Pressure On The Pot
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Republished by on September 25, 2003

The Times (London)

April 15, 1989

New York—'We celebrate your ancestors, ' said one of the two American girls who lived across the corridor. My brother and I had just arrived from England to begin post-graduate studies at Stanford University in California. Our neighbours in the student residence were telling us about Thanksgiving, the autumn holiday that supposedly dates back to the Puritan settlers' reaping their first successful harvest after arriving in Massachusetts and which today constitutes a popular ritual affirmation of America's vivid national mythology.

The other girl was completely taken aback by this casual disposal of what she regarded as her own country's founding fathers. 'They're your ancestors too, ' she reminded her room-mate in confusion. The only reply was a slight, hooded smile.

We were watching an archetypal American drama. The first girl was Jewish, a child of the great wave of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe to America in the early years of this century. Outwardly she was an enthusiastic, indeed assertive, American. But in her heart she was an alien. For her, the Pilgrim Fathers were just as foreign as we were.

The second girl was a Wasp a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, descended on one side from a War of Independence hero. She identified herself with the Pilgrim Fathers. And it never occurred to her that any American would not.

America was built by Wasps and reflects Wasp values. But today only about 20 per cent of Americans can probably trace their ancestry to the United Kingdom. The subtle conflict between this group, still disproportionately represented in the American elite, and the more recent arrivals, constitutes a persistent undercurrent in American public life.

It was symbolized by events such as the election of the first president of Irish Catholic descent in 1960 and the subsequent surge in self-conscious ethnicity. Academics proclaimed that the famous American 'melting pot' was an illusion: the different immigrant groups were retaining their distinct characteristics, and a good thing too.

Popular paranoia about anything resembling an ethnic or racial 'slur' became so acute as to cause television to adopt what Robert Christopher in a new book, Crashing the Gates: The De-Wasping of America's Power Elite, calls the 'tried-and-true rules of modern American mass entertainment' if villains have to have ethnic identity, they must be Wasps.

Christopher's work is popular sociology. But it makes a serious point. Unprecedented numbers of non-Wasps have emerged at the top of American society within the last 20 years. Some 60 per cent of America's first- generation millionaires are now non-Wasp. Wasps comprised only 58 per cent of top corporate managers in 1986, 10 per cent fewer than in 1979. Jews, restricted by quota as late as the 1960s, made up a third of the student body at Yale and a fifth at Harvard, which also had 14 per cent Asians and a Jewish president (vice-chancellor).

This much is common knowledge. However, as Christopher notes, the melting pot is still bubbling away. Intermarriage between America's different ethnic and religious groups, rare only a generation ago, has suddenly soared. Recent figures show that more than 50 per cent of Italian Americans and 70 per cent of Greek Americans, two groups regarded as dangerously clannish when they began appearing here before the First World War, now choose spouses outside their own communities.

Roughly half the American Catholics of Italian or part-Italian ancestry born since the Second World War have married non-Catholics. Even more remarkably, some 40 per cent of American Jews are now marrying Gentiles.

Christopher argues that Americans are evolving a new common culture. It may be less Wasp (although traditional Wasp culture has changed too). But it certainly isn't anything else either. Christopher views the process as benign. He is even bravely optimistic that it will eventually embrace blacks and Hispanics.

I think Christopher has hold of an important truth. But I'm not sure it's much more than the latest expression of the extraordinary capacity of the American Wasps to absorb other groups beginning with the once-despised Scotch-Irish (Ulster Protestants) and including Germans (Rockefellers), Dutch (Roosevelts) and French (Du Ponts).

I also think that Christopher systematically evades, although occasionally acknowledging, some of the problems of ethnic divergence. For example, his assertion that blacks will ultimately find their feet in America is not wholly convincing, since despite massive social spending, conditions in the ghettoes appear to be getting worse.

Equally, Christopher counsels complacency about the great new wave of immigration, legal and illegal, that America is now experiencing, much of it racially and culturally far different from anything in the past. This wave has not quite reached the heights, relative to population, of the early 1900s. So Christopher endorses the view of an immigration supporter: 'Can we not accommodate an alien presence half as large as our grandfathers did?'

But Americans' grandfathers eventually voted to cut off immigration. There was a 50-year pause and still the immigrant blocs are only beginning to be digested.

That immigration is so difficult to discuss here is another symptom of ethnic paranoia. But eventually America's gates will close again.

The author is a senior editor of Forbes magazine in New York.

[Originally published in England, spelling and grammar vary slightly from American style.]


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