A culture is a system of beliefs, values, images, lifestyles, and customary practices including language, law, arts, and the like. A social system consists of the structured relations and associations among individuals and groups both formal and informal: family, church, school, workplace, and other networks of roles and status. The culture is mediated through the social system or social structure, as it is sometimes called.

To become well practiced to a prevailing culture is to acculturate. To become absorbed into the dominant social structure is to assimilate. Since the beginning of the American nation the Anglo Protestant nativist population has wanted minority ethnic groups to acculturate but not necessarily assimilate. The "late-migration" Southern and Eastern Europeans were expected to discard their alien customs and appearances offensive to American sensibilities. A new verb was invented: they had to "Americanize."

To make matters worse, these immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries settled mostly in the large urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest (where the jobs were), places that small town Protestant America already loathed as squalid and decadent hellholes.

The public schools became special agencies of acculturation to be imposed on the immigrant children. As a child in a classroom full of Italian-American grade-schoolers in New York City, I was treated to patriotic tales about George Washington, Nathan Hale, Paul Revere, and other of our "heroic founders." We recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful." And I recall at least one of my teachers telling us in an annoyed tone: "Tell your parents to speak English at home."

By the second-generation (children of the immigrants), the ethnics already had undergone a substantial degree of acculturation in language, dress, recreation, entertainment tastes, and other lifestyle practices and customs, while interest in old world culture became minimal if not nonexistent.

However, such acculturation was most often not followed by social assimilation. The group became Americanized in much of its cultural practices, but this says little about its social relations with the host society. In the face of widespread acculturation, ethnic minorities still maintained social group relations composed mostly of fellow ethnics.

The pressure to acculturate was not accompanied by any invitation to assimilate into Anglo Protestant primary group relations within the dominant social structure. It seems the nativist bigots well understood the distinction between acculturation and assimilation, even if they never actually used such terms. In a word, "You must Americanize but not in my social circle."

Dual Identities and Group "Traumas"

Many of the crucial images that a marginalized ethnic group has of itself do not come from itself but from the dominant culture and dominant social order. For us Italians, the immigrant generation was reduced to a Luigi caricature, a simple soul who spoke in a pasta-ladened accent. Then came the perennial Mafia mobster, recently given new life with The Sopranos. Also still going strong are the television commercials portraying large boisterous Italian families gathered around the dinner table to shovel immense amounts of food into their mouths and at each other in what resembles an athletic contest.

Another enduring stereotype is of the Italian American as a working-class boor, a dimwit proletarian, visceral, violent, and thoroughly unschooled. There is nothing wrong with being working-class but there is plenty wrong with a vulgar class caricature that defames all working people (whatever their ethnic antecedents). Left out of such scripts are the realities and struggles of workers, a subject seldom treated in the mainstream news or entertainment media. (...)