"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, June 27, 2014

Nativism Is All Around Us; We Just Don’t Call It That

My post two weeks ago about the closure of Catholic Churches in Conshohocken and Bridgeport offered the unpleasant historical truth that these churches came into existence through a combination of ethnic prejudice and nativism.  I made a passing reference to how ethnic prejudice and nativism are actually different things, although they do fit together so very well, and always have.  I want to follow up on this, beginning with a classic combination of both.  I will then argue that while ethnic prejudice has declined substantially within the Schuylkill River towns (although it is making a comeback), nativism still exists, virtually undiminished.  Not only that, it exists in every town in the region (I won't go any farther than that, although I am tempted).  Every one of them.  People just don’t call it that, because that would upset the nativists, with social ostracism the likely result.

To start, let’s consider the following combination of both ethnic prejudice and nativism:

More than a decade ago, while at the Norristown/Montgomery County Public Library engaged in research for my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls, I happened to read a very recent letter to the editor of the Times Herald that not only stuck in my memory, I will never forget it.  The subject of the writer’s ire was the influx of Hispanics into Norristown, but the letter itself was addressed to the “Americans” (his word) already here, who, he contended, were simply allowing the foreigners to come to the community, collect in hovels, work for lower wages and steal local jobs.  He was quite angry that his fellow Americans were letting this happen.  When I finished the letter, I saw that the writer had an obviously Italian surname.  To a historian, the irony, which appears to have totally escaped him, was blindingly obvious:  a century earlier that exact same letter could have appeared in the Times Herald—close to word for word—and the immigrants it warned "Americans" against would have been Italian.  Incidents like this are why I titled my blog “The More Things Change…”

This writer’s comments would usually be cited as an example of “nativism.”  They are, but the letter contains both both nativism and ethnic prejudice, and distinguishing between them isn’t easy.  The ethnic prejudice component of his remarks is obvious, and I doubt any of you need much introduction to ethnic prejudice anyway, so I won’t offer any.  Nativism needs some clarification, however, because it is much more prevalent than most realize.  It negatively affects communities everywhere, even when issues of ethnicity, or race, are not present.

Nativism actually has multiple meanings, most of them scholarly, but we are focusing on its most well-known variant, the belief system that desires favored status for the established and the known over the new and the different.  When discussing examples, the emphasis is usually placed on the different part.  The influx of Hispanics into Norristown motivated that Italian-American letter writer to virtually repeat the slurs hurled at earlier generations of his own people.

But newness is a part of it too, and at the very bottom, it’s what nativism is actually about.  To the writer, Hispanics were upsetting the local scene, replacing everything from old familiar stores to older and even more familiar churches.  Ethnicity figured into his nativism, but chronology usually trumps even ethnicity.  Distaste for and discrimination against the Italians who began to arrive late in the 19th century was not limited to Protestants and the Irish; later arrivals discovered that a caste system had developed with the Italian community (in addition to those imported from their homeland), that of native-born versus immigrant.  The earliest-arriving Italians, who had suffered such discrimination from fellow Catholics, birthed a generation that proceeded to look down upon and mistreat the newer immigrants, who were not only Catholic, and not only Italian, but may even have come from the same area in Italy.  The elderly gentlemen I referred to a few posts ago about selling his home to African Americans also told a most compelling story that supports this.  As a youthful Italian immigrant to Norristown in the first decade of the 20th century, the worst abuse heaped on him was by Italian-Americans of the first generation born in America.  That made them “Americans,” and they seized every opportunity to express their disdain for people who were of the same religion and ethnicity as they, but who were new.

This is true nativism, the automatic devaluing of those whose time of arrival in the area is more recent than yours.  A preference for the established and the familiar over the new is the core of nativism, and it provides the most frequent demonstration of its continuing power.  Ethnicity or race--even class--need have nothing to do with it.

Your best chance of encountering nativism today is to attend a municipal meeting that features a pending issue of controversy that can’t be pinned on ethnicity or race.  There are lots of these, and they usually center around a proposal to tear down something old, build something new, or both.  You can’t recognize a nativist physically, except that they tend to be older.  This isn’t a generational thing, however; it’s about time in local residence.  Nativists are almost invariably the community’s mature to senior citizens, because older people will by definition be the longer-term residents while the newer arrivals are more likely to be young.

But once they begin to speak, you’ll have no problem recognizing them.  They are the ones who invariably preface their remarks by stating how long they have lived in the community.  Their meaning is implicit, but obvious: as long time residents, their opinions should count for more than those of newcomers.  If you haven’t been around as long as they have, you can’t possibly have the best interests of the community at heart the way they do; you actually want to change things, but that means newness, and that’s what nativists fear most.  They know best what should be done, and very rarely does that mean advocate for change.  The old voice that supports the new is not so much rare as noticeable by its isolation. 

There is, of course, an ironic contradiction in all this.  Nativists themselves represent a previous influx of new residents to the area at some time in the past; local reproduction simply does not account for the enormous population increase in Southeastern Pennsylvania (or anywhere else, for that matter).  But they are oblivious to the fact that they were once the newcomers, and that their arrival changed things, upsetting what had been customary before.  Now, however, they are the established ones, and all further change must cease; all is to remain they way they set it up because, well…

People tend to arrive in communities in waves, in response to incentives both large and widespread (about which I have written) and small and local, such as a new superhighway or a new development.  Over time these people can develop a substantial awareness of each other, or at least their common interest in keeping things the way they were when they arrived.  This is what gives local nativists their power at the ballot box.  In our communities, nativism is the reason the same established local political figures remain in office, resisting not just the electoral challenge of newcomers, but the whole concept of a new approach or just a new idea.  They have lost the distinction between the office and its occupant, and interpret challenges to their personal authority as challenges to the welfare of their community.  They do this secure in the knowledge that those who they chronologically represent--in residence more than age--and who have voted for them several times before, are going to turn out at the polls in greater numbers than those vocal, pesky newcomers, keeping them in office and new ideas for their community on hold.  Sound familiar (fill in name of municipality here)?