Water Man Spouts

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nativism in the 2008 Elections

(Note: This essay was posted on the political forum the Democratic Underground, or "DU.")

There has been some confusion about Senator Barack Obama’s comments on rural culture which I would like to address this morning. He had commented on a concept known as "nativism," which has a interesting history in the United States. In general, nativism is defined by the tensions that are created when a population with historic roots in an area believes that their culture is threatened by people who are "different" moving into the area.

I live in rural, upstate New York. Nativism is part of our history, and something I came to experience first-hand growing up. And because nativism has closely connected to economic stress, I am aware of it today in the area where I live.

One of the problems with some DU discussions about Obama’s comments is that some people incorrectly interpret them as saying rural people are racist. But nativism and racism are not the same thing. Let’s start by taking a look at an interesting historical example that shows the differences.

In the late 1800s, the dominant culture in this area was defined by the "Protestant work ethic," which held the promise of success for those who were devote Christians, dedicated to hard work, and disciplined in "saving for a rainy day." However, the final quarter of the century was marked by national economic shifts, and unemployment, poverty, depression and despair became very common in this area.

Pre-Civil War farms in the area were self-sufficient units; the war created a dramatic shift to larger dairy farms, which exported milk products to cities. The banking industry began to have a hold on the farms in the region. Farmers had to deal with issues including the weather and market prices in order to make a living on the land that their father and grandfather had handed down to them. The banker did not have the same emotional investment in that soil.

It wasn’t just the farmers. In 1893, more than 1200 area residents were employed in factories in the largest local town, Norwich. The industries were located along the transportation routes, which included the canal and the railroads (which were putting the canals out of business). In 1894, a national economic depression caused large cut-backs in employment in the four largest industries. This then caused other smaller businesses to close.

1894 also saw national labor strikes, including the Pullman’s (or Deb’s) Strike. This meant that the Pennsylvania coal that our region had come to depend on was not being transported in the same quantities to our area. In that era, coal was as important as oil is today: industries used it (wood fires do not allow for metal work in industry), and many homes had changed from wood to coal for heating.

The loss of jobs, bank foreclosures, and related economic stress leads directly to increases in depression, suicide, and a spike in the local homicide rates. This is not the promise held out by that Protestant work ethic. Something else is at play here: someone else must be to blame.

Around this time, what was the first poor people’s march on Washington, DC, was being planned by a Commander Coxey. The participants were known as "Coxey’s Army." Part of the national movement included a group coming from Utica, NY, which would stop in Norwich on the way to Washington. They were hoping to get 200 recruits from this area. The local industry leaders were concerned, because the workers in one industry had gone on strike, and there were more than 600 unemployed factory workers in and around Norwich. They were afraid that Coxey’s Army could create serious problems.

The top local paper, being one of the businesses, began warning the local population to be on the look-out for "tramps, and no-gooders …. Dagos …anarchists, highbinders, and the worst class of criminals." After Commander Coxey was arrested in Washington, and the protest march ended, the newspaper continued to rant about "Jew pack peddlers … thieves, robbers, thugs, escaped convicts, (and) murderers."

Signs reading "No TRAMPS wanted in Norwich" became common, and the homeless men riding the rails were sentenced to 6 months in jail. Curiously, the inmates were used to work on the local business leaders’ family farms.

The local censuses show that there was a growing black population, especially in Norwich, after the end of the Civil War. Yet the nativism was not directed at the black residents of the area. While racism can play a role in nativism, it is important to recognize they are different.

During discussions of the events in Memphis when we discussed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, I wrote about the prejudice against Irish immigrant railroad workers in this area. Interestingly, when nativism was high in the late 1890s, a local judge named William Sullivan spoke out against the institutionalized oppression of the poor and non-WASP population here. Soon, there were wild rumors that Sullivan was the leader of a dangerous group of revolutionaries, and that they had a large cache of weapons hidden in the local Catholic church. This is a symptom of nativism, rather than racism.

When I was a small child, my father bought some land and began building a house for our family. We were, at the time, living four miles away; my father and his father had lived three miles away years before. Still, more than a half-dozen neighbors on the rural road put up "For Sale" signs, because they were opposed to having an Irish Catholic family living so close to them. Twenty years later, the same neighbors put up "For Sale" signs when black relatives built on land my father gave them.

In the 1980s, national economic changes began putting local "family farms" out of business. Corporate farms, including the Dream Street farms that John & Yoko made famous, bought out a significant number of family farms. This caused resentments.

The corporate farms were largely a tax shelter. In a relatively short time, they were sold to land developers, and the land that had been family farms for generations was sub-divided into plots that were sold to people from NY City and Long Island. When the new owners put up "no trespassing" signs, and refused to allow local people access to hunt and fish, there was bitterness. Hunting and fishing is part of the local culture, and people who had become used to hunting at a spot favored by their grandfather were resentful when "city people" who used the area for a vacation home denied them access.

The animosity became a part of the issues that divided small communities. It was nativism, not racism. And the sad truth is that it impacts things from local civic groups to town and county government. It isn’t "one-sided": there are "local" people who dislike "city folks" for no reason other than they are from New York City or Long Island, and "city folk" who look down their noses at local folkways and traditions.

One last point: I am not a church-goer. But others in my family are. A few years back, I was asked by members of my wife’s church to do the application to get their church on the NYS and federal register of historic places. No problem – my hobby is local history, and I am friends with people in NYSOPRHP.

No problem! My goodness! The "local" families that have ties to that church dating from 1813 were furious. They blamed the "city folk." Then they were mad at me, and insisted that I wear a name-tag when I attended meetings at the church regarding the application process. The church diaries that I had borrowed as a historian (dating from 1812 to 1920) had to be returned immediately, because I had sided with those "others."

It wasn’t racism. It was nativism. And it comes into play on issues involving local culture – including guns, fishing poles, churches, ballots, and jobs.


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