Behind the Backlash

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



As a teenager, I can recall being mystified by the antics of Archie Bunker on the television show “All in the Family.” Equally mystifying was my father's identification with many of Archie’s traits. What I could not have known was just how many people like my father had walked the path that Archie had walked, and how many saw the world in similar shades of black and white. In his book, Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980, Kenneth Durr relates how the Archie Bunkers of the world evolved in the city of Baltimore.

The story of the white urban working class in the middle 50 years of the 20th century begins in the Great Depression. During that period of economic trial, the New Deal became a symbol and a covenant: A symbol of how government could promote and protect the interests of the white working class (WWC), and a covenant between a generation of young men and women who needed that help and the Democratic Party who vowed to protect their way of life. The covenant between the WWC and the Democratic Party drew its power from three trends: The increasing local influence of Eastern and Southern European immigrants, the upward economic mobility of African Americans, and the immigration of WWC into northern urban areas. These trends showed a community that was slowly diversifying away from WWC preeminence, with an infusion of WWC who would (not unexpectedly) resist this transition, and politicians who sought to capitalize on that resistance.

During the McCarthy Era of the 1950s, the WWC began to separate itself from the growing middle class. Durr attributes this trend to mutual suspicion and divergence of lifestyle. As Durr tells it, the middle class of the 1950s began to associate the labor movement--a hallmark of WWC commercial discourse--with Communist activity, while the WWC associated the middle class with commercial exploitation of the less affluent. In terms of lifestyle, the WWC and middle class pursued incompatible entertainments and had different priorities in property ownership. Withdrawal from immigrant, black, and middle-class communities, and the Democratic Party’s catering to these same groups, all left the WWC isolated and increasingly conservative. This trend would accelerate during the 1960s.

The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the counter-cultural youth movements of the late 1950s and 1960s ended any liberal traits in the WWC persona. Conservative political figures like George Wallace and Spiro Agnew struck a powerful chord with the WWC. Enunciating the developing conservative creed of the WWC, these figures spoke out for

1. The integrity of earning what you had … even if you had very little. 2. Respect for traditional values and condemnation of government officials who autonomously challenged them. 3. The need for law and order. 4. The wrongness of appeasing minorities and ill-mannered youth.

It was the creed of a group that saw itself as the inevitable loser of any liberal public agenda. This erosion of confidence and resentment over lost advantage went a long way towards pushing the WWC to the right, even as the Democratic Party was moving to the left.

Eventually the isolated WWC would be collected by enterprising Republicans whose agenda could be readily adapted to WWC concerns. This allowed Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to hold the White House for 16 years between 1968 and 1988. It also opened the door for the conservative movements to gain geographic advantage where it had rarely done so previously.


Kent Sturcken, Spring 2007

Durr’s work is an insightful examination of how a wide swath of America failed to embrace the liberal agenda of the 1960s and 1970s, and instead moved in the opposite direction. This group ultimately became political free agents that Republican candidates could and did successfully recruit.

Durr’s major error is in his claim that the WWC was isolated from the middle class. He fails to take into consideration that many of the middle class of the 1950s through 1980s were New Dealers with WWC roots. Through industry and the GI Bill, this new middle class had educated itself and exercised significant social mobility, but it retained its WWC roots and moral character and thus identified with the WWC agenda far better than Durr indicates.

In this same vein, Durr fails to significantly discuss the social mobility of the children of the New Deal and how this shaped their political habits. He references some in the WWC who moved out to the suburbs, but by and large his prose projects an almost caste-like system on the WWC, which is not in keeping with the historiography for the period.

Pat Kelly Fall 2007

Kenneth Durr has written a fascinating book about Baltimore. It is well written and researched, with a good narrative. However, at times the reader gets the feeling this is actually two books. The first tells the history of community or neighborhood politics and the second focuses on the history of labor relations in Baltimore. Although Durr’s narrative flows smoothly from chapter to chapter, there are times the reader gets lost among all the players. Durr tends to favor the working class and really doesn’t address the issue of their racism except as it related to property values. Durr tends to examine the white middle class sacrifices and doesn’t look into the blacks’ version of what was going on and the injustices they suffered. In the long run blockbusting left black families financially drained as they paid inflated prices on homes. While those in Baltimore’s middle class weren’t happy about blockbusting, Durr never addresses the question of why they didn’t protest or demand changes in the housing market. They did, however, protest when blacks tried to enter schools or local swimming pools.

Durr also never looks at why parents weren’t too concerned when their children quit school, given that ethnic Baltimoreans said they wanted a better life for their children. Although the people of the various neighborhoods felt threatened by all the liberal changes going on around them, Durr never fully explains why they didn’t protest more. Did they ever join a protest in favor of the Vietnam War to show support? Durr makes the point that people in the various neighborhoods realized that the problems facing them were national, but they seemed only to come out in support of local issues. Perhaps the old saying “all politics are local,” really was true here.

Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

Growing up in Southwest Baltimore in the 1960s and 70s helps me more fully appreciate the wealth of fascinating information Kenneth Durr provides in Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980. Some of the people and events discussed throughout the book I either learned in school, heard about from my mother and grandmother or know about because it occurred while I lived in Baltimore.

Durr stated, “this study focuses on two types of political expression: electoral politics and community protest” (4). Baltimore had its own political machine, similar to Tammany Hall, which controlled both city and state politics run by district bosses from the 1870s through the 1910s (13). District bosses continued to assert their political power through the mid 1960s. As in The White South and the Red Menace, anti-communism and southern segregationist policies contributed to local politics targeting radical unionists, some of whom were members of the Communist Party and local party activists (32-33).

A major focus of Durr’s book is the racial tension which existed during the 1950s and the resulting community protests which occurred. Following the May 17, 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown versus the Board of Education the city of Baltimore attempted to desegregate their schools. According to Durr, a protest against the new policy of desegregation occurred on September 30, 1954 when mothers picketed at an elementary school in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Pigtown. Durr does not reveal the name of the school, but it was George Washington Elementary School (my mother’s younger siblings were students). The next day, October 1st, 1954 produced a new protest at Southern High School, where my mother was a ninth grader, which involved students and adults (teachers) forming a picket line in front of the school, also protesting desegregation. In contrast, a few years later, in 1960 both black students from Morgan State University and white students from Johns Hopkins University would join forces to protest against the segregated lunch counters at a local shopping center and win.

This book contains several themes including: New Deal, World War II/Home Front, anti-communism & southern segregationists, failure of the Great Society, and Civil Rights. Other books which also discuss these topics include: And A Time For Hope, Pitied but Not Entitled, Eating for Victory, The White South and the Red Menace, Civil War On Race Street, and From Opportunity to Entitlement. --Blclark 14:00, 4 November 2008 (UTC)

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