THE ETHNIC MYTH: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America by Stephen Steinberg

THE ETHNIC MYTH: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Gunnar Myrdal had it right back in 1974 when he called the much-touted ""revival of ethnicity"" mere ""intellectual romanticism."" Professor Steinberg (Urban Studies, Queens College) agrees with Myrdal, and points to both the historic record of ethnic conflict and to cultural myths and misconceptions to show why the supposed revival represents not the first breadth of a new ethnic pluralism but the last gasp of a dying one. Much of what he points to we already know. Do we, for example, really need yet another attack on Oscar Lewis' Culture of Poverty? Yet the whole stands stronger than its parts. Besides reminding us that our brand of ethnic pluralism ""has its origins in conquest, slavery, and exploitation of foreign labor,"" Steinberg (The Academic Melting Pot) also attacks more specific elements of our mythology. He explodes the myth of ethnic success--""The Jewish Horatio Alger Story""--by demonstrating that such success was due not to Jewish cultural traits but rather to the fact that they, more than other immigrants, arrived with ""industrial experience and concrete occupational skills."" The reason Irish women became domestics and Italian women did not, he tells us, is because the long hours and confining circumstances surrounding domestic service made it more sufferable by single women than by married women--and Italian women usually arrived with or after their families, while single women were a surplus in Ireland and were often recruited specifically to become domestics here. Later on, daughters of Irish women would avoid ""the service"" as much as would Italian and Jewish women, preferring jobs in the needle trades and manufacturing, which suggests to Steinberg that ""If some groups were spared the indignities of domestic labor, it is not that they had better cultural defenses. . . but because their circumstances did not compel them to place economic survival ahead of their pride."" Though Steinberg does not totally dismiss the impact of culture, ethnicity itself is not to be considered ""mythical."" The question then arises: can ethnic identification ""be more than a palliative for spiritual yearnings that are not fulfilled elsewhere,""? Steinberg thinks not, concluding that ""The ultimate ethnic myth, perhaps, is the belief that the cultural symbols of the past can provide more than a comfortable illusion to shield us from present-day discontents."" A reworking of earlier material, but a solid and well-argued one.

Pub Date: April 27th, 1981
Publisher: Atheneum