Creating the New Right Ethnic in 1970s America

The Intersection of Anger and Nostalgia

By (author) Richard Moss

Publication date:

15 March 2017

Length of book:

246 pages


Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

ISBN-13: 9781611479355

This work analyzes the "New Ethnicity" of the 1970s as a way of understanding America's political turn to the right in that decade. An upsurge of vocal ethnic consciousness among second-, third-, and fourth-generation Southern and Eastern Europeans, the New Ethnicity simultaneously challenged and emulated earlier identity movements such as Black Power.

The movement was more complex than the historical memory of racist, reactionary white ethnic leaders suggests. The movement began with a significant grassroots effort to gain more social welfare assistance for "near poor" white ethnic neighborhoods and ease tensions between the working-class African Americans and whites who lived in close proximity to one another in urban neighborhoods. At the same time, a more militant strain of white ethnicity was created by urban leaders who sought conflict with minorities and liberals.

The reassertion of ethnicity necessarily involved the invention of myths, symbols, and traditions, and this process actually served to retard the progressive strain of New Ethnicity and strengthen the position of reactionary leaders and New Right politicians who hoped to encourage racial discord and dismantle social welfare programs. Public intellectuals created a mythical white ethnic who shunned welfare, valued the family, and provided an antidote to liberal elitism and neighborhood breakdown. Corporations and publishers embraced this invented ethnic identity and codified it through consumption. Finally, politicians appropriated the rhetoric of the New Ethnicity while ignoring its demands. The image of hard-working, self-sufficient ethnics who took care of their own neighborhood problems became powerful currency in their effort to create racial division and dismantle New Deal and Great Society protections.
The undoing of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives was fulfilled by its success. In his examination of the “New Ethnic” identity in urban New Jersey of the 1970s, historian Moss (Harrisburg Area Community College) explains how activists among the old core of the Democratic northeast, particularly the Irish and Italian working class, exploited community anger and fear over two factors. First, there was resentment in urban neighborhoods over federal aid to black and Latino families integrating into the local mainstream. Second, community activists asserted that previous ethnic communities had not needed social services, and invoked a mythic past of bootstrap self-reliance rather than recognizing the privilege of being included as white in the postwar US. The author describes the social and intellectual creation of the northeastern “Reagan Democrats,” laying out the recent political implications in the thread of social history pioneered by David Roediger in Working toward Whiteness (CH, Apr'06, 43-4875) and extended by Matthew Jacobsen’s Special Sorrows (CH, Sep'95, 33-0614) and Roots Too (CH, Jan'07, 44-2879). The eventual acceptance of Reagan political conservatism and deregulation came at a price paid in working-class economic stability, but one willingly paid. “Racial and cultural antipathy was powerful enough to turn white ethnics and workers from their [own] self-interest.” A sophisticated but accessible work. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All academic levels/libraries