Friday, April 23, 2010

An Ethnic Reunion

There was an interesting article in the Philadelphia Inquirer today. One of the old Italian neighorhoods of North Philly is having a reunion. Up to six hundred old denizens, mostly Italian members of the now-defunct parish of Our Lady of Pompei who fled to the suburbs in the 1970s, are expected to come back to their old stomping groups. Most of them now live in Northeast Philly, or even further out in the suburbs, and were apparently itching for the chance to reconnect and reminisce.

One of the things I talk about in my research is the process by which various immigrant communities in the United States have slowly been assimilated into the category of "white," with all the political and cultural power that entails. This is obviously a process that has been going for a very long time; books like David Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness and Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White trace that history especially amongst working-class Irish immigrants in the early 19th century. The latter book has always been particularly fascinating for me, both because it examines my adopted home of Philadelphia, and also because it was the rare work of critical race studies that actually crossed over into a mainstream market. It was widely discussed when it came out, and I seem to recall that supposedly Bill Clinton read it avidly.

The 1950s, which is of course my own area of interest, saw another surge in assimilation. There were many factors involved in this, but the one particularly highlighted by this reunion was the geographic mobility created by World War II. Cultural coherence requires spatial coherence; it's a lot easier to maintain traditions if you live in one neighborhood, where your church, community center, social club, local newspaper and radio station, and all sorts of other institutions can cater to your language and traditions. As soon as the massive migration to the suburbs began, those institutions became to difficult to maintain--just by way of example, the percentage of radio stations broadcasting in a language other than English declined by 40% between 1942 and 1948.

And all of this happened in dialogue with academia and politics. The period after World War II was when the mainstream social science consensus began to use the term "ethnicity" rather than "race," that is, privileging culture over biology. This was a move made with liberal intentions, although certain categories of human beings--especially African Americans and Asian immigrants--were still subsumed under the idea of "race" rather than "ethnicity." This tension over who counts as biologically different as to who counts as merely culturally different was especially reflected in McCarran-Walter Immigration Act of 1952, which substantially liberalized immigration for those coming from Europe, while maintaining strict quotas for those from other parts of the world. This was accomplished by pinning immigration to the 1920 census: each European country was given an annual quota equal to one-sixth of one percent of the citizenry in 1920 descended from that country. Effectively dismissing immigration from the previous three decades, the Act had the effect of encouraging more immigration from Ireland and Germany, and less from Eastern Europe. The rest of the world, however, was treated not along ethnic lines, but the racial: immigrants from Asian countries were counted together as one block, rather than individual countries. And if you were, say, a Brit of Asian descent, you were counted as Asian rather than British, and had to fight for one of the 2,000 slots allowed from Asia.

As the country yet again begins to discuss immigration reform, it's always good to remember these past engagements. Purely racial arguments are rarely made in mainstream political discourse anymore; we more often hear arguments having to do with culture. Language, obviously, but as one defendant of the proposed Arizona anti-immigration law puts it, also fashion, even shoes. When someone starts spouting nonsense like this, it's a good guess that there is a racial logic underneath!
Rep. Bilbray: They will look at the kind of dress you wear, there’s different type of attire, there’s different type of—right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes. But mostly by behavior it’s mostly behavior, just as the law enforcement people here in Washington, DC does it based on certain criminal activity there is behavior things that professionals are trained in across the board and this group shouldn’t be exempt from those observations as much as anybody else.



Daniel Wolf said...

Great post. There is an interesting intersection here with the "death of classical music" meme that runs through the music blogs with some regularity: "classical music" in the US was, for the first two-thirds of the 20th century, defined by the orchestras (and, in New York and San Francisco, an opera house) of a handful of big Northern industrialized cities, with LA and
SF as satellites, and the audiences for these were dominated by first generation European immigrants and their children who were listening to a repertoire with which they were deeply familiar. The subsequent change in the make-up of orchestral audiences is very closely tracked by the aging of these groups and it is interesting to note that those orchestras which appear to be most successful in developing new audiences are those which have adjusted their repertoire so as to no longer cater to the sentimental tastes of those traditional audiences.

Ralph Locke said...

Daniel Wolf's comment is intriguing, and I have no doubt he's right about the importance of adapting the orchestral repertoire nowadays to changing tastes--which _may_ include different preferences of different ethnic groups (as DW implies).
I just want to point out that ethnicity probably did not work in quite the way that DW indicates. The Jewish and Italian orchestral musicians and audience members that I knew growing up in Boston in the 1950s-60s and who had been born here did not come, mostly, from families where European classical music was "deeply familiar." They learned that music here, in the cities of America--just the same way that they got educated here generally (in good high schools and in colleges) far beyond the level of education to which their immigrant parents and grandparents had been exposed.
And now this same European musical heritage has become the cherished possession of millions of East Asian musicians and audience members.
So we should be careful not to give the (inadvertent?) impression that the long-standard repertoire of the symphony orchestras is inherently difficult for or unappealing to people of non-European background. As I wrote in my recent book Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections, "the devotion of generations of listeners of quite diverse geographic, ethnic, and class backgrounds" should remind us that "you do not have to be Russian to love Tchaikovsky." (Perhaps I should explain to younger folks that there used to be an ad slogan: "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Rye Bread.")