The Old WASP Dream Falters

Over at Steve Wiggin’s blog, I was commenting on a recent post of his, Majority Report. He brought up the WASP myth and put it in context, although his focus was mostly on the Protestant part. In my comments, I mentioned the pluralist background of American society. WASPs have made up a large chunk of the ruling elite, but they’ve never been the majority of the population, contrary to the belief of many.

His post stood out to me partly just because that kind of thing is always of interest to me. But it was already on my mind because of an article I read recently from a local newspaper, The Daily Iowan — the article being Is this heaven? No, it’s beer by Clair Dietz. It appears to be in response to an exhibit being put on by the University of Iowa, German Iowa and the Global Midwest. I live near where the old breweries used to be located, along with the beer caves. My landlord, Doug Alberhasky, was quoted often in the piece, as his family’s business is a well known local distributor of alcohol, John’s Grocery.

There once was much clashing, sometimes violent, between WASPs and so-called hyphenated Americans. Many ethnic immigrant groups, especially German-Americans, loved their beer and liquor. The WASPs here in Iowa were seeking prohibition before the rest of the country, as Iowa became a major destination for German immigrants. Entire communities spoke German and carried on their German traditions, including the making of alcohol. There is a great book I’ve written about before, Gentlemen Bootleggers by Bryce Bauer, about one such community during Prohibition and how they became famous for their bootlegged Templeton Rye.

Another article on the topic comes from the other local newspaper, Press-Citizen: Iowa has deep German Roots by H. Glenn Penny. That article interested me even more. The author points out that there used to be three German-language newspapers here in Iowa City, an impressive number considering there are only two newspapers left in town at present: “In fact, the German language was so widespread that many German-Iowans lived here for decades without ever learning English.” Much of the Midwest was like this, especially this part of the Midwest such as the neighboring states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. This was German-American territory where German culture and language was the norm, not the exception.

This all came to a halt with the beginning of World War I, such as with the Babel Proclamation that outlawed any language besides English. And German-American independence and self-determination was further decimated with World War II. The cultural genocide was so complete that collective memory of this past was lost to the following generations. German-Americans were always the largest immigrant group and the largest ancestry, far beyond the meager numbers of WASPs, but they suffered for not having sufficient political power among the ruling elite. German-American culture was almost entirely lost, as if it never existed, until recent interest in ethnic ancestry was revived.

Still, this kind of political reaction seems to go in cycles. Every time there is a movement of populations, fear and bigotry inevitably follows. As with Germans of the past, the same thing has happened with immigrants of Arab, Persian, or similar looking ethnicities. This is true even within the country, as when Southerners migrated to the North and West. More recently, it has been true of blacks moving almost anywhere, but especially when it involves supposed inner city blacks. The Press-Citizen article made me think about this, when Penny wrote about how initially German immigrants were welcomed and even sought out:

“Iowa: The Home for Immigrants.” That was the title of the 1870 volume published by the Iowa Board for Immigration in Des Moines. It was translated it into multiple languages and distributed it across Northern Europe. The goal was to spur Europeans to abandon their homes and move to the state.

And it worked. Germans were the most numerous group to arrive. In fact, German immigrants consistently accounted for the largest number of foreign-born people in Iowa from the 1850s through the 1970s.

That instantly struck my mind. That sounded like a “workforce recruitment” campaign the Iowa government has had to attract people from other states. There has been a pattern of young Iowans leaving the state and so, in order to counter the demographic loss and brain drain, a need to attract young professionals and young families. Starting in the 1980s, the Iowa Department of Economic Development has advertised in Chicago by putting up billboards — here is an example (from About those Chicago billboards by Adam Belz):

This advertisement ran on billboards along interstates in Chicago in 2007.

Belz points out that, “It’s really a far cry from the local myth that Iowa has been running Section 8 ads in south Chicago for years, but as Steve Rackis, the guy who oversees Section 8 in Iowa City, points out, everyone drives on the interstate, and everyone likes the idea of a safe, quiet place with good schools and no traffic. So certainly, some low-income black people have seen these ads and responded by moving to Iowa.”

Most of the people who respond to such billboards aren’t poor, unemployed inner city blacks, aren’t stereotyped welfare queens, thugs, and gangbangers. The fact of the matter is most people coming from Chicago to Iowa are middle class white people. That is what happened to my family back in the 1980s, when my family left the Chicago suburbs in order to move to Iowa City where my father returned to school for a PhD program. My parents were young middle class professionals with young kids, the demographic targeted by the billboards. I’m sure my father saw such signs, as he headed into Chicago for work, whether or not they were part of the reason for his decision to move his family to Iowa.

Besides, most of those on housing assistance in Iowa City, according to data kept, are whites and long-term Iowa residents. Among these, the majority are elderly or disabled (many elderly and disabled move here because of the multiple hospitals, including a world class university medical center and a major Veterans Affairs facility). The rest are young families and most of these are employed, as unemployment rates are low here. There probably aren’t many “welfare queens” in the area, considering all the local opportunities for jobs, education, and training. Plus, the worst off poor people in Iowa are rural whites living in dying farm towns and trailer parks, not blacks from Chicago.

Considering the proven racial targeting of blacks by the police in Johnson County, it isn’t exactly a welcoming place to blacks and so isn’t a place most blacks are going to choose to move to. In interviews, many blacks living here explained that they saw their situation as temporary simply for the sake of finding work and saving money, and as soon as they were able they planned on leaving.

Sure, all kinds of people end up in a town like Iowa City. It’s a diverse community with people from all over the world. There is a growing population of non-whites here, although it is mostly Asians and Hispanics, not blacks. Even among blacks, they come from many other places besides Chicago, including a fair number of African immigrants. Of five blacks I’ve worked with in my present job with the city, two were from families that had been in Iowa for generations, two were from Africa, one might have been from Chicago or somewhere like that, and another I never knew long enough to learn of his background; three of those people I know were married with young kids and three had degrees from the local university.

Since I was a kid in the 1980s, violent crime has vastly decreased across the country. Iowa has always had low crime rates, violence and otherwise, and that is still the case. For more than a decade, the violent crime in Johnson County, where Iowa City is located, has continued to drop. This is the time period during which there has been an increase in the minority population. There is actually less crime now in Iowa with more minorities than there were back when there were fewer minorities. Yet there is this public perception, largely based on mainstream news reporting, that everything is getting worse, despite the fact that Iowa has been doing well even during the recession.

The real fear is that German-Americans, Hispanics, blacks, or whatever group is most reviled at the moment is a danger to the American way of life. They are bringing bad things with them. And they are taking our country away from us. States like Iowa have always depended on immigration from other countries or simply other states, but this dependence has led to resentment. When WWI came around, it didn’t matter that German immigrants had settled Iowa and cleared the land, had helped make America the country it is, and shaped the entire cultural experience of the Heartland. Suddenly, they were threatening strange foreigners.

The experience of blacks has been different, of course. They were considered a threat right from the start, even though most early blacks didn’t come to America by choice. Interestingly, before Anglo-Americans settled Iowa, there were already free blacks, likely escaped slaves, living right here in Iowa City. Blacks were the first Iowa Citians and yet today, after the era of sundown towns driving blacks out of states like Iowa, blacks are considered as foreign as were those WWI era German-Americans.

Donald Trump rides white outrage in gaining support as a presidential candidate. A century ago, his German-Scottish ancestry would have made him an untrustworthy outsider. But today he stands as the defender of American whiteness and promises to make America great again. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton represents the last vestiges of the WASP rightful ruling elite and disinterested aristocracy of professional politicians who for centuries have defended the status quo from uncouth ethnics like the Drumpf family and their crude business wealth being used to usurp political power (not to mention having to deal with meddling Jews such as Bernie Sanders). The uppity WASPs make their last stand to maintain the respectable political order.

WASPs never were the majority of American population. But they have maintained most of the political power and social influence for centuries. As the non-WASP and non-white population grows, WASPs are slowly losing even their position and privilege. There are challengers on all sides, as the old WASP dream falters.

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Previous blog posts:

America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest

Centerville, IA: Meeting Point of Diversity & Conflict

The Cultural Amnesia of German-Americans

Equal Opportunity Oppression in America

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence

Substance Control is Social Control

The Shame of Iowa and the Midwest

Paranoia of a Guilty Conscience

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Online Articles:

The Great Chicago Migration Myth
by Mikel Livingston and Steven Porter, JConline

It was during the early 2000s when Curbelo, then a program coordinator at Iowa State University in Ames, first encountered the belief that an influx of former Chicago residents was wreaking havoc on local crime rates.

“That caused the police to start targeting minorities around town,” Curbelo said. “It led to harassing the minority population in a town that didn’t have a lot of diversity.”

A public forum in 2008 helped the community confront and move past the issue. When Curbelo moved to Lafayette earlier this year, he was surprised to be confronted with the notion yet again.

” ‘All people from Chicago are criminals, they’re black, they’re on welfare,’ ” Curbelo said, reciting the misconceptions. “No. They’re hard-working people looking for better opportunities. That’s part of the American dream and nobody can judge you for moving to a place to better your family by the color you are.”

The black ‘Pleasantville’ migration myth: moving from a city isn’t pleasant
by Robert Gutsche Jr

Ironically, Iowa City’s downtown – on the doorstep of the University of Iowa – continues to be more violent than the Southeast Side. Every weekend, white college students vandalize buildings, vomit on sidewalks, and assault each other, though it’s the Southeast Side – and its presumed Chicago migrants – who bear the brunt of the responsibility for the city’s crime.

How the Media Stokes Racism in Iowa City – and Everywhere
by Eleanor J. Bader, Truthout

Central to this discourse, of course, is the belief that low-income women, aka “welfare queens,” are taking advantage of government programs and feeding at the trough of public generosity. “Chicago has come to mean more than just another city,” Gutsche concludes. “It signals the ghetto, danger, blackness – and most directly, of not being from here.” That two-thirds of the low-income households registered with the Iowa City Housing Authority were elderly and disabled – not poor, black or from Chicago – went unacknowledged by reporters. Similarly, the drunken escapades of mostly white University of Iowa students have been depicted by reporters as essentially benign and developmentally appropriate. “Just as news coverage explained downtown violence as a natural college experience, news coverage normalized southeast side violence as being the effect of urban black culture,” Gutsche writes. “News stories indicated that drunken packs of college students were isolated to the downtown, whereas southeast side violence was described as infiltrating the city’s schools, social services and public safety.”

 

 

A community divided: Racial segregation on the rise in Iowa City
by Matthew Byrd, Little Village

Some renters felt the underlying presence of racial bias when discussing public assistance with Iowa City landlords […] There are other plausible explanations as well. A 2013 report issued by the Iowa City Coalition for Racial Justice found a high degree of overlap between race and class within Johnson County, with 40 percent of black residents living below the poverty line compared to 16 percent of whites. The fact that Iowa City is the fourteenth most segregated metropolitan area by income in the country, according to the Martin Prosperity Institute, means that, in a county where you are more likely to be poor if you’re black rather than white, segregation by income can also mean de facto segregation by race.

On a similar note, black residents in Iowa City are much more significantly limited in their ability to take out mortgages than whites. The Public Policy center study found that, while blacks comprise nearly 6 percent of the city’s overall population, they only account for 1 percent of housing loans and are much more likely than their white counterparts to be denied loans (the study’s authors do concede, however, that without access to credit scores they “cannot conclusively assert that the higher denial rates … is due to race”).

Whatever the case may be, the rate of racial segregation Iowa City experiences is disturbingly high.

Does Section 8 housing hurt a neighborhood?
The Gazette

In Iowa City, nine of 10 voucher holders is either elderly, disabled or working. More than 85 percent of vouchers in the Corridor are issued locally, not to out of towners. Voucher holders who get in trouble with the law, who shelter people with criminal backgrounds, or who don’t return letters and phone calls are kicked out of the program.

“We review the police dockets and the newspapers on a daily basis,” said Steve Rackis, who heads up the program in Iowa City.

Within the past two years, 230 vouchers have been terminated in Cedar Rapids. Iowa City terminates about 10 people each month. […]

Myth: Most Section 8 vouchers are held by people from Chicago.

Fact: 93 percent of vouchers in Cedar Rapids were issued locally. The program requires one year of residency and has a three- to five-year waiting list. 4.8 percent of voucher holders come from Illinois, representing about 50 households. In Iowa City, 9 percent of vouchers come from Illinois, representing about 114 households. […]

Myth: The cities of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City have billboards in Chicago encouraging Section 8 voucherholders to move to Eastern Iowa.

Fact: The Iowa Department of Economic Development occasionally runs billboards in Chicago encouraging people to move to Iowa, but they are geared toward professionals, extolling Iowa’s hassle-free commutes, for example. […]

Myth: Section 8 is mostly for people who don’t work but survive on welfare.

Fact: In Iowa City, 1,149 households in the program — 91 percent — are elderly, disabled or working. The same is true of 879 households in Cedar Rapids, or 82 percent of those in the program.

Leaving Chicago for Iowa’s “Fields of Opportunity”: Community Dispossession, Rootlessness, and the Quest for Somewhere to “Be OK”
by Danya E. Keene, Mark B. Padilla, & Arline T. Geronimus, NCBI

Iowa City and the surrounding Johnson County, located 200 miles west of Chicago, have received small but significant numbers of low-income African Americans from Chicago. The Iowa City Housing Authority (ICHA), which serves all of Johnson County, reported in 2007 that 14 percent (184) of the families that it assists through vouchers and public housing were from Illinois, and according to housing authority staff, virtually all of these families are from the Chicago area (Iowa City Housing Authority 2007). Additionally, the ICHA estimates that about one-third of the approximately 1,500 families on its rental-assistance waiting list are Chicago area families. Little is known about why families choose eastern Iowa as a destination, but speculation among ICHA officials is that the moves are motivated by shorter waiting lists for subsidized housing and the fact that Johnson County has a reputation for good schools, safe communities, and ample job opportunities.

From the perspective of a growing emphasis on poverty deconcentration in both academic and policy circles (Imbroscio 2008), leaving Chicago’s high poverty neighborhoods for Iowa’s white middle and working-class communities represents an idealized escape from urban poverty. However, the experiences of participants in this study speak to the challenges as well as the benefits of long distance moves to what are often referred to as “opportunity areas” (Venkatesh et al. 2004).

Little is known about the experience of Chicago families in Iowa, but preliminary evidence suggests that Chicago migrants may face many barriers to acceptance. Despite their relatively small numbers, African Americans from Chicago are visible outsiders in Iowa’s predominantly white communities. In Johnson County, blacks made up only 3.9 percent of the population in 2008, an increase from 2.9 percent in 2000 and higher than the 2008 state average of 2.9 percent (United States Census Bureau). Iowa City, a college town that is home to the University of Iowa, contains considerably more ethnic diversity than many Iowa communities and is home to a small number of African-American professionals, students, and faculty. However, the arrival of low-income African Americans from Chicago is a highly contentious issue and has given rise to a divisive local discourse that is often imbued with racialized and class-based stereotypes of urban areas.

The recent migration of urban African Americans to Iowa has also occurred in a climate of uncertainty about the state’s economic future (Wilson n.d.). Over the past few decades, Iowa has lost numerous sources of well-paying employment. The state has also experienced significant population losses, particularly among the college educated (Carr and Kefalas 2009). While college towns such as Iowa City have been somewhat protected from these demographic and economic shifts, in Johnson County, dramatic increases in free lunch program participation and growing demands for subsidized housing over the last decade indicate increasing local need (Wilson n.d.). According to documentary filmmaker Carla Wilson (n.d.), many Iowans feel that in the last few years, poor blacks from Chicago descended on the state, placing a tremendous burden on social service resources at a time when budgets are already stretched. As stated in one concerned letter from Don Sanders (personal communication, [February 3], 2004) to Iowa City’s City Council, “We’re turning into a mecca for out-of-state, high maintenance, welfare recipients. These often dysfunctional families are causing serious problems for our schools and police.” […]

Iowa is not only a place where the social terrain is unfamiliar, but a place where Chicago migrants experience a vulnerable status as stigmatized outsiders. As Danielle says, “It’s someone else’s city,” a place where, according to Marlene, “we are only here because they are letting us be here.” The stigmatization of Chicago migrants plays a profound role in shaping social relationships, both among fellow migrants and between Chicago migrants and Iowans. Several participants describe how Chicago is often blamed for “everything that goes wrong in Iowa City,” particularly in relation to drugs and crime. According to 53-year-old Diane Field, “It’s just, Chicago, Chicago, Chicago. I mean, everywhere you go they talk about us. There were drugs in Iowa long before anyone came from Chicago.” This association between drugs, crime, and Chicago is also prevalent in the local media. For example, one newspaper article about a fight in southeast Iowa City drew numerous racially charged on-line comments about the problems caused by Chicago migrants, despite the fact that “Chicago” was not even referenced in the article.

While participants describe the “helpfulness” of many Iowans, they also note that some oppose their presence. Carol, for example, says she was told by a fellow bus passenger, “I’m tired of all these black folks coming and messing up our small town. I don’t know why the hell y’all up in here, but y’all need to go back where you came from.” While Carol explains that encounters such as these are rare, Jonathan considers this attitude to be more pervasive. He says, “They don’t want us black people down here. Even though it’s some black people down here like me and my family that want something better for our life. They don’t understand that.”

Several participants describe facing discrimination specifically because of where they are from. In this context, 33-year-old Tanya Neeld says that she has begun telling people that she is from Indiana, Michigan, or “somewhere else, not Chicago.” Participants also describe attempts to differentiate themselves from those individuals who “bring Chicago to Iowa” (by getting involved with drugs, for example), by emphasizing their own desire to find a “better life” and to escape discursively condemned Chicago neighborhoods. Additionally, in order to resist the label of, “just another one from Chicago,” many participants also describe keeping to themselves and avoiding relationships with other Chicagoans. For example, Michelle, says, “They act like they really don’t want us here. They try to make like we keep up so much trouble. I don’t know what the rest of these people are doing. That’s why I stay to myself.”

Other participants describe avoiding, in particular, people in their immediate neighborhood who were often fellow Chicagoans. A large portion of Chicago movers live in a few housing complexes on the southeast side of Iowa City, and several participants explain that it is difficult to find landlords elsewhere who will rent to them. Michelle says, “A lot of places here don’t accept Section 8 [rental assistance]. I figure it’s because they don’t want that type of thing in their neighborhood.” These sentiments were echoed by 25-year-old Christine Frazier who says, “It sort of looks likes they section us off.”ii

In the context of residential segregation and stigmatization, many participants also describe the challenges of forming ties with Iowans. A few explain that they actively avoid interactions with white Iowans as a form of self-protection. For example, Christine describes how when she first started working in Iowa, her coworkers, who were all white, left her out of their conversations and talked about her behind her back. She says that from this early experience, she learned to stay to herself at work. She says, “I still have my guards up. You know, it affected me when I got other jobs because I don’t want to interact.” Michelle describes how she has adapted to frequent encounters with racism in Iowa. She says, “I’m basically a friendly person, but I can be not friendly as well. So, that’s the way I cope with it. I just act like they don’t exist. I just stay in my own little world.”

Separation from social ties in Chicago and barriers to the formation of new ties in Iowa leave many former Chicagoans socially isolated and reliant on highly individualized strategies of survival. The desire to be self-sufficient is a common theme throughout the interviews, and in the context of social isolation, some participants may be left with no alternative to relying on themselves. As Tara says, “I don’t count on these people in this neighborhood. I count on myself because myself would not let my own self down.”

Without social rootedness, for many participants, Iowa is not a place to call home, just somewhere to be for a while in order to “do what you have to do.” Or, as Lakia says, “Living in Iowa is like doing a beat,” (a reference, she explains, to a prison sentence). Without social ties, and in the context of stigma and economic vulnerability, the nature of this “beat” is also extremely fragile and many participants have stories of friends and family who eventually returned to Chicago or moved on in search of somewhere else to “be OK.”

WASP Elegy

J. D. Vance is getting a lot of attention for his recent memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. It’s decent book for what it is, but it ends up being mostly fodder for conservative rationalization and praise for WASP culture. If you’re interested in poor whites of the Upper South, you’d be better off gaining useful insight from the likes of Joe Bageant.

I’m not motivated in doing a full review of the book. I only wanted to note something from the introduction and comment on it. Here is what stood out to me (Kindle Locations 215-224):

“One guy, I’ll call him Bob, joined the tile warehouse just a few months before I did. Bob was nineteen with a pregnant girlfriend. The manager kindly offered the girlfriend a clerical position answering phones. Both of them were terrible workers. The girlfriend missed about every third day of work and never gave advance notice. Though warned to change her habits repeatedly, the girlfriend lasted no more than a few months. Bob missed work about once a week, and he was chronically late. On top of that, he often took three or four daily bathroom breaks, each over half an hour. It became so bad that, by the end of my tenure, another employee and I made a game of it: We’d set a timer when he went to the bathroom and shout the major milestones through the warehouse—“ Thirty-five minutes!” “Forty-five minutes!” “One hour!”

“Eventually, Bob, too, was fired. When it happened, he lashed out at his manager: “How could you do this to me? Don’t you know I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend?” And he was not alone: At least two other people, including Bob’s cousin, lost their jobs or quit during my short time at the tile warehouse.

“You can’t ignore stories like this when you talk about equal opportunity.”

Damn straight! We can’t ignore stories like this. Nor so easily dismiss the real people behind the stories.

My initial response to this was that Vance sounds like a heartless asshole. He is quick to judge people he seems to know nothing about. These people were just stereotypes to him and so to be dismissed. He offers no insight about who these people were, what their lives were like, and what they struggled with.

The woman was pregnant, as Vance admits. She could have been dealing with serious morning sickness. There might have been complications with the pregnancy or other unrelated medical conditions involved. Maybe she was tired out from trying to work multiple jobs to save money for when the child came and was having a hard time balancing the work load. As far as the reader knows, she had other kids at home or maybe an elderly parent who needed regular caretaking.

Vance doesn’t inform the reader about any details. One must assume he didn’t know these people very well and apparently had no curiosity to get to know them. He could have, for example, asked her why she wasn’t feeling well during the pregnancy and whether there was anything he could do to help. That is what a compassionate person would have done.

The same goes for the guy, the prospective father. All we know is that he had to use the bathroom often. That could indicate a medical condition, from irritable bowel syndrome to some kind of lingering stomach flu. It could have been lots of things. And maybe with medical costs related to the pregnancy, the guy couldn’t afford to see a doctor about whatever might’ve been ailing him. We shall never know and neither shall Vance.

Instead, Vance mocked him openly and drew management’s attention to the poor guy. It sounds like Vance helped get him fired, in true asshole fashion. Not even an ounce of sympathy toward those who haven’t been as lucky as he has been, at least in this particular case.

Here is the conclusion he offers (Kindle Locations 224-233):

“Nobel-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites. What they mean is that manufacturing jobs have gone overseas and middle-class jobs are harder to come by for people without college degrees. Fair enough— I worry about those things, too. But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

“The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work— a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way— carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here— a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.”

The problem is that he never explores deeply, much less widely, “what goes on in the lives of real people”. It’s mostly just a memoir and primarily focuses on his immediate family. He doesn’t travel the region doing careful interviews. He certainly doesn’t look at any of the data showing what is effecting these people. He doesn’t bother to consider what others have previously written. It ends up being personal speculation based on extremely limited anecdotal evidence, which is to say he confirms his own biases.

As one person noted,

“It matters very much, because it ties into how the author of the book judges “hillbilly culture” as a character fault of the people who make it up. For instance, he criticizes man who takes a day off work while his girlfriend is pregnant. I’d like to know how much that job paid, whether it provided a living wage, whether it provided adequate health care, whether transportation was an issue, and how employees were treated by management, before I would be able to agree or disagree that the man was lazy or irresponsible. […] I’m saying that the issue is far more complicated than Vance makes out. Thiel, Brooks, Vance — they all believe that any individual can rise above the direst circumstances if only they have the right spirit. It’s the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” theory, and to believe that if you don’t succeed at this, if you remain in violence and poverty and despair, it’s your own fault… that’s neoconservatism.”

It is a cynical worldview. Obviously, it doesn’t explain why the lives of these people are worsening. Might there be a direct causal link to their lives worsening as the economy and other social conditions worsen for most Americans, just as in the past their lives were improving when the world around them was doing likewise. Why not go with the simplest and most common sense explanation?

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As a side note, one thing that really irks me is the class narrative.

The mainstream media keeps falsely portraying Trump’s supporters as working class whites, poor whites, or simply white trash—as if it is a rising backlash of downtrodden whites. The fact of the matter is Trump’s supporters are on average middle class, above average in wealth compared to most Americans. Republicans in general get a disproportionate percentage of the wealthier vote, whereas Democrats have maintained their hold on working class whites.

Yet Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is being used as an explanation for Trump’s candidacy. It offers economically well off white conservatives a way rationalize away the fact that their party has been going batshit crazy long before Trump came along.

When all else fails, when poor minorities and undocumented immigrants can’t be scapegoated, blame the white trash and the unassimilated ethnic whites. The likes of J. D. Vance is simply following in the tradition of Charles Murray and previous generations of conservatives, such as the polemicists and eugenicists in the early 20th century. It’s the old American defense of WASP cultural dominance against all those who would threaten it.

Income Inequality and Partisan Voting in the United States
By Andrew Gelman, Lane Kenworthy, and Yu-Sung Su

Which Candidate Do the Poor Support?

Presidential Candidates and Voter Demographics

Class Breakdown of the Campaigns

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Some reviews:

REVIEW: LAMENTING ‘HILLBILLY ELEGY’
By James Branscome, The Daily Yonder

Searching for the “White Working Class”
By Zoltan Zigedy, ZZ’s blog

FOR HONKY FOLK WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE/WHEN DONALD TRUMP IS ENUF.
By Roy Edroso, alicublog

half touching personal memoir, half neoconservative political manifesto
By Mark bennett, Amazon

Hillbilly Elegy? Not Really
By LH, Amazon

Orphan Trains in Context: History, Culture, and Law

Orphan trains represent a transitional period in American history. Many threads from the past became entangled as American society struggled with issues of greater freedom and social justice.

In the early US, there obviously wasn’t much in the way of welfare, for families and for children without families. It didn’t take long for an era of reform to follow after the era of revolution. Shifting conditions, economic and demographic, forced change to happen. The stress on society was immense and new systems were put into place to offer a relief valve. This is the context in which I wish to speak of orphan trains.

These orphan trains operated from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. Children without parents (or without what judges deemed capable or “worthy” parents) were considered a major problem in the big cities, and this problem grew with the influx of immigrants, often poor and unemployed. Industrialization brought people to the cities and built the railroads, simultaneously exacerbating the problem and offering a possible solution, a pathway for moving a perceived excess of youths elsewhere.

It was a time when the Westward expansion and rural farm life was being idealized to a greater extent. It just so happened that sending unwanted kids West also made them someone else’s problems, but it worked out well since those out West often were looking for cheap labor. The kids, however, didn’t always benefit from this deal… not that urban poverty offered them much hope either.

It was natural for trains to be used in dealing with orphans, juvenile delinquents, and “street urchins”. Large numbers of children from the cities on the Eastern seaboard were sent west on trains. The kids were pulled off the trains in rural areas and, in the early phase of this system, anyone who wanted a kid could take one or two or three. Some people were actually looking to adopt children, but others wanted extra hands on the farm or around the house. The main obligation supposedly being that a “good home” was provided, although this was defined loosely and not enforced to any great degree.

* * * *

The early waves of reformers were a product of their time. The first orphan trains operated prior to the Civil War. The slavery debate was heating up and it touched upon every aspect of society, orphan trains included. Some abolitionists feared that the orphan trains were being used as an extension of slavery, and there was reason behind their fear. Not all the orphans were being adopted. Many were being indentured, a term I was unfamilliar with:

“When a child is adopted, he/she become equal to the natural children in all respects – including inheritance.

“Indenture was a legal means to remove a child from an unsatisfactory home without a long court procedure.  The child was not given inheritance rights.  People tended to use the two terms interchangeably but they are not the same thing.  Many people simply did not know the difference.”

The legal background to adoption and foster care has its roots in indenture, which is a practice and a legal construct many centuries old and having continued into the early 20th century. This indenture of orphans is basically the same indentured servitude that preceded and was the precedent for slavery. In fact, the out-placing of children with the orphan trains has its origins long before the Civil War, having been inspired by the out-placing of British children to the American colonies where they were sold into indentured servitude. Besides Africans, the first generation of indentured servants in America include the Irish. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, Irish children were a major target of the welfare societies operating the orphan trains.

Indenture diverged from slavery as a new racial order took over in the late colonial period. This was a sore point in American society, for it showed the class war at the heart of the American experiment, an experiment ruled by a plutocracy. This is why the debate of how to deal with the welfare of children was mixed up with the debate of slavery and capitalism. Defenders of slavery feared the expansion of indenture for similar reasons they feared industrialized capitalism as it was practiced in the North, as both were seen as competition for the slave system, making slaves less valuable and bringing whites down to the same level of slaves.

* * * *

The orphan trains were at the heart of all this. There was great debate about them, about how the process was being implemented and its results. The debate only ended when the orphan trains themselves ended, seventy-five years after they began in the 1850s.

During that time period, some reformers sought to go beyond indenture, but new legal systems were slow to develop. Initially, there wasn’t much legal framework upon which to base adoption and foster care. Trying to avoid the problems of the old ways of doing things, many new problems took their place. Getting rid of indenture without creating new legal protections for children simply created a system that was haphazard and lacked oversight.

No one knew what happened to many of the children who were neither indentured nor adopted. They simply slipped through the cracks, sent away and lost to all records. Abuse, no doubt, was rampant. Many children were used as cheap or even free labor. Still others became victims, whether of violence or sexual exploitation… or who knows what else.

It was upon the groundwork of colonial practices of indenture and slavery that capitalism was built. And it was against such practices that the struggle for democratic freedom was fought. The 1800s was the time when our society sought to get beyond old forms of social control and oppression, both indenture and slavery, the remnants of which continued well into the twentieth century with child labor in factories and the chain gangs of prison laborers.

* * * *

Protection of the defenseless took a long time to become established in law. Our modern sentiments about the innocence of childhood and the universality of human rights is a fairly recent invention.

Another recent invention is our present conception of whiteness. One of the most interesting stories of the orphan trains relates back to one of the main protagonists of this story, the Irish. They weren’t always deemed white. The English and Anglo-Americans were known to compare the Irish to Africans and Native Americans. The Irish were savages and foreigners, partly because they were mostly Catholic. Unlike today, Catholicism wasn’t seen as just another variety of Christianity. Protestants, specifically WASPs, saw Catholics as an alien culture. One of the names given to poor Irish children was “street Arabs”.

How did these Irish become white and hence “real Americans”?

This was a long process. In the early colonies, Africans and Irish indentured servants lived together, worked together, and I suppose had children together when the opportunity allowed. The racial order of slavery came later and that was the beginning of the Irish transition toward whiteness, initially simply being represented by their legally defined non-blackness. This shift of racial identity was solidified during the era of orphan trains.

WASPs, in their fear of Catholics, intentionally placed Catholic children into Protestant homes. In response, Catholics began to implement their own programs to deal with Catholic children in need of homes. One such case involved nuns bringing a trainload of Irish orphans to Arizona to be adopted by Catholic families. The problem was that the Catholic families in question were Mexican-American. The nuns didn’t understand the local racism/ethnocentrism involved and were taken by surprise by the response of the local WASPs. The “white” population living there took great offense at this challenge to racial purity. Suddenly, when put into that context, the Irish children were deemed to be innocent whites to be protected against an inferior race. This is ironic because where those Irish children came from in the big cities out East they were considered the inferior race.

This is the just-so story about how the leopard got his spots… er, I mean, how the Irish got his whiteness.

* * * *

This is key to understanding America. It was in the East where hyphenated ethnic Americans were minorities, seen as outsiders and threats to the status quo. But it was out West where the American Dream took fuller form and part of this was emergence of broader notion of whiteness. Old stigmas of ethnicity and class could be left behind and a new life begun. Out West, the right skin color and work ethic were what mattered. Whiteness offered great privilege for those willing to leave the East or else who, like these orphans, were forced to leave.

The untold part of this story is, as always, the indigenous perspective. Every ethnic group was being pushed elsewhere, in the contest for power and social control. The British sent the Scots-Irish to Ireland and the Irish to America. The welfare reformers then tried their best to send the children of the Irish and other ethnic minorities to the West, a place many ethnic minorites already had escaped to. The Native Americans, of course, were pushed ever westward finally ending up in reservations. Like the children of ethnic minorities, many children of Native Americans were removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools where every aspect of their culture was forbidden.

It was all about forced assimilation through cultural genocide. It never fully succeeded in all cases, but it succeeded well enough to undermine the power of most minority groups that sought to maintain their political, economic, and cultural independence. Quite an ugly process, oftentimes motivated by good intentions based in the belief in the power of environmental influences, a rather modern understanding of human nature. Reformers wanted to save people from themselves, going so far as to save children from their own parents and communities. Orphan trains were one tool in the battle to defend WASP identity and so-called real American values.

This is the background for what American became in the 20th century, everything from the Ku Klux Klan to univesal public education. The question was always how does one make immigrants and minorities into good American citizens, even against their will if necessary.

* * * *

The deeper challenge that Americans have never been able to face is that of the problems of the social order itself. The various minorities didn’t cause their own poverty and all the issues related to poverty, such as homelessness and orphaned children. The social order was built on high economic inequality and low economic mobility. This is obvious when one sees that the prejudices and oppressions of American society have their deepest roots in British imperialism and colonialism.

Shipping poor kids out of poor neighborhoods and communities does absolutely nothing to solve the problem that caused those kids to be born into poverty. Get rid of one generation of kids without changing the conditions and new generations will continue to be born into poverty. So much of welfare has always focused on results, instead of causes. The fear that the poor were a threat to the social order was a real fear, but sadly reformers were often the least likely to be in a position to understand that the social order itself was a threat to much of the population. When a system of conflict, oppression, and social control is created, almost everything becomes a potential threat.

A new country was founded with the American Revolution and yet all the old problems of the British Empire were carried over. Reformers are interested in reform for the very reason that they wish to defend the social order. But because they are invested in the social order, they aren’t in the position to see clearly the problems of the social order that need to be reformed. That is the eternal failure of reform. Hence, that is the frustration of social justice advocates across all of American history.

This country still struggles with poverty and inequality, all of the problems that have plagued this society from the beginning. We are no closer to dealing with these problems than were the 19th century reformers. In many ways, the problems have grown worse as wealth and power have been concentrated even further.

* * * *

Orphan Train Myths And Legal Reality
Rebecca S. Trammell

“The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction” by Linda Gordon
Debra Dickerson

In Arizona, all social significance hinged on the differences between “whites” and the inferiors: Mexicans, “Chinamen,” blacks and Indians. Closest to white in appearance and comportment, Mexicans were at the top of the list but remained (then as now) non-white. Intermarriage (or more often, intercourse) between whites and Mexicans was common and largely accepted in the Southwest, but there were limits — Mexicans adopting white children, for instance. Gordon’s convincing analysis of the nuns’ mistake and the debacle that followed points up some potent racial ironies that are still worth savoring today: The Easterners didn’t understand that the same train ride that would bring their Irish charges parents and homes would also make them white. Of course, had they been white in New York, there would have been no need for the arduous journey west.

Orphan Train Riders: The White Slavery Movement
Our Future Rooted in Our Past

These children were labeled as “Street Arabs”, “the dangerous classes”, and ‘street urchins” to name a few. In the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s of the United States history, these problems escalated and led Charles Loring Brace, a minister in New York, to found The Children’s Aid Society in 1853 in New York City. Orphanages or asylums as they were called back then, did exist, but Charles L. Brace felt that it was not the best environment for children to grow and develop. Brace thought that the children would benefit from fresh air, work and a loving family and resulted in the birth of the Orphan Trains. Unfortunately the loving family life was not always the case and the child would have to be moved to another family.

In 1865, the New York Foundling Asylum was founded by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. Beginning in 1872, the Asylum began to send children in trains out to families in the west. Indentured forms were filled out by the people accepting the child with indenture lasting until they were 18 years of age. The New England Home For Little Wanderers (NEHFLW) in Boston, Chicago Home Society, Minnesota Home Society, and other such societies also placed children with families on the frontier. Most children were never adopted into the families they went to but became indentured servants.

Book Review: Orphan Train
Literary Hoarders

Between 1854 and 1929, so-called “orphan trains” transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children between the ages of 2 and 14 from the East Coast to the Midwest for foster care and adoption. But their treatment often amounted to indentured servitude. Chosen first were infants, for more traditional adoptions, and older boys, for their manual labor; adolescent girls were typically selected last. While some children quickly found love and acceptance, many walked a harder road.

Orphan Trains of Nebraska
Ancestry.com

From 1854 to 1929, signs like this were posted and published all across the Midwest. Over 150,000 orphaned, homeless or neglected children were uprooted from the city and sent by “Orphan Trains” to farming communities, primarily in the Midwest, to be adopted out to good homes. In this way, the city of New York was not only drastically reducing their orphan problems, — they were also aiding others who desperately wanted children. The children were taken by train and often lined up at predetermined stops to be “looked over” and adopted (or in many cases indentured). Those not selected were taken to the next stop in hopes of finding a new home. For many children, life improved because they found homes with loving adults to care for them. Others, however, were not so fortunate, and their lives became more miserable as they found themselves in homes where they were used chiefly for slave labor. (in 1927, there were still 12 states, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, Nebraska and Kansas allowing indenture of children who had been turned over to poor farms or county authorities) And even though the “Orphan Train” brings thoughts of poor orphaned children, this was not always the case. Many of the children still had parents, but their family could not care for them and put them into state run homes, until they could get back on their feet. When the official transporting of children was ended in 1930, the migration of these children encompassed 47 states!

Orphan Trains (1854 – 1929)
Angelique Brown

In the 1920s the number of Orphan Trains decreased sharply. It was at that time that states began passing laws that prohibited placing children across state lines. Additionally, there was criticism from abolitionists who felt that the Orphan Trains supported slavery. Pro-slavery advocates criticized the practice as well, saying that it was making slaves obsolete. In 1912, the U.S. Children’s Bureau was established with the mission of helping states support children and families and alleviate many of the factors that led to children living on the street. As state and local governments became more involved in supporting families, the use of the Orphan Trains was no longer needed.

Riding the Orphan Train: What we can learn about modern slavery from our own history
Beyond Borders

Between 1853 and 1929 roughly a quarter million American children were swept off the streets of New York and other east coast cities and sent westward on trains to live with and work for farm families. Some were true orphans. Many others were not. Many landed in loving homes and were cared for and sent to school. Many others were not and essentially became child slaves.

In fact, before the civil war opponents of this practice in the south argued that the real purpose of the orphan trains was to reduce demand for slavery in midwestern states. Then, after slavery had been outlawed, abolitionists in the north opposed the practice, arguing that many families were now using the free labor of these children in place of slaves they had lost or could never afford.

Trains would stop in midwestern and southern towns, and the children would file off and parade before the assembled townspeople, often on hastily constructed stages. Locals would inspect the children, feel their muscles, look at their teeth, and question them. Contact between the children and their families back east was strongly discouraged. Many of these children ran away from the abusive new homes they were placed in, and a few even found their way back to their families in the east.

Questions remain for orphan train survivors and descendants
ECM Publishers

An ad in an 1882 edition of the Albert Lea newspaper stated, “A company of boys from the Children’s Aid Society of New York City will arrive in Albert Lea on Friday, November 17, for the purpose of finding homes and employment with farmers and others. There will be a meeting for the distribution.”

An article in the November, 19, 1913 St. Cloud paper reported that 100 children from New York, ranging in ages from one to four years, would be distributed in tearns County. (Pictured are Betty Murphy and Sister Justina Bieganek, both of whom were riders, Barb Noll, Gen Gustafson and Colleen Murphy. Staff photo by Joyce Moran)

Distributed?? Today, one sometimes hears about pumpkins being distributed … or, seedling trees. But children?

Such was the case, however, when, from 1854 to 1929, an estimated 200,000 children were transported by train from the Children’s Aid Society Orphanage and the New York Foundling Orphanage, both of New York City, bound for distribution to homes across the United States.

The children generally arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. A cloth patch attached to their shirts contained their names. Some carried birth and Baptismal Certificates—some did not. Most did carry an indenture paper which legalized their adoption.

“The children went through the most traumatic experience of all,” said Renae Wendinger of Sleepy Eye, MN, the daughter of one who rode an orphan train—”the breaking of family ties.”

Wendinger was in Little Falls August 25 and 26, participating in the 40th annual reunion of Orphan Train Riders who came to Minnesota and nearby vicinities. The reunion took place, as it often has over the years, at the St. Francis Center.

“Some children went to good homes,” continued Wendinger. “Some did not. Some people just wanted a servant or someone to take care of them in their old age. This was not considered cruel because our country was still familiar with servants and slavery.”

Going on, Wendinger related that some children were legally adopted while others were not. And often, she said, siblings were not kept together because a family only wanted one child.

Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed
Stephen O’Connor

Most of these charges were not new. Editorialists and critics had compared outplacement to slavery practically since the departure of the first train, and these were far from the first examples of abuse that had been brought up in a public forum. What was different was that so many joined so vocally in the criticism, a signal both that a new consensus was emerging among a mostly younger class of child welfare professionals and that Brace’s power and prestige had begun to erode.

Brace was being attacked partly because of his prominence, especially after the publication of The Dangerous Classes. T/he sins that the CAS was being accused of were, after all, true of virtually every organization that placed orphaned or vagrant children in families. The New York Department of Charities relied on correspondence from the foster parents to monitor even children placed in the city and, as Mary Ellen Wilson’s case demonstrated, did not do a much better job than the CAS of checking up when required reports did not come in. In-city placements by a well-regarded Philadelphia agency were visited only once a year, while children placed by the Catholic Protectory were visited once every two to five years. Those children placed by the Randall’s Island House of Refuge were never visited at all. The attacks on Charles Loring Brace were clearly part of a much-needed self-correction of the entire American child welfare system. And he was singled out for attack because he was the exemplar of the old consensus — the main idol who had to be toppled.

“Philomena’s” story is just one example of the forced adoption of Irish children
Tom Deignan, Irish Central

For a people so passionate about the past, an Irish American’s longing for roots he never knew might seem unusual. But over the course of Irish American history, there are unfortunately many stories of children separated at young ages from their parents and compelled to grow up in strange, sometimes abusive, new surroundings.

And even if they were relocated to loving homes (as Michael Hess seems to have been, raised by a Catholic family in St. Louis), these Irish children were forced to grow up detached from the faith and culture into which they were born.

Perhaps the most prominent and controversial symbol of this was the Children’s Aid Society, which ran so-called “orphan trains” for Irish and other immigrant children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Supporters argued that large numbers of Irish kids were wandering big city streets homeless, and that relocating them to loving families in the mid-West was a blessing.

Critics, however, note that the children were often exploited for their ability to labor on farms.

“At its worst it was not much better than slavery,” author Christina Baker Kline said in a recent NPR interview.

Earlier this year, Kline did extensive research for her novel “Orphan Train,” which features a young Irish girl named Niamh who loses her family in a tenement fire.

Orphan train children “were all between the ages of mostly two — but sometimes as young as babies, baby trains were called ‘mercy trains’ — and up to the age of 14. Those 14-year-old boys, 12- to 14-year-old boys, were the most in demand because obviously they were labor,” Kline said.

It also did not help that Children’s Aid Society founder Charles Loring Brace had an extensive record of anti-Catholic writing, and was open to the charge that he was taking Catholics off the dirty city streets in order to convert them into Protestants.

According to Kline, the extent of the era’s anti-Irish sentiment went to bizarre lengths.

“I came across a newspaper article from The New York Times about how the trains that were being sent were not allowing redheads,” she said.

During a heated exchange of letters in The New York Times back in 2001, Irish American novelist and historian Peter Quinn said the Children’s Aid Society “was not merely a compassionate agent of charitable relief…but an active partner with the courts and Protestant proselytizing societies in seeking to ‘redeem’ Irish Catholic children from a cultural-religious identity considered destructive of personal virtue and moral behavior.”

Of course, many Irish “orphan train” children grew up to live happy and productive lives. But the pervasive sense of dislocation and loss these children must have felt – especially after their own parents endured the trauma and uncertainty of emigration – is a rarely-discussed aspect of the Irish experience in America.

The Orphan Trains Transcript
American Experience, PBS

NARRATOR: Children drifted from farm to farm. Some even made their way back to New York. There were stories of children landing in reform school in Michigan; from Indiana, rumors of children on the dole. A southerner named J. H. Mills claimed that “men needing labor, their slaves being set free, take these boys and treat them as slaves.”

ELLIOTT HOFFMAN BOBO: There was one boy. I refused to go home with this farmer, too. He took this other boy, Albert– maybe I shouldn’t name him, but– and they kept him on the farm, wouldn’t send him to school, worked him eighteen hours a day in the field and he just lost his mind. And he died at an early age, less than thirty years of age. And he finally ran away from home, but it was too late. They wouldn’t let him go to town and see people, afraid he’d tell them how badly he was treated. And he never saw anybody. Didn’t– once– I saw him about two times during the whole time he was there, about ten years. I just saw him twice and he was afraid to talk to me. And I couldn’t– I couldn’t help him. I didn’t know enough to help him. But my dad always thought that he was abused, so he was afraid to talk about it, afraid he’d be abused some more.

NARRATOR: The record books are filled with names and dates, details of departures and arrivals, but say little about the quality of the children’s treatment. The extent of abuse is unknown.

The Society’s goal was to visit each child once a year, but there were only a handful of agents to monitor thousands of placements. With reports of children drifting through the countryside, Brace consented in 1883 to an independent investigation. It found the local committees were ineffective at screening foster parents. Supervision was lax. Many older boys had run away. But its overall conclusion was positive. The majority of children under fourteen were leading satisfactory lives.

READER: [Ann] “Dear Mr. Brace: When I lived in New York, I had no bonnet and now I have more bonnets than I can wear. And I get no whippings and I have a father and mother and brothers and sisters here and they are kinder to me than my own ever were. I think I will never be happier than I am now.”

NARRATOR: In New York, the children of a new generation of immigrants were facing deprivation and homelessness. Brace continued to insist that removal from the city was the street children’s best hope for deliverance. he used photographs like these, made by his protégé, Jacob Riis, to dramatize their plight.

The Society boasted about the story of two street kids, Andrew Burke and John Brady, who were sent to the same Indiana town on the same day. On arrival, the judge who adopted Brady considered him “the homeliest, toughest, most unpromising boy in the whole lot.” He said, “I had a curious desire to see what could be made of such a specimen of humanity.” John Brady grew up to be governor of Alaska. His friend, Andrew Burke, grew up to be governor of North Dakota.

But many rural people viewed the orphan train children with suspicion, as incorrigible offspring of drunkards and prostitutes. The children spoke with the accents of Ireland, Germany and Italy. Unlike most Midwesterners, many were Catholic. One official said, “What was good for New York was very bad for the west.”

READER: [farmer] “I have known several of these city Arabs being provided with homes and never heard of but one that proved to be honest. I believe it is the blood and not the education that tells.”

ALICE AYLER: Bad blood. That’s what they used to consider it. We kids from New York were of inferior stock. Bad blood is what’s running through those veins and some people have bad blood and others have blue blood. Well, the bad blood is supposed to carry the bad things down from your parents. Through your life, all the bad things are supposed to come through that bad blood and you don’t have a chance to do better.

Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed
Stephen O’Connor
pp. 95-7

“The most significant antecedent of all, however, not only for Brace’s orphan trains  but also for both of the earlier American “placing out” efforts, was simply  the indenture system. Indenture even had a long history of being used for the reform and removal of undesirable or potentially criminal children. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the British routinely gathered up — or kidnapped — poor children from the slums of London and sent them to the colonies to be bound servants. For much of that same period American commissioners of the poor had sought to “reform” destitute children by placing them in supposedly “respectable” homes at great distances from their depraved parents. The Philadelphia House of Refuge, where John Jackson had been incarcerated, commonly indentured boys to sea captains and had even placed one child as far away as Peru.

“By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the indenture system was in its final phase, having succumbed, on the one hand, to the looser employer-employee ties fostered by wage labor and the market economy, and, on the other hand, to the changing attitudes toward children and — under the influence of abolitionism — bonded servitude itself. In a way, the orphan trains were an attempt to modify an increasingly outmoded system, or at least to rescue that system’s best elements.

“Under the standard indenture agreement, a child was “bound,” generally until the age of twenty-one, to a master who, in exchange for labor, was expected to train the child in the “art and mystery” of his craft and to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, and a “common” education. At the termination of the indenture, the master was also supposed to give the apprentice a suit of clothes and often a bit of money and a Bible.

“The agreement between the CAS and prospective families was identical in its general outline but differed in ways designed to give the child more freedom and protection. The most important difference was that orphan train riders were not “bound” to the families they went to live with. Unless the child was adopted by the new family, the CAS or the child’s birth parents retained guardianship. Also, the relationship between the child and the family could be dissolved at any time if either party was dissatisfied, and the CAS would attempt to find the child a new placement and arrange for the child’s transportation, either to that new placement or back to New York City. And finally, the head of the family with which the child was placed was not the child’s “master” but his or her “employer.” This did not mean that the child was paid wages — although many children, especially the older boys, were in fact paid for their labors. The term was testimony to the looser nature of the placement, by comparison to indenture, and to the legal equality of the two parties. “Employer” also implied, of course, that the child was still expected to work, as a farmhand domestic, or in some other capacity. But the relationship was not meant to be a cold exchange of labor for basic necessities. From the beginning the ideal consummation of any placement was held to be the child’s incorporation into the family.

“Brace’s reinvention of indenture was, however, only one of many ways in which American society was struggling to preserve this ancient and ubiquitous institution. Indenture was nothing like an outmoded profession — blacksmithing, for example —  that could disappear without a trace in a single generation. It was an  essential component of American family and social organization. Long after the notion of bonded servitude (at least of noncriminal whites) had become intolerable in a democratic republic, long after payment only in room, board, and on-the-job training had come to seem exploitative and unnatural, and even long after the legal apparatus of indenture — the contracts, penalties, and terminology — had fallen into neglect, there were still families that needed work done they were unwilling to do themselves, and there were still parents who could not afford or did not want to raise their children to adulthood, and there were still adolescents who could not bear to remain in the homes in which they had been born. Throughout the Victorian era and well into the twentieth century aspects of indenture survived as a social safety valve, as a source of cheap labor, and, most important of all, as a set of assumptions about the obligations of family, of adults and children, and of the rich and the poor. By looking closely at these assumptions, we can see not only yet another way in which the orphan trains were inevitable, but how they could also seem natural, normal, and good.

“Little Orphan Annie has come to our house to stay
To wash the dinner dishes up
And brush the crumbs away,
To shoo the chickens off the porch
And dust the hearth and sweep,
To make the fires, bake the bread
And earn her board and keep.
— James Whitcomb Riley”

The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America
Marilyn Irvin Holt
Kindle Locations 440-488

PLACING OUT In America was given form by Charles Loring Brace. Born in 1826, Brace was the product of nineteenth-century values and of old New England traditions. His family was comfortable in its financial and social status, and Brace grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. There he was influenced by the sermons of the renowned theologian Horace Bushnell who believed in the naturalness, the “unconscious influences,” of child rearing, deemphasizing the use of threats and coercion in the shaping of a child’s character. Bushnell also may have played a role in Brace’s decision to become a minister. Graduated from Yale in 1846, Brace then attended the Yale Divinity School and the Union Theological Seminary, but after completing his education, Brace was not sure that a church ministry should be his calling. He leaned toward missionary work and had his first introduction to life as a city missionary at New York City’s Five Points Mission. That experience was of great importance to Brace’s career, and he maintained ties to that institution and the Five Points district after leaving to become instrumental in founding the New York Children’s Aid Society in 1853.’

With the Aid Society as the vehicle, Brace devoted his life to working with the poor. His contributions were many and during his lifetime his tireless efforts brought him recognition as an urban reformer. Brace also received some measure of notice for his writings, whose topics ranged from his experiences among the lower classes to analyses of life in foreign lands and ancient civilizations. One theme that held a particular fascination for him was the evolution of civilization, or perhaps more accurately, the forces that led a civilization from one step of development and culture to another. Because of this interest, Brace was a student of the theories of Charles Darwin and greatly admired this man, whom he came to know. Seemingly Brace was intrigued by the implications of Social Darwinism, and, as evidenced by his Dangerous Classes of New York, believed that society could be greatly changed, if not brought down, by a growing poverty class. As Brace’s writings illustrate, he did not follow the school of evolutionists that argued for “natural” events to take their course. Brace disavowed survival of the fittest. Rather, he was convinced that society could create artificial social structures for improving the lives of the poor, and he sided with the evolutionists who argued for intervention programs that would change and benefit all society.2

Brace was convinced that just as humans had developed through an evolutionary process, their behavior could evolve, and be shaped, for the good. There was one qualifying point, however. After becoming a city missionary and working with adults at Five Points and later New York’s Blackwell’s Island, with its penitentiary and workhouse, Brace became convinced that any effort “to reform adults was well-nigh hopeless.” He therefore directed his energies to the salvation of children. His life’s work produced numerous social-welfare programs, and by 1894 the New York Children’s Aid Society supported forty-five major activities in New York City and its environs. Included among these projects were twenty-two industrial schools; six lodging houses (five for boys, one for girls); a farm school; and a children’s summer home on Long Island. These accomplishments, which gave help and support to many thousands of young lives, have been overshadowed by Brace’s best known legacy-placing out.3

Although Brace later wrote of placing out as if no other person but he or any, other country but America had used the system, it was an imported idea. Indeed, he was not the only American to have an interest in the system’s possibilities. At least two contemporaries are known to have considered placing out as an option for dealing with the urban poor. Robert M. I Iartlev, of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, and John Earl Williams, of the Boston Children’s Mission, advocated the system; the association with which Hartley, was involved established the New York Juvenile Asylum, a later advocate of placing; out, and Williams was to become treasurer for the New York Children’s Aid Society. In fact, the Boston Children’s Mission, founded in 1849 and incorporated in 1864, began a modest in-state placement program under the direction of Williams in ih5o. It was Charles Loring Brace, however, who gave the concept definition in America.4

What these men idealized was a theory, for removing the urban poor to the less populated and more rural areas of the country. Abstractly, they viewed placing out as a solution. They might personalize their arguments with sad human examples, but they’ were in fact creators of a particular view of what should he done with the poor, and more often expressed concern in terms of the immediate effect of the poor on society,. Familiar with traditional forms of charitable support, they knew that from the Colonial period children and adults had been indentured and that the institutionalized were commonly used as farm laborers to earn their keep. They shared a belief in the code, “labor is elevating and idleness is sinful.” Additionally, these men seemed to have little concept of life in the expanding west. Brace’s writings point to an idealized view of rural life, not unlike that expressed in popular thought. Supposedly the unlatched door of the country home offered hospitality to friend or stranger, and class or circumstance of birth had little meaning. The rigors of frontier life evidently went unrecognized, and as importantly, these city reformers seemed blissfully ignorant of the urbanization of western cities such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago. No longer frontier outposts, these were by the 185os centers for commerce and transportation. Equally ignored was the far west, with its influx of emigrants, gold seekers, and entrepreneurs. Brace and his contemporaries certainly were aware of westward expansion but seemed oblivious to the growth of cities like San Francisco, which established its first orphan asylum in 1851, in part to house children orphaned on the Overland Trail.’ Instead, the focus of these men centered on eastern cities, and their romantic notions of the west remained steadfast.

Those who considered the idea of placing out were well aware of established forms for assisting the poor. Brace and his colleagues simply added a new dimension. It is quite possible that Brace shaped his ideas while on a trip to Europe in 1850. At that time he toured England’s “ragged” schools, which were based on the principle of reform rather than simple incarceration of children, a revolutionary idea for the times. No doubt Brace and contemporaries were already familiar with this work, but for Brace the experience of seeing programs in action allowed for a formulation of strategy. Also, Brace could not have failed to learn more about the British system of “transportation,” a well-known practice used as far back as the early 1700s. Under this system the country’s less desirable citizens were shipped to North America, Capetown, and Australia. Initially, transportation was a punishment whereby convicted felons were removed from their home country. By the time Brace saw the system, a new component had been added. Along with convicts, the poor, particularly women and children, were being resettled. The government transported many and gave approval to the British Ladies’ Female Emigrant Society to send more women out of country. The frontiers of the Empire needed labor, and in some cases prospective wives for male settlers. Transportation became a way, to supply that demand. Children and women were sent successfully to Canada and Australia, and at least one foray was made into the United States when London’s Home and Refuge for Destitute Children, in 1869, resettled twenty-one boys to the English colony of Wakefield, Kansas. In addition to what Brace saw in England, he encountered another form of relocation in the German states. There he observed a program established by prominent citizens, known as “The Friends in Need,” which placed vagrant city children with rural families. He also may have come into contact with the work of Pastor Andreas Brain, which did the same thing in Neukirchen, Germany. Bran’s work was inspired by his sermon text “The Christian Family-Parlour is the Best Reformatory,” a theme not unlike that taught by Bushnell.” It seems that Brace borrowed the basic idea of supplying labor while at the same time removing the destitute from high population centers, and tailored this to American society, sending thousands of children to experience lite in the West.

Kindle Locations 501-508

The plea for Christian charity went hand in hand with a warning. Brace’s writings, whether a society circular or his notable book, The Dangerous Classes o, f New York, paired charity with the caution that these children, left unattended, would some day threaten society. “The class increases; immigration is pouring in its multitude of poor foreigners, who leave these young outcasts everywhere in our midst,” warned Brace. “These boys and girls,” he wrote, “will soon form the great lower class of our city [and] if unreclaimed, [will] poison society all around them.” The solution was “a means of draining the city of this class.” Brace certainly had real concern for what happened to the children of the city, but his writings went beyond a simple appeal for help. Harking back to what Brace believed about social evolution, there was a desire to impose control over the possible ramifications of a growing underclass. Thus, Brace asked that support, financial and spiritual, he given the Aid Society to “drain” the potential threat. Meanwhile, he began the process “by communicating with farmers, manufacturers, or families who may have need of [child] employment.”‘

Kindle Locations 781-790

The ethnic backgrounds of those placed out reflect in part Brace’s personal prejudices. Brace believed that American and West European cultures were superior and that children from those backgrounds were more acceptable to receiving communities and families. When writing of children who came to the society for help, Brace gave approving descriptions of children such as the “yellow-haired German boy … with such honest blue eyes” and the “sharp, intelligient Yankee lad [who] comes in to do what he has never done before-ask for assistance.” To the Mediterranean and East European born, Brace was less receptive, particularly as he feuded with the Catholic community over placing out and as he believed Eastern and Southern European groups less advanced and civilized. In fact, when there were instances of Italian children being placed, the Aid Society pointedly described their earlier conditions, proving, at least to some minds, that this group was inferior: “Eugene M-, eleven years old, [was] found locked in a vacant room in a wretched tenement, deserted by his Italian parents.” After a stay at New York’s Home for the Friendless, the boy was sent to a “superior home” in Kansas .41

To a degree, Brace’s prejudices were those of American society. Robert Hartley, writing for the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (A I C P), expressed much the same thoughts, particularly against Catholics, and despaired of the “accumulated refuse” that “had landed in New York.” Reformer Jacob Riis did not share such sentiments, but he certainly observed them. Writing of New York’s Fresh Air Movement, Riis noted that rural communities were not willing to open their doors to just anyone:

Kindle Locations 840-843

One historian writing on childhood in America has concluded that the Civil War served as a dividing line in not only the nation’s history but for children’s history. A loss of a national innocence led adults in their desire for a less troubled time to project an aura of virtue around childhood. Children were seen as the only hope left to the country.47 This analysis provides a psychological framework in which to consider the continuation of placing out during and after the war. The innocence of children was to be preserved, and their protection became a national mission.

Kindle Locations 1011-1019

It may be argued that the n i c P, Brace, and other reformers cloaked their fears of the lower classes, especially the foreign element, in the guise of charity. Certainly by standards of the late twentieth century their attitudes smack of bigotry and intimidation, but the times in which they lived must be considered, not to excuse, but to explain a viewpoint that allowed heartfelt concern for the worthy poor to coexist with apprehensions for what immigrants and a growing American-born class of poor might bring. This was the time of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing party, a period of America for Americans sentiment, and a time when educated men and women still spoke of Native Americans as “savages” and debated the question of blacks as a subhuman species. If Hartley, Brace, and their contemporaries are today to be interpreted as racists, that label must be applied to much of society. Just as city missionaries labored among the immigrants, missionaries among the Indians attempted to impose the white work ethic and standards of conduct, and those sympathetic to the plight of blacks, including the strongest abolitionists, often viewed that group as children who could not progress without white guidance. These attitudes did not diminish real compassion. In fact, for the times, men like Brace and Hartley were viewed as forward thinking. They, at least, were willing to tackle the needs of the destitute and downtrodden, despite rhetoric that today seems to curse the very people they were sworn to help.

Kindle Locations 1589-1601

Despite the apparent increase in legal adoptions during the latter years of the system, implicit in debates over placing out was the question of the legal status of those removed from the cities. If placing-out institutions did not demand indenture, adoption, or agreements with families to serve as foster care parents, who accepted legal responsibility for a minor? Certainly, there were those who were indentured and had the contracts as proof of their status within the home. There were those who had been legally adopted, giving them the benefits of family name and rights of inheritance. It is apparent now, as then, however, that many of the placed out, and perhaps the majority, existed in a kind of no man’s land of legal status. The institution to release the child for resettlement may have verbalized the rights of “prior” guardianship, but most orphanages or asylums that worked with placing-out organizations, expressed little interest in the outcome. For those placed out and not indentured or legally adopted, it was a state of limbo. It is clear in placing-out accounts that many, unsure of their place, assigned themselves a status. Many twentieth-century accounts state that the child was adopted into the family or treated as one of the family’s own, but being treated as part of the family and having a record of adoption are quite separate things. It is probable that many receiving families were uneducated or unaware of the niceties of the law and therefore never considered or understood either option. When Peter Manachisa, for example, was placed by the Sisters of Charity in a Louisiana home, his new parents signed indenture, not adoption, papers; Peter was given his new family’s name and he later learned that his parents, of limited education, had believed they were adopting him.33 For a growing number of reformers and officials of state boards of charity and institutions, the rather cavalier attitude of placing agencies in ignoring the legal implications of status may have represented just another reason for the system’s abolition.

Kindle Locations 1990-2002

In this new world of educated social workers and theorists and progressive thought, indenture, one of the long-held social options for placement came under scrutiny and was found lacking. Indenture of children and adults was deeply rooted in American life. It routinely served as a means of reducing the inmate populations of institutions and as a way for parents to provide their children with board and the means of learning a trade. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, there were rumblings. The superintendents of the Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Atchison, Kansas, had seen heated debate when state approval was given for indenture, and they were not unique in suffering, as one writer put it, the “wrath of the parents and relatives of [indentured] children, and of the politicians who are, or think they are interested in them.” One of those politicians was Governor Arthur Capper of Kansas, who received this viewpoint from a private citizen: “In fact it is my opinion that both boys and girls in this Institution [Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home] if permitted to remain where they are until they can acquire the training and education in household and other vocations will be able to go out and take employment independently and without being indentured to their employers.””

Local complaints supported a growing national concern. In 1927, twelve states-Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Maryland, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, and Nebraska-still allowed indenture of their institutional charges and of children who had been turned over to county authorities or poor farms. These states were pushed into the national limelight when calls were made for them to abolish the practice for “more intelligient child care services.” Pressure increased when the national Children’s Bureau published its study of indenture in Wisconsin. That study reflected some of the same criticisms made of placing out, citing children who were “worked virtually as unpaid servants in households and on farms, often deprived of schooling and . . . sometimes cruelly treated.” The Children’s Bureau demanded abolition of all indenture, calling it “a relic of sixteenth-century England.” 29 If indenture, a much older practice than placing out, could be cited for its antiquarian principles, then surely placing practices that sometimes included indenture could be called into question.

Dominant Culture Denies Its Dominance

There is a certain kind of awareness that many, if not most, people seem to lack.

It is a social awareness dealing with the dominant culture. I suppose this type of awareness is likely a learned ability that few ever learn for it probably offers few advantages, especially on the social level. People who question the dominant culture tend to be ignored, dismissed or sometimes even punished.

The opposite of this social awareness of dominant culture isn’t simply a lack of awareness but often an active denial of awareness (although maybe a subliminal awareness of what is being denied). It’s obvious what is being denied from an outside perspective and yet if you are too far outside you might not notice the incongruency. Standing on the edge of the dominant culture, part way in and part way out, offers the perfect position for this kind of social awareness.

* * *

So, what is being denied?

The person fully within the dominant culture often defends the dominant culture by denying that it is the dominant culture. That is how dominant cultures work. The dominant culture is able to maintain its dominance by maintaining its invisibility, well invisibility to those within the dominant culture anyway.

A reality tunnel can only be taken as reality by disallowing the reality tunnel to be seen for what it is.

* * *

Here is the example that got me thinking about this today. It is a comment by Alan Lichtenstein to the Wired article ‘Why Do Some People Learn Faster?’ and the following is the relevant part of the comment:

“Intelligence is overrated.  However, hard work is underrated.”

I read all the responses to this comment (19 responses by my count). Only one person disagreed with the statement that “Intelligence is overrated” and no one disagreed with the statement that “However, hard work is underrated”.

This is relevant because Wired magazine is very much a part of American mainstream media and hence a part of American mainstream culture. These readers seem to be typical mainstream Americans and their opinions representative of the dominant culture.

In order to discern the beliefs, biases and assumptions of the dominant culture, just look at what the Mr. Lichtenstein’s statements imply. Who is overrating intelligence and underrating hard work? Certainly not Mr. Lichtenstein and the typical mainstream American who agrees with him. The comment is based on an assumption that most Americans overrate intelligence and underrate hard work, but that is obviously not true.

In fact, the very opposite of what Mr. Lichtenstein says is true, at least in America:

Intelligence is underrated. However, hard work is overrated.

America has always had a strong strain of anti-intellectualism and hard work is one of the central tenets of American culture.

If hard work was any more overrated, it would be treated like a religious belief. In some ways, it already is a religious belief. Others (such as Max Weber) have noted that American’s work ethic is rooted in Protestantism. Many have argued as well that America’s anti-intellectualism is also rooted in Protestantism or Christianity in general.

* * *

Here is the basic point that I’m making (stated as a generalized truth):

You know what the dominant culture affirms by what those in the dominant culture deny.

* * *

I’ll give two other examples, one related to the media and the other related to religion.

* * *

First, there is the conservative allegation that the mainstream media is liberal.

As a liberal who doesn’t identify fully with the mainstream, I’ve noticed that this conservative allegation typically comes from people who are in the mainstream media, who regularly watch the mainstream media, or who are generally a part of the mainstream. When I check out alternative media, it is much more rare to come across this conservative allegation or else its more common to hear the opposite allegation.

The fact that this conservative allegation has spread so widely should make one suspicious of its veracity. If the mainstream media actually were liberal, those in the mainstream media wouldn’t allege others are too liberal in order to prove their own conservative credentials.

It’s like when Republican presidential candidates attack each other as being too liberal. No objective person would take this as evidence that the Republican Party has become a liberal party. Once again, the opposite is true. The GOP has instead gone to the far right.

The liberal media allegation also demonstrates the difference between mainstream and average. The mainstream often doesn’t represent the average for dominant cultures often originate from and are enforced by a dominant elite. The mainstream media acting as gatekeepers is an example of this. Even as the mainstream media attacks the mainstream media as being too liberal, the average American is more liberal than mainstream media. So, relative to the average American, the mainstream media certainly isn’t too liberal.

The conservative allegation that the mainstream media is too liberal acts as an implied denial. It denies that the mainstream media is too conservative. Hence, it denies that the corporate ruling elite who owns and operates the mainstream media (and who influences politics more than any other demographic) is too conservative. Furthermore, it denies how liberal average Americans are by refusing to acknowledge that the mainstream media doesn’t represent average Americans. The allegation implies that the mainstream media is more liberal than the average American when in reality the complete opposite is true.

* * *

Second, religious Americans are always complaining about being victims.

This is ironic considering how much power they wield. Atheists don’t have lobbyist groups that are as wealthy and influential as the religious lobbyist groups. No admitted atheist or agnostic (or any other variety of non-Christian) has ever been president of the United States. If a candidate doesn’t regularly declare or somehow clearly demonstrate their Christian credentials, they won’t even get nominated as a candidate for either party.

Conservative Christian’s denying they have power is evidence of how much power they have.

America is the most religious nation in the West and probably the most Christian nation in the world. A large part of US policy is determined by conservative Christian beliefs: obstruction of legalizing gay marriage, constant attacks on women’s health clinics because of abortion, undermining of health care reform partly because of abortions and birth control, continued funding of abstinence only sex education, the largest prison system in the world built on a conservative Christian punishment mentality, “In God We Trust” being placed on our money at the beginning of the Cold War, our constantly attacking Muslim countries and our massive support of Israel, and on and on.

The rate of religiosity such as church membership and attendance is higher in America now than when the country was founded. Atheism may be growing, but it is still a tiny percentage of the population. The majority of Americans continue to claim to believe many standard doctrines of contemporary mainstream Christianity, including such bizarre beliefs as the story about Noah’s Ark being real (even many Christians in the first centuries of Christianity didn’t take such Old Testament stories literally).

* * *

These examples create an odd picture of American culture.

Most Americans are liberal Christians with a strong work ethic. However, Christianity is shrinking the most among lower class whites and the most religious demographic of all is that of minorities, although the upper classes are also more religious than lower class whites (the more educated an American gets the more religious they become, thus disproving the higher education system is dominated by an anti-religious liberal elite).

So, the average and below average white American is actually less Christian and more liberal than Americans in the upper classes. Meanwhile, the white upper class complains about liberalism and secularism, and also the white upper class complains about minorities despite minorities most strongly representing the religiosity upper class whites proclaim as the moral highground.

The dominant culture continues to be dominated by upper class WASPs. This is so despite the fact that atheists and minorities are two of the fastest growing demographics. Dominant culture by its nature attempts to maintain the status quo of power, wealth and social order.

Origin of American Diversity

As a typical under-educated/mis-educated American, I’ve felt compelled to educate myself about American history, especially the complexities of early American history. As a descendant of Europeans from many generations ago, I’m interested about the early immigrations during and after the colonial period. Specifically as a descendant of non-English immigrants, I’m most focused on the ethnic/cultural diversity that formed America, thus setting the stage for everything that followed.

I’ve always been bothered by the white supremacists and their more mainstream cousins, the WASP supremacists. American supremacists often advocate a narrowing of all American culture(s) down to a single monoculture, a supposed original and unique American culture. The ironic part is that this is a very modern idea which goes against traditional European cultural diversity. Even the definition of ‘Europe’ has constantly been argued about since the concept was first mentioned. Some don’t consider the British Isles to be part of Europe. Also, the Finnish are genetically and culturally distinct from the rest of Europe and Britain. The British Isles alone consist of massive diversity caused by the interaction of numerous groups of people from all over Europe. There is little of the original native cultures left in most of Europe and the British Isles.

In America, the early non-English immigrants didn’t just assimilate to English culture. First of all, early America had a diversity of cultures and so there was no single culture to assimilate to. Second, most early immigrants were quite fond of their own culture and many resisted assimilation for generations. Third, many of the colonial governments didn’t seek to force people to assimilate.

Assimilation and the development of a monoculture only became central in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when immigration was curtailed and federal laws enforced a single language onto all public schools. Furthermore, there was the rise of the KKK which was a systematic terrorizing of anyone who didn’t conform to their view of American culture (whites as well as blacks). Anti-immigrant, anti-German, anti-Italian, and anti- all kinds of things commanded much attention from the political and economic elites. An age of conformity arose in early 20th century which came to fruition in the 1950s which is why conservatives idealize the monocultural 1950s instead of the multicultural 1850s or, for that matter, the 1750s.

The supremacists too often have sought to enforce their conservative vision onto all of American history, a romanticized revisionism that conveniently ignores all of the complex factual details. For example, they deny the democratic reformists of the revolutionary era and post-revolutionary era who pushed for radically liberal and progressive policies: feminists and socialists, slavery abolitionists and alcohol prohibitionists, working class free soilers and civil rights activists, Pennsylvania democrats and Whiskey rebels, etc. Beyond this, there were the Native Americans fighting for their own freedom and in some cases their own democratic societies, and there were black revolutionaries either fighting against the British empire or else the American slave-holders.

Early America, even before the revolution, included vast racial and cultural differences, vast religious and political differences, and vast inter-mixings of all of this in different combinations in different places (most American ‘whites’ probably have some non-European genetics, and most American ‘whites’ don’t know about this because mixed-race people tended to pass as whites whenever possible), but even the inter-mixings ended up creating ever new distinct regional cultures, religions and languages/dialects. It was only with the rise of radio and television’s national reach (and their use as vehicles of propaganda during the World Wars) did more Americans begin to think of themselves as a single unified culture, an imagined WASP culture that had always ruled over and united all of America; anyone at that time who thought otherwise wasn’t given a voice in the mainstream media.

I’m writing about this topic in order to begin to grasp the larger picture of how America began. I’ve been reading many books lately that have given me great insight, but I’m still processing that information. You can learn a lot by reading books as I’ve been doing, although almost all of the info I’ve been reading about can even be found in such easily accessible sources as Wikipedia (in fact, you’ll probably learn more accurate info and useful analysis from Wikipedia than you ever gained in grade school). In this Information Age, any American can learn about the intricacies of American history if they so desire.

This topic is a bit overwhelming, though. Some of the complexity of the subject can be seen just from a simplified map of colonial North America (1750):

Spain was the first to permanently colonize North America and claimed the largest portion of the Americas. The French later claimed a territory that challenged Spain’s dominance in North America. However, it wasn’t until Britain gained French territory that the largest battle of colonial empires would happen in North America. The British were slow to invest in their colonies, but because of Spain’s waning empire they were able to expand.

Here is a map of the changes that were happening in the mid 18th century:

“In the late 16th century, England, France, Spain and the Netherlands launched major colonization programs in eastern North America.[1] Many early attempts—notably the English Lost Colony of Roanoke—ended in failure, and everywhere the death rate of the first arrivals was very high, but key successful colonies were established. European settlers came from a variety of social and religious groups. No aristocrats settled permanently, but a number of adventurers, soldiers, farmers, and tradesmen arrived. Ethnic diversity was an American characteristic as the Dutch of New Netherland, the Swedes and Finns of New Sweden, the English Quakers of Pennsylvania, the English Puritans of New England, the English settlers of Jamestown, and the “worthy poor” of Georgia, came to the new continent and built colonies with distinctive social, religious, political and economic styles. Occasionally one colony took control of another (during wars between their European parents), but unlike in Nova Scotia they did not expel the previous inhabitants, but instead lived side by side in peace.”

Even ignoring the vast majority of North America controlled by Spain, France and Russia, the British colonies themselves were very diverse. Britain gained the New Netherland colony and renamed it New York, but the Netherland culture and political tradition was maintained: cultural diversity, religious freedom, freedom of speech, free trade, and a certain amount of racial equality in that free blacks could own land and businesses. Also, non-English immigrants (mostly Germans) formed the majority of the Pennsylvania colony. Germans were among the first immigrants in British colonies and their descendants now form the largest percentage of the US population. Germans and other Northern Europeans, by forming ethnic enclaves, maintained to varying degrees their distinct cultures and languages into the 20th century (the German Amish still maintain a separate culture and language; demonstrating their separateness, they commonly refer to outsiders as ‘English’).

All of the colonies were majority Christian, but other religious adherents could be found, specifically Jews and Muslims. Some were allowed to practice openly, even forming communities; others such as Muslim black slaves were among the first Americans to have religious freedom denied to them. To varying degrees, some non-monotheist slaves maintained their African religious practices. Interestingly, Jefferson included all religions as part of his vision of religious freedom:

“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
~ Autobiography (1821), in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom.

Another interesting point to consider is that blacks formed the majority in the Carolina colony and large percentages in other colonies as well such as Virginia which is the oldest British colony. Why this is interesting is that black slaves raised the children of the slave owners and thus it was blacks with their African culture that shaped the minds of generations of upper class white children. Some have theorized that elements of the South’s unique culture is African in origin.

Furthermore, consider the rarely mentioned fact that Asians have been in America since the 16th century. The largest early immigrations of Asians happened around the same time of the largest European immigrations. A lot of the American economy and infrastructure (such as the railroads) was built with Asian labor. Because of longstanding racial prejudice against them, Asians have maintained separate cultures, religions and languages since they first immigrated. The West Coast has had large Asian populations for a very long time.

Many things that we consider as American didn’t originate from the English. Classical liberalism was first implemented on a society-wide scale in Netherlands and the New Netherlands colony. Besides the multiculturalism of New Netherlands, the other model of American multiculturalism originated from the French who settled New Orleans where the French, German, Filipino, African and Native American cultures freely mixed. The style of the typical log cabin originated from Swedish immigrants. The common design of the Conestoga wagon used by most pioneers was designed by German immigrants. The freedom-loving cowboy culture was developed among Spaniard colonists and the children they had with Native Americans (think about that when a white Republican politician tries to prove his American character by playing the role of cowboy; also, consider Texas and the Southwest was originally a part of Spain’s territory and has always had a majority Spanish culture). The profitable commodities of corn and beans, of course, were agricultural plants developed by Native Americans. The Heartland culture of the Midwest is based on the culture of Germans and Scandinavians, and this Heartland culture was the breeding ground for American progressivism and municipal socialism. The Scots-Irish brought to America the values of military valor/bravado, strident independence/individualism and evangelical fundamentalism; they were some of the first Americans who learned how to effectively fight against and fight in the manner of Native Americans, techniques they would early on use to terrorize other colonists and later on use during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

The English tradition represents a very small part of American culture. Even England itself is a multicultural place and has been for a very long time. England was at various times controlled by, conquered by, or genetically mixed with other people from other countries. It was conquered by the Romans which is why Britains have African genetics. The Romans had to deal with the Germans who they never were able to conquer, the Germans having originated from Scandinavia. The German Vikings brought their culture, language and genetics into the British Isles (in fact, the English language originates from a Low German dialect, specifically from the language of the Angles and Saxons). Eventually, many Northern Europeans settled there and created a permanent culture. The Normans, for example, conquered England and it was the Normans that Southern aristocrats modeled themselves after. The Normans were Germans who had first settled in France before conquering England. Even though the early German colonies in North America failed, German culture(s) was essentially introduced again through the colonizing efforts of France and Britain.

An interesting factor to consider is how Europe has been culturally divided similar to America. Northern Europe was dominated by the Scandinavian/German/Protestant influence and Southern Europe was dominated by the Roman/Catholic influence. The highest concentrations of Catholics in the United States are where the Catholic French and Catholic Spaniards first settled:

Ignoring the French influence, I’ve always been fascinated by how the United States immigration patterns mimicked European ethnic regions. Many Northern Europeans settled the Northern regions of the US and many Southern Europeans settled the Southern regions of the US. This is how different regions of the US have maintained distinctive cultures throughout American history. Here is a map showing the ethnicities in America (those identifying as ‘American’ in Appalachia and the South are mostly Scots-Irish):

There never has been a single American culture. And it is unlikely there ever will be a single American culture. Or, at least, it would probably take a few more millennia of a melting pot to accomplish that.