Reflecting On “Hyphen Nation”

Matthew Frye Jacobson’s “Hyphen Nation” focuses on America’s ethnic revival and the evolution of race and culture in America. Jacobson claims that the ethnic revival changed political and social culture, American textbooks and the nation’s identity, and credited the movement with the restoration of Ellis Island into its present museum. These accreditations are all justified and Jacobson presents a thorough history of proof through our nation’s progress and struggle with ethnicity and multiculturalism.

The ethnic revival began with the Civil Rights Movement. As Americans grew less settled in the wars and the actions of their government there was also a focus in the black community of a desire for equality, both in public and in politics. Jacobson discusses how this disillusionment also belonged to the ethnic white communities. In fact, he pointed out several slogans in which slurs would be interchanged to prove a point. However, these turns of phrase were also used by those that opposed the presence of ethnic diversity in America.

Going on to explain things such as the sources and effects of the ethnic revival, Jacobson also discusses ethnic consciousness and a disassociation of ethnic whites from those whites who oppose ethnic diversity. Another great source outside of the Civil Rights Movement is nationalism, credited largely to World War II where troops of a variety were fighting as one unit against a common enemy- again, slogans popping up. The effects here would not only be those slogans, but also the cropping up of homeland political groups and Old World events pulling at the emotions and creating similar support for events outside of the US tied to the groups’ roots, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

With the ethnic revival the scholarly work being produced expanded exponentially with New Social History into African-American studies, immigration histories, women’s history, and ethnic studies. However, Jacobson points out that there were two very stiff sides to this development. While the Kennedy’s Irish heritage was celebrated both in their visits to Ireland, but in the book “Nation of Immigrants”, some scholars, such as Carl Bridenbaugh claimed that the rising scholars mixed roots led to emotionally bias works. While that may have been a gross oversimplification or generalization, he was a respected historian with whom many Americans shared his opinion.

Hyphen Nation discusses everything from race concepts to privilege, how nationalism and the acceptance of cultural diversity not only changed the definition of Americanism but even the content of textbooks. Structural Pluralism led to an America that not only accepts ethnic diversity, but celebrates it and Ellis Island’s funds to be opened as a museum would not have been feasible otherwise. Generation by generation, Jacobson discussed how the diversification of America moved from literature to film and straight into America’s homes. Whether people of that time would have claimed such access desensitized the future generations to inter-ethnic/racial relations is extremely interesting to me.

There are so many parallels to the marriage equality movement and the various aspects of the gripes over ethnicity. Likewise, the interplay between ethnicity and religion could also effect both of these dialogs. As Americans prepare for a possible growth in Syrian refugees, they must struggle not only with an influx of an ethnic group that has been blacklisted and will undoubtedly be treated as second class citizens unless we can learn to embrace the lessons in the works of historians before us. It will be interesting to see if the refugees will ever feel like a hyphened American or if they will be doomed to being outcasts in the long term.

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