Sunday, August 10, 2014

The White World

The world has changed considerably since I was born.  The United States, in particular, has changed, and more dramatically than most countries.  I’m a Baby Boomer, born in the years immediately following World War II.  The old world, the world as I first encountered it, now exists only in memory.  You could call that old world “The White World.” 

After World War II the population of America was still under two hundred million people.  On the last day of the war, there were twelve million men and women in the armed forces.  That figure includes many black Americans, but they were not allowed to participate fully in the war or to share in the glory of winning it.  All through the war, and immediately thereafter, the military was segregated, with blacks relegated to working as transportation laborers.  World War II was the last white war. 

In much of the United States, Jim Crow laws enforced an apartheid system that kept American blacks almost invisible at the margins of society.  The rest of the country was not much more welcoming to blacks.  In cities large and small, across the north and the mid- and far-west, blacks had their neighborhoods and whites had theirs, and the two rarely met. 

Consider Major League Baseball.  Up until about the year that I was born, the major leagues were white only.  Two leagues, sixteen teams, white, white, white.  Blacks had the Negro League, among other organizations.  Most fans knew that the Negro League had a very high standard of play, but it didn’t occur to many white people that the black players should be integrated into the majors.  Negro League players suffered from much lower salaries and lived in conditions that were often dreadful. 

Consider the city of my birth: the great city of New York.  New York at the time was over eighty percent white.  The remainder were black, Hispanic, and Chinese, in that order.  The Hispanics were almost all Puerto Ricans, with a few Dominicans thrown in the mix.  And no need to say, “Asians.”  Our only Asians in those days were Chinese, with maybe a handful of Filipinos.  Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Chinese New Yorkers had their own neighborhoods, frequently separated from white neighborhoods by some physical barrier, like an industrial area, or a river, or a big road.  Virtually all of the police were white in those days, and all of the firemen, and almost all of the city officials.  My own isolated working-class neighborhood of 30,000 people had exactly two black Americans (an older married couple who worked nights and kept to themselves), one Chinese family (they owned the laundry!), a few families where only the mom was Puerto Rican, and at least one Filipino family.  That was the “The White New York.”


It is tempting to think that the United States began as a white country, a white Christian country.  It could certainly be argued that it was.  There was, however, a lot more diversity than most people care to recall.

Those American colonists/citizens had emigrated from numerous European countries.  Those countries, in Old Europe, had been rivals and adversaries in war for centuries.   In the colonies these immigrants often sought to live in communities of their countrymen.  Some states, like New York and Pennsylvania, had large German communities; New England was home to many Frenchmen; New York had been a Dutch colony and Dutch immigrants continued to be drawn there; many Irish went to the southern states as indentured servants, or otherwise.  Many cities had newspapers in several languages. 

Although all of these immigrants were white, and Christian, they were a very diverse lot.  Consider the fact that many of them had come to America in the first place because they adhered to some dissenter form of Christianity which was not tolerated in their home country.  They came to escape religious persecution.  There were more than fifteen Christian denominations represented in the colonies, maybe many more if you count them all, and they were often quite hostile to each other.   These religious groups also tended to form communities.  Maryland was the “Catholic” colony, in Maryland only Catholics were eligible to become public officials.  In many other colonies, Catholics were forbidden to become public officials.  Think of the poor Quakers!  And the Jews!  Only New York would have them, and in the case of the Quakers, not in the city itself.  The Quakers were allowed to form their own small community on the nearby north shore of Long Island (the town of Flushing). 

Of course there were some “others” among the colonists, the slaves certainly, some free blacks, the Indians, but the diversity was mostly among the whites, and only whites had power.  It was very different from old Europe though.  In France, for instance, all of the local white people were French, and Catholic.  America was a much more diverse place, from the very beginning. 

Even the white world of my neighborhood was far from monolithic.  When I visited the homes of my friends, their parents and grandparents may have been speaking Italian, or German, or Russian, or Czech, or Hungarian.  Whites all, but diverse in a typically American way.    

It was white people holding the power though, that's the point, throughout the period ending around 1950. In the early days of America the holding of power was exclusive to W.A.S.P.s (White Anglo Saxon Protestants), and they dominated the whites from "less desirable" backgrounds.  In the fullness of time the circle of white power spread outwards to include more and more kinds of white people.  That’s the process that continued until it included many people from well beyond the circle of whiteness.  It’s only natural! 

Who Cares?

I, for one, am not nostalgic for The White World.  I don’t miss it one bit.  So who cares?

The Tea Party crowd seems to miss it.  When they say, “take back America!” does anyone imagine that they mean anything but take it back from these coffee colored heathens who have invaded our shores?  And take it back from those uppity blacks who now seem to be everywhere.  Black police, blacks in baseball, blacks in the army, blacks in the Navy (and not just as cooks!), even a black president.  Who do they think they are?  And all of these immigrants, from countries that not many people had even heard of until recently.  Uzbeks!  Eritreans!  Where are those places anyway! 

This Tea Party thing is made up almost exclusively of white people who are my age or older.  They feel a sense of loss about the new diversity.  A loss of power, a loss of privilege, a loss of prestige, the loss of their position at the forefront of American society. 

The Diverse America

Some people’s nostalgia, wishing, and hoping notwithstanding, the White World is gone now, well and truly gone.  It lives on only in the hearts of a few people who will be dead before you can say Jackie Robinson. 

The new reality in the U.S. is wild diversity.  New York now is only fifty-something percent white.  Asians, from every Asian country, make up almost ten percent.  Puerto Ricans have been joined by people from every Spanish speaking country.  Africans, South Asians, Central Asians, New York is now home to all of the peoples of the world, and most neighborhoods are blended.  My old neighborhood now includes many Asians and lots of everything else too.   In Los Angeles it’s the same, there are a million plus Koreans alone, and every country is represented.  The high school that my son attended had 3,500 students, and school records included the languages spoken in their homes, eighty-five different languages.  Major League Baseball now includes not only black players, but also Hispanic players and players from Japan and Korea.  The services are fully integrated, up to and including the ranks of the general officers.  Our total population is now over three hundred million people.

This diversity is the great strength of America, its ace in the hole.  In no other country can people arrive from anywhere in the world and become thoroughly, culturally and politically, naturalized in only seven years or so.  Power sharing is not yet equally distributed among the different groups, but it is continuing to broaden its base.  There’s been progress. 

So, the White World, R.I.P.  Or should I say, “good riddance.”  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am about your age and my wife and I moved to Southern Alabama about a year ago to escape northern winters and to downsize our life.The desperate old white guys in this neck of the woods are beside themselves over the speed of the change.Each morning we watch the consternation on their faces as they watch Fox News and mount their treadmills. White World--nice piece!