On Wednesday, the night after President Obama’s re-election, I was watching an analysis of the popular vote—on CNN, I think. Unlike the electoral vote, it had been close. But an examination through the twin lenses of race and religion told a more complicated story.
I watched as figures flashed on the screen. No big surprises about which way most of these groups had leaned, although it was painful to see how clearly racial and religious identities predict voting patterns. Black, Hispanic and Asian voters were Obama supporters. Mormons and Evangelical Christians were overwhelmingly in the Romney camp. Jews, despite the potential for Israel to be a divisive issue, had continued to strongly support Obama.
White voters, though divided, had favored Romney, with 61 percent supporting him. White Catholics, it was noted, had turned away from Obama by an even greater margin than in the last election.
As an Obama supporter, I felt a sudden tightening in my chest. White Catholics. The one group who should have known better.
(To an extent, perhaps they did. Reuters reported that 69 percent of white Protestants, but only 56 percent of white Catholics, had voted for Romney.)
I knew who those people were. They were the so-called white ethnics. The descendants of European immigrants—and I don’t mean the upstanding Pilgrim types who came over on the Mayflower. Most white Catholics came later—and they weren’t exactly embraced by older stock Americans, who would later be tagged with the acronym WASP, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
The largest number of Catholics arrived as part of the great waves of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, during the Ellis Island era of the early twentieth century. Forty percent of Americans—I’m one of them—have ancestors who were a part of that group, often called the New Immigrants. The other big group of Catholic immigrants, the Irish, had arrived before that, some as early as the colonial era. But the largest number came in the early-to-mid 1800s, in flight from the Irish potato famine.
People of other religions also arrived during those two great periods of immigration in the nineteenth and early twentieth century—Jews in particular. Or my own father, the son of Scottish Presbyterians. So these new Americans weren’t all Catholic.
But the point is that most white Catholics of today do share this heritage. Go back a few generations, and you will likely find Old Country grandparents, or maybe great-grandparents, who struggled with poverty, prejudice and ethnic stereotypes.
These New Immigrants and their children were called nasty names. They were denied jobs. They were shunned, looked down upon. Scientists developed elaborate theories to prove that these undesirable European aliens were racially different from the Americans with English or German roots.
There is a fascinating book about this, The History of White People (2010), by the African American scholar Nell Irvin Painter, a chaired professor of American history at Princeton. Race is a social construct, she argues, for whites as well as for blacks. And many European groups were denied membership in the “caucasian club” for a long time. They simply weren’t white enough. Or maybe not even white at all, in some eyes.
Members of these newer ethnic communities were seen as a sorry lot by older stock Americans. There were the disreputable Irish, sometimes pointedly referred to as Black Irish. The Italians. Poles—or “polacks,” a slur that still survives as an all-purpose way to label someone as having little class and intelligence. Russian Jews. People from obscure places in the Balkans no one ever heard of—like Slovenia, in Yugoslavia, where my mother’s father and her maternal grandparents were born.
It took a long time for these attitudes to change. World War II made a difference. Little by little, the boundaries of whiteness—and white privilege—expanded to include people whose family roots were in Ireland, and eventually to southern and eastern Europeans.
But the old prejudices remained. I remember the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. No one believed that a Roman Catholic could become the U.S. President. Until then, it was a role held exclusively by white Protestant males. And it continued to be, until the election of Barack Obama.
You would think that someone with a family history of overcoming poverty, immigration, and racial or ethnic stereotypes would feel a special kinship with people of color and other Americans who still face these barriers. Not necessarily.
My left-learning parents certainly did. They made it clear to their children: People who aren’t white—or Christian—have a much harder time in America. Opportunity is not the same for everyone. Things need to change.
In fact, my mother rejected her Slovenian (and Catholic) roots because she believed that most of "her people" were uneducated, prejudiced, and politically far to the right.
My mother is prone to overstating things. In fact, in the 1930s and 1940s there was a robust tradition of progressive thinking, advocacy for immigrant rights, and political activism in many white ethnic communities. One of the best known examples was the prominent leftist political writer Louis Adamic, who was not only Slovenian but a distant cousin.
But it so often it goes the other way.
White people with immigrant backgrounds, when they have made it into the middle or upper class, too often use their own success as an excuse for judging other people harshly. Why can’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? Become more self reliant? Stop expecting government handouts?
Meanwhile, white people who are still struggling feel understandably dubious about the existence of white privilege, at least for them. If anything, they believe that people of color, and more recent immigrants in general, are the privileged ones, who get preferential treatment. So instead of recognizing that they should be allies, they are competitors.
What is missing from the analysis, of course, is the role of social class.
There is now a Twitter battle over on Gawker. Someone got the bright idea of tracking racist post-election tweets and plotting them on a U.S. map. Several southern states top the list.
But one commenter identified a “corridor of dots from Boston down to Baltimore.” That represents the Irish, he wrote, who think they have the right to use the N-word because of their own history of oppression.
Then someone else countered: No, the Italians are way more racist than the Irish.
A third admonished them both: Great way to challenge ethnic and racial stereotypes, with another stereotype.
And so it continues. Ethnic politics. Ethnic stereotypes. They never seem to go away.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders