Saturday, January 21, 2017
Ethnic Slurs–A Historical Look At Powerful Motivations To Succeed
For anyone who grew up even a few decades ago, it is hard to understand how Americans' skins have become so thin - how insults, innuendos, slights, and insinuating remarks have become such causes célèbres. Bullying was par for the course on school playgrounds, an element of maturing; a learning process whereby the weak in their defeat learned about the enemy and the middling figured out how to evade, negotiate, compromise, or avoid.
Taunts were expected – racial and ethnic slurs and remarks about disability were common currency, the labeling of ‘other’, the natural signifiers of difference and threat to the community No one was animated by hatred. There was no hostility towards Jews, Poles, or Italians. They, after all, were the furriers, druggists, and clothiers of our communities; those who worked lathes and presses or cut hair, paved streets, or cut hair.
At the same time, it was assumed that in an America still honoring self-improvement, individualism and enterprise, foreigners would quickly and surely become economic and social players. It wasn’t long before ‘No Irish Need Apply’ became ‘Only Irish Need Apply’. Irish Americans quickly figured out the system and within a generation or two ran Boston, Philadelphia, and New York .
The Mafia, perhaps the most powerful and influential organization of civil society since the partisans of radical Republicanism during Reconstruction, was quintessentially American. Its communitarian, hard-knuckled, authoritarian, and generous neighborhood rule after only a few decades of struggle, expressed the best of the Republic.
In a generation the Jews of the Lower East Side, rag-pickers, pushcart-sellers, and money-lenders came to rule New York and Hollywood.
‘Kike, guinea, wop, mick, hunky, spic’– these were epithets that rolled off the backs of early American immigrants who had known real prejudice and discrimination in their home countries. Names and verbal slander were nothing compared to pogroms, camps, and abject poverty.
Assimilation – attainment of the American Dream – was the goal of these new immigrants. They had no interest in retaining let along celebrating their diversity. Italian Americans who escaped the ghettoes of Wooster Square or Mulberry Street wanted no part of San Gennaro, the Cosa Nostra, arranged marriages, and Sicilian honore and vengeance. Irish Americans were ashamed of their drunken, brawling stereotype, and yearned like all immigrants to become American, cultured, and calm.
Although Irish, Italians, and Jews quickly rose up from the slums of New York, New Haven, and Boston on their own merits – ambition, enterprise, intelligence, family, and an indomitable will to full the prophecy of their immigration – ethnic slurs sped the journey. There is nothing like the anger, hostility, and resentment provoked by insult and stereotype to steel the will of American newcomers and add even more fuel to the assimilative fire.
A young doctor in New Brighton, Connecticut, a first generation Italian and the first of his family to earn a college degree and an internship at an important regional hospital, knew that the row to social inclusion – the goal of all immigrants – would be a hard one to hoe.
The old families of Colonial America and their descendants who lived in New Brighton’s West End, the industrialists whose enterprise helped win the Civil War and WWI were unforgiving in their pride of family, heritage, and particular Anglo-Saxon privilege. While some were confident enough of their patrimony and position to consider dispassionately the arrival of non-WASPs, many were far less generous. The doctor and his Italian colleagues were kept out of the Country Club, never invited to social clubs, and considered hairy, garlic-smelling brutes.
In their view the ‘guineas’ of Madison Street were uncultured, uncivilized arrivistes who had no sense of place or propriety regardless of professional degree or civic pride.
In their view the Poles belonged in menial jobs in the industries they had built or as maids to clean their floors. The Jews were meant to rise no farther than haberdashers, furriers, jewelers, and pharmacists. The Irish, a universally brawling and drunken lot would – and should – never leave the firehouse, the police station, or ward politics. Polacks, kikes, and micks they were and always would be.
The families of these marginalized ethnic communities saw things quite differently indeed. Every slight, every neglect, every epithet, every dismissal of their abilities, talents, and culture was a call to arms. Yet they chose no confrontational battles – attacking the ruling class for its elitism, sybaritic living off of inherited wealth, unfounded privilege, and discriminatory behavior. They knew absolutely that the way to full integration into American society was success.
Stone-breaking Italian construction workers became small-scale contractors at quarries, cement works, and building firms; and eventually owned them. Low-level Irish municipal workers – police, fire, education – quickly rose to political power despite ‘No Irish Need Apply’. The Kennedys of Boston were not an exception, but the rule. East Coast cities were soon ruled by Irish politicians whose only competitors were the powerful, often extra-legal operations of Italians.
Jewish jewelers and clothes merchants in New Brighton saw a brighter future in big cities, and transferred their centuries-old experience in retail and finance to Seventh Avenue and Burbank.
The point is only this – hardship, discrimination, and life on the edges of society only hardened the resolve of these new Americans. The desire for assimilation and full integration was never dimmed by ignorant and arrogant assumptions of ethnic worth. It became a matter of pride. When ability, talent and pride are combined, the trajectory to the top is assured.
So what is to be made of today’s culture of victimhood? Of safe spaces and protection against perceived insult, bullying, and dismissive attitudes?
It is easy for those of us who grew up in an age of ethnic ambition, enterprise, and will to laugh at what seems to be an over-protected, hyper-sensitive generation which is having a tough time growing up. We wonder where the thin skin came from. Did we create a generation of coddled, protected, entitled young people? Is it our fault? Has society been so influenced by progressive ‘inclusivity’ and entitlement that the old principles of survival of the fittest, good old American competition no longer apply?
What is very clear is that we are coming to the end of a socio-political cycle. Conservative Republicanism as now embodied in the presidency of Donald Trump has no patience for any of the above. Entitlement of any stripe is discouraged, and the combative survivalist ethos of the social, economic, and political marketplaces is back. No purchase will be given to those who can – like our Italian, Irish, Jewish, and Polish forbears – rise and prosper. Compassion will be afforded to those who cannot, and only to them.
Progressives look back at the laissez-faire early Twentieth Century as a barbaric era which has been displaced by a more tolerant and considerate one; and therefore see the rise of Donald Trump’s nationalist populism as a dangerous throwback to a more primitive age.
Nothing of the sort. The Trump revolution is simply a cleansing of the progressive Augean stables – ridding governance of its worst idealistic and patronizing policies and programs. Populism means individual responsibility. No free rides, no mollycoddling, no self-absorbed righteous entitlement. The role of government is to encourage and facilitate opportunity within a framework of individualism, not to provide a protective shell into which is infused public resources.
The days of older ethnic slurs are over. Rarely does one hear ‘guinea, wop, hunky, polack, kike’ because Italians, Slovaks, Poles, and Jews have completed their entry into the mainstream. One still hears the N-word and unpleasant references to Latinos because the integration of African Americans and Hispanics is far from complete. Once they too have joined the mainstream, such discriminatory epithets will be things of the past. Economics as always rules.
Those of us with old ethnic identities and whose will to succeed was only steeled and energized because of discrimination cannot help but be partisans of this new conservative ethos of ‘competitive tolerance’.
‘Grow up’ may be too harsh and dismissive to characterize our feelings; and we prefer to couch our objections in more historical terms. Such is the prerogative and perhaps the failing of older generations; but we can’t help it.
So, “Grow up!”