Ethnicity in America's melting pot

THIS past year in one of my classes of 44 students, there were nine Italian-Americans, a proportion far in excess of the ethnic group's 7 percent composition in the national population. That large turnout may be a statistical fluke, but it is unlikely: Over my 20 years of teaching at the same university, I have kept good records, and Italian-Americans have been increasing in the mix of college students, especially in the last five years. When I was a college student in the mid-1950s, there were few Italian-Americans on campus. Unlike other peers in the Appalachian community where I grew up, I went to college as a result of the example of my older brother, the first in my family ever to get a college diploma. The role model of most of my friends was an immigrant father with a ``good, steady job'' -- usually blue collar work in the steel mills and coal mines.

For many immigrants like my father, success was measured in modest terms. In fact, my father's barbershop and my grandfather's retail store came near the end of their lives when they had adult sons who would, it was hoped, carry on the beezanees, as private enterprise was affectionately called.

Historical and sociological research suggests that my family experience was a variation on a general theme. In Cleveland, where several ethnic communities existed at the turn of this century, the degree of ethnic success was often related to religion, size of family, and education. Slovaks utilized parochial schools in the city, thereby isolating their children from contact with middle-class peers and confirming minimal expectations of success. But Italians and Romanians took advantage of public schools

in which the social mingling was likely to be extensive. And one of the most successful groups in Cleveland, the Romanians, benefited from ambitious fathers, extended schooling, and small families.

That third-generation Italian Americans are venturing in greater numbers to college campuses is an indication that their success model is being interpreted more broadly. With more education, Italian-Americans may follow other Americans by intermarrying and having fewer children, characteristics that might test the mettle of their roots. For historically, they have had close-knit families. So strong were family ties that Italian-American crimes became an enormous social problem in this century. In its positive manifestation, however, the family performed the functions that contemporary social welfare agencies strive to duplicate.

From this perspective, becoming fully American is not without stresses and strains, which led many Italian-Americans to spend their lives in the security of the ethnic community. Such is scarcely a prudent alternative today. But what is feasible is to recognize that education and affluence should be tempered by those ethnic values that have passed historic muster. In this sense, history -- both family and formal -- can be a relevant teacher to young ethnic Americans.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at The American University.

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