Commentary Magazine


Crashing the Gates, by Robert C. Christopher

The Bland Bargain

Crashing the Gates: The Dewasping of America’s Power Elite.
by Robert C. Christopher.
Simon & Schuster. 304 pp. 19.95.

Robert C. Christopher’s amiable journalistic survey of the current state of the American ethnic union begins with the sort of bang that might be expected from a writer who was for many years an editor at Newsweek:

On July 21, 1988, when a dark, compact man of vaguely Mediterranean appearance stepped up to the podium in Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum to accept the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States, it seemed to some that American history had entered a new era.

Christopher then discreetly proceeds to qualify this popular view. He notes that although the emergence of Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, was hailed as “the embodiment of the American ethnic dream,” the nominee himself was in fact already deracinated to a considerable extent. Dukakis had been educated at elite schools, Swarthmore and Harvard. Significantly, he was technically no longer eligible to receive Greek Orthodox sacraments because his marriage, to a Jewish woman, had not been celebrated in a Church ceremony.

Moreover, Christopher adds, Dukakis’s nomination had actually been preceded by a dramatic nationwide “disintegration of ethnic barriers.” In the years since 1960, when John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, non-Wasp white ethnics had unmistakably arrived in force throughout what Christopher calls the U.S. “power elite.” The result, he believes, is an evolving cultural synthesis, at least at this highest social level, that cannot be identified with any ethnic group. It can only be called, he claims, “American.”

Much of Christopher’s book is devoted to an entertaining and perceptive account of this ethnic eruption. As he charitably says, it has happened so recently that scholars and journalists have not yet had time to adjust their long-cherished theories about prejudice and the persistence of ethnic stratification. In politics, the last thirty years have seen not only the first Catholic President but also the first black and Italian-American Supreme Court Justices and Cabinet officers and the first Jewish and Eastern European Secretaries of State. In business, surveys show that the proportion of Protestant executives in major companies is falling precipitously, and that a substantial majority of first-generation millionaires are now non-Wasp. In higher education, whereas an observer in 1966 remarked that not one in a thousand college presidents elected over the previous seventeen years had been a Jew, by 1987 top schools like MIT, Columbia, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Michigan, and Princeton all had—or had had—Jewish presidents. And the Council on Foreign Relations, grimly agreed by Left and Right to be the linchpin of the American establishment, had acquired by 1986 a chairman, a president, and half a board of directors drawn from other than its traditional Wasp male clientele.

Christopher points out, however, that this process is no simple displacement of America’s historic Wasp elite. Instead, all ethnic groups are merging. The notion of the melting pot has been out of favor with intellectuals since the 1960′s, when “cultural pluralism” came into vogue. But in Christopher’s view that pot has nevertheless been bubbling away with extraordinary vigor. And it is not even the modified “triple melting pot” hypothesized by some scholars, roughly refining Americans into Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious blocs. Intermarriage is dissolving all these distinctions. For example, about half of all American Catholics of Italian or part-Italian ancestry born since World War II have married non-Catholics, mainly Protestants. And whereas Jewish-Gentile unions were rare as late as 1963, when Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan published their influential pluralistic study Beyond the Melting Pot, by the 1980′s some 40 percent of Jews were intermarrying. Kitty Dukakis, in this respect at least, was setting a trend.

One telling symptom of this changing significance of ethnicity: non-Wasp politicians have been winning office, not by mobilizing their own ethnic bloc vote as previously, but by appealing to ideological supporters across ethnic lines. Thus there were eight Jewish Senators in 1987, as compared to one—New York’s Herbert Lehman—in 1949. And four of them came from states where Jews constituted less than 1 percent of the population. Similarly, Dukakis’s supposed special attractiveness to white ethnics did not prevent them from voting for George Bush. Christopher politely suggests that ridicule of Bush’s “preppy” establishmentarian characteristics was actually a thin disguise for straightforward anti-Wasp animosity. But it did not work.

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Academic sociologists will no doubt be irritated by the impressionistic and anecdotal support Christopher musters for his assertions. But there can be little doubt that he is on to something. In the late 1970′s, President Carter told an Italian-American audience that the U.S. was not a melting pot but a minestrone—each ingredient contributing but remaining distinct. Christopher remarks drily that this was questionable even in culinary terms; sociologically, on the evidence presented here, it was a fashionable delusion on a par with America’s alleged “inordinate fear of Communism.”

Nevertheless, the phenomenon Christopher describes is open to a different interpretation, which he himself goes some way to developing. Despite its reputation, the Wasp elite, as he points out, was never really exclusive. On the contrary, it has shown throughout its history a remarkable ability to assimilate other groups so completely that their divergent origins become quite forgotten, such as Germans (Rockefellers), Dutch (Roosevelts), and French (Du Ponts). Christopher himself has an anglicized name; others of his forebears were Scotch-Irish, in colonial times a notoriously unruly and unpopular minority.

For the Wasps, absorbing fellow-Protestants from Northern Europe was obviously easier than swallowing the children of the immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who arrived at the turn of the century. But it is at least arguable that the post-1960 “disintegration of ethnic barriers” is simply the latest leap of assimilation, bearing in mind that Wasp culture has itself relaxed considerably in the same period. Christopher refers repeatedly to the “brutal bargain,” a phrase that Norman Podhoretz has used to describe the necessary submission of an earlier generation of ambitious ethnics to Wasp values. The bargain, in this account at least, now appears rather more bland.

In fact, a determinedly cheerful blandness pervades Christopher’s work whenever he comes close to confronting the harsher realities of the process he is describing. It is ultimately why Crashing the Gates remains an exercise in a minor key.

One reason for this blandness is Christopher’s own seemingly complete innocence of anything resembling religious feeling. The idea that Wasps or Jews might actually have some reason other than sheer cultural inertia to want to see their children continue their faith seems never to have occurred to him. This, of course, makes intermarriage a much easier issue to contemplate. It may also explain the sweeping confidence that leads Christopher to dismiss in one paragraph the rise of “born-again” Protestants and anti-abortion Catholics—something obviously antithetical to his brave new irreligious “power elite”—as “essentially rearguard actions conducted by diehards in the lower middle class and working class.”

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But whatever his insensitivity to religious sentiment, Christopher is acutely aware of prevailing political emotions. This is most obvious in his treatment of the continuing failure of blacks, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, to achieve the ranks of the “power elite.” (Asian immigrants are already doing so, and also intermarrying on an impressive scale.) Throughout the book Christopher undeviatingly ascribes this failure to “racism” on the part of whites. Ignoring the internal problems of the black community, he consistently maintains that blacks will join the mainstream if only that racism is eradicated. He does admit, however, that his attitude “smacks of pollyanna.”

Similarly, Christopher rarely allows himself to dwell on any of the problems associated with the “disintegration of ethnic barriers” since the 1960′s. He notices unhappily the paradox that this “disintegration” seems to have been accompanied by “affirmative action”—racial quotas—and bilingual education. But he has no insight to offer on the developing Lebanonization of America’s “common culture,” and quickly drops the topic.

This is particularly unfortunate because of the interesting role quotas have played in “de-Wasping” the American elite. Many top American schools were originally founded by one or another of the Wasp religious sects. When these schools were in effect nationalized earlier in this century, Wasps essentially lost control of their own major ethnic institutions. More recently, many of these schools have simultaneously imposed minimum entrance quotas for blacks and Hispanics and lifted or relaxed maximum quotas for Jews and Asians. Since quotas are a zero-sum game, this can only mean that Wasps (and white ethnics as well) are being squeezed out. In particular, the Wasp elite has less room to continue its invigorating transfusion of “scholarship boys” from the poor Anglo-Saxon hinterlands like Appalachia, an ethnic reservoir that Christopher for some reason says must be excluded from his discussion.

For example, Christopher reports that a third of the student body of his own alma mater, Yale, is now Jewish. Assume a black tenth and an Asian tenth (at least), and Wasps are already down to less than half of an institution they once owned—even before accommodating Catholics. In strict logic, quotas should be uniformly applied. But, says Christopher, “no educator of any substance has even by implication proposed such measures—if only because in the contemporary United States, it is impossible to advocate systematic discrimination against the members of any ethnic or religious group without incurring an intolerable degree of public obloquy.” What this really means is that Wasps (and non-Jewish white ethnics) have not yet found a political language in which to protest that they they are in fact being systematically discriminated against. Christopher is not about to help them.

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Questions of justice aside, does this matter? Does ethnic composition have consequences? Once again, Christopher takes refuge in blandness. For example, he notes that American academia has become steadily more left-wing in tone as non-Wasps have moved into the professoriate. But then he produces an astonishing explanation: political conservatism in academia has been shown to correlate with religious belief, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. And a conservative believer is necessarily at a disadvantage in academic competition with a liberal skeptic—because he “insists that a large body of dogma must be taken as given.”

Actually, entirely secular liberals are extremely insistent on their own large body of dogma, as anyone can testify who has watched the hysteria that overcomes an officeful of American editors and journalists when any article discussing ethnicity or race is proposed. Under these circumstances, Christopher’s bowdlerized and finally unserious account of this profound subject is probably about as much as can be expected.

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