Exactly who it is that will take over the center is a problem of definition. Wasps are not so easily characterized as other ethnic groups. The term itself can be merely descriptive or mildly offensive, depending on the user and the hearer; at any rate, it has become part of the American idiom. In one sense, it is redundant: since all Anglo-Saxons are white, the word could be Asp. Purists like to confine Wasps to descendants of the British Isles; less exacting analysts are willing to throw in Scandinavians, Netherlanders and Germans. At the narrowest, Wasps form a select band of well-heeled, well-descended members of the Eastern Establishment; at the widest, they include Okies and Snopeses, "Holy Rollers" and hillbillies. Wasps range from Mc-George Bundy and Penelope Tree to William Sloane Coffin Jr. and Phyllis Diller. Generously defined, Wasps constitute about 55% of the U.S. population, and they have in common what Columnist Russell Baker calls a "case of majority inferiority."
A Quiet Retreat
Sometimes Wasps are treated like a species under examination before it becomes extinct. At the convocation of intellectuals in Princeton last month, Edward Shils, professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, announced: "The Wasp has abdicated, and his place has been taken by ants and fleas. The Wasp is less rough and far more permissive. He lacks self-confidence and feels lost." Other observers feel that the growing dissension in American life is a clear sign that the Wasp has lost his sting, that his culture no longer binds. The new radicals and protesters are not in rebellion against Wasp rule as such, but they deride the Wasp's traditional values, including devotion to duty and hard work.
Although it is possible to exaggerate the decline of the Wasp, who has never really left the center of U.S. power, he is indisputably in an historical retreat. The big change came with the waves of migration from Europe in the 19th century, when many of his citadels—the big cities—were wrested from his political control. In a quiet fallback, the Wasps founded gilded ghettos—schools and suburbs, country clubs and summer colonies.
Lately, the non-Wasps have pursued them even there. A few years ago, Grosse Pointe, a Wasp suburb of Detroit, was notorious for rating prospective homeowners by a point system based on personal characteristics; Jews, Italians and "swarthy" persons almost invariably got so few points that they could not buy houses. Now all that has been abandoned, and Grosse Pointe has many Roman Catholic and Jewish residents. Downtown private clubs remain bastions of Wasp exclusiveness, but doors are opening. One recent example: Jews gained admission to the Kansas City Club in Kansas City, Mo., after an uproar over exclusionary policies; a rumor got out that the Atomic Energy Commission refused to locate a plant in the city because of private-club discrimination.
Non-Wasp groups are far better represented in Ivy League schools than they used to be: Jews, for instance, constitute about 25% of the student bodies. So traditional an Episcopal prep school as Groton now includes some 25 Roman Catholics, a dozen Negroes and three Jews. Jews stand out sharply in the nation's intellectual life, and Jewish novelists are beginning to overtake the fertile Wasp talent. Scarcely a single Wasp is a culture hero to today's youth; more likely he is the bad guy on the TV program, where names like Jones and Brown have replaced the Giovannis and O'Shaughnessys. The banker who made Skull and Bones is no model for undergraduates, writes Sociologist Nathan Glazer in FORTUNE. "Indeed, often the snobberies run the other way—the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, generally from a small town or an older and duller suburb, is likely to envy the big-city and culturally sophisticated Jewish students."
Proper Wasps still rule in tight little enclaves of high society that are rarely cracked by newcomers. Yet anyone with a will—and money—can find a way to outflank Wasp society, which is often haunted by a sense of anachronism. Such is the hostility to the Veiled Prophet parade, an annual Wasp event in St. Louis, that the queen and her maids of honor last year had to be covered with a plastic sheet to protect them from missiles tossed from the crowd.
[ARE THE WASPS COMING BACK? HAVE THEY EVER BEEN AWAY? Time Friday, Jan. 17, 1969]
"White Anglo-Saxon Protestant"
"WASP" is a pejorative for (unhyphenated) "American". The term may be applied to broad or narrow segments of the founding American ethny, in terms of class, region, and ancestral background, leading to many opportunities for confusion and misdirection. "WASP" functions primarily as an instrument for delegitimizing and dispossessing the progeny of the founders.