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White Ethnics Not Just Innocent Victims in America's Culture Wars

Anyone reading David Brooks's column on Samuel Alito's experiences at Princeton ("Losing the Aliotos" NY Times January 12 2006) would get the impression that families like Mr Alioto's were innocent victims of a liberal Kulturkampf in the late 60's which undermined values such as Hard Work, Patriotism and Respect for Authority which were articles of faith in white ethnic neighborhoods.

But what Brooks fails to acknoweldge is how much those values coexisted with a powerful undercurrent of racism in the very same neighbooods he lauds. In the late 60's and 70's, racial hostility was an omnipresent theme in every white ethnic communiity I spent time in, from Belmont and Woodlawn in the Bronx, to Bay Ridge and Canarsie in Brooklyn, to Woodhaven and Ozone Park in Queens. to Yonkers and Mount Vernon in Westchester. Some of this anger was rooted in resentments over welfare and affirmative action, and a perception that blacks were demanding special favors to support their efforts to pull themselves out of poverty. But some of it, much more than Conservatives are now willing to admit, was rooted in a raw, visceral hatred and resentment of Black people that was the currency of daily conversation in homes, bars, and places of recreation and which periodicaly burst to the surface in events like the Boston and Canarsie Busing Riots, the vandalizing of homes purchased by Black families in white neighborhoods, and the ostracism and occasionally physical expulsion of whites in these communities who dared to date or marry Blacks.

Lets not kid ourselves. In Italian neighborhoods like the one Samuel Alito lived in, or middle class Jewish neighborhoods like the one my parents lived in, fear and hatred of Blacks was a communal obsession in the late 60's and early 70's.. Racial epithets, veiled and direct, were part of the currency of daily speech (with terms like "Melanon" "Shvartze" and "Yam" often substituted for the "N" word)) and conversations about how blacks were ruining the country could be heard almost everywhere. If you think I'm exagerrating, just read Jonathan Reider's book Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism to get some sense of the depth of the resentment and raw hatred of Blacks that a Samuel Alito would have been inevitably exposed to in the neighborhood he grew up in, and which I experienced first hand when I was kicked out of my own family for falling in love with a black woman ( something which also happened to more than few of my white students and friends in those years).

Did Alito repudiate, or even try to come to terms with, the racial hostilities that that festered in neighborhoods like his when he was a student at Princeton? While it is possible that his family did not endorse such sentiments, it was impossible to grow up in an Italian-American neighborhood in Philadelphia or New Jersey during those years without being acutely aware how many white ethnics were deeply resentful of blacks. If this was a concern of Mr Alito's when he was at Princeton, there is no evidence of it in the courses he took, the clubs he joined, or the friendships he made. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true, as his most visible organizational affiliation from those years, other than his participation in ROTC, was his membership in a group which saw the diversification of Princeton's curriculum and student body as a betrayal of the school's historic misssion..

There are many things that trouble me about Samuel Alito's record, but the thing that makes me most uneasy-as a person who comes from a similar background - is that he has never really come to terms, either in his personal life, or his judicial philosophy, with the power of racism in American life, and the way it created obstacles in the path of Blacks that differened in degree and kind from those Italian Americans or Irish Americans or Jewish Americans had to face.

If there were some signs of soul searching, some signs of struggle, some evidence that Mr Alito thought race was an issue of sufficient importance to prompt serious study and reflection, I would feel more reassured by his impending confirmation .

But given the available evidence, I fear that Mr Alito will use his power to widen America's racial divide far more than he will to heal it.