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Lost and Found in America

HUTTERITES OF MONTANA Photographs and Text by Laura Wilson; Yale University Press: 150 pp., $39.95

THE JEWS OF WYOMING: Fringe of the Diaspora; Photographs and Interviews by Penny Diane Wolin; Crazy Woman Creek: 198 pp., $60

November 26, 2000|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | Gregory Rodriguez is a fellow at the New America Foundation

Most Americans don't think of their country as a large extended family in the way that, say, the French or Italians view their homelands. Attempts to describe what it means to be American invariably wind up in cold abstractions and lofty ideals, like individualism, political freedom, or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For most of us, our nation may at times inspire pride or shame, but--with the possible exception of enjoying the express U.S. Customs line for citizens at JFK or LAX--it rarely gives us a sense of warmth or belonging. To meet those more intimate needs, Americans have often turned to the many ethnic identities that exist concentrically within what J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur called the "broad lap of our great Alma Mater."

Since the 1960s, America has seen an outbreak of what one scholar has diagnosed as "ethnic fever." One after another, the country's ethnic subgroups have sought to highlight their ethnicity and reaffirm their ties to their cultural past. Though it may have begun with a resurgence of black nationalism, other racial and ethnic minorities soon followed suit, including "white ethnics" of European ancestry. Their urgency to reconnect with their heritage has long been characterized as a resurgence of pride, but the primary impetus for this movement has always been an impending sense of loss. After all, one rarely seeks to recapture something unless it has already begun to slip through one's grasp.

America's ethnic renaissance sprang forth before the immigration boom of the 1970s and in the very midst of the suburban revolution, the vast population shift that fundamentally changed the way we lived. Though in 1950 the populations of America's oldest urban centers reached historic highs, the succeeding decades saw them lose sometimes as much as 50% of their residents to the newer cities of the South and West and to the suburbs that were sprouting up just beyond their city limits. Sixty years ago, urbanist Lewis Mumford observed that "suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life." As such, half a century of uninterrupted "privatization" has left many native-born middle-class Americans feeling isolated and nostalgic for community.

With their newfound affluence, newly minted suburbanites bought space and distance, not just from the city but also from their neighbors. They also took one more huge step away from their ethnic pasts. Because mass European immigration was legislated to a halt in the 1920s, by 1970 84% of Americans were born to native-born parents, meaning they were at least third-generation Americans. Urban sprawl and westward expansion took them even farther from the white ethnic enclaves that once organized older American cities. A combination of their distance from the immigrant experience and the atomization and homogenization of middle-class life has made many people long to identify themselves as members of groups more intimate and nurturing than just plain American.

The result of this longing has been the rise of what Harvard sociologist Mary Waters calls "symbolic ethnicity" as well as the general fetishization of ethnicity on the part of many culturally alienated U.S.-born Americans of many backgrounds. In a word, many latter-generation Americans now look to ethnicity--their own and others'--to add a missing psychological dimension to their atomized lives. In addition to giving them a sense of rootedness in a rootless society, ethnicity also confers upon them automatic lifetime membership in a "community" of people with whom they presumably share hereditary traits.

Of course, many observers have noted the dual and competing American cultural impulses of self-reliance and cooperation, individualism and conformity. In postmodern America, acquiring a symbolic or optional identity ostensibly allows one to have one's cake and eat it too. One can have a modicum of nurturance and a sense of uniqueness without having to actually live within the rigidity and constricting rules of a genuine traditional community. Indeed, in a truly postmodern world, we imagine that we can dabble in all sorts of cultures without accruing the personal costs that come with belonging.

Nowhere has the ideology of individualism been more triumphant than in the American West. In his 1893 meditation on westward expansion, historian Frederick Jackson Turner called the frontier a "crucible" in which immigrants were "Americanized" and "liberated" from the European heritages that lingered in the East. Western iconography long has been dominated by images of ruggedly individualistic cowboys and mountain men.

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