January 21, 1996
c. Newhouse News Service 1996
SAN JOSE, Calif. – This city does not throb. It lacks grit. Murders are rare. There is plenty of free parking. But although San Jose has the soul of a suburb, it is now the 11th-largest city in America, bigger than Boston or Washington, D.C., or San Francisco just up the road.
And, as the de facto capital of the Silicon Valley (Fortune magazine recently dubbed San Jose “the epicenter of global computing”), and as a citadel of meticulous multiculturalism with a populace that is slightly more than half Asian, Hispanic and black, it may be the most profoundly modern metropolis of all.
So it is not surprising that for the past several years, San Jose has had to contend with the first rumblings of what may be the ultimate and perhaps inevitable outcome of advanced multiculturalism — an insistent and in-your-face demand that the community recognize, respect and celebrate the diversity of a group that has felt maligned and marginalized in the age of affirmative action.
That group, of course, is whites. Or, if this tiny band of activists in San Jose has its way, the group formerly known as whites.
“Don’t call me `white,’ ” Mary Holford says with a glare as two of her young children rehearse their Irish step-dancing on the tap floor behind her. She prefers to be identified by her Irish ancestry.
Her husband, Gerhard Holford, a Harvard MBA who works in product development at IBM, testified at a federal hearing in favor of eliminating “white” as an official government designation and creating a new racial and ethnic category, “Germanic,” to describe people like him.
“I will no longer check `white,’ ” he says.
Likewise, immigration lawyer Dale Warner — who, depending on the context, describes himself as Irish, Celtic or European-American — says, “If you call me `white’ or `Anglo,’ you have offended me.”
Warner, the leading theoretician of the fledgling efforts in San Jose to wedge whites into what he and his adherents call “the multiculture,” calculates that they are five years — maybe less — ahead of the temper of the times.
But to scan America in the mid-1990s is to see what is happening in San Jose as merely one manifestation of white people struggling, consciously or unconsciously, to carve out new identities for themselves, free of guilt or apology, in an era of identity politics that demands everybody be something more than just a generic “American” with its “no there there” cachet.
It is an identity movement that complements and reinforces the conservative reaction against affirmative action. And yet it is a movement that runs smack into a mountain of new scholarship from the academic and activist left that defines whiteness as nothing more than an edifice of power and advantage that white people must recognize and, in the name of justice, tear down.
That white America finds itself in the throes of this identity crisis appears to be a result of the politics of affirmative action and multiculturalism.
Affirmative action has placed American whites in the novel role of “the other,” at once ubiquitous and invisible, with new opportunities for solidarity in their perceived victimization.
And as multiculturalism has endeavored to upend America’s long history of thoroughgoing Eurocentrism, it has offered a wholly new take on the legacy of Europe — a version in which there is more racism than Renaissance and more genocide than James Joyce, in which the white guys tend to wear black hats.
In an essay, “Are Italian Americans Just White Folks?”, Rudolph Vecoli, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, writes that it is a multiculturalism in which “the ethnicities of European-Americans are suspect as an ideological cover for racial and sexual exploitation” and are thus “condemned to the eternal night of non-groupness.”
“If you want multiculturalism and want diversity, then be honest about it,” says Rees Lloyd, a Southern California civil rights attorney whose clients have included Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union. “But don’t take white people and turn them into some kind of yeast that just billows up in an undifferentiated white mass. There is tremendous diversity of those with white skin.”
Lloyd is founder of the Twm Sion Cati Welsh-American Legal Defense, Education and Development Fund, and he succeeded last year in getting President Clinton and California Gov. Pete Wilson to apologize for promising not to “welsh” on agreements.
- Just a name change?
But while many on the left share the disdain for “white” as a category of people, they are concerned that if every white person does nothing more than trade in “whiteness” for another label, white advantage will be left intact.
As Noel Ignatiev, author of the new book “How the Irish Became White,” puts it: “They are not interested in getting rid of the privileges of being white. They just want to change their name.”
Ignatiev is editor of the journal Race Traitor (its motto: “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity”), which seeks to “abolish the white race — that is, to abolish the privileges of the white skin.”
His work is part of a developing blizzard of whiteness studies that try to explain how groups such as the Irish, Jews, Italians and Slavs, who were, in the words of University of Minnesota historian David Roediger, “not yet white” when they arrived in America, became white.
The object is to make plain to the descendants of these European immigrants the obvious but often unnoticed privilege they have enjoyed because of their white skin and at the expense of nonwhites, especially blacks.
“No white person can say, `I’m not white,’ ” says UCLA anthropologist Karen Brodkin Sacks.
In an essay, “How Did Jews Become White Folks?”, Sacks details how government policies ranging from the plainly discriminatory, such as Federal Housing Administration redlining, to the ostensibly colorblind, such as the GI Bill of Rights, effectively provided whites — but for all practical purposes not many blacks — with their ticket to the postwar boom in places such as the Silicon Valley. The consequence was the creation of a middle-class suburban America that was open to any shade of white, but not black.
- `Just a white guy’
And what that America yielded was a people most often described not by their ethnicity but by their color, and who in time came to think of themselves simply as “white.”
“I’m just a white guy, that’s what I am,” says Ed Kirste, an officer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who last fall formed the White Male Peace Officers Association.
Kirste insists his “is not a white supremacist organization by any means whatsoever. We are thoroughly opposed to the use of race or gender as a criteria for hiring.” (In other words, he opposes affirmative action). And “I wouldn’t for one second argue that the black man hasn’t been discriminated against. No question about it. Only I didn’t do it.”
Kirste sees what he is doing as consistent with what every other group does. “I patterned this organization on the Black Peace Officers Association,” he says.
It is a slippery slope.
Not far away, in Claremont, Calif., Ashley C.L. Brown, a 27-year-old marketing major at Cal State San Bernadino, says he, too, is not a white supremacist, but rather a more “moderate” white nationalist (he capitalizes the “w” in white). He has founded a political party and a journal, Vanguard, and dreams of creating white community centers to provide whites with job training and drug counseling and day care.
- Seeing a double standard
Across the nation, at Temple University in Philadelphia, Charles Gallagher is completing his doctoral dissertation on whiteness. In his surveys and interviews with white students at Temple, Gallagher discerned a developing white consciousness and solidarity that saw itself not only as nonracist, but also as the victim of a racial double standard.
“These are kids who grew up watching reruns of the Jeffersons and the Huxtables, who grew up seeing black faces in high places and then they come on campus and see the Korean Cultural Club, the Black Students Association, the Black Accounting Association,” Gallagher says.
Left-wing theories of white-skin privilege are a tough sell for these mostly working-class white students, Gallagher says. After all, many are the first in their families to attend college. They live with their parents. They work 25 to 30 hours a week. And they face a post-college future burdened with student loan debts and the oft-repeated warning that theirs is the first downwardly mobile generation in American history.
Gallagher found that most were too mixed or too far removed from any particular ethnic ancestry to feel authentically anything but white. In fact, about the only time the students mentioned their ancestry was to recount an earlier generation’s immigrant triumph over adversity to rebut the need for affirmative action today.
- Ethnicity at no cost
Back in San Jose, Justin Dossetti, a film student who helped produce Dale Warner’s former cable access show, “European-American Diversity,” says his great-grandfather, who immigrated to Boston from Ireland, “did no oppressing; he was oppressed.”
“I do feel for what African-Americans are going through,” Dossetti says, “but I don’t know why I should feel bad about who I am.”
In her book, “Ethnic Options,” Harvard University sociologist Mary Waters interviewed whites in the suburbs of San Jose and Philadelphia. She found that these later-generation white Americans were free to pick and choose whatever pieces of their ancestry they enjoyed and ignore or discard the rest. Unlike their immigrant forebears, their ethnicity cost them nothing.
Being Irish now, Waters writes, might mean “having fun at funerals.” It no longer means “need not apply.”
Waters found, however, that those stories of their immigrant ancestors did make whites less sympathetic with nonwhite minorities because, they would reason, “If the Irish could triumph over hardship and discrimination through individual initiative and hard work, then why the need for affirmative action and civil rights legislation?”
- Nonwhites have no option
What they do not see, Waters says, is that for those without white skin, ethnic or racial identity is neither cost-free nor optional.
For example, Colin Powell has English, Irish, Scottish and Jewish blood, and if he were perceived as white, he could proclaim himself any of those and be taken at his word. But because he also is black, Powell does not have that option.
Dale Warner recalls that when he was growing up in Michigan in the 1950s, people thought of themselves as Americans, nothing more, nothing less.
But, he says, those days are gone forever and “when I realized there was no longer any American identity, I had to retreat to Celtic-American.”
Warner came to this realization during a decade in California, where even the Irish are “Anglos,” and particularly in San Jose, a city that takes its multiculturalism seriously.
This is a city with seven sister cities, with a statue of the Aztec deity Quetzacoatl as a plumed serpent in its main square, Plaza de Cesar Chavez, and with a memorial to the Japanese-Americans interned in World War II outside its federal building.
What disturbs Warner and his allies is the sense that in San Jose some cultures are considered more equal than others.
“This new diversity is kind of an Orwellian term for purging Europeans from all facets of society,” says Sally Regino Vaughn, who organized an Italian Issues Forum out of her home.
For example, Vaughn and Gerhard Holford, who created the Conference of Americans of Germanic Heritage, say the memorial to Japanese-American internees is fine with them, but they ask: Where is the memorial to the historically overlooked Italian- and German-Americans who suffered a similar fate?
- Some want their share
In the end, Warner insists that all they want out of the multiculture is to be let in. “You are talking to the most sincere, thought-through multiculturalist in the United States,” he says.
He denies this would make his people into “another victim group,” although “I do think the Irish have to hold up their war wounds and suffering just like everybody else holds up theirs for everybody to admire and mourn.”
And, Warner says most provocatively, he would like to see Celtic Californians, and other white ethnics, get their proportional share of admissions at the University of California at Berkeley. “I want quotas,” he says.
“This is not the America I grew up in,” she says. “But if we’re going to make this nation into a racial and ethnic spoils system, then Italians want theirs.”