Searching for Solidarity After the ‘Great White Flight’
Msgr. Geno Baroni’s long, lost vision of multiethnic urbanism offers a blueprint.
In our times, white flight and assimilation have become commonplace phenomena. One can drive through suburbia and find Italian and Irish flags flying behind white picket fences. Yet those relics of an ethnic past often stand as hollow symbols of more substantial, dynamic realities that served as tools for uplifting individuals and promoting participation in social initiatives.
Identity politics offers a meager attempt to celebrate diversity and affirm the needs of historically oppressed communities. And those who are more privileged can stand in solidarity — from a distance — with those who are less privileged by supporting liberal social policies. But I’d argue that those committed to the cause of social progress could benefit greatly from looking back to the vision of urban multiethnic collaboration promoted by Msgr. Geno Baroni (1930-1984).
“Father Geno” founded the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs in 1971 to preserve the presence of ethnic whites in urban areas by promoting cultural pride and fomenting a sense of responsibility for communal affairs. To Msgr. Baroni, the imperative to deter ethnic whites from fleeing to the suburbs and eventually assimilating was twofold: to combat racism by facilitating side-by-side, on-the-ground collaboration among all ethnic groups; and to preserve ethnic whites’ roots in their traditions and cultural identity.
His work in a historically Black parish in Washington, D.C., confronted him with the reality that much of the social-welfare programs in the late ’60s and ’70s were aimed primarily toward aiding poor inner-city Blacks and that excessive reliance on government relief programs was weakening the spirit of participation and responsibility in inner cities. This exacerbated the racial biases of poor inner-city ethnic whites, who were only marginally aided by such programs.
Msgr. Baroni’s ideal of inter-ethnic grassroots initiatives received criticism from several camps: “White liberals” preferred to support socialized programs for inner-city Blacks from afar in the comfort of their suburban neighborhoods; proponents of “Black Power” were content with whites fleeing to the suburbs, as they expressed little interest in collaboration; and reactionary prejudiced whites, disgruntled about the increase in social programs that specifically targeted urban Blacks, refused to collaborate with people of color.
While he acknowledged that fostering a sense of ethnic pride could potentially worsen racist sentiments, Msgr. Baroni argued that ethnic pride provided a foundation for entering into meaningful dialogues with others, appreciating their cultural differences and creating a space for harmonious collaboration among people of diverse backgrounds.
Further, failing to affirm whites’ ethnic heritage would either nurture racist sentiments or make them content with supporting racial minorities from afar, in both cases rendering them indifferent to living in concrete communion with people of color. It’s also worth considering the extent to which anti-Black racism on the part of ethnic whites was an attempt to “prove their whiteness” in order to elevate their status in the eyes of the ethnically neutral WASP establishment.
My personal esteem for Father Geno’s legacy is a “family matter”: He played a key role in shaping the social vision of my grandfather, Stephen Adubato Sr. Working since the 1950s as a history teacher in the city’s public high schools, Grandpa Steve and my grandmother were among the few Italians still living in Newark, New Jersey’s North Ward in the 1960s. The city’s population — which still consisted of a handful of Irish, Polish, Portuguese, Greeks and Ashkenazi Jews — was dominated by Black Americans, with a rising influx of Puerto Ricans.
After the riots (or “rebellion”) of 1969, whites started leaving in droves. The Italians tried desperately to cling onto the few political positions they had left in city government as their population was dwindling. Thus, their outrage was kindled when a Black man, Kenneth Gibson, ran for mayor against the incumbent Hugh Adonizzio in 1970.
Big Steve, as my grandfather was affectionately known, made the “treasonous” decision to back Gibson. He claimed that his decision was not for the sake of promoting racial equality, but instead had to do with integrity: Adonizzio was infamous for his corruption. “I wasn’t ‘pro-Black,’” said my grandfather. “Frankly, Gibson was the better man.” Despite frequent death threats and an eventual attempt on his life, Big Steve campaigned for Gibson among the city’s ethnic whites. After Gibson’s victory, my grandfather decided to open the North Ward Educational and Cultural Center.
Following the model of Msgr. Baroni (a close friend and confidant), “The Center” provided job training, social services, cultural and religious celebrations and recreational activities, all with the aim of keeping the neighborhood’s working-class Italians from leaving for the suburbs and encouraging them to get to know and collaborate with their Black and Hispanic neighbors.
As much as he acknowledged the ways that certain racial groups faced greater structural disadvantages than others, he was skeptical about purely identitarian approaches to social justice, highlighting the need for a realistic attitude toward the concrete needs of all working-class inner-city people. “I’m not a white liberal,” my grandfather told me years ago. “I’m a practical guy who wants to live in a society that gives people of all kinds, of all backgrounds, a chance to share.”
All ethnic groups, Big Steve believed, “had a vital role to share,” with the potential to enrich and be enriched by others. “A [multiethnic] situation promotes better race relations. A multiracial city is what America is all about.”
He was also skeptical of forms of government aid that minimized everyday people’s agency. “There is no program that the government can ever set up that can duplicate a neighborhood, with its responsibilities, its communication, the feeling of belonging that it imparts. If you put buildings and people together,” he continued, “it’s still not a real neighborhood. It will not be right because there is no common interest or responsibility.”
The city of Newark today remains predominantly Black, followed by growing Latino communities and a few remaining European enclaves. Take the Portuguese and Spanish communities in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, who live side by side with growing Brazilian and Ecuadorian communities. Other ethnic enclaves include the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities in the North Ward and Nigerian, Ghanaian and Haitian communities in the West Ward.
Benedictine Abbot Augustine Curley of Newark Abbey has seen major improvements in the city since the days of the riots, when he was a middle-school student. While there are still defined ethnic neighborhoods in Newark, he describes the borders as having “become more porous. People are more free to move around to other parts of the city … though some may resent ‘them’ coming in.” Further, “it’s common today,” says Abbot Augustine, “to see people of different ethnic backgrounds on the same ticket for local elections. We’ve largely gotten over these divides.”
Abbot Augustine sees how white flight has exacerbated racial tension. Many whites living in the suburbs — including those who proclaim themselves not to be racist — envision Newark as a dangerous city that’s not worth stepping foot into. He remembers a time in the 1970s when priests would arrange opportunities for people living in the suburbs to have dinners and discussions with families living in Newark, and vice versa, “just to get people to visit and walk around, and to sit down, break bread, and talk to each other.”
The breaking down of prejudices “is not going to come about from ‘big speeches’ telling people how to treat each other. It will come from people encountering each other one-on-one.”
Today, says Abbot Augustine, “churches have the duty to unite ethnic groups by creating opportunities to work and worship together, while still encouraging their ethnic pride.” Perhaps it may be worthwhile for parishes to consider arranging inter-ethnic and inter-neighborhood encounters like the ones Abbot Augustine remembers from the ’70s.
Father Geno believed that developing both one’s sense of ethnic identity as well as a sense of local community were key factors in helping society answer the fundamental human questions: Who am I, and to whom do I belong? Growing up in a suburban landscape, which can stifle one’s roots and connectedness, can often limit exploration of those key questions.
Though they have diminished in number, it’s still possible to find cities where a variety of ethnic groups manage to balance maintaining their ethnic identity while being open to collaborating with others. And while it may be harder to find white ethnic urban enclaves today, the fact that a significant number still exist — and are demonstrating more openness to collaborating with people of different ethnicities and races — is a reason to have hope.
The balance that Father Geno held between the extremes of overt segregation and neo-liberal notions of solidarity required him to appreciate nuances, to value taking risks and to affirm that true unity is brought about not solely by our efforts, but by our trust in God. This echoes Pope Francis’ continued insistence to “look to our roots” and foster a “culture of encounter,” where we build solidarity not by supporting the “right issues,” but by “getting our hands dirty” and collaborating with others in concrete ways.
Looking back at my grandfather’s legacy has impelled me to ask how I can apply the principles of subsidiarity and responsibility in my own neighborhood and place of work.
Stephen G. Adubato is a freelance writer and teaches philosophy and theology in New Jersey. He blogs regularly at the Cracks in Postmodernity on Substack.