Ethnic America
by Thomas Sowell

Sowell provides his usual flow of facts and insights here in his usual well-written and interesting style. There are chapters on the Irish, the Germans, the Jews, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Blacks, the Puerto Ricans, and the Mexicans.
"There is no "majority." The largest single identifiable ethnic strain are the people of British ancestry - who make up just 15 percent of the American population. They barely outnumber German Americans (13 percent) or blacks (11 percent)." page 4

"In the era of wind-driven ships, an ocean voyage on a passenger vessel was beyond the financial means of most immigrants. They could reach America only in the hold of a cargo vessel returning from its deliveries in Europe. This meant that mass immigration was possible only from areas with large-scale trade with the United States - northern and western Europe, but not eastern or southern Europe." page 11

"In the most disastrous year of all, 1847, about 20 percent of the huge famine immigration died en route to America or upon landing. This was about 40,000 dead - mostly young people in the prime of life. By comparison, the loss of life among slaves transported from Africa in British vessels in the nineteenth century was about 9 percent." page 22

Irish

"In the pre-Civil War South, Irish laborers were often used in work considered too dangerous for slaves, who represented a sizable capital investment." page 27

"In the 1840s, "it was almost automatically assumed that an orphan was Irish," and as late as 1914, about half the Irish families on Manhattan's west side were fatherless. No such pattern appeared among the Italians." page 28

"The Irish "brought to America a settled tradition of regarding the formal government as illegitimate, and the informal one as bearing the true impress of popular sovereignty." Bribery, violence, and vote fraud were prominent features of the Irish political machines. However, they were not chaotic but highly organized and controlled. Irish political machines were built on loyalty to individuals and to the organization. Their guiding principle was the pragmatic desire to be elected, not any ideological program." page 31

"Attempts of Italian and Jewish Americans to gain political control of their own communities were repeatedly beaten back by the more politically experienced Irish, on into the early twentieth century." page 32

"Still, the Irish were the slowest rising of the European ethnic groups." page 36

Jews

"As late as World War I, American-Jewish newspapers were so pro-German that the U.S. government prosecuted them during the wartime anti-German feeling." pages 62-63
From 1880 to 1920 "one third of all the Jews in eastern Europe migrated to America." page 69
"The number of Christians killed by other Christians in religious controversies in the later Roman Empire far exceeded the number ever put to death by the Romans in pagan times." page 71

"Understanding the spectacular rise of the Jews may be useful for understanding social progress in general. It was not that they began with such presumed prerequisites as money or education - they were more destitute and illiterate than other immigrants - nor were they politically adroit. Nor did the larger society "accept" them socially or open opportunities for them economically. Yet the internal values and traditions of the Jews were almost tailor-made for success in the American economy. The Jews came not only with specific skills but also with a way of life adapted to centuries of urban life and commercial and industrial activity." page 93

"Even when the Jews lived in slums, they were slums with a difference - lower alcoholism, homicide, accidental death rates than other slums, or even the city as a whole." page 94

Italians

"The people who left this relatively new country for the United States left as Neopolitans, Syracusans, or Calabrians; they became "Italians" only after reaching America. Italy was fragmented both linguistically and geographically." page 101

"The great accomplishments of the Italian Renaissance were of northern Italian origins, and had little effect in the south. Columbus, Dante, Michelangelo, and Rossini were all northern Italians. The history of the Roman Empire - "the glory that was Rome" - likewise meant nothing to the southern Italian peasants, whose ancestors had been slaves during much of that glory. Sparticus' rebellion of 90,000 slaves took place in southern Italy." page 103

"Whereas the immigrant generation of Italians evidenced less hostility to blacks than did other whites (especially in the South), currently Italian-American opinion is more unfavorable to blacks than is that among other whites. The paths to group advancement emphasized by black leaders have been precisely those paths rejected by Italian Americans as inconsistent with the latter's values - government aid and special treatment." page 127

"The Italians got along with the Chinese far better than with the Irish, whose life-style - especially in the nineteenth century - was a forerunner of the black urban life-style of the twentieth century." page 128

Asians

"Labor unions were in the forefront of the decades-long efforts to exclude Chinese immigrants and to expel Chinese residents from the United States. In 1885, Chinese workers employed as strikebreakers were massacred at a Wyoming coal mine." page 137

"Unlike other nations, Japan did not send America its tired, its poor, its huddled masses. The Japanese were perhaps unique among immigrants to America in the extent to which they were a highly selected sample of their homeland population .... Their selectivity was not financial but in terms of human potential." page 164

Blacks

The Arabs "became the first mass enslavers of African Negroes." page 185
"Out of a grand total of about 10 million African slaves who arrived in the Western Hemisphere, about 400,000 were shipped to the Americans colonies." page 186

"... the United States was the only country in which the slave population reproduced itself and grew by natural increase. In the rest of the hemisphere, the death rate was so high and the birthrate so low that continuous replacements were imported from Africa." page 186

"The average life span of nineteenth-century American slaves was slightly below that of whites in the United States, but the same as the life span in Holland and France and greater than that in Italy or Austria. Slaves in the United States lived an average of thirty-six years; peasants in Ireland, nineteen years." pages 186-187

"With many generations of discouragement of initiative and with little incentive to work any more than necessary to escape punishment, slaves developed foot-dragging, work-evading patterns that were to remain as a cultural legacy long after slavery itself  disappeared. Duplicity and theft were also pervasive patterns among antebellum slaves, and these too remained long after slavery ended." page 187

"Three quarters of all white families in the south owned no slaves at all." page 190

"Most "free persons of color" could read and write in 1850, although only 1 or 2 percent of the slaves could do so. It would be 1900 before the literacy rate of the black population as a whole rose to a level reached by the "free persons of color" in the middle of the nineteenth century. It would be 1940 before the black population as a whole became as urbanized as the "free persons of color" were in 1850. In short, "free persons of color"  had a large head start over the rest of the black population in their adjustment to American society." page 195

"Because white ancestry was more common among "free persons of color" than among slaves, lighter complexioned Negroes were long overrepresented among high-achieving members of the race, leading both whites and blacks to attribute their success to a genetic superiority based on their white ancestry." page 196

"The economic weighing of necessities against luxuries, which was common and taken for granted among other peoples of the world, was something that slaves in the United States had not experienced for centuries.... For generations, on into the twentieth century, black leaders themselves repeatedly complained about the wastefulness, extravagance, or improvidence of their own people." page 199

"Lack of initiative, evasion of work, half-done work, unpredictable absenteeism, and abuse of tools and equipment were pervasive under slavery, and these patterns did not suddenly disappear with emancipation." page 200

"In the decades immediately after emancipation, when blacks first became responsible for their own health, death rates among Negroes rose from what they had been under slavery." page 212

"Unlike slaves in the United States, who were issued food rations and were often fed from the common kitchen, West Indian slaves were assigned land and time to raise their own food. They sold surplus food in the market to buy amenities for themselves." page 218

"The contrast between West Indians and American Negroes was not so much in their occupational backgrounds as in their behavior patterns. West Indians were more frugal, hard-working, and entrepreneurial. Their children worked harder and outperformed native black children in school. West Indians in the United States had lower fertility rates and lower crime rates than either black or white Americans. As early as 1901, West Indians owned 20 percent of all black businesses in Manhattan, although they were only 10 percent of the black population there. American Negroes called them "black Jews."" page 219

Puerto Ricans

"Puerto Rican "machismo" ... identified manhood with short-run daring rather than long-run accumulations of knowledge, skill, or discipline, as in Jewish or Japanese cultures." page 234

Mexicans

In Mexico by 1607, European diseases had killed from 90 to 95 percent of the Indian population. page 246
"In nineteenth-century Mexico, debt peonage was so widespread as to be almost universal among the rural masses. Landowners as creditors held the peons in virtual bondage for debts that were rarely paid off and that were inherited from generation to generation, like slavery. Illiteracy was widespread among the peons, who lived in extreme poverty and in social and political subjugation. As late as 1910, about 5 percent of Mexican families owned 90 percent of the land." page 248

Summary

"Every human being is born into a world he never made, regardless of what ethnic label he carries. It is not personal merit but simply good fortune to be born into a group whose values and skills make life easier to cope with. But it is enormously important to get what insight we can into what those values and skills might be, and why." page 274

"The Jews of 1970 were essentially the Jews of 1960, ten years later, but the Puerto Ricans in the continental United States in 1970 included substantial proportions who were living in Puerto Rico in 1960 - and substantial proportions of the Puerto Ricans living on the mainland in 1960 were back on the island in 1970. Gross statistics collected in either location are misleading as to the progress of a given set of people." page 276

"How can the living conditions of men who are seeking only a place to sleep, while they save money to take back home, be compared to the living conditions of a family of farmers in a home intended to last for generations? In short, how can progress be measured in the same units for people pursuing different goals? And how can others ("society") be held either causally or morally responsible for all these differences measured in the same units?" page 276

"... profit rates on slum properties were not particularly high, despite much assertion to the contrary by social reformers. The faster depreciation of slum housing was one factor. More fundamentally, however, profits are made on rents paid, not on rents charged." page 278

"Substantial reshuffling of the rankings of nations and races at different stages of history undermine genetic explanations in general. A reshuffling of the IQ rankings of American ethnic groups within a period of a half century undermines the theory of genetic determination of intelligence, even aside from questions about the tests themselves. The fact that black orphans raised by white families have IQs at or above the national average is even stronger evidence against that theory." page 281

"What war destroys is the tangible physical capital of a nation - its cities, factories, farms, railroads, and highways. What it does not destroy is the human capital that built all these things in the first place - and can build them again." page 282

"Specific skills are a prerequisite in many kinds of work. But history shows new skills being rather readily acquired in a few years, as compared to the generations - or centuries - required for attitude changes. Groups today plagued by absenteeism, tardiness, and a need for constant supervision at work or in school are typically descendants of people with the same habits a century or more ago." page 284

"The educational and other social advantages of cultural diversity have varied with whether the association was voluntary or by force. For example, early studies of voluntarily integrated schools showed increased racial amity and educational benefits - providing a basis for compulsory integration under court orders, which produced opposite results." page 285

"Personal blame seems especially out of place in dealing with historic forces beyond the control of any individual. It would be fatuous to blame emigrants from Mexico for not bringing with them the skills or other traits brought by immigrants from Germany. It seems equally fatuous to blame employers for not having Mexicans and Germans proportionally represented in jobs requiring such skills or traits." page 286

"Attempts at acculturation for pragmatic reasons are often resented as denigrations of the group in question - sometimes as nothing but that - so that it seems as oppression when attempted by outsiders and as betrayal when attempted by members of the group." page 287

"Ironically, intergroup hostility has usually been greatest among groups most alike in their social and economic conditions, and better relations have been more common among groups that are quite different. Prior to the Civil War, the most antislavery groups were the Germans and the Scotch-Irish, composed of skilled workers and independent farmers, and including some very wealthy elements as well, especially among the Germans. In the twentieth century, the black civil rights movement has been strongly supported by Jews, whose whole economic and cultural history is radically different from that of blacks. Conversely, the advancement of blacks has been bitterly fought at various stages of history by the Irish, whose income and occupations were long similar to those of blacks and whose history and culture were parallel to those of blacks in many ways: the importance of expressive, pithy language, the sports they dominated (boxing and baseball), the fields in which they advanced (sports, entertainment, religion, writing, politics), the fields they avoided (science and mathematics), the businesses in which they succeeded (life insurance, banking, publishing), the businesses in which they made little headway (manufacturing, merchandising), and their social pathologies (alcoholism, violence, broken homes)." pages 289-290

"Epidemics of filth-related diseases still move very selectively through ethnic neighborhoods, but ethnic differences in life expectancy are axiomatically attributed to the racism of the larger society." page 295

"A group cannot be getting cleaner over time, if any suggestion that it was ever dirty was only a figment of bigots' imaginations. Their children could not have overcome their educational deficiencies in the schools, if their only problems were racist teachers and biased tests. No other internal problems - from alcoholism to violence - could be overcome by any group, if such things were only biased propaganda or the inevitable results of the failures of "society." As a corollary, some of the longest and hardest struggles for self-improvement must be denied - which is to say, history itself is denied." page 296

"If the Irish were pariahs in the nineteenth century and fully accepted in the twentieth century, the moralistic approach sees only society's belated change to doing the right thing. It ignores the very possibility that the Irish who are accepted today may be very different from the nineteenth-century emigrants from Ireland whose personal behavior would still be wholly unacceptable to others today, including today's Irish Americans." page 296

Year Read: 1988


Back to Libertarian Essays by Roy Halliday
Back to Nonfiction Book Notes
Back to Fiction Book Notes
Back to Book Notes by Author

This page was last updated on October 3, 2011.
This site is maintained by Roy Halliday. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them to royhalliday@mindspring.com.