By Mary Grabar
Sunday, April 20, 2008
We know who you’re talking about, Barack Obama, when you talk about Pennsylvania and the Midwest, about small towns where the jobs have left. We know who you’re talking about when you talk about those who “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.”
You’re talking about “those people.”
You’re talking about white people who have neither the family connections nor the racial credentials to gain entrance to the world that you inhabit. Many of the people you’re talking about are those whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe who came to these places to work in steel mills, coal mines, and factories. We know the code words.
You’re talking about people whose culture is little known. We have been pretty quiet. We never tried to impose our culture on everyone. We never insisted on putting pictures of ourselves in our native dress into schoolbooks or mandating that our stories and songs be part of the curriculums.
We tried to maintain our culture without government aid, by forming our own churches and groups, and building Polish, Ukrainian, and Slovenian halls.
We never wore buttons declaring “Slav Power” or grouped together for purposes of intimidation or violence.
The power we asked for was the power of the paycheck which we earned in factories, steel mills, coal mines, or by cleaning houses. Yet, we were taken aside and told that because of affirmative action it was no use trying to advance off the assembly line; we were told in “diversity workshops” that people of color had to be promoted over more qualified white people. I know this, Barack, because I have family members and friends who worked in factories.
We used to trudge in to work and change into work clothes, like my father did. He began by knowing only one word of English, “Okay,” which he found to be the most useful one in the language. When the boss man handed him a broom or pointed to a piece to be welded, he fairly leapt to the task. My uncles were injured in construction and mining accidents, and went back to work.
But what did we get for that, Barack? We paid cash for our houses and kept impeccable yards, yet saw the value of our homes plummet after marauding hoodlums came into our neighborhoods in riots that were celebrated by the intelligentsia in Manhattan penthouses, who saw such violence as justified expressions of outrage over past discrimination.
We went to public schools in those same neighborhoods only to be accosted for our skin color and the presumed “privilege” that teachers said we had. Rather than teach us what was good and beautiful about Western Civilization and the country to which our parents had fled, teachers gave us Marxist nonsense, if they bothered to teach at all. Our schoolmates saw the evening news, mimicked their elders by wearing “Black Power” buttons and felt justified in roughing the white kid who didn’t seem tough. Because we were “privileged”—despite washing our fathers’ sooty work clothes while our mothers went off to clean offices and houses in the suburbs—we were not eligible for scholarships, not even to the Catholic schools. Teachers never cut us any slack. Guidance counselors told us to be secretaries or work in the factory, despite our volunteering and demonstration of academic abilities. Our brothers, cousins, and uncles went off to fight in Vietnam, while those from your class took up arms against their campus administrators.
True, we had our problems, as all people do, with such things as alcoholism and family violence, but we handled those ourselves, and never blamed “society” or a history of oppression. Still, many of us did carry legacies from the old country, of hunger and persecution, of watching family members and villagers murdered by atheistic regimes. So we were grateful for the opportunity to work and buy our own little patches of the American Dream.
We were happy to use a welding torch, shovel, or broom to get them. We didn’t insist that we should all get college degrees. We didn’t have our documents translated for us or get bilingual instruction. If we didn’t know English we made sure our children did and we relied on them.
Your white friends in San Francisco, Barack, probably had cleaning women like my mother (and me when I accompanied her and then had my own cleaning jobs from age 12). As white people from a certain class and with certain connections, your donors knew that their futures would be secure because of their inheritances and the connections they could make in the media, politics, and business. In fact, it would benefit them in the world of “radical chic” to hang around those like you and support your policies. (Great opportunity to be photographed next to a black person!)
Your black friends there, like your wife, see no end to the amount that this country owes them because of what happened to their ancestors. It makes no difference that many of the whites in previous generations also had experienced persecution and hunger and worked in dangerous, dirty, and degrading jobs. Or that blacks and Native Americans were among the slave owners.
In fact, you and those wealthy donors sneer at white people who have had to do manual labor and who have paid for tuition at community colleges with the money earned that way, while our classmates received special scholarships and government grants—from our taxes.
You sneer at those like us who put our faith in God and not in those like you who would presume to know what’s good for us and tell us what to do with our money and our children, and leave us with no ability to defend ourselves.
Well, Barack, coming from your Ivy League world, you would not know much about us. You would not have learned that because we come from people who, rather than letting their communist benefactors redistribute the food, burned the crops in their little fields before they were forcibly “collectivized.” In Slovenia, they fought Tito’s Partisans from the woods and held mass at night when the Communists banned church services. They remember what it’s like to be hungry, ill, and living in little more than huts, while Marshall Tito and his communist cronies lived in villas. Now you live in a Chicago mansion and sneer at those like us who simply want to keep and defend our little three-bedroom ranches. You don’t know what it’s like to have family members die for the right to attend mass.
I know your liberal cronies, Barack; they make me check off my skin color on job applications and ask me during job interviews of how I teach multiculturalism, yet don’t know where Slovenia is on the world map. They couldn’t care less about my culture, nor about Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, or Lithuanian culture. Your supporters often feel free to mock my Slovenian heritage in letters and comments on the Internet when they disagree with me. I guess it’s like being called a “dumb Polack”—something that has never gained quite the opprobrium of other ethnic epithets.
See, Barack, we know the system: Some are more “equal” than others.
And we know how you really feel about the “proletariat.” We know this from our experience either directly or as an inheritance from our parents and grandparents. And that is why we came to America.
Addendum: Many of my non-European correspondents, like those who came from Cuba, agree—as their letters to me indicate.
Mary Grabar earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia and teaches in the Atlanta area. She is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and published fiction writer. Visit her website and get on her mailing list at marygrabar.com