French Canadians and Social Mobility


February 23, 2014 by LeVoyageur

There is a fascinating article, “Your Ancestors, Your Fate,” by economics professor Gregory Davis dated February 21, 2014 in the New York Times. I would like to share a couple of quotes that are relevant to French Canadian communities.

A year or so ago I did some basic research using data from the US Census American Community Survey on the educational attainment of French Canadians in Michigan. While I am not an expert in interpreting census data, it did clearly show that French Canadians as of 2010 were less likely to go on to higher education, less likely to attain higher degrees, and more likely to join the military than other white ethnic groups and the overall average.

This New York Times article seeks to demonstrate that social mobility is very slow and takes place over centuries. Further, it can be correlated to what are considered to be elite versus low-status names. So the statements from the article, which I quote below, are not a surprise to me.

The author has it wrong however when he says that French Canadians did not suffer ‘racial discrimination.’ That French Canadians faced the KKK in both the United States and Canada because they were Catholic is certain, but the Klan was also concerned with protecting Anglo-Saxon racial purity. French Canadians faced eugenics experiments in New England (see also: Vermont Eungenics). And, over a century earlier French Canadians in Detroit were ‘racialized’ by the British and Anglo Americans for their perceived (and often real) kinship with the Native Americans. Thus, In my view French Canadians did suffer discrimination and prejudice in both the US and Canada due to racial views.

However, the article is not addressing this topic per se. I recommend reading the entire article as it is fascinating in its own right.

Here are some quotes from the article:

“What about America, the self-proclaimed land of opportunity? We selected a sampling of high- and low-status American surnames. The elite ones were held by descendants of Ivy League alumni who graduated by 1850, exceptionally wealthy people with rare surnames in 1923-24 (when public inspection of income-tax payments was legal) and Ashkenazi Jews. The low-status names were associated with black Americans whose ancestors most likely arrived as slaves, and the descendants of French colonists in North America before 1763.”

“Family names tell you, for better or worse, a lot: The average life span of an American with the typically Jewish surname Katz is 80.2 years, compared with 64.6 years for those with the surname Begay (or Begaye), which is strongly associated with Native Americans. Heberts, whites of New France descent, live on average three years less than Dohertys, whites of Irish descent.

But to be clear, we found no evidence that certain racial groups innately did better than others. Very high-status groups in America include Ashkenazi Jews, Egyptian Copts, Iranian Muslims, Indian Hindus and Christians, and West Africans. The descendants of French Canadian settlers don’t suffer racial discrimination, but their upward mobility, like that of blacks, has been slow.”

For more information on Franco-American demographics in New England, see David Vermette’s 1930s “Ethnic Study: French Canadians Break Sociological Mold” and James Myall’s reports for the State of Maine Task Force on Franco-Americans.

2 thoughts on “French Canadians and Social Mobility

  1. Racial discrimination is not an adequate term to describe what French Canadians were up against in those years. What “race” distinguishes the descendants of Ivy League graduates before 1850 (e.g., Henry David Thoreau attended Harvard from 1833-7, I don’t know if he actually graduated) from my g-g-grandfather Jean Baptiste Trotochaud born in Quebec in 1801? I contend any “racial” distinction between these two men is entirely imaginary and arbitrary, based on folk traditions more than anything else. In later life JB was vilified as “that ignorant Frenchman” by a Protestant missionary (from Pennsylvania) to Michigan Indians and ultimately classified (in a death notice for his daughter Lucy in 1922) as “Trocho, the Indian who donated the old Indian church on the beach near the western boundary of Petoskey” even though JB had no Indian ancestry at all.
    My mother was intimately acquainted with discrimination her entire life. She simply called it “prejudice”. I think this term is more accurate and more useful than “racial discrimination”.

    Footnote: Wikipedia: “Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson judged Thoreau’s endorsement of living alone and apart from modern society in natural simplicity to be a mark of “unmanly” effeminacy and “womanish solitude”, while deeming him a self-indulgent “skulker.” See what I mean about “prejudice”?

  2. Even better footnote about Thoreau, from Wikipedia again: Nathaniel Hawthorne was also critical of Thoreau, writing that he “repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men.”
    My g-g-grandfather actually DID lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men.

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