Ethnicity and the `gotcha syndrome'

SOME Americans seem concerned about the large legal and illegal immigration into the nation, as well as the aspiration to retain their language. As a historian and son of immigrant parents, I have little worry about such matters and welcome both movements. For one reason, the native American birthrate will likely remain low in the next several decades as education and affluence increase. Immigration will prevent the demographic phenomenon some European nations are already experiencing -- an inadequate replacement ratio. With a low birthrate from the preponderant population and a high one from immigrants, the result is a modest increase compatible with ecological concerns and a growth-oriented economy.

Every wave of non-English-speaking immigrants hoped to retain their language as well as Old World customs. None would be successful in getting the public school system to honor their objectives, but the family provided the funnel for such instruction. Language, however, would be an ephemeral goal: The longer the ethnic group was in the US, the less infatuation there would be with language. As the baby in my Italian-American family, I never learned Italian. And the reason was two-fold, my indifference and that of my parents.

Hispanic-Americans are concerned about bilingualism, but that, too, will pass. Lest we forget, blacks in the 1960s were successful in getting courses in black English; that trend faded as it became evident that the most critical element for success is acceptance of the American system. That means that unless one is content to spend his or her life in an ethnic enclave, where the native language is important, the outward and manifest signs of the US system have to be honored: through higher education that bears the hallmark of no one ethnic group, through mastery of the English language, including its slang and idioms, and through the acquisition of a polish -- some might say fa,cade -- that society expects of its most upwardly mobile individuals.

Over my years of teaching, I have called this the ``gotcha syndrome.'' Sooner or later, the ethnic will be gotten by the American system. The first generation will be most resistant, with each subsequent one opening the American door wider. That does not mean that some Old World traditions cannot be carried on. The traditions of diet, religion, family, and child-rearing -- and yes, language -- are mostly private and thus nonthreatening. As Americans become more and more alike, sharing a consensus of economic and political values, these manifestations of ethnicity are healthful, serving to provide a little differentiation in an otherwise homogenized society. And they can be carried on through the unit that will probably value them the most, the family -- provided it chooses to do so.

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

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