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9.2: Intergroup Relations

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    "Can we all just get along?" This is the question expressed by Rodney King, as he tried to calm the 1992 rebellion that rippled through the Los Angeles region, following the jury's acquittal of police officers accused of excessive use of force against King. The answer to King's question depends. Depends on the time period, the context or situation, geographical location, and also the individuals or groups involved. On one hand, the answers to King's question is "No, groups cannot get along," as race-ethnic intergroup relations result in inhumane consequences such as genocide or expulsion, which has explained the migration of experiences of some individuals in the white/Euro Americans category. Some in this group have also experienced mildly less inhumane consequences, resulting in internal colonialism and segregation, as experienced by non-WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) immigrants. A more tolerable intergroup outcome, fusion or amalgamation, can be used to explain the experiences of intermarriage or multiracial children within the category of white/Euro Americans. Assimilation appears as another favorable intergroup consequence; however, it can also be argued that assimilation serves to deny one's ethnic identity, which should also be understood as a troubling consequence that explains the loss of ancestral cultures amongst many white Americans. The most tolerant intergroup consequence of race-ethnic relations is pluralism or multiculturalism which may be evidenced in contemporary ethnic enclaves or communities of white ethnics.

    Patterns of Intergroup Relations: White/Euro Americans
    • Extermination/Genocide: The deliberate, systematic killing of an entire people or nation (e.g. Holocaust).
    • Expulsion/ Population Transfer: The dominant group expels the marginalized group (e.g. Eastern European exiles).
    • Internal Colonialism: The dominant group exploits the marginalized group (e.g. indentured servants).
    • Segregation: The dominant group structures physical, unequal separation of two groups in residence, workplace & social functions (e.g. Little Italy; “No Irish Need Apply”).
    • Fusion/ Amalgamation: Race-ethnic groups combine to form a new group (e.g. whiteness, intermarriage, multiracial children).
    • Assimilation: The process by which a marginalized individual or group takes on the characteristics of the dominant group (e.g. white/Anglo conformity).
    • Pluralism/ Multiculturalism: Various race-ethnic groups in a society have mutual respect for one another, without prejudice or discrimination (e.g. Little Italy, Little Warsaw, Greektown, Germantown, Jewish ethnic enclave).

    Genocide and Expulsion

    Eastern European and Jewish individuals and groups fled persecution and even genocide, systematic killing of an entire people, in their home countries. Such was the case during WWII in which more than 6 million Jews were killed in Europe during the Hitler's Third Reich leading to the Holocaust. Well before World War II, many Eastern Europeans experienced expulsion, as they were pushed out of their homelands, fleeing to other European countries and then the U.S. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 2 million Jews from Eastern Europe migrated to the U.S., escaping religious persecution at home. Other Eastern Europeans, including Polish immigrants, came to the U.S. as exiles, refugees, or displaced people. More than 1 million Armenians were victims of genocide during World War 1.

    Internal Colonialism and Segregation

    Other sub-groups of Euro American immigrants experienced challenging circumstances in their homeland and upon their migration to the U.S. Indentured servants from England and Scotland reflected internal colonialism (exploitation by the dominant group), in that they were kept in servitude in the U.S. for 4-7 years. While German immigrants were not victimized to the same degree as many of the other communities of color, they incurred opposition from dominant white groups, particularly during the lead up to World War (and through World War II), sometimes resulting in de facto segregation, physical separation of groups resulting in inequality such as when a small number of German Americans were interned during WWII. Earlier in U.S. history, German immigrants were sometimes not allowed residency in Anglo American neighborhoods.

    Irish immigrants, many of whom were very poor, were more of an underclass than the Germans. Akin to internal colonialism and cultural genocide (systematic killing off of one's culture as discussed in Chapter 5) in Ireland, the English had oppressed the Irish for centuries, eradicating their language and culture and discriminating against their religion (anti-Catholicism). Although the Irish comprised a larger population than the English, they were a subordinate group, lacking political and economic power. This dynamic reached into the new world, where Anglo Americans saw Irish immigrants as a race apart: dirty, lacking ambition, and suitable for only the most menial jobs. In fact, Irish immigrants were subject to criticism identical to that with which the dominant group characterized African Americans resulting in de facto segregation. For example, in eastern U.S. cities, common signage read "No Irish Need Apply." By necessity, Irish immigrants formed tight communities as they were segregated from their Anglo neighbors.

    Irish dancers
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Irish Dancers participate in the Dublin Irish Festival, Dublin, Ohio. (CC BY-NC 2.0; OZinOH via Flickr)

    The later wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe was also subject to intense discrimination and prejudice from Anglo and other Euro Americans. In particular, the dominant group—which now included second- and third-generation Germans and Irish—saw Italian immigrants as the dregs of Europe and worried about the purity of the American race (Myers, 2007). Italian immigrants lived in segregated slums known as Little Italy in Northeastern cities, and in some cases were even victims of violence and lynchings as were African Americans in the same time period, discussed in Chapter 6. Lynchings against Italian Americans were not widespread, but one of the most vicious attacks occurred in New Orleans in 1891 in which 11 Italians were lynched. In general, Italians worked harder and were paid less than other workers, often doing the dangerous work that other laborers were reluctant to take on.

    Assimilation and Fusion/Amalgamation

    In colonial U.S. history, immigrants from a variety of European countries such as England, Scotland, France, Spain, Germany, and the Scandinavia struggled for dominance, with the dominant group becoming English Americans. Hence, the U.S. society is largely based on the culture, laws, customs, and practices of English Americans. Assimilation, conforming to the norms and values of the dominant culture, is the most typical intergroup consequence applicable to white Americans. This Anglo-conformity model posits that other race-ethic groups should strive to follow the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) norms in food, dress, language, religion, holidays, and other cultural practices.

    Painting of Emigrants Arriving at Constitution Wharf
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): "Emigrant Arrival at Constitution Wharf" by Winslow Homer (1857). (CC PDM 1.0; Smithsonian American Art Museum via Wikimedia)

    While positioned similarly with African Americans in their struggle against Anglo domination during the mid 1800s, over time the Irish ultimately followed the assimilation model. In Noel Ignatiev's study of Irish immigrants in the 19th-century United States, How the Irish Became white, he posited that the Irish triumph over nativist efforts, thus their assimilation, marked the incorporation of the Irish into the dominant group of American society: white. Ignatiev claimed that the Irish gained acceptance as white when they supported slavery and violence against free African Americans. Only through their own violence against free Blacks and support of slavery did the Irish gain acceptance as white and thus admission into jobs, neighborhoods, and schools. One might say the Irish exchanged their greenness for whiteness, and thus collaborated against Blackness.

    The white Melting Pot
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The White Melting Pot. (Diagram created by Jakobi Oware)

    As shown in Figure 9.2.3, the melting pot analogy connects to this assimilation, but it is also relevant to the intergroup consequence of fusion or amalgamation, the converging of different race-ethnic groups into a new group. The category of white is a uniquely American concept, with little historical relevance in Europe. Yet, over the past few centuries of European immigration to the U.S., many white Americans no longer have any ties to the homeland of their ancestors. White has also become an amalgamated concept for individuals whose ancestors may hail from more than one European country, or even North African, Middle Eastern, or Latin American country - but rather than identifying with the nationality or ethnicity, they connect with white, which is the absence of ethnicity. Many white Americans have little knowledge of their immigrant ancestors or their ethnic heritage, thus not even possessing symbolic ethnicity, a minor aspect of one's identity tied to the old country. However, Hansen in 1938 proposed the principle of third generation interest, what the second generation tries to forget, the third generation tries to remember. This melting of the white ethnicity in favor of the socially constructed term of white will be discussed further in the next section, and should be equated with an absence of ethnicity.

    Additionally, miscegenation, intermarriage between members of different race-ethnic groups, has also contributed to the consequence of fusion or amalgamation. In the middle of the 19th century, many Irish and African Americans lived side by side and shared work spaces. Their close contact sometimes led to intermarriage and bi-racial children. In the 1850 U.S. Census, the term mulatto appeared primarily due to the intermarriage between Irish and African Americans. Yet, such unions were extremely threatening to white supremacy which regards "sexual purity" to maintain this construct. Miscegenation was regarded as a threat to whiteness. In fact, the racist film Birth of a Nation in 1909 portrayed the danger of race mixing and the threat that Black men posed for white women. Yet, during the institution of slavery, Black women were regularly raped by their white slaver owners, thereby created a mixed population; though during the peculiar institution and the "one drop rule" reign, these individuals were regarded as Black.

    Today, the third fastest growing group in the U.S. is multiracial individuals, people who are "two or more races." Most of these multiracial individuals have a white parent and a parent of color. Similarly, most intermarriages in the U.S. involve a white partner married to an individual of color.

    Thinking Sociologically

    If you are multiracial mixed with white ancestry, do you have a connection to your white or white ethnic background? Why or why not?


    Glimpses of pluralism, mutual respect for and coexistence of a variety of cultures, may today be understood by the presence of white ethnic enclaves. (Ethnic enclaves were defined in Chapter 2.2). Earlier Euro American immigrant groups who settled into ethnic enclaves or communities in the 19th and 20th centuries did so as a result of segregation they experienced upon their migration to the U.S. However, to be considered pluralist, these ethnic enclaves must be free of discrimination which was clearly not always the case in previous centuries. The following all include examples of white ethnic enclaves: The Little Italys in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia; the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn New York which is home to nearly 100,000 Lubavitsch-sect, ultra-Orthodox Jews; the Amish and other Old Order religious groups of Iowa, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and far Northwestern Minnesota are all primary exemplars of ethnic enclaves.

    Picture of Little Italy at Christmastime.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Little Italy at Christmastime. (CC BY-SA 2.0; annulla via Flickr)

    These white ethnic groups formed neighborhoods where first, second, and third generation white ethnics lived and worked together in ethnic enclaves. By 1920, New York City became a major destination for Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who fled religious persecution and anti-Semitism, intense prejudice and racism against Jews (discussed further in Chapter 10). These Jewish immigrants performed both skilled and unskilled labor. These Jewish immigrants created dense networks of commercial, financial, and social cooperation (Healey, 2014). These enclaves provided access to cultural resources included jobs, foodways, cultural traditions, holidays, and ethnic pride. Another examples of pluralism can be understood with the Amish population. This traditional, religious group is committed to a way of life organized around farming with an absence of technology in their lives.

    Ethnic enclaves tend to survive if is there is constant migration. Many of the aforementioned white ethnic enclaves have survived for several generations, but later generations tend to follow the traditional assimilation patterns and move further into the wider society, particularly the suburbs. More likely these white ethnic enclaves today reflect symbolic ethnicity such as Little Italy in New York City which is comprised of a few bakeries and restaurants or the St. Patrick's Day celebration in this same city, reflecting a hint of Irishness.

    Key Takeaways

    • Though assimilation may be the intergroup consequence most applicable to the experiences of white Americans, the following intergroup consequences are relevant for certain white ethnic groups: genocide, expulsion, internal colonialism, segregation, fusion, and pluralism.
    • Anti-Catholicism and Anglo-conformity as well as prejudice and discrimination contributed to more challenging experiences with intergroup relations amongst Euro Americans/white ethnics.

    Contributors and Attributions