Date: Sun, 7 Jan 1996 18:18:37 -0600
[Todd M Michney <email@example.com> writes:]
I am a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, currently working on a paper investigating the socioeconomic and ideological content of the "New Ethnicity" or "ethnic revival" that climaxed in the 1970s among America's "white ethnics," descendents of the immigrants who came to this country from Southern and Eastern Europe around the turn of the century. Their forbears having generally come in order to take places in America's developing industrial economy, substantial numbers of white ethnics in the 1970s were still working-class, but at a time when many of the heavy industries in this economy were on the verge of collapse. One of the contexts in which the ethnic revival of this time period built momentum was that of declining real wages and the increasing scarcity of industrial jobs; the concomitant "white backlash" against the societal assertions of African Americans is partially explained by this situation. Interestingly, around 1980, when the trend toward a post-industrial economy had become apparent as irreversible, the ethnic revival was clearly tapering off. I have not yet found any examinations of this particular context for the rise and fall of the movement.
Despite their widely varying interpretations of the cultural grounding and significance of the New Ethnicity, almost all contemporary writers emphasized its working-class dimensions. Commentators like Michael Novak in _The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics_ (1971) and Andrew Greeley in _Why Can't They Be Like Us?_ (1971) generalized the working-class identity of white ethnic Americans, yet emphasized their cultural as well as economic distinctiveness. In contrast, sociologists like Herbert Gans considered the movement little more than a white working-class mobilization, doubting that there was any genuine ethnic content in the revival (See "Symbolic Ethnicity," in Gans, ed. _On the Making of Americans_ (Philadelphia, 1979)). Considering these and other disagreements, it is readily apparent that the linkages between class and ethnicity in this period of American history deserve much closer examination.
In my paper, I intend to look closely at the socioeconomic positioning of white ethnics in American society during the period under study, roughly 1965-1980. Are the images of white ethnic, working-class Americans constructed by contemporary writers borne out by the statistical evidence? Even if white ethnics were largely working-class in the 1970s, can the ethnic revival be accurately described as having been a working-class movement? My initial impression is that middle-class activists were just as likely (if not more likely) to participate. For that matter, who exactly was participating? Were the modes of ethnic women's and men's activism similar or different? If different, did this relate to their respective positions in the work force? In resolving these questions, I am particularly interested to discover whether organized labor was directly involved in the revival, or at least its views on the movement. Along these lines I have turned up some interesting source materials, such as an article in a 1970 issue of the United Steelworkers of America periodical, _Steel Labor_. Interest in the intertwining relationships between race, ethnicity, and class was sufficiently high in 1972 to be treated in an entire issue of _Dissent_.
Is the movement properly understood as having been a politically conservative one? Critics of the New Ethnicity, then and now, have characterized it as a racist defense by working-class whites against African-American competition for jobs, housing, and the benefits of government programs. Although this assessment seems to single out ethnic whites for special condemnation, and such socioeconomic competition was very real as the American economic base became less and less industrial, it is nonetheless striking how stereotypically critical some leaders of the movement, Novak for example, could be of Blacks even as they called for a grand, interracial political coalition of the working classes. Local activism in white ethnic communities was often likewise couched in terms of "defense" against African-American "invasion." If a significant component of the white ethnic movement can be described as right-wing (at least insofar as it harbored opposition to federal legislation and programs especially benefiting African-Americans), and if labor unions were significantly involved or interested (yet to be determined), there might have been something of a paradox at work, considering organized labor's aliginment with the Democratic Party since the 1930s. Indeed, many commentators during the period under study presumed that white ethnics (but not, by extension, labor) were being drawn toward the Republican Party, or even farther right, namely to George Wallace in 1968. Richard Nixon counted white ethnics among the "Silent Majority" supporting his administration's policies of "law and order." In examining the politics of those participating in the ethnic revival of this period, as well as the ideological content of the movement itself, I hope to begin the process of sorting out rhetoric from actuality, and to come to some definite conclusions on these most controversial aspects of the New Ethnicity.
As far as my sources, I have compiled to date a large bibliography of contemporary scholarly and journalistic articles treating aspects of the New Ethnicity and the economic situation faced by the American working classes in the 1970s. I would very much appreciate suggestions of relevant materials along these lines, if anyone out there has any sources in mind that would be helpful. I expect to make use of goverment and other statistics in determining the socioeconomic position of white ethnics during the period of the revival. Again, if anyone can point me towards useful source matter, I would be extremely grateful. I will also be looking at union publications, seeking to assess the impact of the movement on the organized labor, especially in such sectors of heavy industry as steel and auto production, which were most strongly affected by the economic downturn of the 1970s. If I had to specify a geographic scope, I would probably prefer to focus on the so-called "Rust Belt" stretching from Detroit to Toledo, Ohio, then along the southern shore of Lake Erie to Cleveland, continuing on to Youngstown and finally Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This area was a traditional center of heavy industry in this country, and is also an area of Southern and Eastern European ethnic concentration.
I hope I have not been too excessive in explaining my project. I know that my interests as stated above are vague, and that I have not yet decided upon a structure for the paper. I should also mention that it is to be something of an exploratory research project, which could later expand into something greater (dissertation?). Thank you for reading on this far, and I hope to hear from some of you who have suggestions, questions, or critique.
Todd M. Michney
Date: Sun, 7 Jan 1996 21:56:10 -0600
[Charlie Katz <ckatz@UCLINK.BERKELEY.EDU> writes:]
Todd Michney -
Great topic. I have just one addition to your reading list, in case you haven't already seen it:
_American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California_, by James N. Gregory, 1989. This may seem to be a bit of an odd recommendation for your topic, but precisely for that reason his contribution to our understanding of "white ethnics" in terms that address both class and culture in the period you are writing about might be easily overlooked. I am thinking in particular of his discussion of "plain-folk Americanism" as a class-situated phenomenon that can be understood in "ethnic" terms. (The punch-line for your period appears in the book's last few pages).
If he is right in stressing that by the 1960s the locus of country music had shifted "from region to class," then researchers in your topic-area should indeed look in unexpected places for cultural influences, or at least for closely related developments which "rubbed shoulders."
I suppose this might simply serve to underline what many have been saying - that the construction of ethnic identity takes place in contested fields of meaning in which the competition, diffusion, displacing and blending of collective symbols does not usually respect "ethnic" boundaries. This seems certainly true for the "New Ethnicity," about which you have rightly asked "exactly who was participating?" and to which you might add, "who (within those communities) was not?
* and what were they doing instead?"
grad student, History Dept.
Date: Mon, 8 Jan 1996 10:45:48 -0600
[Jan S. Rosin <histp@JETSON.UH.EDU> writes:]
I agree that Todd Michney's project sounds fascinating. It would be very important to look at just how broad based this movement was within these ethnic communities. I am finding in my own work looking at recent immigrant politics that the ethnic leadership is sometimes not from the grassroots at all. "Leaders" essentially make use of civil rights institutions to "speak" for their people when no real groundswell of political activism exists at all. Ethnic activist organizations may even become heavily involved in local politics or legal action when they had no previous presence in the area and there is no significant local ethnic political activism. A book that addresses this topic is "Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority" by Peter Skerry (1993). It is available in paperback and his footnotes are very useful.
Jan S. Rosin
University of Houston
Date: Wed, 10 Jan 1996 11:49:14 -0600
Comments: cc: h-labor@MSU.EDU
[John Radzilowski <JRadzilow@AOL.COM> writes:]
My first suggestion to Todd Michney is that he acquaint himself with some of the
rich monographic and article literature on some of the individual east and south
European groups. This will be helpful in determining whether Polish, Italian,
Slovak, Hungarian, Greek, etc. Americans actually exist, or whether we're just
making all this ethnic stuff up as Gans and company seem to think.
Unfortunately, this literature is largely ignored in this debate, which proves
rather convenient for the supporters of "symbolic ethnicity."
The matter of "class and ethnicity" is a sticky wicket. I doubt that even the most
convinced Marxists can claim that there was ever a single working class in twentieth-
century America that could, at any time, have been mobilized as a working class.
Most successful CIO organizing, for example, was done along ethnic lines, by ethnic organizers,
speaking the language of the workers themselves (i.e. not English).
At the same time, east-European American ethnicity has historically been intertwined with their
identity as blue-collar workers. The two identities are not separable. This was reinforced
by systematic discrimination in jobs, housing, and education. Barriers to east and
south Europeans did not begin to fall until after World War II, and even then vestiges
remained until the 1970s. (This does not even begin to account for informal discrimination
and prejudice, which continues to some extent to this day.) Ethnic groups had long
competed with one another for jobs and political power. Furthermore, all of them
harbored deep resentments toward mainstream Anglo-Americans. (Poles, for
example, described all such people- including the Irish-as "the English." This
was not a term of endearment.)
The idea that all these groups suddenly dropped their long-standing differences
with one another, changed their voting patterns, and saw common interests with
Anglo-Saxon, Protestant southerners like George Wallace must be viewed with
a degree of suspicion. African Americans were viewed as just one more group to
compete with. The situation was, of course, especially inflamed by the militance of the
black power movement, the society-wide racial tensions, and the long-standing
image of the black man as a strikebreaker and tool of the industrial bosses.
The idea that ethnic neighborhood organizing constituted a "facist," racist, "white" backlash
against African Americans-now well enshrined in the popular scholarly consciousness-is at
odds with the evidence. Many community organizers learned their trade in the civil
rights movement, and sought to empower marginalized east and south European Americans
in the same way the civil rights movement had empowered marginalized African Americans.
Furthermore, most community organizing originated from opposition to the inroads of
"urban renewal" in ethnic enclaves, not from hatred of African Americans. Barbara
Mikulski, for example, began her political career as community organizer when her
parents little store in Baltimore was slated for demolition to make way for a freeway.
Others, like Novak, have moved in the opposite direction, politically, from Mikulski.
Yet it is worth remembering that Novak came out of the anti-war movement. Though he would
doubtless be embarassed to see pictures of himself wearing strings of beads, his political
transformation is one of way of understanding how secular liberals have totally alienated
east and south Europeans, once an integral part of the New Deal coaltion.
Furthermore, we would do well not to ignore the very serious attempts to form political
coalitions between east and south European Americans and African Americans that
have been periodically undertaken since World War II.
Another great fallacy so beloved by the symbolic ethnicity crowd is that "white" ethnics
are arch-conservatives. The "ethnic revival" of the 1970s was neither conservative nor
liberal. Working-class ethnic communities tended to oppose the Vietnam War more than
middle-class suburban communities. After all, it was their sons and brothers who were getting
killed. At the same time they did try to maintain their ethnic communities by opposing an influx
of outsiders-regardless of race or ethnicity. (In other words, they were equal opportunity
To understand this behavior, it is necessary to understand how these communities were
formed. On coming to America, east and south Europeans took the lowest, dirtiest,
and most dangerous industrial jobs. Through tremendous sacrifice and by deferring their
personal dreams to advance the interests of family and community, they managed to
achieve a modicum of prosperity in post- war America. The details of this story-
the struggles over work, church, and community * are too lengthy to be reproduced here,
but suffice to say they left deep marks on most east and south Europeans. (Naturally,
such important details are systematically ignored in most US history texts.) Thus, they
tended to react to blacks or other outsiders as tools of the Anglo-Saxon establishment.
Idea that east and south Europeans were somehow the vanguard of the "white
establishment" flies in the face of reality. Their reaction was based in sources that
went far beyond terms like liberal and conservative. Voting patterns tend to
bear this out. As a whole, Catholics tend to vote Democratic more than Republican (and
east & south Europeans are largely Catholic, with the notable exception of Jewish-
Americans, who tend to vote Democratic in even greater proportions). Despite the
repeated abuse they've suffered at the hands of liberals, east and south Europeans
continue to reject the far right and remain moderately Democratic (largely the result,
I suspect, of local politics rather than national). Of course, many of the old ethnic
neighborhoods where east and south European Americans tried so hard to maintain their
distinctive cultures against the forces of assimilation are gone, thanks to "urban
renewal." (And what wonderful results our experts in urban planning have achieved in
the inner cities of this country! Trust the experts, I always say!)
I wish I could recommend some good books that dealt with this problem in toto. The
present "communitarian" movement is an attempt to pick up the pieces left behind by
the community organizers of the 1970s, but much of their literature is not historical
in nature. Rudy Vecoli has written a very useful piece titled "Are Italian Americans
Just White Folks," which I believe is due to be published in soon in one of the Italian
American history journals. There is also Thaddeus Radzialowski, "The View from a
Polish Ghetto," ETHNICITY, vol. 1, no. 2 (July 1974): 125-50. In fact, the whole
journal ETHNICITY might be worthwhile looking at, as it was an attempt to articulate
scholarship on the new ethnicity. Andrew Greeley was one of the editors.
Simple answers are hard to find.
Date: Wed, 10 Jan 1996 13:30:17 -0600
[Shawgi Tell <v600a8e6@UBVMS.CC.BUFFALO.EDU> writes:]
On this thread, may I suggest works by Stephen Steinberg and Orlando Patterson. Also, Marvin J. Berlowitz has done some fine class analysis of ethnic groups, specifically appalachians.
University at Buffalo
Graduate School of Education
Date: Thu, 11 Jan 1996 05:53:41 -0600
[Co-editor's note: From H-Labor come these on-the-mark responses to Todd
original query. The headnote is provided by Seth Widgerson, editor of
Todd Michey's post has elicited some very interesting and spirited discussion. This post contains some helpful and povocative posts from Jeff Hornstein, Michael Belzer and Aaron Brenner.
The next will carry replies which originally appeared on H-Ethnic. SW
+++++++ +++++++ +++++++ +++++++ +++++++ +++++++ +++++++ +++++++ +++++++
Very interesting topic. I, too, am interested in the intersections of class identity and deindustrialization. A few sources which may be helpful:
1. Murray Friedman, ed. _Overcoming Middle Class Rage_ (Philadelphia:
2. Peter Binzen, _Whitetown USA_ (Vintage, 1970).
3. Richard Lemon, _The Troubled American_ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969).
4. Barry Bluestone and Bennet Harrison, _The Deindustrialization of America_ (Basic, 1982).
5. Stanley Aronowitz, _False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness_ (McGraw-Hill, 1973).
Hope these are helpful.
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From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Michael H. Belzer) (Michael H. Belzer)
This may be overly obvious, but I would start with the seminal book by conservative scholar Kevin Phillips: "The Emerging Republican Majority." As you may be aware, this demographic analysis of political voting trends laid the groundwork for the conservative Republican Southern Strategy, which has transformed the late 20th century political landscape into a pre-Civil War landscape at best. His analysis was all the more prescient in view of his recent sharp criticism of conservative Republican policy. His most recent books, such as "Boiling Point" and "The Politics of Rich and Poor" deftly analyze and critique the class war that Republicans have launched under the cover of conservative social politics aimed at the ethnic electorate that was exploited so successfully by Nixon and Agnew.
Sounds like an important topic.
Michael H. Belzer
School of Industrial and Labor Relations
Ithaca, NY 14853-3901
voice: (607) 255-6185
fax: (607) 255-0107
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From: Aaron M Brenner <email@example.com>
I am very interested in your project and would like to hear more as you move along. I am just finishing a dissertation on the rank and file upsurge of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Throughout my research which covers postal workers, telephone workers, and teamsters in some detail and touches on miners, steel workers and auto, I have yet to find mention of ethnicity, except by sociologists, journalists, and politicians. Workers themselves did not discuss their ethnicity on the job, at least as far as I've found. In fact, among postal workers, ethnic associations were eclipsed by unions in the 1960s as Kennedy and Johnson eliminated the patronage system which had been their raison d'etre. By contrast, the role of race and gender in shaping workers' attitudes and behavior at work, though complex, is clearly evident. To cite just one issue, workers and their unions worried about affirmative action and its impact on the racial and gender divisions of labor at their workplaces. That does not mean that ethnicity was absent on the job, but I'm skeptical. Outside work, particularly in local politics, you might have more luck.
One thing you might keep in mind is that much of the popular discussion about the working class during this period was constructed in such a way as to avoid the reality of class (Dissent and other left/labor sources at times being the exceptions). The "Silent Majority" and "New Ethnicity" are just two of the ways to talk about white (usually male) workers without really acknowledging, in fact denying, their shared circumstances with workers of color and women workers.
I think you are right to situate your research in the economic dislocations of the time. It was a period not only of deindustrialization (only just beginning), but of an employers' offensive against labor. The Business Roundtable, the pre-eminent anti-union organization of the 1970s and 1980s was founded in 1972. Even before that, all the employers in the industries I've looked at were implementing various strategies to control not only wages and benefits but workers' job prerogatives. These activities provided a major impetus for the rank and file upsurge at the time. Could aspects of this upsurge contributed to or been misinterpreted as the New Ethnicity (be sure to define just what this was: a cultural movement, a political movement, a labor movement, community activism, etc.)?
Three places to start if you haven't already: Jonathan Rieder, _Canarsie:
The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism_ (1985); Thomas B. Edsall, _The New Politics of Inequality_ (1984); Kim Moody, _An Injury to All_ (1988). There are many more. I'm in the process of putting together a bibliography of monographs and articles about blue collar workers in the late 1960s and 1970s and would love to exchange sources with you.
Date: Wed, 10 Jan 1996 14:54:13 -0800 (PST)
Comments: cc: firstname.lastname@example.org
[Co-editor's note: Morgan Kousser reminds us of the usefulness of survey
archives for Todd Michey's project on "white ethnics and
deindustrialization." Are any H-Ethnic and H-Labor subscribers familiar
with Internet access to survey archives? Are there especially useful and
comprehensive Web gateways to which such informants might point Todd Michey
and the rest of us? JB]
From: Morgan Kousser <email@example.com>
You should examine survey archives, too, for white ethnic attitudes and vote intentions.
Morgan Kousser Internet: firstname.lastname@example.org
Date: Sat, 13 Jan 1996 11:45:38 -0600
Comments: cc: h-labor@MSU.EDU
[Jim Castelli <castelli@POPD.IX.NETCOM.COM> writes:]
A must read to understand the New Ethnicity is Larry O'Rourke's biography of Msgr. Geno Baroni, an activist priest at the heart of the movement. I can't believe that I can't remember the title or find my copy quickly. There are great pieces on the way Baroni developed Jimmy Carter's successful Catholic ethnic strategy.
This story also illustrates why it is wrong to characterize the movement as conservative. Most Catholic ethnics sympathized with the civil rights movement and white Catholics have consistently been less racist than white Protestants. Ethnics also had a liberal ethnic agenda, more properly, a New Deal economic agenda. In general ethnics voted for Reagan - whose father was an Irish Catholic - and Bush, but then backed Clinton.
My book with George Gallup, Jr., "The American Catholic People," (Boubleday, 1987) has some relevant polling data. I think Greeley's "The Catholic Myth" from a few years ago does , too.
The American Jewish Committee in New York did great work on ethnicity and should have some of that matarial available. Joe Giordano who worked there and is now based in Westchester is still active on ethnic issues.
John Kromkowski is a poli sci professor at Catholic University and president of what's left of a national coalition of ethnic groups.
Fred Rotandaro, president of the National Italian American Foundation in Washington, D.C., is another good source.
I'm a little troubled about saying the movement "climaxed" in the 70s. People like Novak stopped talking about ethnicity and Baroni died in 1984. Many "urban ethnic" groups survive as strong community organizations.
I would argue that the importance of ethnicity os greater than ever, but people have stopped talking about it. For example, many "racial" issues can be better understood in ethnic terms.
[Co-editor's note: The biography to which Jim Castelli refers is Lawrence M.
O'Rourke, _Geno : the life and mission of Geno Baroni_ (New York : Paulist
Press, 1991). JB]