Thursday, October 25, 2007

White Ethnic Politics: Irish and Italian Catholics and Jews, Oh, My!

Date: Thu, 25 Oct 2007 14:34:56 -0700 (PDT)
From: "Richard Nunez-Lawrence"
Subject: White Ethnic Politics: Irish and Italian Catholics and Jews, Oh, My!

October 25, 2007, 2:24 pm
City Room

White Ethnic Politics: Irish and Italian Catholics and Jews, Oh, My!
By Sewell Chan

An Irishman, an Italian and a Jew walked into the grand auditorium of the New York Academy of Medicine on Wednesday evening – not to tell jokes (or be part of one), but to engage an audience of some 400 people in a discussion about white ethnic groups and their evolving roles in the politics and culture of New York City.The panelists — Edward I. Koch, mayor from 1978 to 1989; Pete Hamill, the journalist and author; and Frank J. Macchiarola, schools chancellor from 1978 to 1983 — had been invited by the Museum of the City of New York to reflect on a new book, “White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics and the Shaping of Postwar Politics,” by the historian Joshua M. Zeitz.

Dr. Zeitz gave a brief overview of his book’s thesis by telling two stories about how a Jew and a Catholic growing up in postwar New York recalled learning very different lessons from the same Biblical story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Jew learned from a rabbi the value of dissent and resistance from Abraham’s questioning of God about the decision to obliterate the two cities. The Catholic learned from a schoolteacher about the fate of those, like Lot’s wife, who defy God’s instructions.

“Irish and Italian Catholics and Jews shared the same city streets, they shared the same institutions, to lots of people they looked the same,” Dr. Zeitz said. “But they came at culture and politics from fundamentally different viewpoints.”

At their height in the mid-century decades, the three groups numbered, it is estimated, about four million — accounting for two-thirds of the city’s white population and perhaps half of the total population.

And yet these groups often spent their lives apart. Two-thirds of Catholic children in New York City from the 1940s through the ’60s attended parish schools, while about 95 percent of Jewish children attended public ones. Separate youth organizations, professional clubs and even veterans groups highlighted the uniqueness of each group.

Dr. Zeitz summarized his book’s thesis:
Many second- and third-generation Jews, throughout the 20th century, as they fought for political power, placed disputativeness and radicalism and liberalism at the heart of their identity. In coming to politics from this viewpoint, they tended to clash with Italian and Irish Catholics who emphasized order, social hierarchy and an allegiance to an organic sense of community.

The political and social struggles of the era were, about “not just power, passion and privilege,” Dr. Zeitz argued, but ideology. For instance, when Mayor John V. Lindsay, a white Protestant and a Republican, faced a re-election challenge in 1969 from Mario J. Procaccino, an Italian Catholic, Mr. Lindsay tried to court voters by highlighting the theme of his own dissent on the Vietnam War — and “the right and obligation of people to protest against an unjust war.”

Mr. Koch was first to speak. Born in the Bronx, he lived there until age 7, and “thought everybody was Jewish,” he said. It was during the Depression, and his family moved to Newark, where Mr. Koch’s father found a job. Their neighborhood was half Jewish and half black; neither group socialized with the other, in school or out. It was only when Mr. Koch moved back to New York and entered the City College of New York “that the people I met all races, all ethnic groups, and that we actually socialized and met friends who were other than Jewish.”

Mr. Koch has never been particularly religious, but said:
I was always very conscious that I was Jewish. And it wasn’t anti-Semitism that caused that. I was conscious that I was Jewish and very proud of it. And then when I became politically active it all changed. When I became politically active it was in the Village and the Village was overwhelmingly Italian, the constituency. And if I was going to succeed, if I was going to win the races that were going to be waged against Carmine De Sapio and others, it would be necessary — you’d have to be a fool not to understand that it was imperative that I become as involved with the Italian community as I possibly could. And I did. I formed the local organization called the MacDougal Area Neighborhood Association to clean up the street. One thousand Italians joined it. I mean, they were so angry at everybody else ruining the neighborhood. And they appointed me the leader, they voted for me. And it wasn’t like it was a sharp lesson that you had to learn — that if you helped people, if they thought you were honest with them — that they would actually vote for you even though you were not, in this case, Italian.

Mr. Koch cited the recent case of H. Dale Hemmerdinger, Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s nominee as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Mr. Hemmerdinger came under fire for being a member of a predominantly Jewish private social club, the Harmonie Club. The club is open to people of other races but does not have any minority members. Mr. Hemmerdinger resigned from the club (as had Michael R. Bloomberg when he ran for mayor). Mr. Koch said he was saddened by that decision.

“I thought to myself: How foolish to resign,” Mr. Koch said, adding that he did not thing it was a bad thing for ethnic groups to have their own associations — like the Columbus Club, an Italian group that has “got the best food in America,” he added.

To loud applause, Mr. Koch said: “I think people have to understand, reach out, join — but don’t forget who you are. Don’t be ashamed of it. That’s all.”

Mr. Hamill — whose novel “North River” was recently published, spoke next. “I grew up in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood in which I can no longer afford to live,” he said. The neighborhood was predominantly Irish and Italian, and about 15 percent Jewish.

“I became the Shabbos goy at the synagogue,” he said. “So every Saturday morning, I would go in, on my way to Holy Name Church, with my surplice on my arm and I would do whatever the rabbi would ask me to do — turn on the gas stove, whatever — and there would be a dime on the shelf at the front door, which he wouldn’t touch, and off I’d go.”

Mr. Hamill cited other “Shabbos goys”: Colin L. Powell, Martin Scorsese, even Elvis Presley.
Then he shared the story of the most important intercultural exchange of his early years:
The most important factor in my childhood might have been when Mr. Caputo came into the hall of my mother’s kitchen and taught her how to make the sauce. We didn’t want to eat anything else for the rest of our lives. Part of this discussion is how the Italians taught the Irish how to eat. The Irish had the worst food in the history of the world. I didn’t realize until I was 17 that roast beef could be pink. They thought you could get trichinosis from hamburgers. Everything was charred and cremated because, who did they learn it from? The British.

Mr. Hamill is famous for his storytelling abilities, and he did not disappoint. He recalled guys from the neighborhood, looking for movie listings in The Tablet, a diocesan newspaper in Brooklyn, and making jokes about Cardinal Francis J. Spellman, whom Mr. Hamill called, rather irreverently, a “strike-busting fat boy.”

Mr. Hamill was equally irreverent about the Catholic schools he attended:
They had a kind of madrassa in the morning: “Hail Mary, full of grace.” It’s like these kids you see in Pakistan learning things by rote. But I ended up in a Jesuit high school and the Jesuits have one thing they gave to everybody who’s ever gone to one of these schools: doubt. They’ve probably created more atheists than communism ever did, and standards of excellence that none of us can ever approach.

Mr. Hamill’s parents came from Belfast, Northern Island. “Both of them, particularly my mother, were determined never to do to anybody in this country what had been done to them in Northern Island, so bigotry was a worse sin to them than self-pity,” he said. They were not bleeding-heart liberals, he added. The only pictures in their house were of Jesus –- his hands bleeding –- and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Unlike many white ethnics of the period, the Hamills did not flee to the suburbs. “They never wanted to flee, blacks, Latinos or anything,” Mr. Hamill said. “They had none of that.”

He started reading Dorothy Schiff’s New York Post as a teenagers and aspired to be a newspaperman. Mr. Hamill summed up his talk by saying: “There were different ways to be Irish, just as there were different ways to be Jewish and Italian. It was the luck of the draw. That’s about being part of an alloy, not being separate.”
Dr. Macchiarola remarked that he, too, was a Shabbos goy, working with Abraham Wallach, the father of the actor Eli Wallach, on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.

Dr. Macchiarola grew up in an Italian family, married an Irish-American and spent much of his life affiliated with Jewish institutions. He spoke of those three identities as a crucial part of his life.
He recalled attending Catholic schools that dominated by the Irish — a third-grade teacher called him Murphy because he couldn’t pronounce Dr. Macchiarola’s last name. Dr. Macchiarola, now the president of St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, recalled:
My father was really convinced that education was important. He had not gone to high school. He was a sanitation man. My mother didn’t graduate from high school. And I was the first in an extended family to graduate high school. My grandfather came to this country 100 years ago. We had a big family celebration [recently]. There are about 75 direct descendants — we had it at the college — and every single one of them successful, every marriage except one still intact, and nobody in the witness protection program.

After the applause subsided, he added: “It is something that we Italians are very defensive about, that somehow because our names end in vowels, that we’re suspect. And I would say it goes all the way through the culture.”

With Mayor Koch’s support, Dr. Macchiarola became the first Italian-American to lead the city’s school system. Later in his career, he was dean of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University for about five years. “From that position, I saw the enormous strength and capacity of fidelity to the book, because it was an Orthodox school; adherence to the law; tolerance, respect for others,” he said.

At the college he leads, Dr. Macchiarola keeps a mezuzah outside his office door. He also put crucifixes in all of the college’s classrooms, telling the faculty members: “This is not intended in any way to suggest anything other than who we were. We of the faith have to be reminded of who we are.” The school is tremendously diverse: a student Dr. Macchiarola brought with him to the talk is a Muslim with a Puerto Rican mother and an Egyptian father; the student body president is an Arab-American, and the vice president is Italian-American.

“We grew up with certain understandings and stereotypes, in a world of intolerance,” Dr. Macchiarola said. “That world, hopefully — I believe it has changed.”

During the question-and-answer session, Dr. Zeitz asked why white ethnic politicians have been largely dominant in the postwar era — made up of eight of the last 10 mayors, all but David N. Dinkins and Mr. Lindsay — while ethnic political clubs have weakened.

Mr. Koch said that people generally vote for political candidates similar to them “unless the adversary is clearly head and shoulders above that person.” The exception, he said, is the Jews. They favored Hugh L. Carey, a Catholic, over Howard J. Samuels, a Jew, in the 1974 Democratic primary for governor, for example.

Dr. Macchiarola — like many historians, in contrast to Dr. Zeitz — argued that ethnicity’s hold in New York and American society has greatly weakened. When he was chairman of a commission that redrew City Council district boundaries, the process resulted in a reduction in the number of Italian-Americans, and pretty much no one noticed, he said.

He predicted that ethnicity would not play an important role in the 2008 national elections, as it did in 1960, when John F. Kennedy became president, and 1989, when Mr. Dinkins became mayor.

Mr. Hamill said that the “defensiveness of the Irish” declined after 1960. He credited City College for the upward mobility that allowed the children of poor immigrants to get ahead.
“By the time I got out of the Navy there were two kids on my block going to university, and one of them was my brother,” he said.

At one point, Mr. Hamill quipped that ethnic enclaves have largely shriveled. “If you go to Little Italy now, it’s two and half blocks long and it’s a ‘Sopranos’ theme park,” he joked. Italian-Americans who moved to the suburbs “come back for nostalgia reasons and, most of all, to buy the bread.”

Dr. Macchiarola recalled campaigning for city comptroller once in the Bronx. An aide insisted that he speak before a social club, and the aide tried to egg on the crowd, saying: “You’ve got to vote for him. He’s one of us!” Dr. Macchiarola later pointed out that the crowd was Albanian, not Italian; that Albanians tended not to vote in high numbers; and that when they did vote, they tended not to like Italians. The crowd laughed.

In city politics, a balanced ticket used to consist of a Jew, an Irishman and an Italian. Now, Mr. Koch said, it might include a white, a black and a Hispanic — and women.

All three men seemed to share a belief in the American ideal of meritocracy, however incompletely that ideal is realized.

“Today, there is nothing that limits you if you have the talent to reach for and convince others that, in fact, that talent is yours,” Mr. Koch said.

“This is a town where you can overcome everything if you look for the prize and go for it,” Mr. Hamill said.

Dr. Macchiarola, paraphrasing the writer Richard Gambino, said: “Italians came to America because they were told the streets were paved with gold. When they got here they discovered the streets were not paved with gold. In fact, the streets were not paved. And they were going to pave the streets.”

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21 comments so far...
October 25th,2007
3:19 pm
I came to New York in the fifties. I ran into quite a number of people whose identity was bound in their ethnic backgrounds. I found it so amusing that Italians would talk about Irish when there were no Irish present, sometimes it was a good thing that was said and sometimes not. It was vice versa with Irish saying things about Italians in a similar manner.Now when it was Irish and Italian people talking then they would talk about Jewish people and there were a surprising number of things that were said which were mean-spirited, I didn’t find that so amusing.Now why were these things said always with me present; the only thing I could think of was that I was white Anglo protestant.So in reading this article, I find that these barriers have broken down enough that people can enjoy the diversity of people which is the hallmark of this city.Ruth Beazer
— Posted by Ruth Beazer
October 25th,2007
3:33 pm
Thank God for diversity.Have you ever noticed that former Mayor Ed Koch has never been honored in the gay community?You probably never will either!
— Posted by Perley J. Thibodeau
October 25th,2007
3:45 pm
Diversity indeed…now if we could only get those pesky folks to stop hanging nooses and painting swastikas around the city….
— Posted by Anonymouse
October 25th,2007
3:47 pm
Our village of Oak Park, IL has a similar history of major contributions by various ethnic groups with a somewhat blind eye to ethnicity, race and sexual orientation. We certainly are on a much smalled scale. I was pleased to read this piece by Mr. Chan and feel richer for the read.
— Posted by Jim Ihrig
October 25th,2007
3:48 pm
You guys had the strength to read all that?
Are we really devoting this much space to a bunch of rich white guys talking about rich white diversity?
Is this a joke?
— Posted by Andrew M.
October 25th,2007
4:10 pm
@5 your comment is exactly what I expected as I was reading the article. Typical. this word “diversity” has come to mean “not white”.
And since when are all “white” people rich? I must have missed the memo or meeting, because last time I look at my bank account it was pretty sad (memo to self go to bank and tell them your white and there has been a mistake).
I don’t “have the strength” to write all of the things to oppose your silly comments and the comments I am expecting from your ilk in response to this article.
— Posted by RMcB
October 25th,2007
4:18 pm
Glad to read ethinic “diversity” and Eurocentric affirmative action are celebrated in such a genteel, intellectual manner. Makes one wonder if the advent, genius and contributions “colored” people in New York are a 21st century anthropological phenomenon?
— Posted by Cornell Odom
October 25th,2007
4:24 pm
I assure you, the three panelists named above, they’re all rich. I never said anything about “all white people” being rich. I’m not that stupid!
I just find it comical that these guys are going to talk about how tough it was in this country for like 5 minutes, when TODAY, people of other ethnic groups still can’t even get a cab.
And by the way, I’m not a racist, I happen to be one of these “rich guys” you’re talking about…
— Posted by Andrew M.
October 25th,2007
4:36 pm
Why are the Irish and Catholic schools always fair game in these discussions?
— Posted by Bernadette
October 25th,2007
4:36 pm
When I worked (briefly) for the City of New York ten years ago, one of the employment forms asked me to check off my ethnicity. Like many New Yorkers, I’m a mongrel- there was no box for German/Irish/English. But there was a box to check off if you were Italian. I was absolutely flabbergasted. Cuomo was governor then!
— Posted by Anne P
October 25th,2007
4:49 pm
I found the article interesting. Although it states the obvious, namely that “white” is a very broad term that hides the diversity within it, the article underscores the nuances among the groups, and the views that they have of each other, oftentimes relying on tired stereotypes. Nonetheless, people do those things, at least in part, to reaffirm their own identities via the opposition to other ethnic groups.
On the positive side however, why should people not cherish and even boast about their ethnic (i.e. cultural) background? It’s all good, as long as we, in truly ethical form, respect others.
RMcB (#6),
I think you have a point, being white does not mean rich, and diversity does not mean non-white. But I don’t think that Andre M. (#5) said that all whites were wealthy or that there was no diversity among them. Rather he was pointing out that the people featured in the piece were white and rich, and therefore were less diverse than the whole of “white” population.
In any event, I thought it was interesting. As a side note, I wonder if all those people screaming about undocumented immigration also include as the object of their furor all the Irish, Italians, white Canadians, and other white Europeans working here without permits, who by most accounts number in the million plus. Cheers.
Roberto M.
— Posted by Roberto M.
October 25th,2007
5:01 pm
Anne P,If you were looking for a position in the CUNY system, the reason for the Italian American check box was the court ruling that CUNY had discriminated against Italian Americans in hiring. The judge who found for the Italian American plaintiffs, by the way, was an African American woman.
And discrimination against Italian Americans in employment did not last “five minutes,” as the CUNY case demonstrated.
— Posted by GiorgioNYC
October 25th,2007
5:10 pm
Why are people up in arms about the speakers? This wasn’t a forum on “diversity,” it was a talk to introduce a book about white ethnic politics in New York. IT’S A PUBLICITY EVENT TO PROMOTE A BOOK. Why should they be talking about “other ethnicities”? And what does it matter if they’re rich?
— Posted by Kevin
October 25th,2007
5:28 pm
What about English ethnicity? Why doesn’t it get equal treatment? Why does the liberal establishment in America treat Englishness as the only ethnicity of no importance or value?
Oliver ChettleBedfordEngland
— Posted by Oliver Chettle
October 25th,2007
5:41 pm
Oliverthe liberal establishment in the US has created this term “diversity” which means non-white. Those in the liberal establishment that are white, suffer from white guilt whereby anything that has to do with white people is bad. These white liberal elites tend to have lots and lots of money and feel real bad about it. However, instead of using that money to help people who are non-white, they simply rail agaisnt whites (see # 5 and #8 above for a clear example). Yes, it seems ridiculous and it is. English people are seen as the epitome of whiteness and therefore have simply no value at all. Therefore the liberal establish does not asknowledge the existence of English ethnicity or any white ethnicity of that matter. Hope that answers your question.
— Posted by RMcB
October 25th,2007
5:43 pm
Good for Bernadette who said: “Why are the Irish and Catholic schools always fair game in these discussions?
Many Catholics refuse to acknowledge how much they owe to the parochial schools that got them started in life. Pete Hamill would never have gotten into a Jesuit high school without the preparation he received in a parochial school.
Too many graduates of Catholic schools — like Pete Hamill, George Carlin, and far too many other stand-up comedians — seem to feel that “Since I cannot thank you enough, I won’t thank you at all.”
Like Nietzsche said: “Great indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful; and if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm.”
Good for you Bernadette.
— Posted by Marty Murphy
October 25th,2007
6:22 pm
Zeitz didn’t grow up in New York City and knows *nothing* about the ethnic culture. Jew, Irish and Italians who grew up in the same neighborhoods hung out together, played sports together and were good buddies. Lumping the Irish with the Italians especially highlights Zeitz’s lack of understanding. It was the Irish who were the main patrons of the Catholic schools. The Italians and Jews came to this country at the same time, and even though initially they chose different paths to the American dream, they always lived together as brothers and sisters, attending the same *public* schools. Just find a New York City area Jewish family today with no Italians who married in and vice versa. The Irish, who came to come to this country earlier, were not as close, but nowhere as remote from the Jews as depicted in Zeitz’s theory. Typical academic drivel!!
— Posted by jonah
October 25th,2007
8:05 pm
#11 states “…I wonder if all those people screaming about undocumented immigration also include as the object of their furor all the Irish, Italians, white Canadians, and other white Europeans working here without permits, who by most accounts number in the million plus.”
Sure we do. Illegal means illegal. Still, there is a difference. These people are but a drop in the bucket when compared to third world immigrants. They can’t try to get favoritism by claiming to be discriminated against, and then turn around and call themselves something like “the race”. Most importantly, they take control of their reproduction. Third world immigrants come here largely because they’ve overpopulated their homelands. So what do they do when they come here? Start having babies, and lots of them!!!
It would be better if the massive immigration to this country were coming from Europeans. That way, the liberal media would wake up to the huge environmental and social problems it is causing.
— Posted by Dave
October 25th,2007
8:10 pm
It is a linguistic and political fantasy to describe Jewish New Yorkers (or Jews anywhere) as white. In common-use American English, white only connotes Christian. Jews are not Christian, and vice-versa.
As a New York born and raised Jew I would never describe myself (or any other Jew) as white.
(”White ethnic politics…” is not the first NY Times article to promote this fiction and it probably won’t be the last either).
— Posted by Akiva Kenny Segan
October 25th,2007
8:16 pm
dear oliver chettle,
if you’re looking for anglo-saxon protestant influence in American socioeconomics please see your nearest j.crew catalog.
— Posted by michael g.
October 25th,2007
9:32 pm
The reason why this article on New York City electoral politics did not mention Anglo Saxons because for big parts of the 20th century, they were not a force in NYC. With the exception of Lindsay, the other white mayors of NYC where all either Irish, Jewish, or Italian.
There was no discrimination against the English or Anglo descent in this article. The article noted that has changed, as Italians, Irish Catholics, and Jews from the city have scattered around the country, and as people of all races (including other white ethnic groups, even the English) have moved in.
As for Jewish people not being white, that’s ridiculous. Judaism is a RELIGION.
A religion is also not set in stone. Anyone Jewish person who wants to convert to Christianity is free to do so, and those that do are indistinguishable from other whites. Bloomberg and Spitzer, both of whom are Jewish, to me look like any other older white men and I never would have known (or cared) that they were Jewish had they not publically declared it.
— Posted by Justin
October 25th,2007
11:48 pm
Wasn’t it Dick Cavett who said that white men between the ages of 21 and 65 are the only group without any protective rights at all?I’m sixty seven and I can honestly say that the more rights that influential white men give away makes it all the harder for us everyday white men to survive.There, I’ve said it and I’m glad!
— Posted by Perley J. Thibodeau
October 26th,2007
12:43 am
I see that New Yorkers still haven’t learned the fact that Hispanic is not a race. and that although many people from Spanish Americas are non-white many are and in fact in the US more than half of the “Hispanics” are White European descended people born in the Americas.
Although it seems that New York City has an abundance of “non-White” Hispanics that is not so as most Euro-Hispanics are not discernable from Italians and Jews or Irish and are probably descended from those stocks as well as from Spaniards.
It seems that the media in New York City has decided to create a new non-existing race and to call them Hispanics or Latinos ignoring the fact that both terms denote European origins, one to Spain and the other to the former Roman Provinces where the Latin language and customs prevailed.
It is time to educate yourselves.
— Posted by Roland Martell
October 26th,2007
5:45 am
The most interesting thing I’ve learned about white ethnic politics is that before St. Patrick’s Day was just an excuse for shamrocks and partying, it was a very controversial, confrontational move in a game of identity politics, with the Irish immigrants in New York and Boston declaring their presence and strength in the face of entrenched English immigrants. The first few St. Patrick’s Day parades ended in race riots! And all this interests me because gay pride parades are slowly but steadily turning into an excuse for rainbows and partying, and are no longer confrontational identity politics gambits that can turn into riots, because they no longer need to be.
— Posted by Will Warner
October 26th,2007
7:56 am
Why call it “white ethnic” politics? Just call it ethnic, that’s what it is.
— Posted by James H.
October 26th,2007
10:17 am
Thank you Justin! #21. I have been trying to remind people for more than 25 years that Judaism is a religion and NOT a race! And, isn’t the blurring of race, religion, culture, and ethnicity the intended ideal of the American Melting Pot?
For those even mildly interested, Google “race” and read wikipedia’s description.
Only in America! And, to quote George Carlin: “If you don’t like it, Leave!”
— Posted by Sally S

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