DESPITE the outward trappings of ethnicity in America today -- ``Kiss me, I'm Irish'' buttons, Columbus Day parades, and Scottish Highland games, for example -- the ethnic experience has ceased to mean much to most white Americans, some sociologists say. Just as the tribes of Jutes, Angles, Saxons, and Danes merged to become the English, these experts say, so are the descendants of European ethnics becoming homogenized in the United States.
``A fairly large proportion of the US population is unable to indicate their ethnic ancestry,'' says Stanley Lieberson, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley. ``What you're finding are `unhyphenated' white Americans.''
Mr. Lieberson did his research in the rural south. He interviewed seventh- and eighth-generation descendants of Scottish, Welsh, and English immigrants. One of his graduate students, Mary Waters, found a similar blurring occurring among third- and fourth-generation Irish, Italians, and Poles in suburban Santa Clara County, south of Berkeley, Calif.
America's decaying urban ghettoes, once populated by European ethnics, now house Latinos, blacks, and Asian immigrants. For many members of these groups, the experience of ethnicity is still oppressive, experts say. Their situation is aggravated by whites who have forgotten the discrimination their own ancestors once faced, and so do not empathize.
``Whites are proud of their ethnic ancestry. There are no more negative implications,'' Ms. Waters says.
``People can evoke [ethnicity] when they want to, but it doesn't influence getting a job.''
California's tight housing market has even contributed to the dissolution of ethnic ties. Many European ethnics who moved West wanted to live together in ethnic enclaves as they had back East, but couldn't because housing was so scarce.
``You may come to California whipped up as an Irish but your neighbors are German and Polish. Ten years later, you're not nearly as whipped up as you were,'' says Thomas Pettigrew, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
The trek westward sped up the assimilation process. A woman who got off the boat at Ellis Island wearing everything she owned could, 50 years later, be standing on the sand in a bathing suit watching the sun sink into the Pacific.
Whether or not to reach into the closet every now and then and try on the old ethnic clothes is entirely a matter of personal choice.
Sociologist Herbert Gans of Columbia University coined the phrase ``symbolic ethnicity'' in an influential article in 1979 to describe this voluntary association with one's roots. The option occurs only after real discrimination has faded away.
``It consists of going to an Italian restaurant to feel Italian and going to Greece to feel Greek,'' says Mr. Gans.
Ironically, it was the black pride movement in the 1960s that inspired white ethnic-pride movements.
``Blacks led the way in reaffirming ethnic pride. It was more OK for whites to be who they are, even if they weren't from Britain,'' Lieberson says.
Experts who study the descendants of European immigrants say the tenacity of ethnicity, even after assimilation into the middle class, surprises them. Part of the reason is what they call the ``theory of third-generation return.'' ``The second generation tries to forget. The third generation tries to remember,'' Waters says.
Helping them remember are a few amateur historians in every ethnic group who study and preserve the folklore, history, and arts of the old country. Affluent grandchildren -- they grew up securely American in the suburbs -- can afford trips to Europe to explore their roots.
The older generation notes the irony: ``They used to call us `spaghetti benders,' '' recalls Theresa de Santis of San Diego. ``You used to be afraid to tell people you had a plate of pasta with green beans or vegetables. Now it's the `in' thing. My son cooks the things his grandmother used to cook.''
But most white Americans define their lives by jobs, family, income, religion, hobbies, and sports, the experts say.
``For most groups who have been here for several generations, it [ethnicity] matters only to a small minority,'' says sociologist Richard Alba at the State University of New York, Albany. ``In the United States we construct complex personal identities based on work and where we live,'' he says.
The forces that are redefining the ethnic boundaries in the US include mobility, intermarriage, divorce, and remarriage. Only one in four marriages in the US involves people of the same ethnic background, according to Mr. Alba.
``The Puerto Ricans and Mexicans are recent ethnic groups formed from intermarriage with Indians,'' Lieberson says. ``The English are a product of groups that migrated to that island. There's no reason to think the same thing won't happen here.''
As ethnicity becomes a matter of personal choice, it becomes less social. Gone is the intimacy of extended families living together and the informal safety net that arrangement provided. But losses are balanced by gains: upward social and economic mobility.
``Half a century ago,'' says Alba, ``I would have been restricted in what I could do with my life because I am Italian and Catholic. We now share so much in common.''