Backlash in the Urban Northeast

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Durr, Kenneth. Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 2003.

Formisano, Ronald P. Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press) 1991.

Rieder, Jonathan. Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), 1985.'

During the 1970s, white backlash against liberal political and social movements of the 1960s became increasingly loud and increasingly active. Archie Bunker became the stereotype for proponents of the backlash--racist, politically right-wing, working class white males, Each of these books probes beneath that Archie Bunker stereotype to portray a movement of diverse actors with diverse motivations. The authors agree: the backlash was not monolithic, nor was it a movement uniquely motivated by racial prejudice and hatred.

It was a movement in which race and class perspectives mingled and cultural perspectives influenced response and methodology. Characterized as populism, the backlash response—as the term implies—represented a grassroots reaction, a fight against externally-imposed change that whites believed challenged their hard-won status quo. It was a fight against perceived powerlessness and lack of agency. Urban whites found common cause to counter change that threatened what Jonathan Reider termed their precarious hold on middle-class status and “the intense fear that it might be taken from them.”

In the three northeastern urban areas these books discuss—Carnasie, Baltimore, and Boston—the principle issue around which most other issues revolved was the destabilization of neighborhoods. Race was the most easily defined cause to invoke among the range of ills inflicting the urban environment. Class mingled with race when Irish, Jews, Italians, and smaller ethnic enclaves perceived black urban neighborhoods as hotbeds of crime, welfare cheaters, and broken families. Class differences further influenced the methods of white response.

There is irony in the backlash. It linked democracy with segregation--not for the first time in American history. Often its most active proponents were the offspring of ardent advocates of the New Deal. They now turned against the liberalism of the New Deal to protect the progress it had enabled their families and communities to achieve. Ironically, too, citizen protest paralleled the methodology of the civil rights movement. Public demonstrations and community organizing formed the foundation of local efforts—although further irony ensued because these protests became perceived, not as movements for civil rights, but as the aggressive actions of racists seeking to abrogate black claims for equality.

Women often formed the core group of protesters—particularly around school desegregation and busing issues. Yet few would have defined themselves as feminists although they generally supported equal career opportunities, repeal of abortion laws and other positions associated with the growing women’s liberation movement. But “women and children…define neighborhoods” (Formisano, 148). Like the civil rights movement, community response extended women’s political involvement. Some, like Baltimore’s Barbara Milulski, who later entered the US Congress, continued on to national politics. Others had their fifteen minutes of fame like Boston’s Pixie Palladino. Only the second Italian elected to a citywide position on the schoolboard in Irish-controlled Boston, she represented a triumph of the little people, campaigning on a one-issue agenda.

Historiographic Background

This trilogy falls in the stream of new historiographic interpretations of grassroots conservatism. In a review article, “The Grass-Roots Right: New Histories of U.S. Conservatism in the Twentieth Century,” (The American Historical Review, February 1992, 136-155) Michael Kazin characterizes the traditionally dominant analytical paradigm defining the grassroots right as extremists who presented “a looming populist danger to civility and intellectual freedom.” The tone of historians prior, perhaps to David Brinkely’s work , Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, gave short shrift to the right. “Where they were not dismissed as a band of crackpots, movements on the right were deemed all but irrelevant to the history of American politics…The only conflict that counted, it seemed, was the one between corporate liberals and the grass-roots champions of social equality and economic democracy. Brinkley demonstrated that grassroots champions could equally give rise to effective, relevant conservative movements as to radical ones, according to Kazin (138), and in the 1980s, historians began to examine this conservative grassroots. This historiographic shift tending in Brinkley’s footsteps, began to explore how these individuals and movements fought to defend themselves against “perceived attack by an establishment with immense powers at its disposal (Kazin, 141) Certainly that is the tone of these three works.

The Books

Each of these books places the backlash movement in the context of its roots: community development in the post-World War II era, and the significance of that community to those who lived there.

Published in 1985, Jonathan Rieder’s Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism, is the grandfather of this trilogy. Rieder is a sociologist and ethnography structures the defensive characteristic of the backlash paradigm he analyzes. He inserted himself into the life of Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie, conducting interviews, observing, and collecting data. His focus is on the Jewish and Italian neighborhoods. The name, Canarsie, establishes the defensive paradigm—a name derived from “the Algonquian word for fort, fenced land, or palisade” (13). As shifting racial composition infringed on the boundaries of Canarsie, Jews and Italians considered that their neighborhoods and their way of life were besieged and began to respond defensively. Add more here

Kenneth Durr approaches Baltimore’s white working class primarily through analysis of politics and community organization to conclude that the real threat to whites was “not so much integration and threats to white rights as it was liberalism and its contravention of the rights of working people” (3). In Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980, he emphasizes that key institutions and fundamental concerns of the urban working class remained relatively unchanged from World War II to the 1980s and that blue collar workers fought to preserve their institutions and organizations. He traces the transition from local, community protest to the formation of a national voice, a transition that changed the language of race-based protest to a vocabulary that championed the rights of working people—a transition that changed the national political scene.

Durr looks at the influence of patterns of daily life in building community in Baltimore—a city with few foreign born whose whit population came mostly from the south, from West Virginia and rural areas of Pennsylvania to work in manufacturing and industry. Daily habits such as washing the marble stoops of row houses in the working class neighborhood created opportunities to form ties.

Formisano Focus

I’m going to focus here, mostly on Boston Against Busing: Race, Class and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. Ron Formisano examines local protest, exploring white backlash through the specific experience of forced busing to achieve school desegregation within the boundaries of Boston. As a microcosmic look at a specific event, the analysis of the busing crisis focuses broader themes of the white backlash. Formisano integrates the populist movement against busing into discussion of its broader significance. From its grassroots origins, the white backlash grew into organized, national political activity with sufficient adherents and strength to elect government officials at all levels of government.

In 1974, federal Judge Arthur Garrity ruled on the case Morgan v. Hennigan, a class action suit on behalf of fifteen black parents and 43 children and found the Boston School Committee guilty of maintaining a dual, segregated school system. The correctness of his ruling was incontrovertible. His remedy, however, contravened political wisdom and common sense, placed him in opposition to the will of the president and Congress, flew in the face of 82 percent of the population of any race who opposed busing, and fed grassroots community reaction that would last for decades. Garrity issued a court order imposing busing on the city of Boston in order to achieve racial balance in public schools. The order was based on a complex system of racial parity and ignored previous busing solutions carefully developed by expert consultants.

Formisano defines the antibusing movement in Boston as reactionary populism, a movement given voice from the bottom half of the population, working and middle class city dwellers who felt their children, their neighborhoods and their status under threat. “…antibusing expressed rampant citizen alienation from impersonal government, drawing on an ingrained, deeply felt sense of injustice, unfairness, and deprivation of rights” (3) Ordered to bus, whites faced dichotomous choices: resistance or compliance, protest or constructive action. But white response was not uniform. Some chose compliance, even though the disagreed with the premise of busing. Others took to the streets in radical protest. Others opposed both busing and racial prejudice and discrimination. Some changed from one form of response to another, moved by pressure from extremists, by the unworkability of the busing system, by the sense of danger to family and community as black-white confrontations erupted within schools and neighborhoods.

Like Rieder and Durr, Formisano stresses that this alienation was rooted in a broader battle against urban change and an even wider perception of the breakdown of authority in society-at-large. Highway construction, suburban flight, limited access to commercial expansion outside the city, real estate blockbusting—a host of changes instigated by forces external to city neighborhoods, had already unsettled community roots and fed a sense of powerlessness. Protest movements, changing social mores, and the growing influence of television were among the elements fed the fear of destabilization in which working whites would end up losing rights, power, and voice. In fact, Formisano points out, the antibusing movement in Boston did not seek additional power for the communities, but simply preservation of community ties and way of life. “…antibusers mounted no significant challenges to the axis of power in Boston that runs from corporate boardrooms in tall skyscrapers to the City Hall offices of the mayor, council, assessors, Redevelopment Authority, and other political-bureaucratic agents” (Formisano, 173).

In the end, Formisano succeeds in breaking down the myth of monolithic working class white resistance to black civil rights. We see an ideology of equality imposed on communities by academic, economic, political and social elites whose positions allowed them to choose not to deal with the daily realities of desegregation. “Virtually no scholar looking at Boston and lacking any personal interest in defense of the desegregation process there has failed to see that the lower classes did the desegregating, the middle classes did the fleeing…while the affluent were exempt from the start” (Formisano, 233). To working-class white Bostonians, the threat was dual: it came from above and from below—below representing their perception and expectations of the black community.

And in the end, Formisano states the universal conclusion that busing was a colossal failure. It did not result in desegregation or educational equality. Urban social decay and the rapid increase in the African American population, an expanding ghetto an deterioration of housing and schools--problems endemic to American urban life in the 1980s obliterated possible equalization effects of busing.

The white protest against busing entrenched negative stereotypes of the redneck myth. The myth “continues to provide the comforting reassurance that the lower classes of American society are primarily responsible for racism, both overt and institutional” (Formisano, 234). Formisano's analysis, however, probes the fallacies of that myth, raising instead the question, "Under the circumstances, what else could they have done?"

Points to Ponder For further analysis: How did the backlash feed into national growth of conservatism? Differences in ethnic neighborhood responses (covered by all of them).Leeannghajar, fall 2005.

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