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Melt That Pot

In response to:

Cutting Classes from the March 4, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

Andrew Hacker describes me as writing about Slovenes [NYR, March 4]. While I have several times mentioned Slovaks, I have written only a little about them; I have never written about Slovenes. For me, ethnicity is a broader, unifying (not tribal) theme.

Professor Hacker, whose kindnesses to me have been many and whose friendship I value, cites one essay of mine and then includes me in a generic “they” (writers on the new ethnicity). He does not, I think, report accurately the views of the other writers he cites—Moynihan, Greeley, Gambino, and Glazer, e.g.—but they can answer for themselves. May I testify that he does not state my views correctly.

For one thing, I turn to ethnicity precisely for reasons of class, power, and politics. It is true that ethnicity is also important to me if I am to learn my own history and to gain in self-knowledge. It is also indispensable if I am to grasp the diverse symbolic fields of social group life in America. Mainly, however, ethnicity serves me as a realistic way of talking about class, injustice, and political possibility in ways that diverse groups can understand, each in the light of its different experience.

Hacker writes of writers on ethnicity: “They would prefer not to have wage-earning Americans define themselves as working class, for that has hostile tones toward management.” It is not a matter of preference. Class language is acceptable to me, but it is rarely effective in touching the self-consciousness of working people. One can often touch their hostility against management more powerfully if one puts the matter in ethnic terms. In the mines and mills of Pennsylvania, class and ethnicity have great overlap, and the latter is the deeper, stronger vein. Similarly, in New York and elsewhere.

Again, Hacker reports that 77 percent of all blue-collar workers are native-born citizens of native-born parents. Since large-scale immigration was cut off in 1924, no other outcome is possible. Most “ethnics” (limiting the term for a moment—and improperly—to Southern and Eastern European Catholics and Jews) are now “native-born children” of “native-born parents” and have “native-born” children of their own. In addition, the “foreign stock” who have come from such lands since the rise of Hitler have tended to be of an educated and professional class.

What, Hacker asks, “differentiates an Italian sheet-metal worker from an eighth-generation American holding the same job and earning a similar salary”? It depends. If the latter is Hispanic or Black or Mississippian, lowan, Appalachian, or Yankee; Baptist or Catholic or Lutheran or Jewish or Episcopalian: German or Orangeman or Irish or Slav; urban or rural—in each such case, one would expect to find significant differences in symbol systems. Holding class, income, and occupation constant, a wise political leader (or social planner, or educator) would expect to find remarkable differences in economic, sexual, social, political and other behaviors. (Hacker, for example, does not write from a WASP sensibility.)

LeMasters was just as ideological in Blue Collar Aristocrats for omitting the ethnic factor as he would have been had he included it. To believe that attitudes in Jewish, Italian, Black, and Scandinavian-German neighborhood bars of the same social class show no significant differences taxes credulity and violates ordinary experience.

For some odd reason, Hacker hides from the emotionality of ethnicity. He would like the concept—and the emotional reality—to go away. His students in Queens, he reports, are not interested in family history or heritage. As a historian, he presumably does not approve of their historical slovenliness generally. Does he approve of it only when it affects their personal or familial past? I doubt if, truly, he does; but this is the usual pattern among American educators. Then they act surprised when students have a bludgeoned, stunted self-consciousness. Their students know—from them—that there are rewards for Americanization, and punishments for cultural retention. They keep the latter private, if, against odds, they keep it at all. Moreover, unlike Hacker, most students do see a difference between a $12,000-a-year job (like their parents’?) and a $32,000-a-year job (like many readers of reviews like this). If one may choose one’s form of exploitation, why not be paid at least like the top 5 percent?

Ethnicity is not a means of evading class language. Ethnicity is a more cogent way of talking about class. Turn the table: Class language is actually a way of evading ethnicity. Ethnicity is, by far, the stronger reality in consciousness. That is why the powerful like to stimulate ethnic conflict. The new ethnicity is an attempt to find a way for various ethnics to be themselves, and to see analogies between their lot and that of others, and so to find a means of coalition and unity where their mutual enemies sow division. One cannot evade ethnicity. Liberals have made it an issue. One must now tackle it head-on, and turn it to advantage.

Indeed, the reason I prefer the Mayor Daley-Henry Jackson wing of the Democratic party is that most people in the class I cherish are to be found there; and the McGovern-Udall wing of the party regularly divides one part of the working class against another on racial and ethnic lines.

Finally, Hacker says that there are approximately 25,000 families in America with $1 million or more in hard assets. It would seem to me both conceptually and politically significant if almost all these families, in almost every city and county in the country, were of one or two ethnic stocks only. It would be further significant if the corporate power Hacker writes of were concentrated in similar fashion ethnically. If there is a melting pot in America, is it at the top? Of 1,341 top executive officers in the top 106 corporations in Chicago, 1.9 percent are Italian, 0.3 percent are Polish, 0.4 percent are black, 0.1 percent are Latin. (One Italian serves on nine boards. Remove him and the Italian percentage also falls below I percent.) Unless other cities are different, Hacker’s class structure is also top-heavy ethnically.

I have other arguments with Hacker’s thesis. In making almost everyone a member of the exploited class, even the highly rewarded managers and executive officers of great corporations, he has virtually no one left to place in the class of “exploiters.” To say that “the system” is the exploiter is to imagine, by contrast, some system which does not “exploit.” I have never heard or read of such a system in history, nor do any utopian dreams I have encountered seem even faintly credible. Possibly, Hacker’s vision is essentiaily theological, and all earthly life is a form of exploitation, under dominations and powers, ruled by the Prince of lies. In such a vision, I could find much that is plausible. Hacker’s genial cynicism, indeed, has always been the most attractive quality I discover in his prose. But such issues would require more space than a letter allows.

Michael Novak

Bayville, New York

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