Nathan Glazer, a prominent sociologist and public intellectual who assisted on a classic study of conformity, “The Lonely Crowd,” and co-wrote a groundbreaking document of nonconformity, “Beyond the Melting Pot,” has died at 95.
Glazer's daughter, Sarah Glazer, confirmed her father died Saturday morning at his home in Cambridge, Mass.
A longtime professor at Harvard University, Glazer was among the last of the deeply read thinkers who influenced culture and politics in the mid-20th century. Starting in the 1940s, Glazer was a writer and editor for Commentary and the New Republic. He was a co-editor of the Public Interest, and wrote or co-wrote numerous books. With peers such as Daniel Bell and Irving Howe, he had a wide range of interests, “a notion of universal competence,” including foreign policy and Modernist architecture, the subject of one his latter books, “From a Cause to a Style.”
A radical in his youth, he was regarded as a founding “neo-conservative,” a label he resisted. His most famous projects were the million-selling “The Lonely Crowd,” primarily written by David Riesman and a prescient 1950 release about consumerism and peer pressure, and the landmark “Beyond the Melting Pot,” which countered the core American myth of assimilation.
Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan examined five racial and ethnic groups in New York City — blacks, Italian Americans, Jews, Puerto Ricans and Irish Americans — and concluded that even as languages and customs from the Old World faded, new styles and traditions emerged that reflected distinct identities.
“It was reasonable to believe that a new American type would emerge, a new nationality in which it would be a matter of indifference whether a man was of Anglo-Saxon or German or Italian or Jewish origin,” the authors wrote. “The initial notion of an American melting pot did not, it seems, quite grasp what would happen in America.”
The book was published in 1963 to immediate and continuing debate over its refutation of a blended society, over the authors' belief that black people's struggles could not be blamed on discrimination alone and that black people would eventually achieve the kinds of advances enjoyed by immigrant populations. “Melting Pot” has been widely taught, and remains a standard reference for urban and ethnic studies, whether the subject has been civil rights, education or city politics. Glazer, a chronic re-assessor, questioned his assumptions in a 1970 reissue of the book and after. He had hoped for a post-ethnic, post-racial country, but in a 1997 release, “We Are All Multiculturalists Now,” Glazer resigned himself to multiculturalism, infuriating conservatives and bringing praise from others.
“Glazer is a gentleman, always ready to concede, at least rhetorically, the sincerity of his opponent's feelings,” James Traub wrote in a review published in Slate.
Glazer was the last survivor of those featured in “Arguing the World,” a 1998 documentary about four former students at the City College of New York: Glazer, Howe, Bell and Irving Kristol. His many jobs included working in the editorial divisions of Random House and Anchor Books in the 1950s, serving during the Kennedy administration in what is now the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and teaching education and social structure at Harvard.
The son of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants, Glazer was born in New York and raised in working-class neighborhoods in the Bronx and East Harlem. He followed a similar path to Kristol and other neo-conservatives — from socialism in his college years to liberalism as a young man to an increasing turn right.
He began attracting attention in his mid-20s. Glazer's work in Commentary was noticed by Riesman, a visiting Yale University professor who thought his “incisive critiques” would be useful for a planned book about social behavior, “The Lonely Crowd,” which sold millions of copies and helped define fears that independence and individuality were being lost in the post-World War II economic boom.
Glazer himself would prove unhappy with the new thinking of the 1960s. As a faculty member in 1964 at UC Berkeley, he was appalled by the student Free Speech Movement and condemned its “enthusiastic and euphoric rejection of forms and norms.” He and Kristol soon helped launch a seminal neo-conservative journal, the Public Interest, which Glazer edited from 1973 to 2002.
A deep skeptic about the effectiveness of government, Glazer was a critic of President Johnson's Great Society domestic programs and especially opposed to affirmative action. His 1975 book, “Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy,” became a prime text for the “reverse discrimination” movement.
He would, characteristically, challenge his own conclusions. In 1998, he filed an amicus brief in support of an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan. While he still believed in a colorblind, merit-based society, he wrote in the New Republic that “the reality is that strict adherence to this principle would result in few African Americans getting jobs, admissions, and contracts.”