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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 August 2012

University of Nottingham
Department of History, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham, NG7


Historians have tended to characterize the ‘white ethnic’ identity politics of the 1970s in the United States as a significant feature of the conservative counterrevolution, especially the rise of populist racial conservatism and its splintering of the Democratic New Deal coalition. Seeking to provide a broader, more representative portrait of white ethnic mobilization, activism, and institutionalization in government, with particular focus on the work of Rev. Geno Baroni, the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, and the Carter administration's Office of Ethnic Affairs, this article challenges that assumption. It posits that the politics of white ethnicity was a far more complex, diverse phenomenon, of appeal to liberals and conservatives in an era of considerable political flux. This reconsideration also reveals that the 1970s were not conservative in the United States, but a watershed decade of uncertainty, volatility, and experimentation, in which ethnic identities and affiliations were reshaped, political norms upended, and new forms of organization and mobilization trialled out, with great significance for today's ‘post-ethnic’ United States. White ethnic politics was of considerable importance to American political development in the late twentieth century, but not in the way usually thought.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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1 Washington Post (WP), 16 Apr. 1977, p. E1; New York Times (NYT), 20 Apr. 1977, p. 48.

2 1970 Labor Day statement, 4 Sept. 1970, ‘1970 news clippings (ethnicity)’, box 3/29, National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs (NCUEA) papers, University of Notre Dame Archives, South Bend, IN; Baroni quoted in Lawrence O'Rourke, Geno (Mahwah, 1991), pp. 76–7.

3 Geno Baroni, ‘Ethnicity and public policy’, in Michael Wenk et al., eds., Pieces of a dream (New York, NY, 1972), pp. 8–11; Baroni quoted in Mann, Arthur, The one and the many (Chicago, IL, 1979), p. 34Google Scholar. Likewise, Michael Novak, the intellectual figurehead of the white ethnics, hypothesized a black–ethnic alliance as ‘the one inevitable, fundamental, indispensable coalition’. See Novak, , The rise of the unmeltable ethnics (New York, NY, 1971), pp. 249–57Google Scholar.

4 WP, 1 June 1969, p. 190. For further examples of national press coverage of Baroni's activities, see Newsweek, 21 Dec. 1970, p. 30; NYT, 17 June 1970, p. 49; ibid., 27 Nov. 1970, p. 41; ibid., 16 Mar. 1972, p. 49; ibid., 9 May 1976, p. 177; WP, 13 July 1970, p. A22; ibid., 27 May 1972, p. A16; ibid., 30 June 1976, p. A19.

5 Memo for the president, meeting with Monsignor Geno Baroni, 17 Aug. 1970, box 82, Charles W. Colson files, White House special files (WHSF), staff member and office files (SMOF), Nixon presidential materials project, National Archives, College Park, MD.

6 O'Rourke, Geno, p. 133.

7 Newsweek, 21 Dec. 1970, p. 30.

8 Berkowitz, Edward, Something happened (New York, NY, 2006), pp. 205–8Google Scholar; Jacobson, Matthew, Roots too (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 72129CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schulman, Bruce, The seventies (New York, NY, 2001), pp. 83–4Google Scholar; Gabaccia, Donna, We are what we eat (Cambridge, 1998)Google Scholar.

9 Deac quoted in Newsweek, 6 Oct. 1969, pp. 20–38.

10 Formisano, Ronald, Boston against busing (Chapel Hill, NC, 1991), pp. 3, 236–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Patterson, Orlando, Ethnic chauvinism (New York, NY, 1977), pp. 158–85Google Scholar. For works that place race and racial backlash at the centre of the conservative revival during the 1960s and 1970s, see Carter, Dan, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich (Baton Rouge, LA, 1996)Google Scholar; Deslippe, Dennis, ‘Do whites have rights?’, Journal of American History, 91 (2004), pp. 932–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Edsall, Thomas and Edsall, Mary, Chain reaction (New York, NY, 1991)Google Scholar; Lassiter, Matthew, The silent majority (Princeton, NJ, 2006)Google Scholar; Kruse, Kevin, White flight (Princeton, NJ, 2005)Google Scholar; and Rieder, Jonathan, Canarsie (Cambridge, 1985)Google Scholar. Sugrue, Thomas, The origins of the urban crisis (Princeton, NJ, 1996)Google Scholar, takes the story back even further to the years following World War II, when the embrace of white racial privilege became an important tool of ethnic assimilation. For the ‘Reagan Democrats’, see Greenberg, Stanley, Middle class dreams (New Haven, CT, 1996)Google Scholar.

11 Waters, Mary, Ethnic options (Berkeley, CA, 1990), p. 157Google Scholar; Jacobson, Roots too, pp. 8–9, 177–205; Mason, Robert, Richard Nixon and the quest for a new majority (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004), pp. 98–9, 168–9Google Scholar; Thomas Sugrue and John Skrentny, ‘The white ethnic strategy’, in Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer, eds., Rightward bound (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 171–92.

12 The assumption of this ‘not-quite-white’ identity queries the implicit certainties of much of the historical literature on ethnic ‘whiteness’, which suggests the existence of a rigid framework of ethnic and racial distinctions and a white racial identity that, upon its assumption by European immigrants in the early twentieth century, remained irrevocably locked in place, securing ethnic group assimilation. For examples, see Sugrue, Origins; Hirsch, Arnold, Making the second ghetto (Cambridge, 1983)Google Scholar; Jacobson, Matthew, Whiteness of a different color (Cambridge, 1998)Google Scholar; Roediger, David, The wages of whiteness (London, 1991)Google Scholar; Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, eds., Are Italians white? (New York, NY, 2003); Guglielmo, Thomas, White on arrival (Cambridge, 2003)Google Scholar.

13 The notion that a liberal alternative did exist in the 1970s, only to founder on the lack of effective political leadership, has enjoyed something of a historiographical renaissance in recent years. For examples, see Stanley, Timothy, Kennedy vs. Carter (Lawrence, KS, 2010)Google Scholar, and essays by Davies, Gareth, Tuck, Stephen, Hall, Simon, and Zeitz, Joshua in Journal of Contemporary History, 43 (2008), pp. 617700CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Likewise, this article acknowledges the persistence and vitality of some forms of liberal political activism, if also the potential limitations of labels such as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, in the white ethnic politics of the 1970s.

14 Nancy Seifer to Tom Morgan, 17 June 1971, ‘Workshop: new directions for urban America’, box 2/40, NCUEA papers.

15 NYT, 16 Mar. 1972, p. 49; Italo-American Times, July 1972, from Italian-American periodicals collection, Immigration History Research Center (IHRC), University of Minnesota.

16 Herberg, Will, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (New York, NY, 1955), pp. 33–6, 45–53Google Scholar; Glazer, Nathan and Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, Beyond the melting pot (1st edn,Cambridge, 1963), p. 315Google Scholar; Commonweal, 9 Dec. 1966.

17 Flamm, Michael, Law and order (New York, NY, 2005), p. 81Google Scholar; Patterson, James, Grand expectations (New York, NY, 1996), p. 708Google Scholar; National Opinion Research Center poll, reproduced in Andrew Greeley, Why can't they be like us? (New York, NY, 1975), p. 210; Nie, Norman et al. , ‘Political attitudes among white ethnics’, Ethnicity, 1 (1974), pp. 317–44Google Scholar.

18 On the decline of Democratic machines, see Ware, Alan, The breakdown of Democratic party organization, 1940–1980 (Oxford, 1985)Google Scholar; Erie, Steven, Rainbow's end (Berkeley, CA, 1988), pp. 170–87Google Scholar; Zeitz, Joshua, White ethnic New York (Chapel Hill, 2007), pp. 172–6Google Scholar. On the emergence of a new ethno-cultural politics, see Scammon, Richard and Wattenberg, Benjamin, The real majority (New York, NY, 1970), pp. 3571Google Scholar; Shafer, Byron and Claggett, William, The two majorities (Baltimore, MD, 1995)Google Scholar.

19 For example, the annual budget of the Polish-American Congress fell from $305,000 in 1948 to under $40,000 by the 1970s. By 1982, only 7 per cent of Polish-Americans belonged to a fraternal organization. See Donald Pienkos, ‘Polish-American ethnicity’, in Joseph Roucek and Bernard Eisenberg, eds., America's ethnic politics (Westport, CT, 1982), pp. 285–6; Bukowczyk, John, And my children did not know me (Bloomington, IN, 1987), pp. 123–4Google Scholar.

20 NCUEA annual report, 1974, ‘NCUEA: report of activities, Jan. 1976–Jan.–1977’, box 50/36, NCUEA papers.

21 Skrentny, John, The minority rights revolution (Cambridge, 2002)Google Scholar.

22 For the classic exposition of this ideal, see Myrdal, Gunnar, An American dilemma (New York, NY, 1944)Google Scholar. For Martin Luther King's faith in universalism and citizenship, see Gerstle, Gary, American crucible (Princeton, NJ, 2000), pp. 272–7Google Scholar. On this strategy pursued by Mexican-Americans, see Oropeza, Lorena, Raza si! guerra no! (Berkeley, CA, 2005), pp. 1146Google Scholar.

23 Lowi, Theodore, The end of liberalism (New York, NY, 1969), p. 213Google Scholar.

24 Fra Noi, Jan. 1976, from Italian-American periodicals collection, IHRC; Rustin quoted in NYT, 6 Feb. 1975, p. 29.

25 Pavlak, Thomas, ‘Social class, ethnicity and racial prejudice’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 37 (1973), p. 227CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 WP, 18 June 1970, p. 1.

27 NYT, 30 Dec. 1979, p. DX6; US News and World Report, 14 Oct. 1974, pp. 46–8.

28 Durr, Kenneth, Behind the backlash (Chapel Hill, NC, 2003), pp. 161–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar; NYT, 29 Sept. 1970, p. 43; Newsweek, 21 Dec. 1970, p. 30.

29 NYT, 3 Sept. 1972, p. 1; Dominic Massaro to Jack Sable, 19 Nov. 1971, in folder ‘New York State Division of Human Rights, Italian Conference, 1971’, box 45, Dominic Massaro papers, IHRC; mission statement, the New York Center for Ethnic Affairs, 1972, in folder ‘New York Center for Ethnic Affairs, 1970–77’, box 33, ibid.; NYT, 14 Dec. 1972, p. 47.

30 Brooks, Thomas, ‘Breakdown in Newark’, Dissent (Winter 1972), pp. 128–37Google Scholar.

31 NYT, 26 Aug. 1968, p. 33; ibid., 29 Sept. 1968, p. SM30; Newsweek, 6 Oct. 1969, p. 65.

32 NYT, 28 Aug. 1971, p. 27.

33 Krickus, Richard, ‘Organizing neighborhoods’, Dissent (Winter 1972), pp. 107–17Google Scholar; Brooks, ‘Breakdown’, pp. 136–7; NYT, 28 Aug. 1971, p. 27; ibid., 4 May 1973, p. 79; ibid., 27 July 1975, p. 50.

34 Brooks, ‘Breakdown’; NYT, 28 Aug. 1971, p. 27.

35 The North Ward Center Inc.,

36 Letter, Irving Levine to Basil Whiting, 6 Dec. 1969, PA 71–69, Ford Foundation Archives, New York, NY; Program Action Form, n.d., PA 71–69, ibid.; Program Action Form, n.d., PA 710–0070, ibid.

37 USCC Task Force on Urban Problems, Ethnos – bulletin on white ethnic communities in pluralistic urban America, June 1970, ‘Urban ethnic community development workshop’, box 38/10, papers of Geno C. Baroni, University of Notre Dame Archives; Perry Weed, The white ethnic movement and ethnic politics (New York, NY, 1973), p. 110.

38 Letter, Novak to Kahn, Apr. 1975, folder 7, box 9, records of EMPAC (Ethnic Millions Political Action Committee), Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, Philadelphia, PA; Congressional Record, 13 Nov. 1969, p. 34,165, 20 Nov. 1969, p. 35,435, and 26 Jan. 1971, pp. 544–5; ibid., 10 Mar. 1975, p. 5903; letter, Baroni to Annunzio, 15 Apr. 1975, ‘Correspondence: legislative branch – Baroni’, box 61/04, NCUEA papers; Novak correspondence in folder 1, box 6, EMPAC records.

39 Remarks of Joseph Vaghi before American-Italian Congressional Delegation, Washington DC, 6 May 1975, folder 2, box 126, National Italian-American Foundation (NIAF) records, IHRC; letter, Michael Novak to Mario Biaggi, n.d., folder 7, box 6, EMPAC records.

40 Carole Baker to James Holland, 2 Oct. 1972, ‘Gary’, box 13, Myron B. Kuropas files, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library (GFL), Ann Arbor, MI; GOP Nationalities News, 5 (1) (Jan.–Feb. 1975), copy in ‘Republican National Committee (1)’, box 53, Theodore C. Marrs files, GFL.

41 NYT, 26 Apr. 1974, p. 14; mission statement, New York State Order of Sons of Italy in America Education Committee, n.d., ‘Education Committee, 1973–80’, box 17, Order of the Sons of Italy in America – New York State Grand Lodge papers, IHRC; Esteban Torres to Jack Watson, 28 July 1980, ‘Education, Department of 11/79–4/80’, box 2, Stephen Aiello files, Jimmy Carter Library (JCL), Atlanta, GA.

42 Business and Society Review, 8 (1973–4), pp. 37–41; ‘Guidelines on discrimination because of religion or national origin’, reprinted from Federal Register, 38, 13, 19 Jan. 1973, copy in author's collection; Report of the Commission on Bias, Bigotry, and Prejudice of the Grand Lodge of the State of New York, June 1978, ‘Discrimination at CUNY, 1978’, box 16, OSIA – NY State Grand Lodge papers; Howard Stein and Robert Hill, The ethnic imperative (University Park, PA,1977), pp. 263–4.

43 Merton, Joe, ‘The politics of symbolism’, European Journal of American Culture, 26 (2007), pp. 181–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sugrue and Skrentny, ‘White ethnic’.

44 Joe Merton, ‘“The Republican party is truly the party of the open door”: ethnics and the Republican party in the 1970s’, in Iwan Morgan and Robert Mason, eds., Seeking a new majority (Nashville, TN, forthcoming).

45 The Democratic reforms had introduced quotas for women, minorities, and younger voters, but diminished the influence of the old ethnic party regulars. As journalist Mike Royko proclaimed upon the expulsion of Mayor Daley's Illinois delegation from the 1972 convention, ‘[the] reforms have disenfranchised Chicago's white ethnic Democrats’. For the Royko quote, see Chicago Daily News, 6 July 1972, copy in box 21, Mike Royko papers, Newberry Library, Chicago, IL. For more on the reforms’ disastrous effect on the Democratic loyalties of ethnic voters, see Miroff, Bruce, The liberals’ moment (Lawrence, KA, 2007), pp. 189–94Google Scholar; Krickus, Richard, Pursuing the American dream (Garden City, NY, 1976), pp. 242–50Google Scholar. For the Mikulski Commission and the finessing of the quotas issue in 1973, see WP, 31 Oct. 1973, p. A22; Mikulski Commission, Democrats all (Washington, DC, 1973).

46 NYT, 7 Oct. 1974, p. 1; Democratic Party correspondence in box 8, folder 3, EMPAC records.

47 ‘The rationale for a white urban agenda’, n.d., ‘Rationale for a white urban agenda’, box 23/46, NCUEA papers.

48 Basil Whiting, ‘The suddenly remembered American’, Sept. 1970, report # 002098, Ford Foundation Archives; ‘Request for grant action’, 16 Oct. 1972, PA 73–030, ibid.

49 M. Carl Holman, National Urban Coalition, to Steering Committee, 11 Jan. 1971, box 176, National Conference of Catholic Charities/Catholic Charities US records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University of America, Washington DC. Both organizations had long been with identified with liberal causes, the National Urban Coalition as an advocate for minority group interests, and Common Cause a good-government, anti-corruption group.

50 Weed, White ethnic, pp. 27–38.

51 National Congress of Neighborhood Women Steering Committee to Conference Participants, 1 Oct. 1974, ‘Workshop: National Congress of Neighborhood Women, 10/18–20/74’, box 2/31, NCUEA papers; report on the Planning Session for a Women's Agenda, Washington DC, 5–6 June 1973, in ibid.

52 ‘National Bicentennial Ethnic Racial Council Conference Report’, 20–2 Jan. 1975, ‘BERC’, box 87/24, NCUEA papers; American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, The Bicentennial of the United States of America (Washington, DC, 1977), p. 131.

53 WP, 30 June 1976, p. A19; National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs list of ‘Neighborhood Action Programs’, n.d., ‘Carter – Ethnics’, box 64/03, NCUEA papers; letters from Mayor Kevin White (and various) to Baroni, 13 Aug. 1974, in box 2, NCUEA records, Balch Institute; NYT, 9 May 1976, p. 177.

54 Ethnicity and Neighborhood Revitalization Conference Proceedings, 5 May 1976, ‘Final report of the special assistant for ethnic affairs (2)’, box 55, William J. Baroody papers, GFL.

55 Ibid.; NYT, 12 Oct. 1976, p. 25. Ford aides (and even Ford himself) often spoke of an Americanism defined by ethnic pluralism and the United States as a ‘mosaic’, whilst a position paper drawn up at the neighbourhoods conference declared, ‘In this bicentennial year we must develop a new vision of the American dream that brings us together, not in an untenable “melting pot” tradition, but in a spirit of “participatory pluralism”.’ See ‘Ethnicity and Neighborhood Revitalization Conference Proceedings’; position paper, ‘Neighborhood policy for a pluralistic urban society’, ‘Final report of the special assistant for ethnic affairs (2)’, box 55, Baroody files.

56 In 1978, Carter had told an audience of Hispanic journalists, ‘I wouldn't bring anybody on board to take care of a particular constituency group … it would just be contrary to what I want.’ See Q&A session with the Hispanic media, 12 May 1978, from the American Presidency Project,; Hult, Karen and Walcott, Charles, Empowering the White House (Lawrence, KA. 2004), pp. 95, 100–2Google Scholar.

57 Author's interview with Stephen Aiello, New York City, 19 Mar. 2008; White House Office of Ethnic Affairs News, June 1980, copy in author's collection.

58 1980 Democratic party platform, from the American Presidency Project,

59 Tom Belford to special assistants, 23 July 1980, ‘Special assistants coordination, 6/16/80–10/9/80’, box 133, Landon Butler files, JCL, emphasis in original.

60 Remarks at a Q&A session at Community Services Administration Public Policy Forum, 21 Oct. 1977, from the American Presidency Project,; minutes, White House meeting of neighborhood and community organizations, 21 Dec. 1977, box 3, NCUEA records, Balch Institute. For more on Baroni's experiences at HUD, see O'Rourke, Geno, pp. 136–70.

61 Butler and Belford to Jordan, 16 May 1980, ‘Special assistants’ reports, 1980 [CF, O/A 647]’, box 55, Hamilton Jordan files, JCL; NYT, 30 July 1978, p. 1; Aiello to Rubenstein, 27 Feb. 1980, ‘Chron File 1/80–2/80’, box 16, Aiello files.

62 Aiello to David Rubenstein, undated, ‘Affirmative action 2/80–10/80’, box 1, Aiello files; draft executive order on including ethnic Americans in the processes of government and affirmative action efforts, n.d., ‘Affirmative action – executive order on ethnic Americans 1/80–5/80’, box 18, ibid.; platform plank, ‘Including ethnic Americans in the process of government and affirmative action efforts’, box 1, ibid.; agenda, ‘Civil rights issues of euro-ethnic Americans in the United States: opportunities and challenges’, consultation sponsored by the US Commission on Civil Rights, 3–4 Dec. 1979, ‘[Civil rights issues: ethnics] 12/79’, box 21, ibid.; Stephen Aiello exit interview, JCL.

63 Ethnikon, 30 Oct. 1980, Ethnikon microfilm, Balch Institute; letter, Aiello to Ms Brett Topping, 29 Aug. 1980, ‘Groups [combinations of ethnics] 3/80–10/80’, box 4, Aiello files; letter, James Taylor, president of La Societa Di Cultura Italiana, to Carter, 10 May 1980, ‘Italian: correspondence 4/80- 5/80’, box 14, ibid.

64 Thomas Sugrue, ‘Carter's urban policy crisis’, in Gary Fink and Hugh Davis Graham, eds., The Carter presidency (Lawrence, KS, 1998), pp. 137–57.

65 A 1977 National Italian-American Foundation study found that ethnic identification decreased significantly as Italian-Americans entered the middle class. See ‘Formulating a national Italian-American agenda’, report and analysis of the NIAF Survey of Italian-Americans, Sept.–Nov. 1977, ‘1978 – activities’, box 28, NIAF records. For the implications for liberalism, see Edsall and Edsall, Chain reaction, pp. 105–7, 134–6.

66 On the white ethnic success story, see United States Commission on Civil Rights, The economic status of Americans of southern and eastern European ancestry (Washington DC, 1986), pp. 1–5; Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Office of Research and Statistics report, ‘The status of Italian-American families’, 1977, in folder 11, ‘The status of Italian-American families’, box 124, NIAF records; Alba, Richard, ‘The twilight of ethnicity among American Catholics of European ancestry’, Annals, 454 (1981), pp. 8697Google Scholar.

67 Author's interview with Andrew Greeley, Chicago, 25 Sept. 2008.

68 Mann, One, pp. 37–40; Stein and Hill, Ethnic imperative, p. 166; Greeley interview.

69 Skrentny and Sugrue, ‘White ethnic’, p. 175.

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