FEAR AND LOATHING?
Ethnic Hostility and Working-Class Consciousness
Within the Left, the most common explanation of American exceptionalism has been the ethnic diversity of the American working class: the differences among native-born, immigrant, and slave descendant; among Protestant, Catholic, and Jew; among Irish, Italian, German, and Slav—all these have stymied any movement toward class solidarity. In this view, the many pieces of the American working-class puzzle would not fit together. Working-class culture, even its language, was a melange of separate identities, each attached to a primordial national heritage rather than to a universalistic class consciousness. As a result, instead of fighting the common class enemy, workers too easily dissipated their energies in fighting each other.
In an 1892 letter (Marx and Engels, 1953:242), Engels notes the “great obstacle” of the divisions between the native-born American labor “aristocracy” and the badly paid immigrants; what’s more, the immigrant groups themselves, he says, were divided into “different nationalities which understand neither one another nor, for the most part, the language of the country.”1 In the next decade, the leading German socialist Karl Kautsky (1905, cited in Moore, 1970:117–20) again blamed American ethnic heterogeneity for crippling working-class solidarity.
Initially, the Left jumped at the ethnicity explanation because ethnic divisions would pose only a temporary obstacle to class conflict. Most believed with Engels that working-class solidarity “in the end overcomes all minor troubles; ere long the struggling and squabbling battalions will be formed in a long line of battle array, presenting to the enemy a well-ordered front” (1887, in Marx and Engels, 1953:290). But even by Kautsky’s time, the ethnicity explanation had already worn a little thin (Moore, 1970:121), and many wondered when the inevitable economic forces would break through the ethnic restraints.
Despite the failed prophecy, leftist scholarship still emphasizes ethnic divisions.2 Writing in the Socialist Register, Jerome Karabel (1979:215) faults Sombart for his neglect of the ethnic hostilities that “fragmented the proletariat into a bewildering array of mutually suspicious nationality groups.”3 The American socialist Michael Harrington (1976:xi) singles out the antisocialism of Irish Catholics to explain the conservatism of the AFL.4 More recently, Mike Davis (1980), in a New Left Review article, blamed the “racism and nativism” of American workers for subverting successive waves of working-class struggles.
Marxists may favor the ethnicity explanation of American exceptionalism because it permits them to sidestep questions about the economic inevitability of socialist movements.5 It is also natural to look for explanations of American exceptionalism among any distinctive characteristics of the United States. Ethnic divisions are both characteristically American and a plausible immediate cause of working-class weakness. “Divide and conquer” is surely one of the oldest maxims of social conflict. We are left with a neat syllogism:
Ethnic divisions within the working class weaken class solidarity.
The American working class is one of the most ethnically heterogeneous classes in all capitalism.
Therefore, the American working class is bound to have weak class solidarity.
We examine this reasoning by challenging its major premise. First, we need to scrutinize the historical evidence that ethnic and racial divisions have undermined class solidarity. What specific working-class struggles were subverted by ethnic hostility? Are these instances balanced by other examples of working-class solidarity where ethnic and racial loyalties actually helped to mobilize working-class movements? Second, we question on psychological grounds the supposed incompatibility of class and ethnic identifications. We suggest a plausible case for exactly the reverse: that ethnic loyalties can serve to bridge the gap between individual workers and a broader class consciousness. At the least, we should consider class and ethnic identities as independent dimensions, not as mutually exclusive alternatives.
Ethnic Competition in Labor Struggles
Despite the Left’s repeated emphasis on ethnicity, there are few documented instances of the divisive effects of ethnic loyalties being crucial for the failure of working-class protest. Ethnic and racial conflicts are more often the consequence than the cause of working-class failures. Only after class-based mobilization proves fruitless do ethnic cleavages appear. When workers lose strikes, some sections of the working class inevitably prove to be less persistent than others, thus bringing attention to the intraclass divisions. But most of these strikes would have been lost in any case because of the intransigence of the employers and their vast economic and political resources. In fact, ethnic loyalties can be not only compatible with but even supportive of class mobilization.
South Chicago. William Kornblum (1974) describes how South Chicago steelworkers expand their ethnic ties into a larger class solidarity. The steelworkers first develop ethnic loyalties within their families and neighborhoods, but these separate group identifications are aggregated into a common class-based movement by union and party politics: ‘The preoccupation of South Chicago unionists with ethnic and racial politics can hardly be dismissed as “false consciousness.” Rather it is part of the overall political process whereby common class interests are eventually identified” (1974:90).
Kornblum discovered that the new Mexican working-class leaders gained a foothold in union organizations on a base of their prominence within an ethnic community. In the unions, Mexicans have taken their place beside Serbian, Polish, and Croatian leaders who won their positions by the same process of ethnic mobility. The Mexicans’ identification with their community sometimes creates conflict with the earlier ethnic groups, but if the Mexicans are to secure a place in the power structure of South Chicago, their ethnic differences must eventually be negotiated, and the community base broadened to a class-oriented political program.6
Lordstown. Even when workers seem hopelessly divided into warring ethnic factions, class consciousness may unite them against their employers. Stanley Aronowitz’s (1973) study of the Lordstown Chevrolet strike showed that ethnic conflicts can coexist with a shared hostility toward the corporation. In Lordstown, Blacks distrusted whites; native Ohioans snubbed the immigrant “hillbillies” from the South, who were suspected of being company stooges because they seemed willing to do any work and suffer any conditions in order to keep their jobs. Yet none of these ethnic hostilities prevented the strike. The southerners surprised everybody by leading the slowdowns and sabotage against General Motors. Workers did not forget their ethnic loyalties, but they put them aside in the fight with GM management (Aronowitz, 1973:29).
The sudden class solidarity of the Lordstown “hillbillies” fits a pattern often observed throughout U.S. labor history: precisely those ethnic groups suspected of disloyalty to their class comrades have proved to be the most militant and persistent soldiers in the class struggle.
It was the turn-of-the-century consensus that immigrant workers would never develop an appropriate working-class consciousness. Managers and trade unionists alike dismissed immigrants as a docile labor force well suited to their degrading jobs. Gompers’s patronizing attitude was indicative: “Born in lands of oppression [the immigrants] reached manhood without that full mental development which makes for independence and self-preservation” (cited in Brody, 1965:43).
Theories of immigrant conservatism. Everybody buttressed disdain for the immigrants with plausible theories as to why immigration undermined working-class consciousness, though not all these theories were so crude as Gompers’s assertion that immigrants lacked “full mental development.” A few accused specific institutions, especially the Catholic Church, of conspiring with employers against the unions (e.g., Interchurch World Movement, 1920:150; Handlin, 1951:217).7 Most analyzed the immigrants’ social psychology and thus blamed the victims for their oppression.
One theory claimed that to immigrant workers of impoverished origins, even their modest pay looked like a windfall. In other words, immigrants remained conservative because they felt no deprivation relative to their standard of comparison (cf. Pettigrew, 1967).
A second theory blamed the immigrants’ conservatism on their temporary status. Many were “sojourners” who sought a capital hoard in America to take back home (Rosenblum, 1973:33–37, 123–26; Karabel, 1979:215–16). To accumulate savings they needed steady employment, not strikes that would interrupt their earning and eat away at their savings (Handlin, 1951:75; Brody, 1960:136–37). Those immigrants who expected to return home (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1927:1493) could regard the most degrading working conditions as only a temporary hardship. Many did return to Europe, especially during economic recessions. Emigration, therefore, became an alternative to protest.
Gerald Rosenblum (1973) has developed a third theory, that the European immigrants could accept better the discontinuities of early industrialization because they never knew the preexisting American social order. The old social contract had been based on the Jeffersonian ideal of an independent citizenry, and native-born workers felt betrayed when the new industrial order disrupted those expectations; it appeared not only harsh but illegitimate. Immigrants, on the other hand, had left their prior expectations back in Europe. The hardships of American life could be deplored, but there was no sense of illegitimacy. Rosenblum’s theory looks promising because it explains not only immigrant conservatism but the fact that the early stages of industrialization run the greatest risk of protest and revolution.
Immigrant militance. The problem with all these theories, however, is that subsequent events proved immigrant docility to be fictitious. After the turn of the century, one outbreak of labor unrest after another found immigrants not only joining but leading the struggle (Higham, 1955:225). For instance, in the Great Steel Strike of 1919 (Brody, 1960 and 1965) the immigrants organized first and held out longest. The strike was far more widespread than anybody had anticipated because the union organizers were able to convert ethnic loyalties into class solidarity. “Strikes had the force of communal action among immigrants. . . . To violate the community will peculiarly disturb the immigrant, for he identified himself, not primarily as an individual in the American manner but as a member of a group” (Brody, 1965:157).
Immigrant workers everywhere translated their ethnic ties into class solidarity (see Gutman, 1976:61–66). The successful United Mine Workers (UMW) strikes were based on the strong sense of community solidarity among Slavic miners (Greene, 1968). The oath taken in the 1909 garment workers’ strike, “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise,” was an old Jewish ritual oath that the striking women repeated in Yiddish. Slavic steel workers in Indiana in 1910 took a similar oath against scabbing by kissing a crucifix. In the successful 1912 strike of the Lawrence textile mills, the IWW organized separate meetings according to language, where workers’ support for the strike was reinforced within the familiar setting of the ethnic community (Dubofsky, 1969:241–42). Even Gompers, despite his professed dislike for unskilled immigrants, was quick to come to their aid once effective strikes were underway; he assisted the New York cloakmakers in 1910, the furriers in 1912, and other garment workers in 1913 and 1916 (Dubofsky, 1968:70). In each of these organizing drives, ties to the ethnic communities more often reinforced class solidarity than divided workers.
Though union defeats were once blamed on immigrant workers, careful research has shown solidarity across native-born and immigrant groups alike. For example, the loss of the Long Strike of 1877 in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region was sometimes attributed to the mass importation of Slavic laborers, but no such migration occurred in the numbers imagined, nor was it so ethnically distinct. And support for the union was as strong in the heavily Slavic areas as in the native-born English-speaking areas (Greene, 1968:66–67). The failure of the strike is more appropriately attributed to the employers’ intransigence: they instigated it by aggressively forcing wage cuts on workers in the entire region, and they were determined to wait out the strike in order to break the union, no matter how unified the workers remained.
Much of the ethnic hostility that did occur was the result of employers’ attempts to pit one group against another.8 By casting one ethnic community in the role of strikebreaker, employers tried to create opposing ties to class and ethnic solidarity. For example, in the 1919 steel strike, a labor spy was instructed to “stir up as much bad feeling as you possibly can between the Serbians and the Italians. Spread data among the Serbians that the Italians are going back to work. . . . Urge them to go back to work or the Italians will get their jobs” (Interchurch World Movement, 1920:230). Yet as cunning as such appeals might seem, these divide-and-conquer strategies did not always succeed. Employers were often inept precisely because of the class barrier that separated them from the workers. Kornblum (1974:97) notes that the labor spy given those instructions probably had little success, since the main ethnic division among the striking workers was between Poles and northern Europeans!
Ethnicity also reinforced militance when immigrant groups brought a European radicalism with them to American shores. Engels regularly complained about the New York socialists who maintained their German language along with their socialist purity (Marx and Engels, , 1953: 257–58;  1953:262–63), but the radical heritage of the mostly German brewery workers made their union a resolutely socialist bastion within Gompers’s AFL (Laslett, 1970:45). The Jewish garment workers in New York had brought with them from Russia a tradition of revolutionary opposition to the existing order (Dubofsky, 1968; Laslett, 1970:134); Hungarians and Finns were also said to be “Socialist by tradition” (Interchurch World Movement, 1920:150). These ethnic communities nurtured a radicalism that demonstrates once again not only the compatibility of ethnicity and class consciousness but their mutual reinforcement.
Nativism. Such militancy forced Americans to reevaluate the role of immigrants in American exceptionalism. But the reevaluation did not abandon the ethnic explanation; it merely stood it on its head: if the Germans, Jews, Slavs, and Italians turned out to be such working-class militants, it must be the native-born Americans whose class consciousness was suspect. By World War I, business leaders themselves were calling for a halt to immigration (Higham, 1955:50–52).9 According to the new reasoning, nativist sentiment was the better protection against working-class solidarity, because the native-born Protestant workers shared with their employers a common language, a cultural heritage, and often a contempt for the impoverished and unskilled “hunky.”
The nativist theory is as plausible as the immigrant explanation, but again, the actual labor history does not fit well. Except in a few cases, ethnic divisions did not drive native-born American workers closer to their employers. American workers were never trapped into the position of white South African or Ulster Protestant workers (cf., Parkin, 1979:4–5). They might distrust the immigrant laborers as unreliable allies, but rarely to an extent that clouded their awareness of who the enemy was.
American workers built solidarity at the workplace in the face of well-orchestrated campaigns of patriotic nativism and strident anti-Catholicism. After the Civil War the electorate was divided between Protestants and Catholics, but the labor movement was united. When these early unions were crushed following the “Great Upheaval” of 1877, the Knights of Labor rose up to rejoin Protestant and Catholic, native-born and immigrant. The Knights suffered from many weaknesses, for which they eventually paid dearly, but ethnic divisions were not a major problem (Dawley, 1976: 190–91). And these divisions were overcome despite a wave of nativist resurgence throughout the country at the time. When the Industrial Workers of the World again attempted a mass-based working-class movement, after the Knights declined, they found little difficulty in organizing native-born, immigrant, and Black workers into “One Big Union.” Even the conservative AFL, perhaps because of its mixed immigrant and native-born membership, was at first unreceptive to the nativist appeals that periodically swept the country (Higham, 1955:49,72).10
The Great Steel Strike. The 1919 steel strike again provides a case in point. When the immigrants surprised everybody by becoming militant strikers, employers appealed instead to the “Americanism” of their native-born workers (Higham, 1955:226). The strike coincided with a Red scare claiming that Bolshevism had entered America in the persons of its unskilled immigrant work force. But the nativist appeals were only marginally successful. In the end, it was the skilled (that is, predominantly native-born) workers who first broke ranks and returned to work, but the strike was already a lost cause by the time the native-immigrant division broke into a major cleavage. The steel corporations had marshaled their economic and political resources to break the strike, and they simply refused to negotiate.
A contemporary report rejected ethnic and nativist explanations of the strike’s failure and instead pinned the blame on the strength of capital:
The first cause of failure was the size of the Steel Corporation. The United States Steel Corporation was too big to be beaten by 300,000 workingmen. It had too large a cash surplus, too many allies among other businesses, too much support from government officers, local and national, too strong influence with social institutions such as the press and the pulpit. (Interchurch World Movement, 1920:177)
Led by Judge Elbert Gary of U.S. Steel, the companies refused even to meet with union leaders; they also avoided the intervention of third-party church and government leaders. Pennsylvania police banned public meetings and arrested union men without warrants. In Gary, Indiana, the U.S. Army imposed martial law, broke up the picket lines, and arrested union officers. The press likewise rallied to the support of the corporations. Pittsburgh papers reported full production in Cleveland; Cleveland papers reported full production in Pittsburgh. At the height of its power, U.S. Steel was simply too strong and too intransigent to be defeated by any feasible working-class movement.
Patriotism and class consciousness. Not only have nativist appeals been overrated as a divisive force, but patriotism has often been used to promote working-class solidarity. The U.S. Steel chairman was regularly portrayed as “Kaiser” Gary. If Americans had fought a war to make the world safe for democracy, why should workers tolerate corporate despots who refused even to talk with a union delegation? Mother Jones, then 89, played this theme to the hilt: “Our Kaisers sit up and smoke seventy-five cent cigars and have lackeys with knee pants bring them champagne while you starve, while you grow old at forty, stoking their furnaces. . . . If Gary wants to work twelve hours a day let him go in the blooming mill and work” (Jones, 1925:211–12). And one native-born American, a skilled worker in Youngstown, equated Americanism with the union effort:
I had relatives in the Revolutionary War, I fought for freedom in the Philippines myself, and I had three boys in the army fighting for democracy in France. One of them is lying in the Argonne Forest now. If my boy could give his life fighting for free democracy in Europe, I guess I can stand it to fight this battle through to the end. I am going to help my fellow workmen show Judge Gary that he can’t act as if he was a king or kaiser. (Interchurch World Movement, 1920:132–33)
Workers saw no reason to consider patriotism incompatible with class consciousness. They saw the labor movement as the truly American cause. They carried American flags as standard props in protest marches. To them, industrial conflict was part of the tradition of the American Revolution (Dawley, 1976:226 and passim). The 1877 railroad strikers were, according to a Massachusetts clergyman, “the lineal descendents of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and the Massachusetts yeomen who began so great a disturbance a hundred years ago . . . only now the kings are money kings and then they were political kings” (quoted in Gutman, 1976:52). Eugene Debs used to compare the Pinkerton men at Homestead to the British at Lexington and Concord (Debs, 1970:224).
Thus, history provides little support for the supposedly debilitating effect of either ethnicity or nativism on working-class movements. However plausible, the theories do not stand up under close examination. Certainly if either factor—the immigrant’s peasant conservatism or the native-born worker’s racist hostility—had been the crucial obstacle to class consciousness, we would expect by now to have witnessed increased class conflict. Working-class immigration halted for the most part, but native workers did not then turn their hostility toward their employers. Second- and third-generation Americans have had no greater success in class conflict than their forebears. Yet both ethnic and nativist explanations of American exceptionalism survive today, immune from the criticism of a disconfirming history.
The Consistency of Ethnic and Class Consciousness
Social theorists often indulge in such polar dichotomies as class versus ethnic consciousness.11 This penchant for contrast often obscures the mutually reinforcing nature of the two poles. What first appear to be mutually exclusive opposites turn out to be parts of the same process. As we have seen in polyethnic America, ethnic loyalties often provide the foundation for building a broader class consciousness, rather than inhibiting class solidarity.
The idea that ethnicity divides the American working class often rests on an implicit assumption that ethnic identifications are psychologically incompatible with class consciousness—as if workers could have only one strong social commitment. This view seems to suggest that if workers invest their emotional energy in an attachment to an ethnic community, they have no energy left for the class struggle.
There is no known law of psychology that says people are limited to a single social identification. On the contrary, it is clear that people can and do combine many strong identifications that are appropriate in different contexts.12 Family, community, work, party, religion, ethnic group, nation—each can command a sense of attachment independent of the others. The individual who has a strong identification with any one such group is no less inclined toward a strong identification with any other. Indeed, as a psychological regularity, we might expect strong identifications to be positively correlated; the major contrast may be between the committed individual who is closely enmeshed in networks of both class and community, and the isolated individual who has little identification with any group.
There is little evidence from recent survey research that ethnic and class identifications are psychologically incompatible. The 1972 American National Election Study (ICPSR, 1975) asked respondents to select the groups in society that they “feel particularly close to—people who are most like you in their ideas and interests and feelings about things.” The respondents chose from a list handed to them by the interviewer that included “Catholics,” “Protestants,” and “Jews”—a weak proxy for ethnic identification but one that defines the broadest boundaries of ethnicity. Some class-relevant groups were also listed: “businessmen,” “middle-class people,” and “workingmen.”13 Again, these are not unambiguous class categories, so we must be doubly cautious in suggesting that the questions tapped class and ethnic identifications. And we can only suppose that the respondents interpreted the question of “feeling close to” as an indicator of group identification. There is little research evidence on what meaning respondents impart to such questions, or with what other attitudes or behaviors any questions of “closeness” are associated.
SOURCE: American Election Surveys, 1972.
Admitting all these reservations, we still find it interesting that the results show only positive relationships between class and religious “closeness”: the closer people felt to their religious group, the closer they felt to their class. For instance, among working-class (nonmanagerial) Catholics, those who reported feeling close to other Catholics were more likely to report themselves as close to “workingmen” (see Table 9.1). The correlation of closeness to Catholics and closeness to workingmen is moderately positive (Yule’s Q = +0.27); among working-class Protestants, the workingmen-Protestant correlation is also positive (Yule’s Q = +0.34). If ethnic and class loyalties were competing, one might expect to find negative relationships between the two attitudes: respondents would be close to either the religious or the class group, but not both. The results indicated instead that respondents tended to feel close to both or to neither.
It is more plausible, and more consistent with the data, to think of ethnic and class commitments as independent of each other, at least psychologically. They are separate realms of social life for most Americans. A person’s class and ethnicity are distinct ties to the larger society, and Americans do not confuse them easily. When Americans think about class divisions, they do not worry about their ethnic heritage; they do not consider how recently their families came to these shores, nor where they came from, nor—for the most part—what religion they happened to bring with them. These considerations are irrelevant to a determination of class position or class interests.
This independence is confirmed by an analysis of the relationship of ethnicity to the subjective class placements analyzed in Chapter 4. With only a few exceptions, members of different ethnic groups respond quite similarly to the working-class-middle-class placement question. It is true that Americans from English stock think of themselves as middle class more often than do, for instance, Americans of Polish or Italian extraction—although the difference is smaller than many might expect—but this is irrelevant for evaluating the impact of ethnicity on working-class solidarity. Americans of English background are more often managers, earn larger incomes, and have had somewhat more schooling. Although their advantages are relatively minor, their structural position entirely explains their more frequent middle-class placement. When we compare, say, a Polish-American machinist making $20,000 and having a high school diploma with a similar “English-stock” machinist, both are equally likely to call themselves working class. Ethnicity is largely unrelated to class placements once the “objective” class characteristics are held constant.
Figure 9.1 demonstrates the general unimportance of ethnicity for class placements. The graphs begin with simple proportions of each ethnic group who report middle-class self-placement.14 Next, they show the estimated proportions after controls for the “basic model” variables—the person’s managerial class, occupational prestige, years of school, and family income. They then recalculate the estimated proportions after additional controls for spouse and parental characteristics. Ethnicity is closely bound to these family contexts, and specifying controls for spouse and family background will help us to sort what part of the ethnic differences in class placements can be attributed to the respondents’ own positions, what part to their family’s positions, and what part to the more general ethnic community.
Two general conclusions are illustrated by these graphs. First, the extent of ethnic difference in class placements is greatly reduced by the personal and family controls; most ethnic differences become negligible by the time all the controls are entered. Second, there are two notable exceptions to this pattern: Blacks and Jews, especially, retain their distinctiveness after all controls, and it shows up in each of the samples.
Beginning with the exceptions, the class placements of minority groups are often distinctive in ways that cannot be explained by the respondents’ own or their family’s position in U.S. society. On the one hand, Jews stand out as remarkably middle class; on the other, Blacks and (to a lesser extent) Latinos and Native Americans tend to be exceptionally working class. Of course, Jews are more middle class than the rest of the population: 52 percent of the GSS sample of Jews hold managerial positions, compared with only 27 percent of the rest of the population; 64 percent of Jews went to college, but only 34 percent of the rest of the sample did. And Blacks are more working class than whites: 87 percent have nonmanagerial positions, versus 71 percent of whites; 74 percent never went to college, versus 65 percent of whites. But these differences cannot explain the ultimate positions in the graphs, since the individual socioeconomic positions are held constant. The controls reduce the distinctiveness of Jews, Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, but they do not eliminate the differences. The class placements of Blacks and Jews, at least, are still quite distinctive and are likely to remain so, no matter how extensive a set of controls we might include. Black managers with college degrees more often assert a working-class identity than equivalent white managers; Jewish factory workers who dropped out of high school more often assume a middle-class placement than their Gentile counterparts. Apparently, at least at these extremes, Americans “borrow” class characteristics from their ethnic communities even if they do not as individuals fit the class labels.
We will postpone a more detailed consideration of the racial differences until the next chapter. Racial conflict has played such a recurrent role in explaining American working-class exceptionalism that it deserves separate treatment. But these ethnic/racial characteristics are relevant for class perceptions only at the extremes. For the vast majority of white non-Jewish Americans, ethnic affiliations do not enter into class perceptions. If we set aside the five “minority” groups—Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and non-European (primarily Asian) immigrants—the differences among the remaining 13 categories (81 percent of the samples) are negligible. These groups all crowd the middle of Figure 9.1 with little seeming order.
We can compute a composite “beta” statistic that expresses the total amount of variation in middle-class placements associated with the ethnic categories and then test whether the coefficient is statistically different from chance expectations. Table 9.2 reports these statistics for both the 18- and 13–category classifications. The 18-category classification produces small (in comparison with the controls) but statistically significant beta statistics. The size of the ethnic “effect” diminishes greatly with controls, as illustrated in Figure 9.1, but the coefficient remaining after applying all controls is still statistically significant. When the five minority categories are removed from the analysis, however, the size of the ethnicity effect diminishes to virtual irrelevance; we could expect by chance alone to find such differences among these 13 ethnic groups.15
Moreover, the 13 groups array themselves in no particular order. Northern Europeans are no more middle class than eastern and southern Europeans. Typically Protestant groups are no more middle-class than typically Catholic ethnics. The ultimate position of the 13 groups in Figure 9.1 is unrelated to any identifiable characteristic; their positions are uncorrected with the groups’ average class, income, or educational position; the results from the GSS samples are uncorrected with the results from the Election Sample. In short, the best conclusion to be drawn from the middle-class placements of the 13 groups is that they fall into an essentially random order.16
SOURCE: General Social Surveys.
aOwn position variables include labor force status, manager (mental labor), occupational prestige, education, family income, and sex.
bSpouse’s position variables include a marital status dummy, labor force status, manager (mental labor), occupational prestige, and education.
cParents’ position variables include mother’s education and a dummy variable for missing data on mother’s education, father’s education and a dummy variable for missing data on father’s education, father’s managerial (mental labor) position, father’s farm occupation, father’s occupational prestige, and a dummy variable for missing data on father’s occupation.
Nor are other aspects of ethnicity much related to class placement. The distinction between “ethnic” and “native stock” is sometimes a proxy for a Catholic-Protestant distinction, and in many ways religion is the most significant ethnic division remaining within white America. According to the so-called triple melting-pot thesis (Kennedy, 1944; Herberg, 1955), the simpler religious divisions have outlasted the more diverse set of national origins. Catholicism in particular is alleged to have stifled working-class consciousness in the United States (Perlman, 1928:168; Harrington, 1976: xi).
We have already noted the distinctive middle-class position of Jews. To test for further religious differences, we repeated the analysis using only the Catholic-Protestant dichotomy, omitting all “minority” respondents from the analysis. As might be expected from the previous results, we found religion unrelated to class self-placement. After we control for the “basic model” variables, 46 percent of Catholic men and 47 percent of Protestant men identify as middle class. Similarly, 46 percent of Catholic women and 43 percent of Protestant women identify as middle class. Such small differences were repeated in an analysis of the Election Sample and were statistically nonsignificant in each case.
Similarly, recentness of immigration does not enter into the working-class-middle-class placements. By the time of these surveys, a majority of adults were fourth-generation Americans; still, a significant minority had at least one immigrant grandparent or even parent, and an even smaller number were immigrants themselves. In both surveys, middle-class placements do not differ among these generations once personal and family socioeconomic position are controlled.
One possibility remains of a way in which ethnicity could interfere with class perception. Certain ethnic groups—especially, we might guess, those with strong ethnic attachments—might be more “confused” about their class placements. Class divisions may simply be less relevant among such groups, so that they perceive class position less clearly. In such cases there would be a weaker relationship between actual class location and the subjective class perception: more managers would choose the working-class label, but they would be balanced by more workers choosing a middle-class label. Overall, the group ends up with an average frequency of middle-class and working-class placements, but there is less consistency between objective and subjective class position.
We test this possibility by calculating the difference in class placements between managers and workers within each of the 18 ethnic groups, within the Protestant and Catholic categories, and within each immigrant generation. If any group blurs the division between classes, then the difference between managers and nonmanagers should be smaller for that group. We found no systematic pattern across ethnic groups in how clearly they perceive the manager-worker division. The differences between managers and workers vary somewhat from one group to the next, but there is no pattern to these differences. Nor are they very large; we could expect such differences to arise entirely by chance. The separate class placements among Protestants and Catholics are displayed in Table 9.3. The class division appears slightly stronger among Protestants than among Catholics. However, the difference is no greater than we would expect by chance; in fact, in the American Election Sample (not shown), the manager-worker division is slightly larger for the Catholics.
SOURCE: General Social Surveys.
NOTE: Sample sizes are presented in parentheses. Women and men are pooled because results were similar. All percentages are adjusted to means on occupational prestige, respondent’s education, and family income. Managers are defined as all the census classifications of managers and professionals except technicians.
In sum, we have been unable to detect any substantial effect of ethnicity on the class perception process. With the exception of Blacks and Jews, ethnic groups in the same class and status position have the same proportion of working- and middle-class placements. Nor is there any evidence that ethnicity interferes in the translation of objective class into subjective class. At the psychological level, at least, class and ethnicity are distinct phenomena in American society.
1. See also his December 2, 1893, letter to Sorge (Marx and Engels, 1953:258) in which he again mentions the division between the native born and the immigrants. However, neither Marx nor Engels studied American workers carefully, so they never substantiated their remarks with much specific evidence.
2. Besides the citations noted in the text, see Gramsci ( 1971:287), Coser (1956:77), Bottomore (1966:54), Aronowitz (1973:140), Burnham (1974:655), Parenti (1978:97), and in a more qualified and potentially insightful way, Katznelson (1981:6–19). Some non-Marxists have agreed on the importance of ethnicity in explaining weak class consciousness. Parkin (1979:4–5), in fact, makes the inability of Marxism to explain ethnic solidarity a major feature of his revision of class theory. American historians John Commons (1908) and Oscar Handlin (1951) stressed American immigrants’ conservatism as the key to American exceptionalism. Selig Perlman (1928:168), on the other hand, regarded the native-born workers’ hostility to the immigrants as the second most important factor (after affluence) in the weakening of American labor solidarity.
3. Karabel’s critique echoed the misgivings of Sombart’s editor and translator, C. T. Husbands (1976:xxvii). Kautsky also had offered ethnic heterogeneity as an alternative to Sombart’s emphasis on working-class affluence (see Moore, 1970:117–20).
4. See also Perlman (1928:168) for a similar assertion of the incompatibility of American Catholicism and working-class radicalism. But see Dawley (1976:138) for an assertion that Irish-Catholics were just as militant as Yankee Protestants. Laslett (1970:54) also points to several examples of radicalism among Irish Catholics in the United States (e.g., the Molly Maguires).
5. Non-Marxists have not so much denied the relevance of ethnic diversity as ignored the issue. It has never played a significant role in Upset’s analyses (1963, 1977). The original edition of the Laslett and Lipset (1974) reader Failure of a Dream? had no selection on ethnicity or race, a shortcoming that the authors corrected in the revised (1984) edition.
6. Using similar logic, Craig Calhoun (1982:129–31) argues that preindustrial community ties were important in the early history of building solidarity among the English working class.
7. If the Catholic Church did side with employers, it was little different from other churches. Irving Bernstein (1960:8) reports that in the South, “religion was a branch of the textile industry” and quotes one South Carolina mill manager: “We had a young fellow from an Eastern seminary down here as pastor . . . and the young fool went around saying that we helped pay the preachers’ salaries in order to control them. That was a damn lie—and we got rid of him.”
8. Engels had earlier noted U.S. capitalists’ deliberate use of ethnicity to divide workers: “Your bourgeoisie knows much better even than the Austrian government how to play off one nationality against the other: Jews, Italians, Bohemians, etc., against Germans and Irish, and each one against the other, so that differences in workers’ standards of living exist, I believe, in New York to an extent unheard of elsewhere” (1892, in Marx and Engels, 1953:242). This theme has been repeated more recently by Karabel (1979:218).
9. Business interest in restricting immigration waxed and waned in cycle with labor unrest. Once the post-World War I strike wave had been thoroughly defeated, industrialists rediscovered the advantages of cheap immigrant labor and lobbied against any restriction of immigration (Higham, 1955:232).
10. After the turn of the century—and especially in light of the I WW threat—the AFL more actively sought immigration restrictions and became more recognizably nativist (Higham, 1955:305).
11. This problem is not unique to the study of class consciousness. In a similar analysis half a world away, Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph (1967) showed that the supposed opposites of modernity and tradition were not opposite at all but closely linked. The most traditional of all ties, those within the castes of India, were used as the primary basis for mobilizing participation in the “modern” process of democratic politics. Modernity, instead of sweeping tradition away, reinforced it and formalized it in chartered caste associations. We believe that ethnicity and class mobilization share a similar symbiotic relationship.
12. Frank Parkin (1979:21) criticizes the “either/or” assumption and argues, in a clever paraphrase of Marx, that man can “think of himself as an industrial worker in the morning, a Black in the afternoon, and an American in the evening, without ever thinking of himself wholly as a worker, a Black, or an American.” See also our discussion in Chapter 3 of people’s multiple images of the social structure and their place within it.
13. It is perhaps revealing of American social science that the authors of these questions could not quite bring themselves to inquire about the working class. Instead they substituted the innocuous and perhaps meaningless “workingmen”—a term that is, in addition, sexist.
14. Our ethnicity coding is based primarily on the respondents’ own reports of what countries their ancestors came from. If more than one country was named, respondents were asked to choose the country they felt closest to. A few were unable to make this choice, so we have added a residual “combination” category. Two other residual categories are also included: a large group that could not name any country of ancestry, and a smaller group that insisted on naming “America” or some region within the United States. Two exceptions were made to the country-of-ancestry basis: Jews and Blacks were given their own categories, based on the respondents’ religion and race, respectively. In addition, to get samples of sufficient size for estimating “average” class placements reliably, we collapsed some of the specific national categories into broader groups: e.g., Czechs, Greeks, Hungarians, Russians, Lithuanians, Yugoslavians, and Rumanians all merit separate categories in the original data but are combined here into East European. This process loses some detail, but given the pattern of results where such single-nation detail is available, we doubt that the conclusions we draw are much affected by the broader scope of our classifications. These procedures created 18 separate ethnic categories in both the GSS and the Election Sample. See Table 9. A for sample sizes.
15. The increment to the chi-square resulting from the 18 ethnic categories is 68.8—statistically significant with 17 degrees of freedom. The increment to the chi-square resulting from the 13 ethnic categories is only 19.5, not significant at the 0.05 level with 12 degrees of freedom.
16. Despite this randomness, one category may be worthy of at least passing note. Americans who cannot or will not report any ethnic affiliation are among the most working class of all groups. This is true for both the GSS (where only Blacks are more working class) and the Election Sample (where only Irish Protestants among the nonminority groups, together with Blacks and Native Americans, are more working class). All other groups, both the so-called ethnics and the more “establishment” northern Europeans are more middle class. These non-ethnics, presumably the more “native-stock” Americans, are also more objectively working class, but they remain more subjectively working class even when compared with ethnics of equivalent social position.