How did White Protestant Hegemony Fail?: James Barrett's _The Irish Way_

by Janine Giordano Drake

People usually laugh when I tell them that, though I went to public school all my life, I didn't meet a white, self-identifying Protestant until I got to college. Nobody ever "witnessed" to me; there were no "youth groups" around to my knowledge, and certainly nobody told me to read (or adhere to) the Bible.  There were no "Christian groups" at my high school, and school prayer was never an issue. I usually don't know what to say when people think I'm exaggerating. No, I'm not from an Old World immigrant community. I'm a fourth generation New Yorker, and I'm from the suburbs of New York City.

So much of the teleology of our historical narratives assumes (whether to promote or critique) the fact that white Protestants are and always have been culturally hegemonic in most parts of the United States.  We know this was so in the eighteenth century, and we know that in many spheres of the country--geographic as well as cultural--this is still so today. However, to make such assumptions leaves us unable to explain how we arrived at American cities and their surrounding suburbs that today not only overflow with people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, but which are filled with powerful people who are decidedly not Anglo and Protestant.

In the metropolitan centers of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston, descendants of the so-called "New Immigrants" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hold a considerable share of social and financial power and cultural hegemony. They are, variously, Jewish and Catholic and Buddhist and agnostic--and Protestant--but they are only a part of the mix. "Old stock" Anglos are significantly not the default hegemonic class. The old Protestant churches which ran generation upon generation of cultural reform campaign alongside their evangelization efforts were ultimately only minimally successful in converting and culturally assimilating the ethnic working classes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The piles of works we have on "home missionaries" and their racist attitudes toward "papists" and other "backward races" rarely remind us that efforts to convert and evangelize these folks mostly failed. Have we reckoned with this fact as American religious historians? Have we asked ourselves why this is?

How did New Immigrant descendants access cultural power apart from the social networks of Anglo Protestants? Historians have begun to answer this question with reference to the high wages paid to whites during the New Deal and the creation of suburbs around the constructed notion of "whiteness," but to recognize that these ethnic groups have become recognized by Anglo Protestants as similar racially while NOT religiously only raises more stirring questions about the twentieth century breakdown of white Protestant hegemony. How we arrived at a multi-ethnic city culturally, ethnically, and religiously has not been given the attention it deserves.

Twenty years ago, James Barrett's landmark Journal of American History article, “Americanization from the Bottom Up,” began an answer to this question of how New Immigrants navigated the early twentieth century urban world. He argued that most immigrants did not respond positively to state and company endorsed "Americanizers;" rather, they got their bearings was through unions, ethnic societies, taverns, churches and politics—ultimately, through working class communities which rarely overlapped with Anglo elite communities. Twenty years later, Barrett has returned to and elaborated upon this argument in a magnum opus about what exactly happened within these working class urban spaces.

In his newest book, The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City, James Barrett leads us into this thick urban world of interethnic interactions within unions, street gangs, theater and vice districts, political machines, taverns and churches. However, these communities are not just a random mixture of immigrants. In each of these spheres, Irish Americans "got there first" and still served as gatekeepers. They brought to the United States from Ireland a defiance of Anglo Protestants and created these working class institutions (churches, unions, the urban political machine of the Democratic Party)for the sustenance and defense of the Irish working classes.In more than a few shining moments, urban working class Irish Americans adopted the cause of other poor people as their own and deliberately taught new Americans “the ropes” for navigating in the United States with the benefit of their generations of experience. Subsequent ethnic groups either learned from the Irish or contended with them for jobs, voting rights, church membership, respect and social mobility. Usually, it was both at the same time.

In some places, especially the Catholic Churches, the Irish were able to maintain power (and considerable control) for many generations, and despite some conflicts and resentment, later ethnic groups joined them in close-knit parishes and good Catholic Schools. In other spheres, including Irish political machines' patronage for Irish Americans in public service jobs (especially police and teachers), the overwhelming presence of the Irish made them an ethnic group to be reckoned with as others sought to secure a foothold in those same jobs. Anti-Irish resentment by other ethnic groups, Barrett argues, led to consolidated other ethnic groups together behind alternative candidates. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in New York and Anton Cermak in Chicago--consciously ethnic city mayors of the 1930s and 1940s--consolidated their popularity as an alternative to the domineering Irish Catholic political machine. Hence, even if these other ethnic groups at times found the Irish an obstacle to their own respect as Americans, it was in building upon (and borrowing from) their example of positive American ethnicity that Italians, Jews, Poles and many more groups found their way as ethnic Americans.

The Irish, Barrett argues, were America's first "ethnic group." That is, Barrett finds that the Irish effectively taught subsequent ethnic groups how to be both respected as White Americans and simultaneously not-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant. He writes, "The Irish Catholic version of civic identity differed... from that of the WASP mainstream. At its best, it stressed a broad American Catholic identity that nonetheless recognized the integrity and worth of distinct ethnic cultures, and the rights of ethnic minorities to maintain these cultures" (102). In inventing an American way to be ethnic, Barrett argues, Irish Catholic Americans taught subsequent groups how to comfortably sustain their own culture and religion while also becoming American. In many ways, of course, this maintenance/reinvention of one's ethnicity revolved around rejecting the Anglo-Protestant concept of civic identity that required Protestant religious sensibilities.

The book is extremely readable and important to religious historians for dozens of reasons. After all, it is a much-needed interethnic history of urban Catholics and other New Immigrants in the early twentieth century and an excellent narrative of what the Irish "contributed" to American culture and politics. A full chapter on "the Parish," its centrality to working class urban life, and the ethnic tensions therein substantially expands upon the author's wonderful 2005 Journal of American Ethnic History article on the same subject (cowritten with Dave Roediger).

What struck me most, however, was the generous repetition of the acronym "WASP." This is a term I grew up hearing from my parents, but it came alongside vulgar references to "the Jews" and "the Negroes" and "the Hispanics." I have known folks  who have told me the term is derogatory (the association of Anglo Protestant identity with that of a stinging pest). Because I see it so rarely in historical scholarship on Anglo Protestants of this period, I assumed it was taboo. For, I thought it was our consensus as historians to not refer to people groups by terms they would not use to identify themselves. However, in the effort of doing a bottom-up history from the perspective of working class New Immigrants, Barrett adopts this term as the straight-forward way to refer to Anglo-American Protestants. I found this move as brilliant as it was jarring.

On one hand, I certainly agree with the sentiment that we need a term that recognizes this category people as one white ethnic group among many. At the same time, to adopt this term and use it in the way he does makes an argument about the urban working class world that I'm not sure I agree with. WASPs function in Barrett's narrative as a closed group and the hegemonic "other." He makes no room to see the group expanding ethnically in the way the term "White Catholic" did during the same period. For example, Barrett argues, "To insulate Italian and other Catholic youth from the predations of cagey Protestants, Irish priests established a whole range of social institutions." I agree that Protestant efforts to "Christianize" and "Americanize" immigrants through urban missions look different, but were they really less respectful and less helpful than those parallel efforts by the Irish? To use Barrett's language, were the Irish really less "predatory" on New Immigrants than the White Anglos? Barrett implies that the Irish protected other Catholic national/ethnic groups from the Protestants, but he also acknowledges that their way of being Catholic was different from (and often off-putting to) those of other ethnic groups.

I raise this question sincerely and with great fascination, and as one who has studied Protestant church-sponsored, company-sponsored, and publicly-sponsored Americanization programs for my undergraduate history thesis and throughout my dissertation research.  However, Barrett has literally studied Americanization for longer than my lifetime. His research is meticulously and effortlessly presented in the spirit of true, bottom-up social history. It kept me up at night reading even when I was only going to get a few hours of sleep anyway. It is highly recommended as pleasure reading, any level of undergraduates, and especially as gifts to people who like identifying as Irish.


rjc said…
Thanks for this post, Janine! I grew up in the Boston area, and it was not until I was in college that I learned that the US was predominantly Protestant. In fact, it wasn't until graduate school (and I know this reflects poorly on me) that I learned just HOW predominantly protestant. Yet I grew up in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, which is where all the historical narratives I was reading traced American Protestantism (assumed as American Religion in toto, it seemed) origins to!

My own ancestry is a mix of Irish Catholic immigrants and long, long standing WASPs. I grew up Episcopalian, thinking most Americans were Catholic and having lots of Jewish friends. The strong focus on Protestant history as the center of American religious history in our fieldhas always felt, well, weird to me, even if it is "correct" on some important numerical and hegemonic levels.

I agree with your point about WASP as a term that seems to assume an unchanging timelessness, a unified front whose boundaries are clear. That almost gives WASPs too much power, the assumption that they are a natural category while everybody else is struggling with identity, social and cultural boundaries, etc. Yet I also agree that it's an important ethnic category, if approached critically. It can be used as a self-identifier and as to signify a particular group idea by outsiders who certainly have recognized the force and influence that WASPs have had in defining power in America, especially in the Northeast.
Great review, Janine. Thanks for turning me onto this book.

Also, and at risk of tooting my own horn, I have written on the development of the term "WASP," how it came to be, what its antecedents were, and where I think it should go. The piece appeared in _Historically Speaking_ in Nov. 2010 and is unfortunately buried in Project Muse. (If you don't have access, I'll send you a pdf.) The piece has the cumbersome title, "The WASPish Hetero-Patriarchy," which brings in heterosexuality and patriarchy as other defining traits of power in America, fitting in with the historical progress of a term that focused on "Anglo-Saxon" in the early 20th century in response to immigration, then added Protestant during the midcentury, Tri-Faith years, then added "white" in the 1950s and early 1960s in response to the civil rights movement. So WASP isn't unchanging and timeless, but has a history like the rest of us!
Edward J. Blum said…
terrific review!!! thanks for posting
Janine Giordano said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janine Giordano said…
Kevin, I can't wait to find and read the article, thank you for mentioning it in this context!

What I was actually thinking about here, though, is not so much the use of the term as the question of whether the White Anglo Saxon Protestants of the 1900s-1920s are still "an" ethnic group. So many of the midwestern white Protestants I know are a mixture of German, Scandinavian, Dutch and other Protestant heritages of Europe. Somehow,somewhere, I've been thinking, Anglo- Protestantism must have been a flexible ethnic identity. For, today so many of these families have intermarried and are universally categorized (perhaps incorrectly) as WASPs.
rjc said…
As I hear it, WASP intends ethnicity of a sort, but really signifies a racial (and regional?) class aesthetic. So, for instance, Martha Stewart, a New Jersey-raised Catholic daughter of Polish immigrants who married a Jew, can become a quintessential image of New England WASPiness. One can become a WASP.
Hi Janine,
Good point. I can't help but add the fact that in 1925, Sinclair Lewis described his hero Martin Arrowsmith as “a Typical Pure-bred Anglo-Saxon American, which means that he was a union of German, French, Scotch, Irish, perhaps a little Spanish, conceivably a little of the strains lumped together as ‘Jewish,’ and a great deal of English, which is itself a combination of primitive Briton, Celt, Phoenician, Roman, German, Dane and Swede.” Arrowsmith, p. 6
Christopher said…
Great stuff, Janine. Thanks for the review.