Who Is an American?

By Peter Schrag

Through successive waves of immigration, the nation has struggled to define which new arrivals are “fit for our society.”

In 2007, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., then the leader of the anti-immigration caucus in the House and briefly a candidate for the presidential nomination in 2008, told how his Italian grandfather arrived as a “legal” immigrant in this country at the turn of the 20th century.

“What we’re doing in this immigration battle,” Tancredo said in a 10-candidate debate in New Hampshire, “is testing our willingness to actually hold together as a nation or split apart into a lot of balkanized pieces.”

What he didn’t say is that when Grandfather Tancredo arrived, old-stock Americans, even some leading progressives, regarded southern Italians (along with Poles, Russians, Hungarians, and many other “races”) to be as unfit for assimilation as some latter-day immigration restrictionists regard Latinos today. The test, in historian David Roediger’s word, was “whiteness.” Is it possible—even likely—that today’s Latinos will be “whitened” much as Eastern European immigrants were last century?

The new immigrants, circa 1900, were portrayed as diseased, prone to crime, covetous of Americans’ jobs, and likely to become public charges. Italians were anarchists; their children were hard to educate; they would never adopt the ways of good Americans. And those stereotypes a century ago about Italians—as well as Slavs, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and other southern and eastern Europeans— echoed those about Irish and German immigrants two generations before that.

The story is familiar but too often forgotten. We call ourselves a nation of immigrants, and frequently we have welcomed newcomers. During and immediately after the carnage of the Civil War, states such as Kansas, Missouri, and (yes!) Iowa, all short of workers, created bureaus of immigration to recruit settlers from Europe. Some states sent emissaries abroad.

But almost from our first settlements, we also regarded large classes of people, in the words of Massachusetts Bay Gov. John Winthrop in 1637, as “not fit for our society.” In a new continent, as someone famously said, “we wanted workers, but we got people.” In big city and small town, when times got tough or the new complexions, languages, and habits became too strange, we tried to shut them out.

In the 1830s, the Rev. Lyman Beecher, perhaps the nation’s most celebrated churchman of his time (and the father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe), issued dark warnings that the Vatican was plotting to flood the country with Catholic immigrants and take over the American West. In 1834, a nativist mob in Boston broke into and torched an Ursuline Sisters’ convent and school. In the years following, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic riots occurred in Lawrence, Mass., Baltimore, New York City, and Philadelphia, where the most vicious violence killed an estimated 45 people and wounded 145, most of them rioters shot by militia.

In the 1850s, scores of Know-Nothings won election to Congress and high state offices espousing tight restrictions on (Irish) immigration and a law barring immigrants from voting until they had been here at least 21 years.

In 1911, a national commission concluded that 63 percent of schoolchildren with a southern Italian background were “retarded”—meaning that they were two years behind their classmates; these youngsters were exceeded in failure only by the children of Polish Jews, at 67 percent, and, as always, by blacks. In a 42-volume report, the commission called for reducing immigration of low-skilled workers and those who “by reason of their personal qualities or habits” would least readily be assimilated and make the least desirable citizens.

In 1917, Congress drew a line on the globe and declared the region from the Middle East to Southeast Asia an “Asiatic Barred Zone” from which the United States would accept no immigrants.

Throughout most of our history, the U.S. based its reception policies on two sets of criteria. One was economic; the other was that catchall, “race.” Were the immigrants “white”? That is, how close were they in ethnicity, religion, language, culture, and national origin to the Anglo-Saxon Protestants who came before them?

A century ago, a Detroit newspaper asked a black factory worker whether he worked with any whites. “’No, I don’t work with no whites,” he responded. “There’s some Polacks, but no whites.” In 1909, Armenians had to go to federal court to be declared white and thus entitled to naturalization.

For the millions of southern and eastern Europeans who arrived in waves between the 1880s and World War I, what Roediger calls the great whitening—acceptance of those new immigrants—took place in the 1930s and especially during World War II, when U.S. quota laws had driven immigration down to record lows.

The Second World War brought white Americans together as nothing had previously. In the movies, every submarine and every bomber crew had an Adams, a Murphy, a Goldberg, a Bartolucci, and a Kowalski. By then, the Democratic Party in major eastern cities offered voters “balanced tickets” at election time: an Italian, a Pole, a WASP, maybe a Jew. The New Deal was built in considerable part on the votes of immigrants and their children. Diversity—of whites—was becoming American.

But this acceptance and assimilation didn’t include African-Americans or Mexicans. European immigrants, writes sociologist Cybelle Fox of the University of California (Berkeley) in a book published in April, “received generous access” to social-welfare programs in the Progressive era and the New Deal. Mexicans and blacks did not.

As ever, whiteness remained the test of Americanness. But the definition had become much broader. Immigrant kids in the 1950s still called each other “wop” and “kike,” but it was often intended as proof of assimilation, even affection, not as debasement.

Now, with the great spread of the Latino population and the escalating rate of intermarriage, we face some novel questions: Will Hispanics (most of whom are multiracial) become redefined as white, as did the Poles and Italians before them? Californians adopted an anti-immigrant initiative in 1994 more severe than Arizona’s current law, but it’s inconceivable that such legislation would pass now. Is it possible that the last vestiges of the old racial criteria are finally becoming a thing of the past?

This Oped appeared on the National Journal on 5/19/12.   Peter Schrag, a long-time California journalist, is the author, most recently, of “Not Fit For Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.”

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