They carry knives.
They are a passionate people, prone to violence.
Their culture and language are alien and threaten to corrupt ours.
No. Italians. Rather, Italians as we viewed them when they first came.
There is a tendency, when discussing immigration, race and ethnicity, to believe that we are at some unique point in history.
The truth, however, is that we are, on these issues, in familiar territory.
This country has never been and never will be homoethnic or homoracial.
It’s a point ably made in a new book, The New Americans — How the Melting Pot Can Work, by Michael Barone.
Barone is one of the nation’s premier political historians. He is co-author of the biannual Almanac of American Politics.
Barone’s views in New Americans on bilingual education, the roles that discrimination and racism still play and government’s continuing presence in achieving equity likely will likely upset some readers.
However, the book’s value lies not in these asides but in the comparisons made between immigrant groups of yesteryear and today and the conclusions Barone draws from the similarities.
“All seem convinced that something basic about America will be changed by the new Americans, that the country will be transformed into something it has never been before,” he writes.
Yet we’ve always had these dynamics — ever-shifting demographics, the influx of seemingly alien cultures and the resultant process of fear and resistance.
And, Barone says, “We are still a recognizably American nation.”
To make the point, Barone notes the similarities between Italians and Latinos, the Irish and African-Americans and between Jews and Asians.
Wait, you say. Italians, the Irish and Jews are White. But Barone makes a compelling case that in the heyday of Italian, Irish and Jewish immigration we did not hew to any anthropological definition of race. These people, too,
were viewed as belonging to different races.
And yet folks in the United States who have Italian, Irish and Jewish roots are now thought to be thoroughly and unequivocally American.
Yes, intermarriage has played a major role, just as it does now with Latinos, Asians and African-Americans. But playing an equal role has been our tried-and-true and thoroughly natural habit of Americanization.
Italians came to us mostly from southern Italy. Latinos come from throughout Latin America (and are not homogenous as a group either, Barone argues). Yet the similarities between one another and Italians are clear.
Mother countries have tended to be heavily centralized and dysfunctional in important respects, causing these groups to put their faith more strongly in family than institutions.
Both came here almost solely to work and both viewed hard work as more a guarantor of success than education. They have come, gone back, returned and throughout sent money home, only gradually bringing family to these shores.
Unlike the stereotypes, both Italians and Latinos have not been exceptionally prone to crime or partaking of handouts.
The Irish were dispossessed by a caste system, persecution and a potato famine, African-Americans by slavery and, in the case of the mass migration from south to north, by mechanized farming that put them out of work while the industrial north and World War II beckoned with work.
Asians and Jews, though differing in many respects, share similar flights from oppression and strong traditions in which the group helps individuals in the group.
Barone is plainly distrustful of civil rights mindsets that he says have little utility today. He appears to trust a little too much in the notion that Americanization cannot accommodate multiculturalism (even as he demonstrates how multicultural we always have been and are still).
Yet Barone has injected a welcome dose of reason and perspective to this debate and in so doing has rendered an invaluable service.
He has told us, simply and in unmistakable language, that we have most certainly been here before.
That people come. They change. We change. The change takes time and can differ group to group. And in the end we still have one country.