In recent years it has become popular to be superior to the problem of social discrimination—”pin-pricks,” “mere snobbery,” so goes the current belief; why give it serious concern, when there are so many “important” phases of anti-Semitism to worry about? Here Carey McWilliams, who has given many years of thinking and writing to minority problems, subjects prevalent notions about social discrimination to a sober analysis, in the light of the facts.
With few exceptions, leaders of American Jewry seem to regard “social discrimination” as an insignificant manifestation of prejudice, hurtful, annoying, vexatious, but not really important. “It is a happy chance for the American Jew,” wrote Ralph Philip Boas, “that his age-long persecution has either ended or has degenerated into petty social discrimination in this country.”
Underlying this view, one can detect certain assumptions: that social discrimination is merely an anachronistic survival; that it has no real function in the scheme of prejudice; and that it can never lead to more serious discriminations. “The barrier is social,” said Meyer S. Isaacs, “it cannot disturb the civil rights, the political equality of all Americans.”
Just as Jews have discounted the importance of social discrimination, so well-disposed Gentiles have labelled it a social eccentricity—something to be shrugged off, to be laughed at. But is it really only snobbery, detached from social, economic, and political realities? Social discrimination is habitually rationalized as “freedom of association.” It reflects, one is told, merely the gregarious impulse of individuals of similar tastes, interests, and backgrounds to associate together. By implication, only the morbidly sensitive would think of assigning important political and social effects to so harmless and “human” a tendency; and in fact it is considered bad form to raise the issue. The trustees of the university club in the average American city would be highly indignant if it were suggested that the exclusion of Jews should be regarded as a significant manifestation of anti-Semitism.
Yet even the most casual inspection of any American community is sufficient to establish that social discrimination not only fosters prejudice in many ways, but is closely related to more basic discriminations.
In most American cities, the reins of social control can usually be traced to a particular “prestige” club or similar institution. This is not to imply, of course, that the club actually exercises a decisive influence in the community; its membership constitutes a profile of the dominant elements. But the omissions from the membership will also indicate which groups occupy a secondary or subordinate role in community affairs. Almost universally the social club is a mechanism by which ruling or dominant elements establish, solidify, and perpetuate their hold on social leadership. It is precisely for this reason that membership is invested with a premium value and is regarded as highly desirable.
In The Social Life of a Modern Community (1941), a study of “Yankee City,” Dr. Lloyd Warner and his associates found, for example, that institutions of this sort help to maintain higher and lower ranking in the community; that they function as a mechanism for placing people in the class hierarchy; and that they serve to impede movement out of the middle class into the upper class. In short, they organize, regulate, and guide the course of upward social mobility. The selective policies of such institutions have, of course, a dual effect: they impede upward movement for the groups excluded; but they smoothe the way for those included. “The self-made man finds club life one of the best ways of entry into the ruling classes,” says Dr. Crane Brinton of Harvard in his article on “Clubs” in The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. And Dr. Warner reports of Yankee City: “If a man were accepted by one of the upper class clubs, his position in the society became higher and more secure. However, this same association, by refusing to admit certain individuals who wished to join it, might prevent their rise into a higher society than they at that time occupied.”
“Prestige” institutions show little concern with the “innate congeniality of like-minded persons.” Existing to protect the positions of power and influence held by their members in the community, they concentrate on organizing social power by exclusion. The more groups that can be excluded, the less power will have to be shared. This is exactly what is implied by the term “exclusive”: the function of an exclusive institution is to exclude. The impersonal hotel-like atmosphere of the club completely belies the premise of congeniality and comradery. In Los Angeles, where I live, everyone knows that the Athletic Club is less exclusive than the University Club and that the latter is less exclusive than the California Club. Initiation fees, dues, and eligibility rules neatly correlate with the measure of exclusiveness. “The largely non-overlapping groups,” wrote Dr. Robert S. Lynd in Middletown, “carefully selected for prowess in business, highly competitive, and constituting a hierarchy in the prestige their membership bestows, exemplify more than do churches or lodges the prepotent values of the dominant group of business men of the city.
However, institutions of this sort do more than symbolize the exclusion of certain groups: they organize the distribution of the best social and economic positions. As an anonymous Jewish writer observes, “it is natural that men whose social life is spent together should desire to be associated together in business. . . . This consideration . . . will arise in concerns where social life is well developed, as in banks, where the officers are apt to belong to clubs of one kind or another” (The Atlantic Monthly, October, 1924, emphasis added). The lodge of the small town is much less likely to be exclusive than the city club, for the hierarchy of the clubs reflects the hierarchy of the large, impersonal, corporate enterprise—position in one is linked up with, and makes easier the achievement of, position in the other. The professional groups in particular are drawn to these aggregates of social power, for they are well aware of the fact that higher social position not only attracts clientele but becomes an important measure of professional standing.
Apart from considerations of this order it is quite apparent, as Dr. Lynd has observed in Civilization and Group Relationships, “that the overwhelmingly dominant criterion of significant likeness in our culture is likeness in wealth.” In nearly all social clubs today, regardless of their origins, the culturally desirable intricate interplay of human likenesses and differences is little valued. Our social system is one in which “both the joining and the aims of organizations are not free and spontaneous but controlled by the need to muscle in on an apparatus of power which controls life chances in the culture.” That the aims of organization are stated in other terms should not be permitted to conceal a reality so unmistakable.
In a society verbally devoted to democratic ideals, invidious distinctions are often masked, for even the rich acknowledge allegiance to these same ideals. Still and all, in our kind of social order, what passes for society will be seen to be based on wealth in its own right. The very absence of a landed gentry and titles of nobility, coupled with the pervasiveness of democratic shibboleths, compels the moneyed classes in this country to emphasize a rigid social exclusiveness as a means of protecting economic and political power. Indeed, social exclusiveness takes on a peculiar significance in a nominally democratic society, for it is entirely arbitrary and therefore impenetrable. Thus it is that where prestige has been based on the aristocratic concept, as in Great Britain, the Jew is more likely to win his place by achievement, as witness the careers of Disraeli, Sir Herbert Samuels, and Viscount Reading. The situation is not quite the same in the United States.
“In the United States,” writes David Riesman of the University of Chicago, “the locus of social power is not personified in a hereditary aristocracy. There is no feudal hierarchy, no established church, little military tradition, save in the South. Social prestige in the sense of dominating the American scene is attached to the big industrialists whose names or companies are household words: the Fords, the DuPonts, the Eugene Graces. A satellite glow attaches to the navy, the bishopric, the plantation owners, and the diplomatic services. . . . Every one of these rosters is conspicuously clear of Jews. The intellectual professions, in which Jews share: doctors, lawyers, professors, the civil service as a whole, have no accepted social place, even as compared with Europe” (Public Opinion Quarterly, Spring, 1942).
In a democracy, social discrimination requires the exclusion of groups, since the comparative fluidity of the social structure makes the exclusion of individuals both difficult and awkward. From the point of view of wealth, social grace, and culture, individual Jews clearly meet the canons of social acceptability; nor can they be distinguished racially. Hence they must be excluded as a group, by name, as a matter of policy.
Moreover, to be effective, such exclusion must be practiced in all institutions in which membership confers high social positions. It would never do, of course, for the prestige town club to accept Jews if the equivalent country club excluded them. The policy of exclusion must, therefore, embrace the entire domain of social life as well as the outlying precincts which the socially élite have determined to pre-empt, namely, the fashionable hotels, resorts, residential districts, etc. It is not surprising, then, that the exclusion of Jews from clubs, hotels, summer resorts, and residential districts in the United States, according to Salo W. Baron and other observers, is more widespread than it was in Germany before 1933.
It is absurd, therefore, to regard social discrimination as an unorganized, private, personal prejudice. A policy of systematic exclusion is a phenomenon of an entirely different order. Discrimination against groups can only be effective if it is adhered to as a matter of policy throughout the whole gamut of social life. This implies consensus, which in turn implies organization. If it were simply a question of some individuals liking and others not liking Jews, one would expect a clear diversity in practice; but the practice, at certain levels of society, is uniform, consistent, and well-nigh universal.
It is revealing that at one time a few Jews belonged to many “prestige” clubs. Where Jews were present on the scene before the community started to grow—before the status lines were sharply drawn—they were often taken into membership with a naive un-awareness of their Jewishness or a marked indifference to the fact. Jesse Seligman was a founder, at one time a vice-president, of the Union League Club of New York; but his son was blackballed for membership in 1893. In some cities, the exclusionist policy dates from the First World War; in others it did not emerge until the late 30’s; while in some cases, of course, it became apparent at a much earlier date. By and large, however, the tendency to exclude Jews became more pronounced during the 20’s. For example, the trustees of a Milwaukee club requested the resignations of eight or ten Jewish charter members in 1928. In almost every case, the edge of exclusion has been deliberately sharpened by an insulting exception for “those now in good standing.” Even where the membership has passed from father to son, either by long standing custom or by express provision, the new policy has pointedly excluded the son.
How this policy has been adopted can be illustrated by one of many similar cases. The Gipsy Club is perhaps the outstanding prestige organization in Huntington, West Virginia, a city of about 90,000 population with a small Jewish community which is nearly as old as the city itself. For many years a few Jews were members of the club. Descendants of old Jewish families, they were, for the most part, well-educated, wealthy professional men. In 1939 the bylaws of the club were amended to read that only “gentlemen of non-Jewish origin” should be eligible for membership with the usual exception of those then in good standing. The Jewish members offered to resign and to provide formal assurances that no further Jewish applications would be filed, if the amendment were withdrawn. Needless to say, the offer was rejected and the amendment adopted.
The meaning is clear: drawing a line after Jews were once accepted indicates a studied and systematic scheme of exclusion. What the bar reflects, in other words, is not so much a prejudice against Jews, as a desire to augment social power by excluding one of the few groups whose exclusion finds sanction in the mores.
Of the various “white” groups, Jews are about the only element that can be readily excluded from the category of the socially acceptable. They are not Christians; they are mostly late-comers; and they often occupy a special niche in the economy. Other ethnic groups would unquestionably have been excluded were it not for the curiously mixed character of the American population and the peculiar geographical concentration of minority elements. Where Scandinavian immigrants, for example, have been settled and concentrated since an early date, it has been difficult to exclude them as individuals have prospered and acquired status. Admitted to upper class symbols in one community, the bar against Scandinavians would lose its snobbish effectiveness elsewhere.
It should be noted, too, that while the Negro cannot be accepted because he is regarded as a member of an inferior race, this charge is practically never raised against the Jew. This tacit admission of racial and cultural equality outlines the purpose of exclusion more sharply. Social discrimination, involving the unequal treatment of equals, directly implies “an alteration in competitive power of those presumed to possess a freely competitive status” (Encylopaedia of the Social Sciences), and lays bare the meaning of exclusion. Other ethnic groups have also been denied access to social power in relation to their numbers and wealth; but, over the years, it has been impossible to exclude these groups, as groups, with anything like the effectiveness with which Jews have been excluded.
The exclusion of Jews from “Greek-letter” fraternities and sororities parallels their exclusion from social clubs and is similarly motivated. It is silly to speak of college fraternities as though they were the end-product of some instinctive process by which like-minded individuals are sorted into special categories. Freshmen are rushed for the most specific and tangible reasons: social standing, wealth, family connections, special talents, athletic ability, and so forth. Fraternities, like clubs in later years, are the pools and generators of social power and prestige: those with it enter them, those entering them, heighten their potency. Social alliances formed in college naturally tend to carry over into adult life.
After four years in prep school and four years in college, the average non-Jewish student has been thoroughly instructed in the function of prejudice. Most students go to college, as John Berryman has pointed out in a memorable short story, with “a gently negative attitude toward Jews” which they have “ingathered from the atmosphere of an advanced heterogeneous democratic society.” But this “gently negative attitude” is soon made self-conscious and crystal-clear by social discrimination. If social discrimination represented a personal aversion to Jews, then it is interesting to speculate on how Vincent Sheean, with no prior familiarity with Jews, made the mistake of joining a Jewish fraternity at the University of Chicago (an experience vividly described in Personal History) . I once made a similar mistake when, after being pledged to a fraternity, I innocently proposed the name of a Jewish friend. My education in social life was as swift and unforgettable as Sheean’s.
The exclusionist policies of the college fraternities are, like those of the social clubs, rationalized as “freedom of association.” Speaking at the annual meeting of the National Interfraternity Conference in New York on December 1, 1946, Dr. H. E. Stone, Dean of Students at the University of California, said:
“It is no accident that specific demands have been made to break all racial bars to fraternity membership and that specific cases have arisen to force the issue.
“The mass strikes, the effort for economic domination of the individual, the new race pressures and the opposition to secret selective associations are off-springs and outgrowths of a philosophy of ‘social action’ deeply imbedded in a host of government agencies and taking its root in Marxian concepts.”
Here, by clear implication, a challenge to the exclusionist policies of the fraternities is correlated with an attack on the economic system; one can only surmise, therefore, that Dean Stone considers secret selective associations a prop to economic privilege.
The exclusion practiced by fraternities and sororities is, in turn, closely related to the admission of students and the selection of faculty. University instructors and administrative officials are often members of fraternities which practice exclusion. Noting this fact, Heywood Broun once shrewdly suggested that “part of student prejudice might be traced to professorial or presidential policy.” It cannot be denied that Jews have had a difficult time securing faculty appointments; that particular departments, in many institutions, have been traditionally closed to them; and that advancement has been retarded by anti-Semitic prejudice. This pattern of discrimination, in turn, is part of a much larger pattern to be found in the secondary schools, both public and private.
Social discrimination in American colleges and universities is also related to the more basic discrimination implicit in the quota system. The exclusion of Jews from fraternities and sororities seems to have preceded the rise of the quota system. In any case, it is apparent that social discrimination supports and buttresses the quota system.
What is not so apparent is that the quota system represents the logical extension of a basic discrimination against Jews in the economy. A year or so ago, Dr. Albert Sprague Coolidge of Harvard testified before a legislative committee that “we know perfectly well that names ending in ‘berg’ or ‘stein’ have to be skipped by the board of selection for scholarships in chemistry.” For it seems that years ago the university had entered into a “gentlemen’s agreement” to this effect with the chemical industry, which supplied the funds for the scholarships and which happens to be rigidly exclusionist. Thus the one exclusion re-enforces the other. In fact, if one keeps in mind, as Charles Beard has pointed out, that the tycoons of American industry were largely of North European stock, mainly English and Scotch-Irish, and of Protestant background, then it is clear that social discrimination must have as one of its major effects the containment of the Jews within a ghetto-like segment of the economy.
Blunt, overt, and utterly lacking in finesse, the extent of discrimination against racial “minorities” in the United States can be measured statistically. However, discrimination against the Jew as businessman, as doctor, as lawyer, as salesman is often hard to identify and is generally passed off as merely another manifestation of “competition.” The higher one ascends on the social and economic ladder, the less overt and the more urbane does the pattern of discrimination become. The most significant discrimination against Jews occurs at the middle or upper-class level where group competition is most apparent. Hence it is not surprising that one study shows that high extremes in anti-Semitic attitudes belong to the middle socio-economic class, or that the score on anti-Semitic attitudes among university students should increase directly with the amount of the father’s income. This peculiarity of the distribution of anti-Semitic attitudes is surely significant.
Most forms of social discrimination reflect—in the sense in which Durkheim once said that myth imitates society, not nature—the anomalous position that Jews occupy in the American economy. Without citing the evidence, it can be said that Jews do not figure significantly in either commercial or investment banking; that their participation in the insurance business is negligible; and that, in general, they are a distinctly minor factor in American finance. With the exception of waste products—symbol of exclusion rather than a badge of influence—they have been systematically excluded from the heavy industry segment of the economy. Equally non-”Jewish,” according to the Fortune survey of 1936, are such industries as coal, auto, rubber, chemical, shipping, transportation, ship-building, petroleum, aviation, railroading, private utilities, lumber, agriculture, mining, dairy farming, food processing, and the manufacture of heavy machinery. The garment industry excepted, Jewish participation in the “light industries” field is largely restricted to the distribution end. Here the important fact to be noted is that—apparel goods excepted—Jews have been rigidly excluded from the important “chains.”
Generally speaking, the businesses in which Jews are influential are those in which a large risk-factor is involved; those peripheral to the economy; new businesses and those originally regarded as unimportant; and businesses which have traditionally carried a certain amount of social stigma, such as the amusement and liquor industries. Not being able to penetrate the key industries—those that have a decisive influence on the economy—they have been compelled to occupy the interstitial positions. In short, it is not the volume of business they control or their success or failure which is important, but rather the relationship of so-called Jewish businesses to the total economy.
The fact that Jewish businesses are essentially marginal has manifold collateral ramifications. “The most important office law business in America,” reads the Fortune survey, “such as the law business incidental to banking, insurance, trust-company operation, investment work, railroading, patents, admiralty, and large corporation matters in general is in the hands of non-Jewish firms many of which, even though they have numerous Jewish clients, have no Jewish partners.”
If Jews can be isolated socially and economically, their competition can often be turned into a positive advantage. For example, in Los Angeles, the credit end of the retail jewelry business is largely controlled by Jews; the “cash” stores by non-Jews. Since risks and losses are greater, the credit stores must emphasize volume and to increase volume they are driven to cut prices. In this situation the cash stores can use anti-Semitism as a variety of advertising and can capitalize prejudice in the form of higher prices. If the cash stores were to absorb the credit stores, a certain amount of competition and some unfavorable trade conditions might be eliminated. But it is extremely doubtful that the cash stores would want to absorb the credit stores even if they had the power to do so, for it is to their advantage to maintain the present relationship.
Just as Jewish businesses are marginal, so Jews constitute a marginal class in America. In socio-economic terms, they are in the middle of the middle class. The trading group among them is almost three times larger than the national average; the professional group about twice the national average; while agriculture claims only about one per cent of the gainfully employed. There can be no doubt, therefore, that a large section of American Jewry is concentrated in the lower-middle and upper-middle classes. Furthermore, Jews have come to occupy, as Jacob Lestchinsky has observed, “a redundant position between the Anglo-Saxon and the other ethnic groups,” particularly those which have not yet developed their own middle class.
Thus the pattern of social discrimination clearly reflects an economic reality. While it has been impossible to subordinate Jews, in the sense that Negroes and Mexicans have been subordinated, it has been possible to isolate them economically, or, to put it another way, to exclude them from key control positions in the economy. In a thoroughly subordinated minority, social discrimination is unnecessary. It would never occur to the average fraternity, any more than it would occur to the trustees of the California Club in Los Angeles, that they should bar Negroes by express provision. But Jews, who occupy parallel status positions and who cannot be distinguished racially, require a special policy of exclusion to maintain the monopoly on social power. The effect—and the function—of this exclusion is to contain them within certain segments of the economy.
And, of course, this successful economic containment makes the social discrimination all the easier to justify. For the types of businesses in which Jews are concentrated fail to invest ownership with social power and prestige. These businesses, as Mr. Ries-man has pointed out, lack the artisan beginnings, the long identification with certain family names, and the intimate relationship to a particular community which have placed so many American industrial families at the top of the social pyramid. Clothing stores and motion picture theaters are not nearly so impressive as mines and mills, factories and railroads. To keep the Jew in his corner, so to speak, it has been necessary to divest him of social power; once divested of this power—or denied access to it—his economic position makes it impossible for him to recapture or to acquire it.
Political life issues from social life, as John Berryman has said, “like a somatic dream.” A group occupying a weak or exposed social position is a group that invites economic and political, as well as social discrimination. Certainly the anti-Semitic agitator seeks to exploit the cleavage which social discrimination makes visible. No one knows better than the anti-Semite that the Jews have failed to enter the citadels of power and that their economic position is exposed. The agitation of the anti-Semite is premised upon the assumption that this cleavage exists; otherwise he would be as much in awe of Jews as he so obviously is of the tycoons who control American industry.
Finally, social discrimination completes the circle it begins by imprinting indelibly throughout the whole society the very prejudiced attitudes that permit it to be born. “The erection of such barriers [in social institutions],” Dr. Monroe Deutsch has written, “tends to create or accentuate in the minds of some of our so-called first citizens a feeling that Jews per se are a separate and more or less segregated and undesirable group. If you decline to let a man eat beside you in a club, merely because he is a Jew, you are certainly helping to drive a nail into the wall of exclusion. In discussing the situation in Nazi Germany the point has often been made that those who, though not members of the party, nevertheless accepted the acts of the Nazis and helped perpetuate them in power cannot avoid sharing responsibility for the horrible deeds that were perpetrated by those whom they supported in office. I wonder whether the members of some of our exclusive clubs (exclusive in the proper use of the term) are not, unthinkingly (it may be), in spirit aligning themselves with Father Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith.”
The failure of both Jews and Gentiles to admit the importance of social discrimination—to see that it has a function—is to be explained by the tendency in American culture to deny the existence of realities which conflict with our equalitarian ideals. “Democracy of feeling is expected of us,” as Charles Horton Cooley once said, “and if we do not have it we usually simulate it.” Thus we rationalize social discrimination as “freedom of association” or the right to select associates. The folk-belief that any American can become a millionaire and therefore eventually entitled to practice some form of social discrimination has, in effect, robbed this type of exclusion of its edge. As long as Jews are given a theoretical right to enter any trade, business, or profession, and their civil rights are safeguarded, they are almost powerless to object to a form of discrimination which they, in turn, are also privileged to practice in a limited way should they so desire.
Those who minimize the importance of social discrimination overlook the fact that, our equalitarian pretenses to the contrary notwithstanding, the upper classes are still the upper classes. Practices that they initiate are imitated by other groups and the old adage of “monkey sees, monkey does,” becomes most pertinent. The snobbishness of the “prestige” club is often reflected in the service clubs and in the civic organizations, and, embodied in these institutions, comes to be accepted as part of the natural order of the universe. I find it significant that in Minneapolis, where social discrimination has been most pronounced, there should also be a strong current of anti-Semitism in the labor movement. To be properly understood, anti-Semitism in the United States should be studied from the top down and not from the bottom up. The business executive who achieves the Nirvana of membership in the X Club, selects for his junior executives men who are ascending the socio-economic ladder in the same fashion. Seeing how the system works, the junior executives apply exclusionist policies in the selection of their assistants, often without being told to do so.
It is for this reason that Jews encounter the most persistent discrimination, as employees, in precisely those sectors of the economy whose top levels link up with the centers of social power. Thus Jews have always experienced great difficulty in securing “white collar” office or clerical jobs in insurance companies, banks, private utilities, and heavy industry. This social discrimination in the end works not merely to exclude Jews from the “plums” of our economic order but from bread-and-butter jobs in large areas of employment.
The effect of this “closed shop” attitude on the part of the industrial and financial giants is to intensify the pressure of Jewish applicants for jobs in those businesses which have pursued a less systematic policy of exclusion, and to re-double the pressure to enter the free professions. These pressures, in turn, perpetuate the marginal economic position of the Jews. Issues of this kind take on, furthermore, an ever-increasing gravity as more of the national economic life falls within the orbit of exclusive trusts and monopolies.
That social discrimination is important is fully realized by those who practice it, despite their pious disclaimers and innocent assurances. A year or so ago, Judge Harry Hollzer, long a distinguished and highly respected federal district court judge, died in Los Angeles. Judge Hollzer was one of the leaders of the Jewish community. A meeting to plan a memorial in his honor was called at the California Club. “There we were,” as one of the members present told me, “planning a memorial for Judge Hollzer in a club which would have refused his application for membership. It occurred to me, as we sat there at luncheon, talking about Harry Hollzer, that the best way we could have honored him, if we had really wanted to honor him, would have been to eliminate a certain section from the by-laws. For a moment, I thought of suggesting this as a memorial, and then I glanced around at those present and a good impulse was inhibited.”