American ethnic history in microcosm

["Riverside" is Berlin, Wisconsin.]

Miriam J. Wells. Ethnicity, Social Stigma, and Resource Mobilization in Rural America: Reexamination of a Midwestern Experience. Ethnohistory, Volume 22, Issue 4 (Autumn, 1975), 319-343.

This article examines the interconnection of ethnicity, social stigma, and resource mobilization in order to improve understanding of the historical development of Euro-American communities. It explores the process through which an economically dependent and ethnically stigmatized Polish immigrant population became incorporated into a small midwestern town. It is argued that: 1) contrary to assimilationist assumptions, ethnic incorporation entailed little homogenization of cultural and associational structures; 2) although ethnic differences were negatively viewed by powerholders, they did not invariably constitute a liability in minority resource mobilization; 3) the rate of assimilation and role of ethnicity vary sharply with historical period and context of activity considered.

[. . .]

The Setting
The community of Riverside is in the rich grain-producing region of south-central Wisconsin. Since the turn of the century its population has hovered around 5000. [. . .]

Riverside was first settled in the mid-1840's by Protestant Americans of British descent from upstate New York and New England. Locally referred to as Yankees, those settlers were drawn primarily by the promise of boom profits from land speculation and the cultivation of wheat. In the nineteenth century, Yankees secured a virtual monopoly on leadership positions in banking, finance, manufacturing, business, politics, newspapers, and the professions.' They established the values and life-style patterns which were to characterize appropriate elite behavior for most of the community's history. Distinguishing the Yankee elite from other townspeople were countless fine gradations, perceptible to the insider, as to dress, house location, leisure-time activities, the quality and style of a buggy, and diet.

The rest of the community was composed of immigrants from the British Isles, Germany, and Poland who arrived later in the century. The arrival of Irish and Welsh settlers was gradual and their numbers relatively few, spanning the years from about 1855 to 1890. They represented a range of occupations from affluent businessmen to manual laborers. Outmigration in the late 1800's, combined with Irish failure to marry and bear children, reduced the proportion of those groups in the total population. Those who remained largely merged with the Anglo-American elite.

Although a few Germans arrived in Riverside before the Civil War, the bulk of German settlement began after peace was declared and continued into the early 1890's.7 German settlers fell into three categories: Old Lutherans from northwestern Germany, who were mostly craftsmen and composed the largest German group to come to Riverside; northeastern Germans, some tradesmen and some farmers, who were generally Lutheran, although over half eventually converted to Methodism; and southern and central German Catholics, who were predominantly farmers. German settlers generally brought skills, some education, and perhaps a nest-egg to launch them in their new lives. Some were able to purchase large tracts of the rich farmland to the south and east of Riverside, both from the government and from Yankees who had tired of farming.

Poles were latecomers to the Riverside area.8 Most came from the part of Poland controlled by the Prussian regime; a few came from Russian Poland. It was not until the late 1860's that substantial numbers of Poles began to settle. Most came in response to advertisements in urban Wisconsin newspapers of available employment in the grain fields and cranberry marshes. Arrivals increased until the mid-1890's, declined between 1895 and 1904, and then increased until 1914. Polish migration ended for the most part with World War I and never again reached its earlier proportions. This was because Polish independence after 125 years of partition decreased desire to emigrate and restrictive quota laws were passed after the war. Numerically, however, Poles had come to constitute a majority in the town. By 1925 a local survey indicated that Riverside's ethnic composition was 70% Polish, 15% German, 10% Irish, and the rest English.9

[. . .]

Culturally, then, integration of the Polish population into Riverside did not require elimination of ethnic distinctiveness. Nevertheless, it did entail learning the protocols of a public etiquette whose outlines were largely established by the Anglo-American elite. This etiquette involved the sharing of conventions of uniformity and complementarity, a public image of community. Briefly, it included first a set of norms of conduct governing behavior in the public sphere. These enjoined public behavior "as if" Riverside were internally homogeneous, harmonious, and differentiated only along lines of individual achievement open to all. Second, it included a self-definition of Riversiders as opposed to outsiders as regular people, hard-working, friendly, conservative, ethical, clean, law-abiding, and opti­mistic. Within the public context, Poles and Yankees alike were included in an inclusive communal "we."

In addition to this public imagery which guided the management of intra-community differences, the very pattern of social relations served to order and implicitly to encourage diversity while building a sense of shared community membership. The segmentation of activity spheres into public and private contexts served to avoid potential conflict between minority and majority cultural values. The major elements of cultural difference were confined to the private sphere, where they bolstered solidarity. This compartmentalization decreased specific knowledge of cultural differences within the town, facilitating preservation of the public myth of homogeneity. It also muted conflict within the Polish population about the maintenance or abandonment of Polish traditions, since their observance was shielded from the censure of powerholders.

[. . .]

Private statements of Anglo- (and German-) Americans reveal that a strong negative stereotype of Poles continued throughout this period. The public/private segmentation of behavioral contexts and conventions did not entirely shield Polish ethnic distinctiveness from Anglo awareness in this small-town setting. Rather, it provided an additional category for viewing Poles: an inclusive "we" category of "Riversider"/"American" as opposed to the exclusive "they" of "foreigner"/"Pole." That is, contrary to the expectations of the assimilation framework. Polish-Anglo ethnic differences persisted and continued to be evaluated negatively by the powerholders. However, that judgment was not necessarily activated in particular contexts. This study indicates that social interaction may permit a great deal of unstated variation in terms of values and definitions of the situation. Nonconflictive encounters involve complementary expectations as to the proper conduct of interaction, rather than identity of private value systems (Wallace 1961). In this context, since both inclusive and exclusive definitions were available to characterize Poles, the question becomes, why was one definition or the other activated in a particular context of activity or historical period?

During the initial decade or so of contact, the unpleasant foreignness of the Polish immigrants was uppermost in the minds of local Yankees. The local newspaper dwelt on the alcoholic excesses and alleged stupidity of the newcomers. It unceremoniously referred to individuals of Polish background as "Poles" rather than as, e.g., "the Durawa family." Since that period, however, the definition of Poles as ethnics has been confined primarily to the private spheres of both Poles and Yankees.

Leo Despres has suggested that ethnic categories are likely to be activated by groups when they confer advantages in competition for material and social resources (1975:199). Extrapolating from that hypothesis, a dominant group might be expected to activate the stigmatic ethnic identity of a minority when its own members are competing with the minority for resources and when the activated identity might rationalize or motivate preferential access to desiderata by the dominant group. While the stigmatic nature of minority ethnic identity might constitute a liability in some settings, it might also serve positive functions: for example, as an aid in mobilizing minority persons for some form of concerted action. Conceivably there could be contexts or activities for which the advantages of ethnic identification might outweigh its disadvantages, even for a minority like the Poles.

[. . .]

The economic experience of Poles in Riverside was characterized by the limited resources of Polish individuals at the outset and their continuing dependency on non-Poles in employment settings. Despite their humble beginnings, however, by the mid-1930's the Polish population had achieved a solid foothold in the local middle class. This integration was a consequence neither of having gained approval for Polish cultural differences nor of having eliminated them. Nevertheless, if the ethnohistorical evidence is to be believed, awareness of these differences was rarely activated by Poles or non-Poles in economic spheres of activity. In this context it seems that it was not the restrictive or permissive aspects of ethnic identity, but the character of the local economic environment, which determined the form of Polish structural incorporation and mobility. The most important aspect of this environment seems to have been the persisting noncompetitive nature of Polish and non-Polish economic niches.15

[. . .]

In sum, in the economic sphere, Poles were not confined to a single niche where their behavior as a corporate group might have secured control over particular resources." Although they could be said initially to have had similar interests by virtue of their concentration within the lowest socio­economic stratum, these interests did not coalesce into any form of collective action. This was probably due in part to their separation in various employment contexts and immediate dependence on non-Polish superiors. Polish economic roles were largely complementary to those of non-Poles in this setting, a coincidence that probably encouraged agreement by all groups to downplay stigmatic ethnicity.

It seems likely, then, that Polish economic mobility and the predom­inantly nonethnic phrasing of intergroup contact were permitted and encouraged by a variety of environmental factors: 1) the succession of economic niches characterized by the functional interdependence and complementary interests of Poles and non-Poles; 2) the existence of social-o:ganizational subsistence buffers within the Polish community; 3) the timely availability of resources from the extra-local environment, including, especially, urban industrial employment to augment local employment opportunities; 4) the periodic vacating of niches by non-Poles; 5) a history of economic prosperity; and 6) the proximity, in terms of resources required, of niches providing progressively more control. In this context, Polish ethnic stigma was neither a serious liability nor a real asset affecting integration into the vertical system of material rewards.

Since the currency of politics is numbers, and since the Poles composed a numerical majority of the town's inhabitants, their ethnic identity was a potential basis for recruiting support to enforce their interests. The continuing dependence of Poles on Yankees in economic and social contexts, the small size of the town, and the overlapping nature of social relations rendered public declaration of Polish ethnic identity a generally costly option, so that this course of action was pursued only around issues of unusual import to Poles. Although non-Poles themselves sought to give ethnic phrasing to conflicts, the advantages of ethnic identity for Poles outweighed its liabilities by virtue of Polish numerical preponderance. Consideration of the context of political activity illustrates this connection between the situational requirements of resource mobilization and the role of ethnic stigma.

In the political arena, Yankees tended to dominate formal positions of power and the definition of public issues well into the twentieth century. Their position was reinforced by an ideology which proclaimed the economic and cultural attainments of Yankees to be the appropriate characteristics of a town leader. Publicly phrased in terms of individual differences rather than ethnic categories, this ideology seems to have been long accepted by Poles as well as non-Poles. In two significant instances, however, Poles challenged Yankee control of political decisions. In both of these challenges both Poles and non-Poles sought to phrase the conflicts in ethnic terms. The first dispute was a cultural conflict over the form and content of elementary education. The second centered on the issue of political office-holding and which group should control positions of political power.

The first episode grew out of the strong undercurrent of anti-immigrant sentiment in the late nineteenth century. In 1890 the Republican Wisconsin state legislature passed the Bennett Law, requiring that English be the predominant language used in every school. [. . .]

Resolution of the issue rested on the question of the numbers of followers which proponents and opponents of the law could muster throughout the state. On a state-wide level, non-English-speaking immigrants, especially Germans, easily outnumbered the pietistic Yankee supporters of the law, and in the next state-wide election soundly defeated Republican candidates (Jensen 1971:124ff.). In Riverside, Missouri Synod German Lutherans joined with Polish Catholics in opposition to the Bennett Law, since it threatened their own German-language parochial school. Local voter turnouts were higher than at any previous election, and the customarily Republican town registered resounding support for the Democratic, anti-Bennett Law slate. It was a clear lesson that when specifically cultural conflicts between Anglo-Americans and non-English-speaking immigrants were brought to the political arena, the latter would win.

In this situation, ethnic categories provided Poles with means of mobilizing members of their group against opponents. Since numbers were the crucial resource in the political arena, the advantage gained by rallying ethnic sentiment outweighed any disadvantage from heightened Anglo-American censure. Nevertheless, the intergroup tensions and hostility engendered by this incident persisted for many years, and their memory served as a deterrent to repeated public use of ethnic categories.

The second conflict centered on the election of a Pole to the highest local office of mayor. Prior to the crucial election of 1929, local political offices had been dominated almost exclusively by Anglo-Americans and an occasional wealthy German. Several Poles who had attained the requisite financial credentials through their business enterprises had served as aldermen of Polish wards over the previous decade, but the Anglo and German conviction (unstated but strongly held) that a Pole was unsuited to the highest political office of the town went unchallenged. The election of 1929 raised the question not simply of whose definition of the situation would prevail but, more important, of who should control positions of formal political power.

Poles themselves had long accepted the Yankee's low assessment of their qualifications for public leadership. Polish residents recall their parents' distress at the suggestion that a Polish woman be "first lady" of the town. World War I and the years thereafter, however, played a pivotal role in altering Polish attitudes toward the legitimacy of their own claims to political power. Scores of young Polish-Americans enlisted. When they returned from the war, they felt that, as patriots, they had a claim to political representation. Exposure to contexts outside Riverside convinced many that it was high time that Poles assumed their rightful roles as spokespeople for the town's majority. The candidacy of Stanley Zatkowsky for mayor, in 1929, crystallized this conviction.

Also during this period, wartime economic expansion had brought dramatic financial success to a number of individuals in the Polish community, enabling them to engage in upper-middle-class consumption and recreational patterns formerly confined locally to Protestant-Americans. It is significant that the candidate for mayor was a wealthy entrepreneur who had made a small fortune in the construction industry. He did not conform to the stereotype of the poor, loutish Pole and was well able to give positive recognition to the Polish group.

According to local papers, the election was the most bitter in Riverside's history. No one could remain neutral. Polish candidates emerged for almost every local office and hitched their stars to the fate of Zatkowsky. An opposing slate of Yankees and Germans aligned themselves with the aristocratic Yankee businessman who opposed Zatkowsky. Poles claimed that as Polish-Americans they had a right to equal representation in local government. Yankees raised the specter of the Polish stereotype to encompass Zatkowsky's defeat.

The outcome of the election was a sweep for the Polish candidates. Two years later, Zatkowsky was reelected and the percentage of Poles in local positions increased. After this period, local office-holding clearly reflects the numerical preponderance of Poles in Riverside. Yankees refer to the period as the one in which "the town went to the Poles," the era in which the "city fathers (the mayor and aldermen) were no longer the city fathers (the most respected men in town)." While this difference in private assessments of the legitimacy of Polish claims to public resources persists even today, the Polish domination of political positions is firmly established.

This sequence of events challenges the assimilationist presumption that integration into established communities proceeds steadily and in a unilinear fashion according to length of exposure to a dominant society. In this instance, one form of structural pluralism persisted with little alteration until actions of the subordinate group forced its change. This sudden integration into a vertical system of rewards indicates the dependence of assimilation on variables outside those of cultural difference, social stigma, and length of contact. It points to the necessity of examining the manner in which ethnic identity is made relevant to particular settings in particular periods of history.19

This case provides some insight into the sorts of contexts in which a subordinate group can afford to make its stigmatized ethnicity a public issue. Briefly, this would seem to occur 1) when ethnic categories serve as a means of mobilizing the subordinate group, and 2) when the means of ensuring victory in that context are within the grasp of the collective resources of the group plus its available allies. More generalized surfacing of stigmatic ethnic identification would presumably require more insulation of the subordinate group from the dominant society than was the case in Riverside. It is important to note here that neither segment was successful in forcing its view of Polish ethnicity on the private spheres of the other. The success of Poles in achieving their goals in these encounters was not a consequence of their having convinced Yankees of the legitimacy of their claims, of a convergence of values and definitions.

This article has examined the relations between the genesis and maintenance of ethnic boundaries, the organization of intergroup relations, and competition for environmental resources in a small midwestern town. It has explored the process through which an ethnically stigmatized and largely dependent immigrant population achieved integration into an established system of rewards. While the surface appearance of this multi-ethnic community, together with its shared public imagery, would seem to support the contention that incorporation required elimination of ethnic differences, in-depth investigation indicates otherwise.

While many have attempted to understand communities as normative wholes whose consensus is perpetuated through socialization (Lewis 1951; Banfield 1958; Redfield 1930), this emphasis on internal balance and uniformly shared values is not helpful in understanding social relationships in this town. Social integration in Riverside involved organizing the variety of value orientations and participation patterns, rather than creating uniformity of sentiment and association. The organization of activity into public and private contexts minimized the liability of stigmatic ethnicity without removing it from local consciousness. The etiquette of public behavior provided an inclusive definition of all townspeople and enjoined downplaying intracommunity differences based on ethnicity. This etiquette made possible complementary behavioral and attitudinal expectations among people with considerable private divergence in value systems and activity. Explicitly, ethnic behavior was largely confined to private contexts of interaction within the ethnic populations, thus reducing community-wide knowledge of and confrontation with ethnic differences. Contrary to some expectations (Gordon 1964:233-265) lack of intimate primary relations between ethnic populations did not promote hostile intergroup contact. Rather, a striking degree of compartmentalization coexisted with accommodating intergroup attitudes. The assimilation paradigm does not adequately describe the course of interethnic contact in this setting. Cultural homogenization occurred primarily in the development of public protocols of belief and behavior. This happened relatively early and followed a pattern of Anglo-conformity. Major ethnic cultural differences persisted in the private sphere, however, and the very organization of intergroup relations was based on the separation of ethnic collectivities.

This example illustrates the value of distinguishing between ethnicity as the objective cultural space that exists between two populations and as the subjective identification of self or others. It is apparent that the two may vary independently and that the strength and inclusiveness of the boundaries delineating an ethnic group may fluctuate not only with the situation examined but with the aspect of ethnicity (association, culture, identifi­cation) considered. Moreover, as Barth (1969) suggested, the structural separation of ethnic boundaries may persist while their cultural content is altered considerably.

Ethnic categories are only one of a number of categories available to guide social interaction. They are neither necessarily relevant nor necessarily conflictive in a particular instance. Understanding of the factors affecting the use of ethnic categories and the fluctuation of ethnic boundaries must rest on an examination over time of the environmental context and the perceived interests of different segments of the population. This study supports the contention that groups are likely to activate ethnic categories when a competitive advantage results.

The relative importance of the variable of ethnic stigma in affecting resource mobilization, and hence socioeconomic mobility, must be sought in a particular context of activity. In the economic sphere it was found that not ethnic stigma but the economic conditions prevailing in the region of settlement for the generations following arrival determined the form of Polish structural incorporation. The requirements of resource mobilization in the political arena, however, gave ethnic identity a greater potential asset and was employed in two significant instances to ensure prevalence of Polish interests.

Introduction of the temporal dimension is crucial to the understanding of ethnic processes. Ethnic backgrounds constitute a pool of distinguishing features that are not unimportant simply because they appear uninfluential at a particular juncture in history or in a given sphere of activity. They may continue as a potential base for organization and identification and be mobilized as the foundation for an ethnic action group when conditions render such a strategy advantageous. This realization directs attention away from the cultural characteristics of groups in contact, toward examination of situational fluctuation and the possibility of the revitalization of ethnic boundaries, their public reappearance as an important basis for organizing intergroup relations. This understanding also highlights the possibility of rapid acceleration of a particular facet of assimilation, in this case integration into the structure of political rewards, at a given juncture in history.

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