Twilight of the WASPs

Article excerpt

Byline: Evan Thomas

With the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant no longer reigns supreme.

Old tigers should be celebrating the nomination of Elena Kagan, Princeton class of '81, to the United States Supreme Court. She would the third Princetonian in a row to be elevated to the nation's highest bench. Still, it's likely that at least a few old Princetonians are scratching their heads, because they know that in their day, not one of the new justices--not Kagan or Samuel Alito or Sonia Sotomayor--would have had much, if any, chance of admission to Princeton.

An Italian-American Catholic from a modest background like Alito had almost no shot at Old Nassau for the first two centuries or so of the college's existence. There were almost no Puerto Ricans and very few Jews at Princeton until the mid-1960s and no women before 1969. The success of Kagan, Sotomayor, and Alito is a triumph of the meritocracy that has replaced what columnist Joseph Alsop called the AWASP ascendancyA 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.

WASPs have been losing their dominant hold on positions of power since at least the 1960s. Yet aside from some lamenting of lost manners, no one seems to miss the old days very much, not even the WASPs, who have more or less tried to be chin-up. The 1960s doomed the idea that one ethnic group should or could hang on to the reins of private or public power. Diversity and equality of opportunity became the watchwords. This was especially true at the colleges and universities that had long acted as gatekeepers to power and social prestige. …