ETHNIC AMERICA by Thomas Sowell


A History
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For Professor Sowell (Sociology, UCLA) ethnic America presents "a story of many very different heritages. . . the story of the human spirit in its many guises." Yet underneath the story lies the moral--never clearly stated--that America is truly the land of opportunity. In his all-too-rapid summarizing of ethnic histories ("Jewish Americans Today" receives less than two pages), Sowell searches out evidence (almost all from secondary sources) to present ethnicity in favorable light. Thus, the Irish may have developed their urban political machines, but "they were by no means the originators of corrupt politics. They were simply more successful at it, and performed with a warmer human touch." The Germans "quickly established a reputation for hard work, thoroughness, and thriftiness" and became renowned as "the nation's best dirt farmers." While Jews originally had to live in overcrowded tenements like other immigrant arrivals, their cleanliness protected them from some slum diseases; and, while they saw education as a route to success, their co-arrivals, the Italians, devalued education but got ahead through their willingness to work harder. The real success story, though, is presented by the Japanese, "emerging from war-time internment to earn median incomes 32 percent above the national average." With the blacks, Chicanos, and Puerto Ricans, Sowell faces a more difficult task in demonstrating progress, but rises to it. "Their rates of progress" he reminds us, "look very different if measured from 1619, 1865, 1900, or 1954." Assuming the long perspective, he sees the black race as a whole as having "moved from a position of utter destitution--in money, knowledge, and rights--to a place alongside other groups emerging in the great struggles of life." For Puerto Ricans and Chicanos as well, it all depends on your perspective. Most mainland Puerto Rican adults are still first generation, and "Few groups in American history could claim more progress in as short a span. . . ." Chicanos similarly have rapidly moved "from the rural Mexican cultures of the 1920s to modern urban America. . . a very long journey in human terms." Sowell seldom mentions the melting pot, but that's essentially what we have here: the old melting pot, by now a rather dull dish. If it's the human drama of ethnicity you want, try Morrison and Zabusky's American Mosaic (1980). If it's provocative analysis 180 degrees opposed to Sowell's self-congratulatory and depoliticized treatment, try Stephen Steinberg's The Ethnic Myth (p. 276). The account here borders on being yet another apologia for benign neglect.
Pub Date: July 10th, 1981
ISBN: 0465020755
Page count: 370pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1981


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