America: Still a Mosaic of Ethnics

James Zogby’s Column

Earlier this month a book I authored was released here in the United States. Entitled What Ethnic Americans Really Think, it is a comparative analysis of the views and values of six different American ethnic communities.

The groups I chose for my study collectively comprise 40 percent of American society. African Americans and Hispanics each represent more than 12 percent of the country. Italian Americans are another 10 percent. And Asian, Jewish and Arab Americans combine for six percent of the U.S. population.

Knowing how members of these distinct ethnic groups think is important. Not only is the United States not a homogeneous society, but in many parts of the country one or more of these groups form a significant percentage of the population. And with America becoming more, and not less, diverse, understanding how different groups define themselves, knowing what they value and how they feel about important issues, becomes increasingly vital for policy makers.

Based on polling information derived from the Zogby International “culture polls,” the analysis is grounded in scientific data (for more details see:

What I found in my study was that despite pressures toward conformity resulting from the creation of a media-imposed dominant culture in the United States, ethnicity remains an important factor in shaping people’s self-definition. More than 85 percent of all of the individuals in my study express pride in their ethnic heritage, this includes those who are second and third generation Americans. And this heritage, and the shared sense of history, culture and concerns that it represents, does, in fact, have a measurable impact on attitudes.

When more than four in five say that they are proud of their heritage, and when one-third to two-thirds of all of our respondents say that this heritage is very important to their self-definition-then we must pay attention to this factor.

How the impact of ethnic pride makes itself felt may vary from group to group, and may increase in intensity from issue to issue. It is, for example, well-known that each ethnic community has some specific issue of concern, oftentimes foreign policy matters, that defines a key part of their political agenda.

While we measured the importance of many of these issues in polling our six individual ethnic communities, in this book we focused on the attitudes of ethnic Americans toward a more general set of issues that all have in common.

We found some areas where responses were quite similar. We also found some areas where striking differences exist between our groups and even their component sub-groups. We found, for example, that of all of our groups, ethnic pride and the importance of ethnicity are strongest among African Americans, and to a different extent, immigrant Jewish and Arab Americans-groups that have experienced a degree of discrimination.

Though ethnic pride and identification are strongest among immigrants and only somewhat less strong among college-educated and wealthier native-born Americans, the pull of this force remains quite strong. More than 50 percent of all of our respondents retain a “strong emotional tie to the land of their “heritage,” and almost 20 percent of those surveyed send money to family in the countries of their background.

We also found evidence in our study of the effects of discrimination. Although we seek to become “one America,” almost half of our respondents reported experiencing discrimination because of their ethnic heritage, and more than 15 percent of our respondents noted that they do not have close personal friendships with individuals of other ethnic communities.

This is especially true for African Americans who, of all of the groups, demonstrate the greatest pride in their heritage, report the greatest incidence of discrimination because of their ethnicity, are less likely to live in mixed ethnic neighborhoods and are less likely to have close friendships with other ethnic communities. All of these behaviors and attitudes demonstrate the impact of the exclusion and racism experienced by this substantial group of Americans.

We also noted a connection between ethnic pride, religiosity and political philosophy. We found, for example, that the pull of ethnicity is most deeply felt among those who are the most religiously-observant in their respective communities. More than 50 percent of all of our respondents attend religious services at least weekly. And this group, by and large, appears to be more conservative in political outlook.

On the whole, however, we found that it is difficult to apply traditional labels to the positions that these ethnic Americans take on important current issues. In fact, if the combined set of positions supplied by all six ethnic communities were bundled together as a package, they contradict a central tenet of contemporary conventional political wisdom. While many self-styled “moderates” in both political parties have come to define the center of American politics as being fiscally conservative and socially liberal, what we have found in our study, is that on many key issues, our groups define a radically different political center that is fiscally liberal and socially conservative.

For example, on several issues large majorities in all of the groups agree on positions that have traditionally been viewed as liberal. They agree on: using the federal budget surplus to strengthen social security and health care programs; increasing the minimum wage; fining polluters; and the need for new gun control laws.

Conversely, on other issues, majorities in almost all the groups agree with a number of conservative issues. For example, they agree that parents of girls under 17 should be notified if their daughters seek an abortion; the death penalty is needed; children who use guns to commit crimes should be treated as adults; and providing school vouchers to parents is a good idea.

What the book concludes, is that even with this agreement on a range of ideas, America is not and probably never was “a melting pot”-where ethnicity has been boiled down to create an amorphous mass culture and common identity.

Instead of a “melting-pot” America can best be described, as Jesse Jackson would say, as “a mosaic” or a carpet woven of many colors and patterns. While there is an American culture and there are shared American values, this study shows that these coexist with strong distinct ethnic identities that remain a vital factor in shaping values.