My father Leon was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, but when still a child, his family moved to Southeast Washington, DC, to a small neighborhood where they were the only Jews around. Washington was at that time, “a sleepy southern town,” and to prove his point he told me about the time he was traveling on the trolley (for Washington had trolleys then) and his brother Bill jumped off to get a drink of water from a fountain and then jumped back on—the driver may very well have slowed the car for the young man.
When he was old enough, Leon joined the Boy Scouts. It was an all-Jewish troop. When I asked him why, in typical fashion he suggested two possibilities: Jews may not have been allowed to join Gentile troops or the Jews preferred to be with each other. In his liberal way, he chose the latter possibility, which was also in tune with his own feelings. Living as isolated Jews with immigrant parents who spoke with an accent and unable to eat bacon or partake in the pleasure of Christmas and always aware that he was a minority and around him seemingly in glorious nonchalance were Americans (not that he wasn’t American but there was a qualitative difference—they seemed so assured), it was a positive joy to be among his own kind. And he was an ardent Boy Scout. Of course, the first option, that Jews were not allowed to join the other troops, was most likely true.
When he was nearly seven, the Ku Klux Klan marched in Washington DC. A Klansman in full dress sat on a bench beside him, and the unfortunate boy was frightened that the man would discover that the young boy sitting next to him was a Jew. That day, several Klansmen entered his parent’s store and amid the hustle and bustle, there was also a tremulous fear of which the men in white were probably unaware, but which the children helping in the shop were quite knowledgeable as they saw the panic in their parents’ eyes.
I have been thinking of hierarchies in American society. From the time Leon was a boy until he was past 50, the hierarchies were clear—at least from the perspective of a Jew, who belonged not to the German immigration of the mid-1800’s but whose parents had arrived on America’s shores in 1904. I have been thinking about this, as well, after reading, Where the Birds Never Sing, a true story of an army unit in the Second World War, told from the perspective of the son of Italian immigrants raised on a farm in Alabama.
During those 50 years, it was clear that America was ruled by a white, Protestant, mainly Episcopalian, hegemony. In that society, blacks—African Americans—were at the bottom and Jews were just above, but they had one advantage blacks did not have, although it was initially limited: Upward Mobility. When my uncle, 10 years my father’s senior, graduated with a degree in engineering from George Washington University, he discovered that the profession was closed to Jews, so he returned to the university and obtained a law degree. Gradually, more and more professions opened, although even when a student in college in 1965, I was told that upper management in banking, that oh so Jewish profession, was still closed.
In retrospect, the 50’s were the golden years of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant domination. Never had America been so wealthy or been able to promise a car, a private home and a good life with two happy children, a dog and a pretty wife to so many—on the assumption they were white. The United States was ruled by a great general whose proper wife wore white gloves. It was, as the 60s would adamantly set out to prove, a great lie. The proper first Lady was an alcoholic. Her husband, Ike, played golf in a restricted country club. Can you imagine the president of the United States playing golf today in a country club that does not allow Jews or blacks, imagine the furor? The vice-president lived in a restricted neighborhood. In the name of freedom, but, really, for the benefit of the United Fruit Company, the Secretary of Interior, John Foster Dulles with the CIA (run by his brother, on the UFC payroll) overthrew the democratically elected government in Guatemala and also set in motion the coup d’état in Iran that led to the Shah’s rule. The great automobile industry, instead of working toward perfecting their machines, concentrated on selling a set of enticing images for different ‘types’ of drivers to garner more wealth. In television, there were no gays and blacks were Amos & Andy; women were expected to be model housewives; children were to be seen not heard. Sex, as a late friend of mine commented, did not exist, having been banished by Hollywood censors.
I always remember my father calling to my mother to ask her if his tie was on right—perhaps because he was raised in DC, he was always trying to emulate an imaginary WASP standing next to him but slightly above, secure in status and authority. I may have belonged to the last generation when that was true. When my friend Irma went downtown with her mother and wore white gloves, they were consciously imitating what they took to be a superior standard—didn’t Mamy Eisenhower don them, as well? Even in 1967, when I flew to San Francisco, I wore a suit or at least a formal jacket.
I don’t know when that standard broke down. Neighborhoods, schools, country clubs, and professions opened up, and today, even in Muslim states (perhaps the most hierarchical of all) one can find most anything on YouTube. A definite change, however, began with the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Afterward, I could live on the streets neighboring the one on which I had been raised, since the clause in every contract forbidding sales to African-Americans (called Negroes then) and Jews was illegal. In the early 70s, Ivy League schools dropped their quotas. When I studied in college, we knew what great literature was—we hadn’t been informed that it was male-imperialist-white-European biased. I’m not mocking that, although I could. I’m wondering about all those white men and women who voted for Trump, and they have my sympathy. The surety in which they were born of their own status, not dependent on wealth, has fallen apart, and it has left them prey to false news, which feeds on that loss and informs them that everywhere they have been betrayed. We live in the post-modern era, which is especially unkind to hierarchies.
Trump, or rather his image—for his reality is less important—represents a righting of that white Protestant rule gone awry. Of course, those who know the real thing also know that he is but a crude and vulgar representative. Much like Ronald Reagan, of whom he is but a bad imitation, he is the front man for changes in America that will benefit the rich and decimate the poor—most especially, African-Americans. The hierarchy must have its momentary revenge. It is both curious and revealing that the images most beloved are avuncular—Ike, Reagan, and Trump (again not the real Trump but how he is imagined), as if a great WASP grandfather, a godly father, were watching over America, even, as now, in its destruction.