- Beyond White Ethnicity
At the 1982 meeting of the Organization of American Historians, John Higham, a founder of the new ethnic history, presented a paper titled "Beyond Pluralism." As Rudolph J. Vecoli reported, Higham "cheerfully proclaimed that 'the ethnic revival is over, and an era in ethnic studies has come to an end.'" Vecoli—the most prominent Italian American historian of his generation—was less sanguine than his colleague. He countered that Higham had greatly exaggerated the death of ethnic populism and the scholarship it produced. But Vecoli nonetheless detected what he called the "return of the melting pot" in Reagan's America even while multiculturalism—what, a decade earlier, was called cultural pluralism—was ascending within academia.1
Four years after Higham made his "Beyond Pluralism" proclamation, Werner Sollors published his landmark study, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. The significance of Sollors's book—which deconstructed racial essentialism ("descent") while trumpeting the complexities of ethnic self-invention ("consent")—was widely felt among those who study the relation between ethnicity and the so-called American national character. Over the years, Beyond Ethnicity has been embraced foremost by academics examining cultural production by and about ethnic whites. It is thus not surprising to see Sollors's influence on the latest titles from a pair of leading white ethnic studies scholars, Matthew Frye Jacobson and Thomas J. Ferraro. According to Jacobson, at the outset of researching Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post–Civil Rights America, Sollors—in an act of exceptional generosity—bequeathed to him a treasure trove of archival materials on the white ethnic revival along with his blessing: "It's your project now" (465). According to Ferraro, [End Page 1239] author of Feeling Italian: The Art of Ethnicity in America, Sollors was the first to suggest to him that he "write a book on 'Italian Americans in the Age of Cultural Studies'" (xiii). In Feeling Italian, Ferraro honors Sollors as "my once and future padrino" (xiv). The imprint of Ferraro's academic godfather runs deep in Feeling Italian, as when the author deploys the categories of consent and descent in a statement such as "feeling Italian is not by birthright so much as it is by choice" (7).
Roots Too and Feeling Italian share a similar concern: how—and why—does white ethnicity matter to America's national identity and its citizens' sense of belonging? In asking these questions, the authors engage the category of white ethnicity only to exceed its conventional meaning. This act of delimitation is differently scripted in the two books. While Ferraro's study purges any lingering essentialism from the concept of white ethnicity as it was conceived during the 1970s, Jacobson's expands the category to include ethnic whites—Irish and, in particular, Jews—usually excluded from standard conceptions of "white ethnic" identity commonplace in the 1970s. Roots Too picks up where Jacobson's earlier work, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (1998), left off. In that book, Jacobson concluded that 1970s-inspired white ethnicity mattered mostly as a "denial of white privilege."2 Jacobson's argument was based largely on his reading of Michael Novak's The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in the Seventies (1971), which gave the concept its most elaborate and influential exposition during the high era of the white ethnic revival. Roots Too maintains the author's earlier criticism of Novak's work. However, in transforming a six-page epilogue into a four-hundred-page tome, Jacobson offers an ambitious reappraisal of the variety of ways ethnic whiteness has been engaged over the last four decades.
Roots Too opens by arguing that the white ethnic revival altered the "syntax" of U.S. nationalism at the Bicentennial—transforming the location of America's myth of origins from Plymouth Rock to Ellis Island...