“Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.” Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass.
Americanization constituted a nativist movement dedicated to erasing the original cultures, and especially the languages, of the twenty-seven million New Immigrants (that is, the Italians and Eastern Europeans) who entered the United States from 1880 to 1930. (Dinnerstein and Reimers, 43) The melting pot theory rationalized the coercive thrust of Americanization by proposing that some part of the immigrants’ culture would automatically become part of the fabric of a general American culture. Cultural pluralism, a neglected intellectual movement that emerged before World War, countered the Americanization program and its melting pot theory by: rejecting all efforts to coerce cultural minorities to assimilate; documenting the contributions of the immigrants to the United States; and celebrating diversity. The cultural pluralists insisted that ethnic minorities, while learning English, had a right to maintain and develop their original cultures. They acknowledged the immigrants’ own cultures as assets to United States society, and disputed the claim that Americanization represented the best interests of the immigrants and their new homeland. The cultural pluralists identified Americanization as a project of the Anglo-Saxon establishment, which was motivated by the goal of reinforcing its political and economic dominance. Cultural pluralism was a movement allied to political and philosophical tendencies—such as, Progressivism, the New Deal, and the Popular Front—which fought for a society that ensured cultural and economic rights as well as those legal rights already acknowledged in the Bill of Rights.
This essay explores the contributions of four important advocates of the cultural pluralist movement–Horace Kallen, Randolph Bourne, Louis Adamic, and Leonard Covello—who from 1915 until shortly after World War II helped develop a response to the hegemonic melting pot theory and practice. This paper will also show how their efforts were intended to empower the most defenseless of all Americans—the foreign-born—as part of wider progressive movements that were overwhelmed by the political reactions that followed the two World Wars.
The cultural pluralists labored against powerful forces. In the 1912 presidential election, Theodore Roosevelt declared “we have room for but one language here . . . . We intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boardinghouse.” At Woodrow Wilson’s insistence, the Democratic Party’s 1916 platform denounced alleged “conspiracies” designed to advance “the interests of foreign countries,” and condemned ethnic associations as “subversive.” By 1924, powerful anti-immigrant movements had succeeded in obtaining the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, which established quotas based on 2 percent of the number of each nationality residing in the United States at the time of the 1890 census, that is, prior to the great influx of Italian and Eastern European immigrants. This limited the number of immigrants from Italy to 5,802 per year, and permitted only minuscule numbers of Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans to immigrate to the United States; 76 percent of the total annual quota was assigned to the British, Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants. The message sounded loudly—the United States welcomed those who most resembled its white population prior to the entry of the New Immigrants; and those who differed linguistically, culturally, religiously, and racially from the majority would be tolerated if their numbers were small and their willingness to quickly assimilate was large. In this way, United States immigration laws—in addition to the already established class and racial divisions–erected a hierarchy of nationalities, thereby adding a veritable caste system that privileged “Anglo Saxons” (a rubric including: Old Stock Americans, and those deriving from North West Europe) as opposed to the New Immigrants. United States immigration law based on national quotas favoring Europeans from North West Europe remained in force until October 3, 1965, when the McCarran-Walker Act set aside quotas based on national origin.
The major mechanism for Americanization was the public school system. New York Superintendent of Schools William Maxwell declared in 1913 that the “great business of the department of education in this city [is] to train the immigrant child . . . to become a good American citizen.” During this entire period, the curriculum contained large doses of what was termed civics. In 1893, while visiting an elementary school in a tenement district, Jacob Riis overheard children reciting a type of a pledge of allegiance to the flag that included the phrase “one country, one language, one Flag!” The Americanizers viewed subtracting the original culture—and especially the first language—as preliminary to adding the American culture and the English language. The use of any other language within or near the schools was forbidden. Julia Richmond, a German Jew from an earlier immigration, while serving as the Board of Education’s District Superintendent for the lower East Side, assigned teachers to patrol lunchrooms, restrooms, and schoolyards, whom she instructed to give demerits to any child who was overheard speaking the hated “jargon,” that is, Yiddish. Indeed, the Board of Education removed entirely the teaching of foreign languages from the curriculum along with the cultures and history of the immigrant children in the instructional program. Leonard Covello, the Italian American educator who arrived in Italian Harlem from Avigliano in Southern Italy at the age of nine in 1896, remembered that “throughout my whole elementary school career, I do not recall one mention of Italy or the Italian language or what famous Italians there were in the world with the possible exception of Columbus. . . . We soon got the idea that ‘Italian’ meant something inferior, and a barrier was erected between children of Italian origin and their parents. . . . We were becoming Americans by learning how to be ashamed of our parents.” While in elementary school, one teacher without consultation with his parents summarily changed his first name from Leonardo to Leonard and later another teacher changed his surname from Coviello to Covello. When his father protested, he responded “It’s more American.” One scholar of the immigrant experience has stated that “the main fuel for the American melting pot was shame. The immigrants were . . . taught to be ashamed of their own faces, their family names, their parents, and grandparents, and their class patterns, histories, and life outlooks.” Overtly and covertly the schools sought to transform the immigrant children into “Americans” and prevent their parents and communities from replicating their cultures.
In Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, which was first performed in 1909, the protagonist makes a rousing speech in which he declares “America is God’s Crucible, the great melting-pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming! . . . German, and Frenchman, Irishman, and Englishman, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all. God is making the American.” Roosevelt, who sat next to Zangwill’s wife on opening night in Washington, praised the play, which confirmed his belief that “the man who becomes completely Americanized . . . is doing his plain duty to his adopted land.” The metaphor of the “melting pot,” which connotes an amalgam brought about by a merging of all the nationalities in America, has served as the central rationale for Americanization. However, most have not noticed that the native-born Anglo-Saxon Protestants, neither in the play’s famous invocation nor in practice, were either being hurled or were hurling themselves into the melting pot. (Even less noticed at the time was the failure to add African Americans or Native Americans to the melting pot.) In fact, the melting pot has functioned as a smelting pot, where the immigrants’ languages and cultures flowed away as dross. The remaining molten mass could then be quickly and effortlessly shaped and imprinted by the dominant culture.
From the beginning, leaders of the immigrant communities attacked the theory and practice of the melting pot. An article in a Chicago Polish-language publication denounced “American chauvinists [who defined] Americanism as only one language, unity of thought and opinion,” and compared this to the system of denationalization Prussia had imposed on its Polish minority. A Yiddish newspaper in Chicago rejected the effort to “fuse into one piece . . . the various nationalities.” It argued that “it is much better that they should treasure dearly the inheritance which they brought with them from the old world.” With some notable exceptions, (for example, Jane Addams and other members of the settlement house movement), Americanization went largely unchallenged in the institutions and media of the native-born.
William James, who at the turn of the century advocated the development of different national groups within the boundaries of a common American civilization, was one of the first public figures from the dominant culture to question the assimilationist drive of the Americanizers. However, the first sustained integrated counterthesis to the melting pot position was presented in 1915 by a student of James, a young German-born Jewish intellectual, Horace Kallen. In a two-part article, “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot,” published in The Nation, he advocated that the United States become a “democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously in the enterprise of self-realization [utilizing] a common language . . . English.” Kallen posited that the United States was already “in the process of becoming a true federal state . . . a republic consisting of a federation or commonwealth of nationalities.” He based this position in part on the results of the 1910 Census which showed that 51 percent of the people of the North Atlantic states and 48 percent of the people of the Western states were either foreign-born or had at least one foreign-born parent. More than one-half the population in the North Central states (especially, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota) and the larger cities was first- and second-generation American. Significantly, none of the responses to Kallen’s article published in The Nation questioned its most far-reaching assumption, that the United States had become de facto a multi-national state.
Kallen challenged the Americanizers by citing the accomplishments of the immigrant groups, such as, the establishment of secular schools by the Czechs in Chicago and the support of the Poles in the United States for the cause of an independent democratic Poland. What, he asked, would replace these activities when these groups assimilated? He also noted the inferior literary and cultural level of the commercial English-language newspapers that immigrants ultimately substituted for the newspapers published in their own languages. It was Kallen who first tagged the melting pot as a project of the dominant class, which he argued, opposed the preservation of the immigrants’ cultures not because they were inferior but because “they cannot tolerate ‘difference.’”
In opposition to the “melting pot,” Kallen proposed “the symphony of civilizations.” This metaphor expressed a vision of the United States based on the image of an orchestra where “every type of instrument has its specific timbre and tonality, founded in its substance and form; as every type has its appropriate theme and melody in the whole symphony, so in society each ethnic group is the natural instrument, its spirit and culture are its theme and melody, and the harmony and dissonances and discords of them all make the symphony of civilizations, [where] the playing is the writing . . . the range and variety of the harmonies may become wider and richer and more beautiful.” Today, while Zangwill’s metaphor is universally known and cited everywhere from text books to the most specialized scholarly works, Kallen’s “symphony of civilizations” is rarely mentioned.
Kallen’s “the symphony of civilizations,” despite its apparent inclusiveness, was not broad enough to include people of color–African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. Nonetheless, cultural pluralism almost naturally became allied to the antiracist movement. Assimilation of immigrants means their adoption of the attitudes and beliefs of the dominant culture, and in American that means racism, a belief that few arrived with. Moreover, the assumption on the part of the cultural pluralists that the immigrant groups were minorities deserving of certain protection and rights could only strengthen the position of African Americans, who after all represented the largest, and most oppressed, minority.
Kallen was securely a part of the Progressive movement, but he was not radical. The origins of his cultural pluralism sprang primarily from the dilemma of the secular Jew. Rejecting the Jewish religion, while still identifying himself as a Jew, Kallen like so many other secular Jews, needed to construct an ideology that would solidify a Jewish identity apart from of a religious context. For Kallen, this meant Zionism; later, other Jews were attracted to the Reconstructionist movement. Kallen’s cultural pluralism sought to preserve ethnic and cultural differences, nothing more. While maintaining his belief in Zionism, Kallen’s brand of cultural pluralism worked itself out into a variety of liberalism where diversity was viewed as essential for an “experimental” democracy that respected individual rights and diverse cultural values.
Cultural exclusiveness did not necessarily work out to the left. In the Italian American community, for example, both the prominenti and the agents of Fascism encouraged italianità as part of their overall strategy of bonding the Italian American masses to them. The attempts of the Fascists to maintain ethnic exclusiveness within the United States, however, bears at most a superficial resemble to cultural pluralism. After Kallen, cultural pluralism—as an ideology and a movement–was developed, propagated, and embraced by individuals and organizations identified with the left, who did not view the immigrants as diasporic peoples inhabiting outposts of their motherlands, but as full and needed participants in a project in their adopted homeland that entailed building a democracy that ensured cultural, social, and economic rights as well as the political and legal rights enunciated in the Constitution.
The ruling elite propagated Americanization because it sensed that the immigrant communities represented bases for opposition to unbridled capitalism. The immigrants were almost exclusively derived from the proletarian and peasant classes. During the period 1880 to 1924, the percentage of immigrants listed as laborers ranged from a high of 80 percent in 1901 to a low of 35 percent in 1920; the percentage of farmers stayed within a narrower range of between 20 to 30 percent during this entire period; and the percentage of skilled workers ranged from a high of 20 percent in 1880 to a low of 4 percent in 1903. While the percentages of immigrants from these three categories changed from ear to year, throughout the entire period only miniscule numbers of proprietors and professionals were among the millions of New Immigrants. The occupations of male Italian emigrants in 1910, for example, counted only .37 as “liberal professions,” and only 10 percent were listed as “artisans and manufacturing.” Of those who had identifiable occupations, nearly 90 percent were peasants or laborers. What distinguished the Italians from the German and Jewish immigrants was that the latter contained large numbers of skilled workers. The American upper classes perceived the New Immigrants as a menace because, unlike native-born workers, their ties of nationality and language gave them an additional sense of solidarity. Moreover, overlapping patterns of residence and work increased group consciousness. Consequently, they were much more prone to trade unionism and radicalism than native-born Americans, and especially those workers derived from so-called “old-stock” Americans.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that in the United States during this entire period and spanning into the thirties and forties, all left movements–anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, socialist, and communist—were, to a remarkable extent, based on immigrants and their American-born children. Until the 1890s, the anarchist movement represented the predominant form of radicalism in the immigrant communities. For example, one study on Jewish anarchism concludes that in that community it “emerged as the largest and certainly the most dynamic movement” in the period 1886-1890. However, with the exception of Italian Americans, anarchism tended to be an exclusively first-generation phenomenon. One study of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) shows that, despite its reputation as a “native” American expression of radicalism, the foreign-born comprised a majority of its membership. In the Western states 42 percent of the IWW’s membership was foreign born and in the eastern cities it was predominantly foreign-born. Unable to vote and unwelcomed by most of the trade unions, the IWW provided a logical home for radicalized immigrants. After its founding in 1901, the Socialist Party initially, garnered its highest percentages of the electorate in states with relatively few recent immigrants, such as, Oklahoma, Nevada, Montana, Washington, California, and Idaho. However, by 1919 its foreign-language federations provided a majority of its membership, and thereafter the loci of its much diminished strength (Milwaukee, Reading, working class Jewish neighborhoods in New York City) were populated by those a part of or close to the first-generation immigrant cultures.
The association of the Communist Party with the foreign-born was especially close. Throughout the twenties, 90 percent of its membership was foreign-born. It was not until the late 1930s that as many as one-half its membership was American-born, and most of this cohort was second-generation Americans. The Communist Party’s mass base in the immigrant communities was solidified through a remarkably elaborated infrastructure. The International Workers Order, a fraternal organization led by the Party, organized into fifteen nationality sections (along with a number of other nationality fraternal organizations outside this umbrella), whose membership peaked in1947 at 185,000 men and women organized the Party’s members and sympathizers in these communities into over two thousand lodges. The Party’s foreign-language press reached a circulation in 1944 of 400,000, which far exceeded its press circulation for its English-language publications. The Party also guided the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, a national organization founded in 1933, which strove to influence public opinion, lobby legislators, assist those applying for citizenship, and most crucially provided legal help in deportation cases.
The Left at all times represented a minority—of various proportions–in the immigrant communities; however, almost without exception it constituted a larger minority than it did in the native-born sector of the United States.
Randolph Bourne, one the greatest essayists of American letters, became the first important figure to expand upon Kallen’s thesis. Although he was a native-born son of native-born Anglo-Saxon parents, Bourne—whose face had been disfigured at birth and whose back was hunched as a consequence of spinal tuberculosis—identified with all those marginalized by conventional society, and most specifically the immigrants.
He argued that the American people were confronted with two “ideals of American nationalism: the melting pot or the cooperation of cultures, that is, trans-nationalism.” In “Trans-national America,” published in 1916 by The Atlantic Monthly, Bourne identified Americanization as a project of the “Brahmins” who “insisted that the aliens be forcibly assimilated to the Anglo-Saxon tradition they label Americanism . . . in order to impose its own culture upon the minority people.” He derided the Americanizers’ cultural goals by declaring that the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons maintained a “tenacious cultural allegiance to England. English snobberies are their cultural food. . . . [Culturally] the United States is a self-governing dominion of the British Empire.” He asserted that the optimistic individualism of New England—that is, the culture of Emerson and company—was exhausted, and that the other “purely American region,” the South, provided no model for a viable American culture. In this sense, the Americanizers were foisting on the immigrants an inauthentic American culture, because no genuine American culture yet existed.
Bourne, in the process of uncovering the political implications of cultural pluralism, underscored its inherent critique of the dominant culture. He categorized the melting pot as a component of the ideology of a ruling class that wishes to “assimilate all Europeans . . . to the prevailing Anglo-Saxon [culture].” Like Kallen, Bourne asserted that the foreign cultures had remained distinct but cooperative, and had not been melted down or run together into some homogeneous Americanism. Why, he asked, should anyone propose that the immigrant cultures be replace by “tasteless, colorless conformity?” However, unlike Kallen, who proposed the indefinite preservation of the immigrant cultures, Bourne and subsequent cultural pluralists (ultimately including Kallen) equally opposed cultural and ethnic parochialism.
Bourne asserted that the American nationality was a work in progress that held out the potentiality for “the first international nation,” where individuals could construct a cosmopolitan identity that mediated consent- and descent-identities. Lastly, Bourne provided a critical insight embodied in his term “transnationalism,” that is, cultural minorities are inextricably involved in a reciprocal relationship with their countries or regions of origin. Transnationalism was posited by Bourne as the opposite of American nationalism; viz., an ideology which interacts with the world in an equal interacting manner as opposed to one which seeks dominance and gain at the expense of other nations. To the American ruling groups, transnationalism seemed little different from internationalism, a key component of socialist politics. By drawing out the political implications of cultural pluralism, Bourne showed why those with power and wealth could only either oppose completely (or support only the most eviscerate version imaginable) of cultural pluralism.
The political reaction initiated by the entry of the United States into World War I during the twenties submerged cultural pluralism. Before he died at the age of thirty-two in 1918, Bourne had been effectively silenced. In 1917, his antiwar essays—which declared that “War is the health of the state!”—had caused the major financial backer of The Seven Arts to withdraw, thereby causing its demise; the other major venue for his essays, The Masses, also closed when its antiwar stance caused the Attorney General to invoke the Espionage Act of 1917 in order to revoke its second-class mailing privileges. Even more ominous to this fledgling movement was the virulent nativist movement that had been engendered by the participation of the United States in World War I. By 1921, more than thirty states as well as hundreds of cities and towns had enacted Americanization laws. Local school systems, employers, unions, and over one hundred private organizations as well as several federal and state agencies, initiated Americanization classes disguised as English and civics classes. Although originally directed against the German language, the nativist tide led to widespread prohibitions of the teaching of all foreign languages in the pubic schools. Throughout the twenties, the Ku Klux Klan, which by 1924 had attracted five million members, focused its ritualized hatred on the foreign-born and Catholics. Starting with Bourne, cultural pluralists concurred on the dual purposes of Americanization: the disempowerment of cultural minorities, and the bonding of the “Anglo-Saxon” workers to the dominant class.
In the thirties, this change in attitude occurred as part of the general shift to the left. The attacks on minorities by the Right in Germany, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere (which, for many, contrasted with the nationality policies in effect in the Soviet Union) motivated the Left in the United States to prioritize the cause of cultural pluralism. Popular Front culture in literature, movies, and music depicted racial and ethnic minorities as components of a nascent egalitarian pluralist society. Within this hegemonic left milieu, cultural pluralism gained widespread acceptance in education and the social sciences.
Of great importance to the vastly enhanced status of cultural pluralism was the 1930 Census, whose results contradicted the assumption that the immigration laws of 1920 and 1924 had resolved the “immigrant question.” These census data showed that compared to 1920 the number of foreign born from Europe had actually slightly increased and the number of Americans with at least one European-born parent had increased by almost three million. The Census Bureau’s infelicitous term “foreign white stock,”—that is, the foreign born (12.7 percent) and those who had a least one foreign-born parent (23.5 percent)—comprised 36.2 percent of the total white population of the United States. In New York City 73 percent of the population was “foreign white stock,” Chicago 64 percent, Philadelphia 50 percent, Cleveland 65 percent, Boston 71 percent, Detroit, San Francisco, Minneapolis and St. Paul 57 percent. These numbers substantiated the key contention of the cultural pluralists, that the United States was de facto a culturally pluralistic nation.
The national and racial minorities became welcomed components of the trade union movement and the New Deal coalition. Indeed, the New Deal was to a remarkable extent based on the mobilization of ethnic groups and African Americans. This process began with the candidacy of Alfred E. Smith in 1928, which brought about a massive influx of Catholic ethnic voters into the Democratic Party. In Chicago, for example, from 1924 to 1928, the Democratic Party’s vote increased among Polish Americans from 35 to 71 percent, and among Italian Americans from 19 to 63 percent. In response to the nativist and racist reaction engendered by Smith’s candidacy, the Democratic Party’s Jewish vote increased from 31 to 63 percent. By 1936, African Americans had left en masse from the Party of Lincoln, and the percentages of European ethnic voters rose spectacularly. While Roosevelt garnered 65 percent of the urban vote overall, 85 percent of Irish Americans, 91 percent of Jewish Americans, and 88 percent of Italian Americans voted for the Happy Warrior. Roosevelt’s elections depended on the electoral votes of the “Solid South,” and The New Deal coalition, which was not so much a working class coalition as a coalition of largely proletarianized ethnic groups, Jews of all classes, and African Americans. In the somewhat anomalous 1940 election, only 33 percent of urban voters with above-average income supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt; but 57 percent of Irish Americans with above-average income and 80 percent of Jews with above average-incomes voted for Roosevelt. In the 1948 presidential election the New Deal coalition persisted: nationality groups and African Americans voted for the Democrats in overwhelming numbers, and 81 percent of white, native-born Protestants voted Republican. Since then, there has been a basic difference in political behavior with the American electorate between native-born Protestants, who represent the “majority” group in American society, and those who consider themselves in some way to be minorities.
Louis Adamic, who has been aptly described as a “curiously neglected figure largely forgotten even by his unknowing disciples,” is the figure most closely identified with this high point of cultural pluralism. Soon after arriving in the United States from Slovenia in 1913 at the age of fourteen, Adamic began contributing to the Slovenian-language press. After serving in the United States Army he started to write in English. His advocacy for the oppressed and the clear prose of his first book, Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America, foreshadowed his large corpus devoted to the immigrants, their children, and communities. The thrust of Adamic’s approach to cultural pluralism is captured by his insistence that “in the past there has been entirely too much giving up, too much melting away and shattering of the various cultural values of the new groups.” Echoing Kallen and Bourne, Adamic insisted that the “Americanized foreigner became a cultural zero paying lip service to the U.S., which satisfied the Americanizers.” In place of Americanization, he proposed “Americanism,” which would make a “central educational and cultural effort . . . toward accepting, welcoming, and exploiting diversity.” According to Adamic, the United States had the unique “opportunity to create a great culture . . . which could approach being universal or pan-human and more satisfying to the human make-up than any culture that has yet appeared under the sun.”
“Thirty Million New Americans,” published in Harper’s Monthly in 1934, outlined the specific themes that characterized his approach throughout his career. Here and elsewhere, his diagnosis of the problems of the second generation became his major contribution to the theory of cultural pluralism. Americanization, he insisted, caused the second generation to experience feelings of inferiority based on their parents’ second-class citizenship, which consigned them to the worst jobs and the worst sections of the cities and towns. “They were called Hunkies or Bohunks, Dagoes or Wops, Polacks or Litvaks, Sheenies or Kikes. They were frequently—and unavoidably—discriminated against.” According to Adamic, the parents were in a better position than their children, because they could “take refuge in their racial and cultural backgrounds.” The children, who knew nothing of their parents’ culture, “break away from the homes of their immigrant parents, and eventually repudiate entirely their origin.” Some of these “New Americans become chauvinistically patriotic, others become actively antisocial.” The majority, according to Adamic, have “segregated themselves,” and “just hang back from the main stream of life in this country, forming a tremendous mass of neutral, politically dead citizenry.” Adamic proposed that the remedy was not larger doses of Americanization but efforts to “inspire in them some respect for what it meant to be a Finn, a Slovenian, a Serbian, a Croatian, a Slovak, a Czech . . . make them conscious of their backgrounds and heritage.” In short, the schools, libraries, and settlement houses must understand that “it is impossible and, what is more, undesirable to make the offspring of Lithuanians or Serbians into Anglo-Saxons, the aim should be rather to help them become real men and women on the pattern of their own natural cultures.” The publication of My America in 1938 established Adamic’s pre-eminence as an advocate for cultural democracy in America. In its introduction, he demanded that “Ellis Island must become as much the symbol of the United States as Plymouth Rock, [because] the coming of peoples to this continent, voluntarily or in chains, is at the very center of our historical process.”
Adamic’s importance to cultural pluralism sprang from his ability to popularize these ideas to enormous audiences. His writings (which included translations into nine languages) numbered more than 570 titles. The Native’s Return was selected as a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, and My America went through ten English-language printings. Adamic also devoted tremendous energy to the creation of an organization which would elaborate, disseminate, and perpetuate cultural pluralism.
Working though the Common Council for American Unity, which he had helped establish in 1939, he began to assemble information about different national and racial groups and demanded the revision of American history text books to acknowledge their contributions to the development of the American nation. He had long hoped for the founding of such an organization for the purpose of giving “these millions of New Americans knowledge of, and pride in, their own heritage, which would operate to counteract their feelings of inferiority. . . and simultaneously create a sympathetic understanding toward them on the part of older Americans.” Working through the Common Council, other organizations, and in his writing and speaking, he encouraged the implementation of ethnic studies on a grand scale, and the systematic documentation of the contributions of the immigrants to American society. He protested the exclusion of these groups from every area of American life, including popular culture. For example, he noted that in 1945 the Writers’ War Board issued a report concerning popular writing which declared that American fiction “perpetuates the false and mischievous notion that ours is a White, Protestant Anglo-Saxon country.” In 185 short stories published between 1937 and 1943 in eight magazines, “90.8 percent of 889 identifiable characters were Anglo-Saxon. Only sixteen Negroes and ten Jews were counted.”
Adamic was responsible for the name and the general direction of Common Ground, a quarterly founded in 1940, which was “addressed to the foreign born and to Americans who ought to know more about them.” Reflecting Adamic’s understanding of the importance of both the dissemination of information and the development of organizations to create the means to accomplish this, the journal was organized into four departments: “Organizations and Their Work,” “School and Teachers,” “From the Immigrant Press,” and “The Bookshelf.” His influence on this journal was so great that it was popularly referred to as “Adamic’s magazine.” Common Ground lived up to its name: its most frequent contributor was Langston Hughes. By unequivocally protesting the incarceration of Japanese Americans, demanding in the title of one article, “Get the Evacuees Out!”, Common Ground’s editors joined the honorable, and astoundingly thin, ranks of Americans who protested this travesty. In 1946, the journal’s paid circulation peaked at close to nine thousand, including 1,757 libraries and educational institutions.
The cultural pluralist conceptions developed by Kallen and Bourne and publicized by Adamic were without effect unless they could be introduced into the major arena for Americanization, that is, the public school system. After all, as Bourne noted, “to decide what kind of a school we want is almost to decide what kind of a society we want.” To a degree greater than any other educator, this task fell to Leonard Covello, whose place in the cultural pluralist movement has gone largely unrecognized.
Covello dedicated his entire professional life as an educational theorist and practitioner to meeting the educational needs of the Italian American and, by extension, all minority-culture school children. His magisterial dissertation, “The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child,” which was later published, and his autobiography, The Heart Is the Teacher, as well as approximately forty articles and innumerable speeches, were devoted to this goal. Covello joined scholarship to unending activism directed toward the realization of his educational philosophy, which he termed “community centered education.” Community-centered education can be understood as a synthesis of the ideas and experiences that animated the settlement house, progressive education, and cultural pluralist movements as refracted through the prism of the Italian American experience. In his scheme, the school would serve as a resource for the community and the community for the school. The languages and cultures of the parents would become part of the school system’s curriculum and activities. The children would learn Italian during the day, the parents English in the evening, and the entire community would be drawn into the vortex of a democratic ethos that celebrated a pluralistic America.
Like Adamic, Covello’s primary focus was on the second generation. In a lecture presented in 1939 as part of his New York University course, “The Social Background of the Italian Family in America,” he argued that education must foster among the children of the immigrants the realization that “their foreign heritage is not necessarily an inferior heritage, merely because it is not American.” He continued to note that “absorption [of the immigrant school child] is neither possible nor satisfactory if absorption means an effort to obliterate completely all traces of a former culture.” Covello educational philosophy insisted on a new curricula and activities in the public schools that reflected a “reciprocal relationship between the good things in both foreign and native cultures . . . . For this purpose, the community centered school does not want to suppress the traditions of foreign cultural groups. . . . The appreciation by the school of such values leads to a fuller integration between itself and the community; it gives recognition and prestige to foreign cultural groups. The enriching elements of all original cultural heritages can be blended and added to the American culture. [Among the students] a sense of pride must be developed both as to a native heritage and in relation to the American heritage.” Community-centered education evolved in opposition to the Americanizing thrust of prevailing public school practice, which Covello identified as a major source of the Italian American parents’ hostility toward prolonged education. He viewed the Americanizing ethos of the public schools as engendered loyalty conflicts among the children, especially as they entered high school, because it inculcated values at variance with those of the family and community.
Covello stressed the importance of maintaining and teaching the Italian language. In 1939, for example, he argued that “the familiar foreign languages must be used. It is the idea and not the language itself that is important. . . . It penetrates to depths beyond the mind even—depths that can never be reached through the use of the newer—the unfamiliar—language.” However, entirely typical of all of Covello’s work, he joined advocacy to activity. As the Vice President of the Italian Teachers Association, he led a successful campaign that in 1922 convinced the Board of Education to recognize Italian as a “first language” on a par with Latin, French, German, and Spanish, that could be studied without having been previously enrolled for a year in another Romance language. Under his leadership as Chair of the Italian Department at DeWitt Clinton High School, the number of students studying Italian increased from 62 in 1921, to 475 in 1924, to 625 in 1928, which made it the largest Italian Department in the United States on either the high school or college level.
What makes Covello so especially interesting is the constant development of his educational philosophy in response to his concrete efforts to enhance student success. This process began when he started his career in 1913 as a teacher of French, and later Italian, in DeWitt Clinton High School, and almost concurrently when he became a leader of the system-wide Italian Teachers Association. Covello’s teaching in New York University’s School of Education, from 1928 until the 1940’s, and his directorship of the Educational Bureau of the Casa Italiana of Columbia University (established in 1931), provided arenas from which he was able to reach wider audiences, and a context for carrying out research which became the material for his writing. In 1934, he attained a rare opportunity for an educational theorist, an appointment as founding principal of a high school, Benjamin Franklin, located in the center of Italian Harlem, dedicated to the realization of his philosophy. After his retirement in 1956, he served until 1968 as educational consultant to the Migration Division of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, where he adapted his educational ideas and experience to the educational needs of another neglected nationality.
Covello, who was a socialist, operated under the restraints of a civil servant which forbade any advocacy of political—and most especially, leftist—political views. Indeed during his career in the New York City public school system, Covello witnessed three political purges: those of the Lusk Committee in the early twenties, which actually caused the firing of some colleagues at DeWitt Clinton; the Rapp Coudert Hearings of 1939-1941; and last but not least the mass firings of teachers during the McCarthy period. This explains his at times somewhat muted support for cultural pluralism despite its centrality to Covello’s educational philosophy. For some, Covello’s views amounted to little more than “an enlightened and liberal means of achieving the goal of assimilation.” One student of cultural pluralism went as far as to insist that “Leonard Covello was not a cultural pluralist.” Some of the confusion arises from a lack of understanding of Covello’s terms. For example, he used “assimilation” in a sense that allows for indefinite cultural retention. In 1939, he wrote “a true assimilation means absorption of the foreign groups without destruction of their fundamental characteristics and without the obliteration of an understandable pride in the fine things that come to them from the past history of their races and nations. . . . Uniformity is not desirable. The very differences that characterize the immigrant groups are important to America.” Kallen, Bourne, Adamic, and Covello’s interpretations of cultural pluralism varied; however, their commonalties were greater than their differences. They insisted that Americanization did great harm to the immigrants and their children. As an immigrant who grew up in America and attended its public schools, Covello insights in this area were particularly acute. For Covello, language maintenance had to do with family and community unity. He asked, “How can the conflicts within the foreign-born home be adjusted, if no medium exists through which the various members of the family can arrive at an understanding of one another’s viewpoint and purposes?” Similarly, he insisted that the Italian American communities (which he described as “an agglomeration of numerous disjointed groupings”) could only be united if both English and Italian were recognized. All acknowledged the vast extent of the immigrant communities in the United States and their centrality to the American experience. While rejecting cultural and ethnic parochialism, they viewed the cultures of the ethnic and racial minorities as invaluable for the spiritual and psychosocial needs of these communities as well as assets for a richer, authentically American culture.
The effects of World War II on American society began a slow but sure reversal of the tremendous progress that the cultural pluralism made during the thirties. In 1940, the Smith Act, which required all resident aliens to register and be fingerprinted, sent a chilling message to the members of all immigrant nationalities. Shortly after the declaration of war with Germany, the New York Times reported that in Manhattan’s primarily German-American community of Yorkville, German-language signs were taken down from beer halls and German-language movies were discontinued. In 1942, by Executive Order Forty the government had forty thousand first-generation and seventy thousand second-generation Japanese Americans evacuated and incarcerated into ten camps, complete with armed military police, guard towers, and barbed wire. Six hundred thousand Italian Americans were placed on the enemy alien list, which entailed a series of restrictions on their lives including where they could live and their ownership of radios. All of this conveyed a strong message that ethnic minorities could be held responsible for the actions of their countries of origin. This realization undercut support for cultural pluralism, despite the celebration of a multi-ethnic—and on occasion multi-racial—America portrayed in official propaganda as well as Hollywood movies.
It was the domestic Cold War, that is, McCarthyism, however, which inflicted the greatest damage to the cause of the cultural pluralists. Americanization had always been a movement of the Right; and cultural pluralism from its inception had been primarily a project of the Left. Americanization, reinforced by the melting pot theory, corresponded to the interests of the owning class, because it disempowered the immigrant communities. Its message rang out clear: the path to acceptance and success requires the adoption not only of the customs, but also the ideas of America. These were not those ideas embedded in the Bill of Rights, but a celebratory, exclusive nationalism that led to acquiescence and conformity. Consequently, the Right used the power of the state and its hegemony over civic society to bring about the acculturation of the immigrants as quickly as possible and, under certain conditions, the repression of cultural pluralism. At the same time, cultural pluralism provided an ideology for leaders within the immigrant communities, and left intellectuals, which justified resistance to Americanization. Cultural pluralism was joined to the struggle for racial equality and a more equitable society, which was perhaps best summed up by Vice president Henry Wallace in 1943 when he predicted that the Twentieth Century was the Century of the Common Man.
During the McCarthy period, the entire Left agenda, its major spokespersons, and its institutions came under scrutiny and sanction. For example, the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born and the International Workers Order—were placed on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations. The fate of Louis Adamic (in ways that are similar to Bourne during the earlier Red Scare) encapsulates the general assault of cultural pluralism during this period.
Adamic, as he developed a national reputation, maintained his ties to the Slovenian-American community and the larger Yugoslavian community, both of which boasted large left-wing contingents. Within these and other immigrant communities as well as the general society, Adamic had boldly associated himself with organizations closely connected to the Communist Party, including the Slovenian-American National Council (of which he served as honorary president), the United Committee of South Slav-Americans, the American Committee for a Free Yugoslavia, and most importantly, the American Slav Congress, an organization launched in 1942 to unite the ten million Americans of the various Slavic nationalities around the demand for a second front and Russian war relief. In 1948, he served as a member of the platform committee at the Progressive Party Convention and was one of the five persons who wrote “Peace, Freedom and Abundance: The Platform of the Progressive Party.” Louis Budenz, former Managing Editor of the Daily Worker and then one of the government’s professional witnesses, testified before a Senate committee that “Mr. Adamic was not a Communist.” However, on August 2, 1948, before a Senate Committee, he accused Adamic of permitting Earl Browder, when he was Communist Party Chairman, of reading the proof sheets of My Native Land, Adamic’s highly considered account of the Yugoslav resistance. Adamic denied these charges and insisted that his name and books had been brought into “the present hysteria wave” because of his support of the Progressive Party.” These attacks caused the Carnegie Corporation to withdraw its support of Common Ground, which ceased publishing in 1950. Adamic’s associations with the Left were sufficient to remove him from public life. Subsequently, what has been erased from the history books is the memory of this man, who has been described as being “the foremost ethnic spokesman during the inter-war years, [who more than any other person had] grappled with the ethnic question in American life with such intensity of feeling and fever of commitment; few men have made such an impact on the rank and file of the ethnic groups, and few men have articulated such a vision of national regeneration.”
The destruction of the Left—its institutions, publications, and presence in the wider society—eliminated the framework within which the immigrant communities and their allies in the general society could press for cultural pluralism. Separately, the various nationality groups lacked the organizational means to defend their legal and cultural rights. Moreover, they did not have an ideology that could unite them around a politics that among things posited cultural pluralism as opposed to Americanization. This ideology could only thrive as a component of a movement demanding—without perhaps ever employing the word—social democracy, that is, a definition of democracy which incorporated along with the legal and political rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution, cultural, social, and economic (that is, group) rights.
Cultural pluralism is not the exact equivalent of today’s multiculturalism. Both assert the right of cultural minorities to persist in the expressions of their cultures and to expect respect and support from public policy and public institutions, especially the public schools. Unfortunately, multiculturalism advances through the lobbying of each individual ethnic and racial groups and is inserted into an otherwise unchanged ideological and institutional framework. Multiculturalism does not articulate reasons why one minority should support the others’ claims and society’s overall interest in this project. Conversely, cultural pluralism situated the demands of the various groups within a context of a non-going struggle for the realization of a much broader definition of democracy that included cultural rights. The key to comprehending this distinction is that the cultural pluralists believed all the cultural minority groups objectively shared in common what Bourne called a need for a “co-operative Americanism,” where all of the country’s nationalities were free to simultaneously maintain “distinct cultural allegiances” and “common political allegiance and common social ends.” In a similar vein, Covello insisted that the immigrant children must “feel that a knowledge of and a pride in their foreign cultural heritage is natural and just—something desirable for themselves, for the America of today, and the America of tomorrow.” In every case, they envisioned the minority communities coalescing with progressive native-American forces to create a movement that would struggle to add to individual rights economic, social, and cultural rights. Clearly, today that would include the gay and lesbian community, which represents yet another minority striving to have its culture and rights flourish along side of other similarly empowered minorities
The numbers of “New Immigrants” dramatically decreased. The restrictive immigration laws, then the Great Depression, and World War II made immigration near impossible. Although there was some increase in immigration from Europe after World War II, by the sixties the United States seemed less and less attractive to most Europeans. The reduction of an influx of new European immigrants to a trickle meant that their sites of traditional settlement, newspapers, organizations, etc., lost the core of support around which subsequent generations could adhere. Consequently, to somewhat varying degrees, the European ethnic groups have entered into what has been called “the twilight of ethnicity.” Among many other things, this has meant that there is a loss of constituencies sympathetic to the most recent wave of immigrants. Moreover, because of their loss of minority status, the European ethnic groups, often in contradiction to their own economic and social interests, have drifted politically to the right, where they have been met with open arms. Importantly, within almost every European group there are individuals, who report feelings of loss due to their disconnectedness to their forbearers and their culture. Many have become determined to reconnect with their roots by taking actions such as learning the languages and cultures of their families’ origins and visiting the sites of their lives in Europe. Almost invariably, these steps lead them to a more sympathetic attitude to today’s immigrants and opposition to the repressive individualism currently masquerading as full-fledged Americanism.
The enormous increase in immigration that started around 1970 and which has persisted to this day has brought to the fore the need to re-examine the heritage of the cultural pluralists. Today, almost 12 percent of the population of the United States is comprised of immigrants, who together with their children constitute almost one-fourth of this country’s population. The difference between the New Immigrants who arrived from 1880 to 1920 and the new immigrants of today is that only 14 percent of the recent immigrants have arrived from Europe, while fully 42 percent derive from Latin America and another 26 percent from Asia. The vapid notion that “we are all multiculturalists now” is contradicted by the widespread denial of the rights of these immigrants their children and grandchildren to bilingual education, due process, and recognition of the value of their languages and cultures. The scapegoating potential of immigrants has been once again exhibited by the profiling of Arab and Muslim immigrants in general. Cultural pluralism is part of a nearly lost progressive heritage whose recovery could greatly help cultural minorities to more effectively assert their rights to equality against increasingly more aggressive forces, that in the name of national security, are intent on erasing difference. Today, as much as it did in earlier years, cultural pluralism belongs on the progressive agenda. This is a matter of equity, but it is also an essential part of the unending fight to realize and broaden democracy in the United States. Works Cited Dinnerstein, Leonard, and David Reimers. Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration. New York: Harper & Row, 1998.
By Gerald Meyer, Ph.D