Book Summary: “Ethnic America: A History” by Thomas Sowell


Title: Ethnic America: A History
Author: Thomas Sowell
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Sowell overviews the history of various ethnicities that immigrated to the United States, including the Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans.

My Comments

With the current focus on race, we seem to have forgotten the enormous ethnic diversity within each race. Sowell does an excellent job of overviewing their history in America. For the sake of brevity, the quotes below only focus on a few of those that are covered in the book.

Key Take-aways

  • Throughout American history, ethnicity played a far more important role than race (except in the South).
  • Each ethnic group:
    • brought very different values and skills with them.
    • clustered in different geographical areas. Some lived in rural areas, while other clustered in cities.
    • avoided the South (except Blacks).
    • focused on very different occupations
    • intermarried with other groups at vastly different rates
    • had very different levels of interest in politics
    • had very different levels of entrepreneurialism
    • had very different levels of violence and criminality
  • By the 1970s ethnic groups from Europe had intermarried to such an extent that cultural differences were small.  It was only then that the term “White” carried any meaning outside the South.
  • Current intermarriage rates among Hispanics and Asians suggests that the same integration will soon happen for them as well.
  • Black interracial marriage rates are still low (particularly among Black women), but they are increasing rapidly.

Important Quotes from Book

The peopling of America is one of the great dramas in all of human history.

The massive ethnic communities that make up the mosaic of American society cannot be adequately described as “minorities.” There is no “majority.”

The mixture of unity and diversity runs through American history as through American society today. No ethnic group has been wholly unique, and yet no two are completely alike. Each group has its own geographic distribution pattern, reflecting· conditions when they arrived on American soil and the evolution of the industries and regions to which they became attached.

Incomes, occupations, and unemployment rates differ substantially among American ethnic groups, as do rates of crime, fertility, and business ownership.

American pluralism was not an ideal with which people started but an accommodation to which they were eventually driven by the destructive toll of mutual intolerance in a country too large and diverse for effective dominance by any one segment of the population. The rich economic opportunities of the country also provided alternative outlets for energies, made fighting over the division of existing material things less important than the expansion of output for all, and rewarded cooperative efforts so well as to make it profitable to overlook many differences.

The change from wind-driven ships to steam-powered ships caused a drastic change in the origins of immigrants to America. In the era of wind-driven ships. European immigrants came almost exclusively from northern and western Europe. With the advent of steam-powered ships, suddenly immigration was overwhelmingly from southern and eastern Europe-people with greater cultural and religious differences from the U.S. population, at a time when religious differences were of major social and political importance.

The Irish:

The Irish were the first great ethnic “minority” in American cities. Much of their early history set the classic pattern of the newcomer.

Slaves in the United States had a longer life expectancy than peasants in Ireland, ate better, and lived in cabins built of sturdier materials, with more space, ventilation, and privacy, than the huts of contemporary Irish peasants.

The Irish who came tp to America came from a country where more than four-fifths of the population were rural.” where even the “urban” areas were mostly tiny villages,'” and where most communities were simply “dusters and scatters of mud cabins on every plain and hillside.”

More than half of the Irish were concentrated in four states; Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. The sum total of the Irish Americans exceeded the total population of Ireland. There were more Irishmen in New York than in Dublin. The Irish were not only concentrated geographically in the Northeast; they were overwhelmingly urban in America, as they had been overwhelmingly rural in Ireland. More than four-fifths lived in urban communities

As the Irish crowded into the northeastern urban centers, a pattern unfolded that was to be seen again and again with many later groups. Homes originally intended for single families were subdivided into tiny apartments into which many large families were crowded.

Patterns of alcoholism and fighting brought over from Ireland persisted in the United States. Over half the people arrested in New York in the 1850s were Irish “-usually for drunken or disorderly behavior, rather than for serious crimes.

Irish neighborhoods were tough neighborhoods, in cities around the country.

No other contemporary immigrant group was so concentrated at the bottom of the economic ladder.” Even the proportion of the black population who were laborers and house servants in Boston in 1850 was much lower than among the Irish,” and the free blacks in mid-century Boston were in general economically better off than the Irish.”

The Irish were prominent not only in unskilled work but also in hard, dirty, and dangerous work, such as coal mining and the building of railroads and canals.

As in Ireland itself, the poverty and improvidence of the Irish immigrants in America often reduced them to living on charity when hard times came.

Radically different attitudes toward accepting charity existed in Ireland and Italy, and these attitudes apparently had more effect than their respective objective economic conditions in America. There were similar cultural differences in attitudes toward the abandonment of wives and children. In the 1840s, “it was almost automatically assumed that an orphan was Irish,”” and as late as 1914, about half the Irish families on Manhattan’s west side were fatherless.” No such pattern appeared among the Italians.

The Irish also left a remarkable record of donations to the Catholic church and remittances to family members back in Ireland-all out of very low incomes.

The low and precarious economic conditions of the nineteenth-century Jrish were reflected in their living conditions-perhaps the worst of any racial or ethnic group in American history.

One of the earliest and most spectacular rises of the Irish in America was in politics. Block voting of the Irish in the big cities, where they were often the largest single group, assured them political influence, evident as early as the 1830s.” But the political success of the Irish went far beyond this, including outright control of municipal political machines in many cities for many decades, long after other ethnic groups arrived and formed a numerical majority of the electorate.

The Irish did not simply take over the conventional apparatus of politics. They transformed American municipal politics. They changed the class composition of municipal government, putting the reins of power in the hands of men who had risen from the working class.

The goals of political machines have been the perquisites of power- salary, graft, and the ability to appoint followers and favorites to sought-after jobs.

Irish political machines have almost invariably been of the Democratic party, going far back into the nineteenth century. The Irish districts voted overwhelmingly Democratic-more so than any other ethnic group. Other groups split their votes among the Whigs or the emerging Republican party.

The spectacular success of Irish politicians in nineteenth-century American cities was by no means reflected in the economic conditions of contemporary Irish Americans as a whole. As late as 1890, 42 percent of the Irish were servants, and many of the others remained in unskilled labor.

The Irish were the slowest rising of the European ethnic groups.

As the Irish rose slowly through manual and white-collar occupations, many of their places at the bottom of the economic ladder were taken by members of other groups that now constituted the bulk of the massive new immigration to the United States from southern and eastern Europe after the Civil War.

The Irish advanced in politics, banking, union leadership, sports, and journalism…  The Irish seldom advanced through business entrepreneurship.

Many Irish Americans rose to prominence in sports and entertainment- a pattern to be repeated by later ethnic groups living in poverty and without an intellectual or entrepreneurial tradition.

Despite the ability of Irish politicians to win the votes of other ethnic groups in the nineteenth century, the general relations between the Irish populace and other groups were typically far from harmonious.

Perhaps the worst relations between any two groups in American history have been between the Irish and the Negroes.

The usual difficulties of determining the initiator of hostilities are not so great in some of these instances. Some of the groups with whom the Irish had numerous dashes were groups that lived relatively harmoniously with other groups.

While only about one-tenth of the Irish married outside of their own ethnic group in the 1860s, in the 1960s just over half of all Irish-American men married women from different ethnic backgrounds.

The Irish have in fact become so Americanized that some lament that they have lost their distinctive qualities.

The Germans:

More than 25 million American are of German ancestry. This is more than for any other ethnic group except descendants of people from the British lsles, who originally colonized the country and who now number 29 million. Germans are the largest group to immigrate to America.

Large-scale immigration from Germany to the United States has not been concentrated in a few decades, like immigration from other countries, but has occurred in many different eras of American and German history. There were German communities in colonial America, and Germans were a significant proportion of all immigrants to the United States throughout the nineteenth century.

The net result is that German Americans have been a highly diverse group-not only by such usual indications as class, religion, or region, but also differing greatly by how many generations they have been American.

The early German immigrants-both in New York and in Pennsylvania- came from the Palatinate, a small region in the southwestern part of Germany, along the Rhine.

The early German settlers quickly established a reputation for hard work, thoroughness, and thriftiness.

German farming settlements spread north and south through the great fertile valleys of the Appalachian mountain range. By the late eighteenth century, there was an almost unbroken chain of German frontier settlements stretching from the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York down through western New Jersey, central Pennsylvania, western Maryland, on down through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, through the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, and into Savannah, Georgia.

As the German farming communities spread down through the Appalachian valley near the frontier. they found themselves often near the Scotch-Irish, who were frontiersmen par excellence. The Scotch-Irish often led the way into the untamed wilderness, hunting, fishing, clearing land, and fighting Indians,” with the Germans and others following after the area became more settled.

But with the passing decades, a more regionally, socially, and intellectually diversified German population arrived in the United States. They also became more regionally dispersed in a growing America. In the years 1830 through 1834, virtually all overseas German emigrants were from southwest Germany, but a decade later, only about one-third were from that region, and in the 1860s, less than one-sixth of the German emigrants were from that region.

Many of the German immigrants of the nineteenth century sought the frontier, for its cheap land. as their predecessors had done in the eighteenth century. However, the frontier itself had moved farther west by now. Those who came in the nineteenth century tended to settle in the upper Mississippi and Ohio valleys, as those of a century earlier had settled in the Appalachian valleys.

Whether in a rural or an urban setting, concentrations of Germans perpetuated the German language and German culture for generations. Often this reflected residential as well as cultural isolation.

German urban workers in the nineteenth century brought many skills with them. They were carpenters, , bakers, blacksmiths,  butchers, shoemakers, printers, and tailors, among their many skilled occupations. Half or more of all employed Germans were skilled manual workers in mid-century Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit, New York, Jersey City, and Boston. A substantial additional number were in non-manual occupations. Very few were unskilled laborers-

Nineteenth-century German immigrants and their offspring were responsible for establishing leading businesses in many American industries.

Education was another area in which Germans made contributions that helped shape American institutions. Both the kindergarten and the university originated among Germans in Europe. German immigrants created the first kindergartens in America.

Politics never became a consuming interest of German Americans.

Germans continued prominent in American science, medicine. and invention.

Socially, German Americans slowly assimilated in the early twentieth century, and more rapidly later on. Most Germans married other Germans in the 1920s.

Nationally. By 1969 only about one-third of German husbands were married to German wives.

In any event, individuals who considered themselves German Americans in 1972 constituted about 13 percent of the American population, and had incomes 11 percent above the national average.

The real story of the German Americans is not so much what they have achieved for themselves as what they have contributed to the development of the United States-in industry, science, culture, military strength, and recreation. Americans of all racial and ethnic origins are a different people-and a more prosperous people-because of the many contributions of German Americans.

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