'Viking' Fritz: the invisible ethnic

Many pundits have commented that Geraldine Ferarro's vice-presidential candidacy means as much for Italian-Americans and other ethnic Americans as it does for women. She has, indeed, become a symbol of both ascendant ethnic consciousness and descending ethnic barriers in United States society. Lost in the shuffle, however, is the Norwegian-American ethnicity of Walter Mondale. Not that his heritage has been overlooked. There has been coverage of his ancestral home in Norway and his family's trek to the United States. He undoubtedly will gain some votes because of his parentage in sections of the country where Scandinavian-Americans reside.

What has been implicitly overlooked is that people descending from northwest European stock also are ''ethnic,'' be they Norwegian-American, Swedish-American , or Danish-American. However, Scandinavian-Americans, as a group, constitute a class of invisible ethnics whose ethnicity in the eyes of the larger society has been subsumed by their loose incorporation within a generic WASP elite in US society.

In the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, when this WASP elite was dominant, it made sense for Scandinavian-American immigrants to blend in as thoroughly as possible.

Such desires were what produced Anglicized names such as Mondale (from Mundal). Scandinavian-Americans now are an integral part of the mainstream. Hence, while Ms. Ferarro's elevation to second spot on the ticket is proclaimed an ethnic success story, Mr. Mondale's selection to the No. 1 spot is perceived by most observers as the routine choosing of yet another male WASP.

Most Scandinavian-Americans trace their US roots to the soil of the Midwest, where they became Americanized. They quickly constituted a solid element in the local establishment. This facilitated their rapid acceptance as a branch of the nationwide WASP network. Similar phenomena occurred as Scandinavian-Americans spread west and helped consolidate the new frontier, especially on the northern plains and in the Pacific Northwest. Once more they became a de facto part of the establishment. In all these regions Scandinavian-American political leaders attained considerable prominence.

Perhaps it is because my own roots are in Brooklyn's Norwegian enclave, where ethnic traditions were reinforced more readily than in the hinterlands by contacts with the old country and by continuing immigration, but I was always aware that I lived in an ethnically distinct section of an unhomogenized New York City. Compared with adjoining neighborhoods in the 1940s and '50s, my old neighborhood (Bay Ridge) was largely a Scandinavian-American ''ghetto'' of sorts , mostly Norwegian - with a smattering of Swedes, Danes, and Finns. It was never made an ostracized ghetto. In fact, it was an ethnic-WASP enclave by choice, distancing itself from the Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Puerto Rican ethnic groups that encompassed it. However, there was the significant difference that we could (and did) more readily enter into mainstream society as full participants. We benefited from society's perception of the thoroughgoing assimilation chosen by Scandinavian-Americans elsewhere.

Seen from a perspective not so far removed from Ferarro's roots in Queens, modified by years of involvement in US-Asian affairs, I would like to suggest it may be time that assimilated Scandinavian-Americans recognize that the mainstream they became absorbed into is changing. Instead of a homogenized ruling elite advocating the desirability of a proverbial melting pot society, we increasingly have a panoply of ethnic and other interest groups competing for power. In liberal circles WASPs have devolved into merely another group jockeying for a finite amount of power.

In principle or in practice this phenomenon is not something to be welcomed. The fabric of society is in danger of being frayed by those among us who want to pluck out the separate threads for special consideration. This was graphically illustrated by the Democratic Party's national convention where innumerable interest groups clamored for their piece of the action by making strident demands. This display of public squabbling over smaller and smaller chunks of the commonweal makes one thankful that the US is not a parliamentary democracy. If it were, it is easy to imagine Washington driven with the sort of fratricidal infighting that now damages Israeli unity and has caused other regimes to come and go in so many parts of the world. Clearly, melting-pot politics still has a greater appeal to the majority of Americans, who are content with the stability it offers.

As a result, and to preserve the gains our forefathers made, it would be premature and foolish for Scandinavian-Americans in all sectors of US society to shed their mainstream aura and the access to economic and political power that can accompany it. Moreover, most are too ingrained in that mindset to do it even if they wanted to.

Nevertheless, the leaders of that community would do well to occasionally take advantage of current trends and reassert their ethnicity. If advocates of euphemistically labeled ''alternative life styles'' can come out of their dark closets and be accepted with remarkable equanimity, it certainly should be possible for America's ''invisible'' Scandinavian ethnics to shed a layer of their WASPish Nordic reserve and assert their Scandinavian ethnicity with as much fervor and pride as all the other hyphenated Americans. Years ago, when ''black power'' slogans were sweeping the black community, the Sons of Norway put out a tongue-in-cheek ''Norwegian Power'' button. Clearly, there was no need to resort to such cultural chauvinism then, and today it could be counterproductive.

The nation doesn't need any more divisive ethnocentrism, but isn't it time the American public - and particularly the media - recognized the fact that there are two ethnic Americans on the Democratic ticket?

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