Apparently now that the is-she-actually-a-lesbian discussion has been ruled dilatory, journalists have decided to focus on the one kinda minority thing Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s got going for her: she’s Jewish! Or, as Evan Thomas at Newsweek put it, if Kagan is confirmed there will be no more Protestants on the Court. According to Thomas’s article:
With the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant no longer reigns supreme…. The success of Kagan, Sotomayor, and Alito is a triumph of the meritocracy that has replaced what columnist Joseph Alsop called the “WASP ascendancy” in the ruling circles of America. Indeed, with the departure of Justice John Paul Stevens and the arrival of Kagan (who is very likely to be confirmed by the Senate), there will be no white Anglo-Saxon Protestants on the Supreme Court, or any Protestants at all. Instead, six of the justices will be Catholic and three Jewish.
Robert Frank at The Wall Street Journal agrees with Thomas, noting that, “by ushering in a Protestant-free court, Ms. Kagan is helping to sweep away some of the last vestiges of a group that ruled American politics, wealth and culture for much of the nation’s history.”
WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) is a term popularized by sociologist E. Digby Baltzell in his 1964 book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy & Caste in America. The book primarily addressed how the American ruling elite used their influence to accrue and maintain power.
The important part was never regular attendance at the Episcopal Church or a familiarity with one’s Mayflower ancestors; what mattered most was that the people who ruled the world all pretty much knew each other and went to the same schools. And even though the current Supreme Court might show more familiarity than its predecessors with matzah ball soup or the intricacies of the rhythm method, if Kagan is confirmed six of the Court’s nine members will be Harvard graduates.
A better take on what Kagan means for American power comes from Gregory Rodriguez at the Los Angeles Times, who points out that Kagan, like all members of the Supreme Court, represents the transformative power of elite institutions:
It wasn’t only force that carried the Yankees’ cause to cultural victory but their elite New England institutions. “The principles of New England,” Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, “spread at first to the neighboring states; they then passed successively to the more distant ones; and at length they imbued the whole confederation. They now extend their influence over the whole American world.”
Then again, the true demographic power of the WASP in America’s highest court might be a little exaggerated. True, there were always a lot of Justices who belonged to the Athletic Club and sent annual dues to Princeton or New Haven, but it also often had a smattering of people who weren’t really WASPs at all.
Consider someone like Justice Hugo Black. Black was the youngest of eight children born to a Baptist storekeeper in a tiny farmhouse in the Appalachian foothills. He graduated from West Tennessee College and earned his law degree from Cumberland University. Prior to his elevation to the Supreme Court in 1937 he might never have actually met a Jew, but he wasn’t really a WASP. This KKK alum with an Alabama drawl may have been white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, but he was decidedly NQOCD.
It’s probably the total disappearance of these sorts of people—who arguably represent a fairly relevant form of diversity—from the U.S. Supreme Court that matters more.Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.