White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

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Harvard University, historically a favored university for the WASP elite. Seen here is the 1836 Harvard alumni procession.

White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) is an informal term, sometimes disparaging,[1] for a group of high-status and influential White Americans of English Protestant ancestry. The term applies to a group believed to control disproportionate social, political, and financial power in the United States.[2] The term WASP describes a group whose family wealth, education, status, and elite connections allow them a degree of privilege held by few others.[3]

Scholars agree that the group's influence has waned since the end of World War II, with the growing influence of other American ethnic groups.[4] The term is also used in Canada and Australia for similar elites.[5][6]

When the term appears in writing, it usually indicates the author's disapproval of the group's excessive power in society. The hostile tone can be seen in an alternative dictionary: "The WASP culture has been the most aggressive, powerful, and arrogant society in the world for the last thousand years, so it is natural that it should receive a certain amount of warranted criticism."[7] People seldom call themselves WASPs, except humorously; the acronym is typically used by non-WASPs.[8]

Etymology[edit]

The Breakers in Rhode Island. A mansion completed in 1893 by the wealthy and prominent WASP Vanderbilt family.

Historically, "Anglo-Saxon" referred to the Anglo Saxon language (today called "Old English") of the inhabitants of England before about 1150. Since the 19th century it has been in common use in the English-speaking world, but not in Britain itself, to refer to Protestants of English descent. The "W" and "P" were added in the 1950s to form a witty epithet with an undertone of "waspishness" (which means a person who is easily irritated and quick to take offense).

The first published mention of the term WASP was provided by political scientist Andrew Hacker in 1957, indicating WASP was already used as common terminology among American sociologists, though the "W" stands for "Wealthy" rather than "White":

The term was popularized by sociologist and University of Pennsylvania professor E. Digby Baltzell, himself a WASP, in his 1964 book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America. Baltzell stressed the closed or caste-like characteristic of the group, arguing, "There is a crisis in American leadership in the middle of the twentieth century that is partly due, I think, to the declining authority of an establishment which is now based on an increasingly castelike White-Anglo Saxon-Protestant (WASP) upper class."[10]

Anglo-Saxon as a modern term[edit]

St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. is an important church for the WASP community. Built in 1816, it is known as the "Church of the Presidents" for the many US presidents who have worshiped there.

"Anglo-Saxons" before 1900 was often used as a synonym for all people of English descent and sometimes more generally, for all the English-speaking peoples of the world as such. For example, American missionary Josiah Strong said in 1890:

In 1700 this race numbered less than 6,000,000 souls. In 1800, Anglo- Saxons (I use the term somewhat broadly to include all English-speaking peoples) had increased to about 20,500,000, and now, in 1890, they number more than 120,000,000."[11]

In 1893 Strong predicted, "This race is destined to dispossess many weaker ones, assimilate others, and mould the remainder until... it has Anglo-Saxonized mankind."[12]

Before WASP came into use in the 1960s the term "Anglo Saxon" filled some of the same purposes, especially when used by writers somewhat hostile to an informal alliance between Britain and the U.S. It was especially common among Irish Americans and writers in France. "Anglo-Saxon", meaning in effect the whole Anglosphere, remains a term favored by the French, used disapprovingly in contexts such as criticism of the Special Relationship of close diplomatic relations between the US and Britain, a more market-oriented economic approach, and discussion of perceived "Anglo-Saxon" cultural or political dominance. It also remains in use in Ireland as a term for the British or English, and sometimes in Scottish Nationalist discourse. American humorist Finley Peter Dunne popularized the ridicule of "Anglo Saxon" circa 1890-1910, even calling President Theodore Roosevelt one. Roosevelt insisted he was Dutch and invited Dunne to the White House for conversation. "To be genuinely Irish is to challenge WASP dominance," argues politician Tom Hayden.[13] The depiction of the Irish in the films of John Ford was a counterpoint to WASP standards of rectitude. "The procession of rambunctious and feckless Celts through Ford's films, Irish and otherwise, was meant to cock a snoot at WASP or 'lace-curtain Irish' ideas of respectability."[14]

In Australia, "Anglo" or "Anglo-Saxon" refers to people of English descent, while "Anglo-Celtic" expands to include people of Irish and Scottish descent.[15]

In France, "Anglo Saxon" firstly refers to England, and by extension to all English-speaking countries. It has a neutral meaning, and can be used both in a positive sense or pejoratively. In a negative use, it can refer to "immoral capitalism", where money is more valuable than human life. It also has had more nuanced uses in discussions by French writers on French decline, especially as an alternative model to which France should aspire, how France should adjust to its two most prominent global competitors, and how it should deal with social and economic modernization.[16]

Outside Anglophone countries, both in Europe and in the rest of the world, the term "Anglo-Saxon" and its direct translations are used to refer to the Anglophone peoples and societies of Britain, the United States, and other countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand – areas which are sometimes referred to as the Anglosphere. The term "Anglo-Saxon" can be used in a variety of contexts, often to identify the English-speaking world's distinctive language, culture, technology, wealth, markets, economy, and legal systems. Variations include the German "Angelsachsen", French "Anglo-Saxon", Spanish "anglosajón", Dutch "anglosaksisch", Italian "anglosassone", Portuguese "anglo-saxão", Polish "anglosaski", Catalan "anglosaxó", Japanese "Angurosakuson" and Ukrainian "aнглосакси" (anhlosaksy).

Expansion of term for other groups[edit]

Sociologists William Thompson and Joseph Hickey noted the expansion of the term's coverage over time:

WASPs vary in exact Protestant denomination, however the great majority have traditionally been associated with Episcopal, Presbyterian, and other mainline Protestant denominations.[18] Today, the usage of the term has expanded to include not just English American elites but also families of non-English (and thus, non-Anglo-Saxon) Protestant Northern European and Northwestern European origin, including Scottish Americans and Ulster Scots, Dutch Americans, French Huguenots,[19] German Americans, and Scandinavian Americans.[20]

Historian Charles J. Scalise, coined the term "WIP" (White Italian Protestant) for Italian Americans who convert to Protestantism.[21]

In recent years, another minor usage has appeared in northeastern states to refer to a fashion style or a preppy lifestyle.[22]

Culture attributed to WASPs[edit]

Débutante balls (or cotillions) are a popular coming of age event for young WASP women.

The WASP elite dominated much of politics and the economy, as well as the high culture, well into the 20th century. Anthony Smith argues that nations tend to be formed on the basis of a pre-modern ethnic core that provides the myths, symbols, and memories for the modern nation and that WASPs were indeed that core.[23] WASPs are still prominent at prep schools (expensive private high schools, primarily in the Northeast), Ivy League universities, and prestigious liberal arts colleges, such as the Little Ivies or Seven Sisters.[24]

WASP leisure included upscale activities such as foreign travel, equestrianism, and yachting — expensive pursuits that need both leisure time and affluence to pursue, and which sociologists such as Thorstein Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class) have pointed to as a marker of social standing.[25][better source needed]

In the Midwest, WASPs favored the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and University of Chicago. In the Detroit area, WASPs dominated the wealth that came from the huge industrial capacity of the automotive industry. After the 1967 Detroit riot, they tended to congregate in the Grosse Pointe suburbs. In Chicago, they are present in the North Shore suburbs, the Barrington area in the northwest suburbs, and Oak Park and DuPage County in the western suburbs.[26]

Protestantism and social values[edit]

David Brooks, a commentator on class who attended an Episcopal prep school, writes that WASPs took pride in "good posture, genteel manners, personal hygiene, pointless discipline, the ability to sit still for long periods of time."[27]

Episcopalians and Presbyterian WASP tend to be considerably wealthier[28] and better educated than most other religious groups in Americans,[29] and are disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of American business,[9] law and politics, especially the Republican Party.[10] Numbers of the wealthiest and most affluent American families ("Old Money"), such as the Vanderbilts and Astors, Rockefeller, Du Pont, Roosevelt, Forbes, Whitneys, the Morgans and Harrimans are Episcopalian and Presbyterian families.[28]

A common practice of WASP families is presenting their daughters of marriagable age (traditionally at the age of 17 or 18 years old) at a débutante ball, such as The International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.[30]

Ivy League[edit]

Yale Law School. The eight Ivy League universities have strong WASP historical ties, and their influence continues today.

The Ivy League universities have strong WASP historical ties, and their influence continues today. Until about World War II, Ivy League universities were composed largely of WASP students. As some of the nation's top universities, they still continue to be the university of choice for WASP families today. The Big Three (Harvard University, Yale University, and Princeton University) have traditionally been the top three universities of choice for WASP families.

Admission to these universities is based on academic merit, but there is nonetheless a certain preference for "legacy" alumni. Students learn skills, habits, and attitudes and formed connections which carried over to the influential spheres of finance, culture, and politics. Many alumni from these universities go on to successful careers, continuing the WASP cultural and economic influence.[31]

Social Register[edit]

Boston's Beacon Hill, a neighborhood composed traditionally of Old Money, and politically elite WASP families.

Social registers and society pages list the privileged, who mingle in the same private clubs, attend the same churches, graduated from the same private schools and universities, and live in exclusive, upper-class neighborhoods.

The Social Register is a directory of names and addresses of prominent American families who form the social elite. Inclusion in the Social Register has historically been limited to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant members of polite society, and/or those with "old money", within the Social Register cities of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia,[32] Pittsburgh, Portland, Providence, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., as well as ones for "Southern Cities".[33]

WASP neighborhoods and cities[edit]

Like other ethnic groups, WASPs live in proximity of each other in close social circles. Neighborhoods and cities with large populations of WASPs are oftentimes the most sought after neighborhoods of the city. These areas are largely exclusive and upper class with top private and public schools, high family incomes, well established Christian church communities, and with high real estate values.[34][35] Some of the most prominent WASP communities are:

Political influence[edit]

View of Manhattan's Upper East Side. Traditionally, the Upper East Side has been dominated by elite WASP families.

WASPs were major players in the Republican Party. Politicians such as Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts, Prescott Bush of Connecticut and Nelson Rockefeller of New York exemplified the pro-business liberal Republicanism of their social stratum, espousing internationalist views on foreign policy, supporting social programs, and holding liberal views on issues like racial integration. A famous confrontation was the 1952 Senate election in Massachusetts where Irish Catholic John F. Kennedy defeated WASP Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.. However the challenge by Barry Goldwater in 1964 to the Eastern Republican establishment helped undermine the WASP dominance.[37] Goldwater himself had solid WASP credentials through his mother, but was instead mistakenly seen as part of the Jewish community (which he had never associated with). By the 1980s, the liberal Rockefeller Republican wing of the party was marginalized, overwhelmed by the dominance of the Southern and Western conservative Republicans.[38]

Catholics in the Northeast and the Midwest, usually Irish-American, dominated Democratic party politics in big cities through the ward boss system. Catholic (or "white ethnic") politicians were often the target of WASP political hostility.[39]

In Québec politics, René Lévesque attracted controversy in 1970 by attacking what he called "WASP arrogance."[40]

Fading dominance[edit]

Public disparagement[edit]

In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied prominent black singer Marian Anderson permission to sing in Constitution Hall. In the ensuing furor, the president's wife Eleanor Roosevelt publicly resigned from the DAR and arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial before a cheering crowd of 75,000.[41]

Also in 1939, the old elite came under ridicule in the smash Broadway comedy hit, "Arsenic and Old Lace". The play was later adapted as the Hollywood film, "Arsenic and Old Lace" (shot in 1941, released in 1944). The play was written by Joseph Kesselring, a former music professor at Bethel College, a school of the pacifist Mennonite church. The play appeared at a time of strong isolationist sentiment regarding European affairs.[42]

The play and film tell how the hero Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) makes the horrifying discovery that his two beloved maiden aunts, are serial murderers of homeless old men. The Brewsters trace the family back to the Mayflower, and the walls of their genteel Brooklyn home are hung with oil portraits of their ancestors. Religion is repeatedly alluded to (one of the murdered old men is identified as having been a Baptist and a main character is the daughter of the minister of the church next door, with some scenes taking place in its ancient graveyard). The Brewsters have delusions of grandeur. Mortimer's brother who lives with the two sisters believes that he is President Theodore Roosevelt. The sisters see themselves as philanthropists who help lonely old men. Wearing old lace, the two kill old men with wine laced with arsenic. The Brewster family is so eminently respectable that the Irish police reject the idea that there could be 13 murder victims buried in the basement. In the finale, Mortimer Brewster discovers he was adopted and is not really a Brewster. If he is not a member of the Brewster family, he realizes he will not become insane or a murderer. In the film's closing scene he exclaims "I'm not a Brewster, I'm a son of a sea cook!" as he gleefully takes his new bride on their honeymoon. Gunter argues that the deep theme of the film is the conflict in American history between the liberty to do anything (which the Brewsters demand), and America's bloody hidden past. He notes that the evil disfigured nephew was played by Raymond Massey. He was well known at the time for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln; now he is a disfigured monster, and Gunter suggests a link between Lincoln and American atrocities.[43]

Post-World War II[edit]

It was not until after World War II that the privilege and power in the old Protestant establishment began to decline. Many reasons have been attributed to the decline of WASP power, and books have been written detailing it.[44] Self-imposed diversity incentives opened the country's most elite schools.[45] The GI Bill brought higher education to new ethnic arrivals, who found middle class jobs in the postwar economic expansion. Nevertheless, white Protestants remain influential in the country's cultural, political, and economic elite.

In the federal civil service, once dominated by those from a Protestant denomination (WASPs), especially in the Department of State, Catholics and Jews made strong inroads after 1945. Georgetown University, a Catholic school, made a systematic effort to place graduates in diplomatic career tracks, while Princeton University (a WASP bastion), at one point lost favor with donors because too few of its graduates were entering careers in the federal government.[46] By the 1990s there were “roughly the same proportion of WASPs, Catholics, and Jews at the elite levels of the federal civil service, and a greater proportion of Jewish and Catholic elites among corporate lawyers.”[47] In 2014, the Supreme Court, for instance, is entirely composed of Catholics (6) and Jews (3).[48]

With the 2010 retirement of John Paul Stevens (born 1920), the U.S. Supreme Court has no White Protestant members.[49] The University of California, Berkeley, once a WASP stronghold, has changed radically: only 30% of its undergraduates in 2007 were of European origin (including WASPs and all other Europeans), and 63% of undergraduates at the University were from immigrant families (where at least one parent was an immigrant), especially Asian.[50]

A significant shift of American economic activity toward the Sun Belt during the latter part of the 20th century, and an increasingly globalized economy have also contributed to the decline in power held by Northeastern WASPs. While WASPs are no longer solitary among the American elite, members of the Patrician class remain markedly prevalent within the current power structure.[51]

In popular culture[edit]

A common theme in cinema is the relationship between a WASPy person and a non-WASP. The difference in their characteristics and lifestyles creates a contrast that tells part of the story. Movies with this theme include The Godfather, The Birdcage, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Meet the Fockers.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (1998) says the term is "Sometimes Disparaging and Offensive"
  2. ^ Irving Lewis Allen, "WASP—From Sociological Concept to Epithet," Ethnicity (ISSN 0095-6139) 1975, pp. 154
  3. ^ The dictionaries define WASP as "an upper- or middle-class American white Protestant, considered to be a member of the most powerful group in society." The term WASP also is an indication of a mindset which is self serving, mercenary, low moral calibare and the distinct lack of progressive thinking. Where money is concerned the WASP is the butress of the static status que, serving its own limited conditioned thinking. (Oxford Dictionaries); or "an American of Northern European and especially British ancestry and of Protestant background; especially a member of the dominant and the most privileged class of people in the United States." (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The term is occasionally used by sociologists to include all Americans of North European ancestry. Ronald M. Glassman, William H. Swatos, Jr., Barbara J. Denison (2004). Social Problems In Global Perspective. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America. p. 258. 
  4. ^ Eric P. Kaufmann, "The decline of the WASP in the United States and Canada" in Kaufmann, ed., Rethinking ethnicity (2004) pp 54-73, summarizes the scholarship.
  5. ^ Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, Guide to Canadian English Usage (2008) pp. 517-8
  6. ^ "WASP" in Frederick Ludowyk and Bruce Moore, eds, Australian modern Oxford dictionary (2007)
  7. ^ John Bassett McCleary, The hippie dictionary: a cultural encyclopedia (and phraseicon) of the 1960s and 1970s (2004) p. 555:
  8. ^ Allen, "WASP—From Sociological Concept to Epithet," (1975)
  9. ^ a b Hacker, Andrew (1957). "Liberal Democracy and Social Control". American Political Science Review 51 (4): 1009–1026 [p. 1011]. JSTOR 1952449. 
  10. ^ a b Baltzell (1964). The Protestant Establishment. p. 9. 
  11. ^ Josiah Strong (1885). Our country: its possible future and its present crisis. American Home Missionary Society. p. 161. 
  12. ^ Josiah Strong (1893). new era or the coming kingdom. p. 80. 
  13. ^ Tom Hayden, Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America (2003) p. 6
  14. ^ Luke Gibbons, Keith Hopper, and Gráinne Humphreys, The Quiet Man (2002) p 13
  15. ^ Miriam Dixson (1999). The Imaginary Australian: Anglo-Celts and Identity, 1788 to the Present. UNSW Press. p. 35. 
  16. ^ Emile Chabal, "The Rise of the Anglo-Saxon: French Perceptions of the Anglo-American World in the Long Twentieth Century," French Politics, Culture & Society (Spring 2013) 31#1 pp. 24-46.
  17. ^ William Thompson & Joseph Hickey, Society in Focus 2005
  18. ^ Davidson, James D.; Pyle, Ralph E.; Reyes, David V. (1995). "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment, 1930-1992". Social Forces 74 (1): 157–175 [p. 164]. doi:10.1093/sf/74.1.157. JSTOR 2580627. 
  19. ^ Abraham D. Lavender, French Huguenots: From Mediterranean Catholics to White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (P. Lang, 1990)
  20. ^ Charles H. Anderson, White Protestant Americans: From National Origins to Religious Group (1971) p 43 says "Scandinavians are second-class WASPs" but know it is "better to be a second-class WASP than a non-WASP"; cited in Martin E. Marty, "Ethnicity: The skeleton of religion in America," Church History (1972) 41#1: 5-21 at note 17 online
  21. ^ Charles J. Scalise, "Retrieving the 'WIPS' Exploring the Assimilation of White Italian Protestants in America," Italian Americana (2006) 24#2 pp 133-46 in JSTOR
  22. ^ See A Privileged Life by Susanna Salk and True Prep by Lisa Birnbach
  23. ^ The Decline of the WASP?: Anglo-Protestant Ethnicity and the American Nation-State
  24. ^ Joseph Epstein (2003). Snobbery: The American Version. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 73. 
  25. ^ http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/VEBLEN/chap01.html
  26. ^ Stephen Richard Higley, Privilege, power, and place: The geography of the American upper class (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995)
  27. ^ David Brooks (2011). The Paradise Suite: Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive. Simon and Schuster. p. 22. 
  28. ^ a b B.DRUMMOND AYRES Jr. (2011-12-19). "THE EPISCOPALIANS: AN AMERICAN ELITE WITH ROOTS GOING BACK TO JAMESTOWN". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  29. ^ Irving Lewis Allen, "WASP—From Sociological Concept to Epithet," Ethnicity, 1975 154+
  30. ^ Dillaway, Diana (2006). Power Failure: Politics, Patronage, and the Economic Future of Buffalo, New York. Prometheus Books. pp. 42–43. 
  31. ^ Useem (1984)
  32. ^ The Philadelphia volume included Wilmington, Delaware.
  33. ^ examples may be found in Page 2 of the 1925 Social Register of St. Louis, Missouri
  34. ^ "The Social Register: Just a Circle of Friends". The New York Times. 21 December 1997. 
  35. ^ Borrelli, Christopher (2010-10-04). "The modern, evolving preppy". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-09-17. 
  36. ^ http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1994-04-20/lifestyle/9404190466_1_wasp-gurney-coral-gables
  37. ^ Gregory L. Schneider, ed. (2003). Conservatism in America Since 1930: A Reader. NYU Press. pp. 289–. 
  38. ^ Nicol C. Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans: From 1952 to the Present (1989)
  39. ^ See "Are The Wasps Coming Back? Have They Ever Been Away?" Time Jan. 17. 1969
  40. ^ see "René Lévesque decries 'WASP arrogance!' CBC Digital Archives"
  41. ^ Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, (2009). Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African American National Biography. Oxford University Press. p. 12. 
  42. ^ See Keith L. Sprunger, "Another Look Another Look: Joseph Kesselring, Bethel College, and the Origins of Arsenic and Old Lace, Menonnite Life (May, 2013).
  43. ^ Matthew C. Gunter (2012). The Capra Touch: A Study of the Director's Hollywood Classics and War Documentaries, 1934-1945. McFarland. pp. 49–51. 
  44. ^ See Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (January 17, 1991). "The Decline of a Class and a Country's Fortunes". New York Times. 
  45. ^ Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, Diversity in the power elite: how it happened, why it matters (2006) pp. 242-3
  46. ^ The Princeton debate was not about ethnicity per se. See the attack at [1][dead link] and Princeton's defense at [2]
  47. ^ Kaufman (2004) p 220 citing Lerner et al. American Elites, 1996)
  48. ^ http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/10/six-catholics-three-jews-and-not-much-memory-at-the-supreme-court.html
  49. ^ Frank, Robert. "That Bright, Dying Star, the American WASP." Wall Street Journal 15 May 2010.
  50. ^ John Aubrey Douglass, Heinke Roebken, and Gregg Thomson. "The Immigrant University: Assessing the Dynamics of Race, Major and Socioeconomic Characteristics at the University of California." (November 2007) online edition
  51. ^ Davidson, James D.; Pyle, Ralph E.; Reyes, David V. (1995). "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment, 1930-1992". Social Forces 74 (1): 157–175 [p. 164]. doi:10.1093/sf/74.1.157. JSTOR 2580627. 

References[edit]