In the recent opinion article “Paying the price for breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture,” published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, law professors Amy Wax and Larry Alexander lament the loss of the “bourgeois cultural hegemony” of the 1950s. They claim that erosion of commitment to marriage, hard work, patriotism, civic-mindedness and respect for authority has produced low male labor force participation, high rates of nonmarital childbearing, subpar educational attainment, an underqualified workforce, substance abuse and rampant urban violence. The downward spiral started in the late 1960s, they argue, with “identity politics” and “multicultural grievance polemics.”
This is bad history. Like the defense of Confederate statues that ignores their promotion of white supremacy, nostalgia for 1950s “bourgeois” culture erases its historical context and serves as a thinly veiled argument for what Wax publicly described as Anglo-Protestant superiority in an Aug. 10 interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian. Such interpretations should not be taken seriously. We write to explain why these claims do not hold up to historical scrutiny.
Nostalgia for the 1950s breezes over the truth of inequality and exclusion. The “racial discrimination” and “limited sex roles” that the authors identify as imperfections in midcentury American life were in fact core features of it.
Exclusion and discrimination against people of color was the norm, North and South. During this period, home ownership, high-quality education, jobs with fair pay and decent working conditions and the social insurance benefits of the New Deal welfare state remained unavailable — by design — to most nonwhite Americans.
People of color were largely excluded from the housing and education benefits of the GI Bill of Rights for veterans. Segregationists ensured that social insurance legislation such as the Social Security Act and workplace protections such as the Fair Labor Standards Act exempted domestic and agricultural jobs held mainly by African Americans. And severe public school segregation persisted despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Many of the same Anglo-Protestants whom Wax idealizes conducted a sustained campaign across the 1950s to paint Catholics as un-American.
Gender discrimination was also fundamental to governmental and social policies in the 1950s, and to the broader culture that supported them. Before laws prohibited discrimination based on sex, race and religion, and a constitutional right to privacy eased access to contraception and other reproductive health services, women of all backgrounds could be denied jobs, fired for pregnancy and denied the ability to control their reproductive lives.
For women, social insurance benefits depended on marriage to a breadwinning male head of household. Government policy conditioned public and private benefits on “traditional” marriage and excluded, stigmatized or criminalized other relationships. The legal and social privileges afforded only to two-parent nuclear families virtually ensured that alternative family models remained at a material disadvantage into the twenty-first century. The connections between contemporary inequality and earlier discrimination are clear.
Assertions of white cultural superiority like those Wax makes explicit in her interview with the DP proliferated during this period. Segregationists warned that racial integration would spread the contagion of sexual immorality. Some states forcibly sterilized women who bore children “out of wedlock” and excluded children from white schools based on their parents’ marital status.
Even when framed in ostensibly race-neutral terms — as assertions of cultural rather than biological supremacy — those claims were widely understood as resistance to the hard-won gains of racial justice movements. They cannot be revived today washed clean of their racist roots.
Reasonable people can disagree about how law and social policy should promote strong families and communities. But it is irresponsible to ignore the ugly history of claims of white cultural superiority and to minimize the inequality embedded in 1950s valorization of male Protestant whiteness. The decade was marred by such deep-seated discrimination that it cannot stand as any kind of paragon.
Moreover, the 1960s and 70s did not usher in the “identity politics” dystopia that Wax and Alexander describe. Instead, every step toward equality has been hard fought. In response to increased civil rights for people of color in the late 1960s, just to give one example, conservatives turned to the criminal law. Governments put in place policies that created the mass incarceration that became a fact of American life in the 1970s, and intensified disenfranchisement of people with felony records that we live with today. These laws inflicted a cascading series of harms on communities of color in the late twentieth century and beyond, and continue to exclude them from full political participation.
Nostalgia for a pre-civil rights, pre-feminist golden age is just as compromised as other invocations of a glorious past, be it the Lost Cause, a City on a Hill, or any other historical myth. The temptation to look backward with longing leads only to flawed and simplistic analysis, such as we see in Wax and Alexander. They promote a distorted vision of American history, which would warp our ability to imagine a more just future.
If the history of the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first, teaches us anything, it is that assertions of white cultural superiority have devastating consequences.
SARAH BARRINGER GORDON, SOPHIA Z. LEE and SERENA MAYERI are professors of law and history, DOROTHY E. ROBERTS is a professor of law, sociology and Africana Studies, and TOBIAS BARRINGTON WOLFF is a professor of law at Penn Law School.