Immigration and Racial Formation

This week’s readings examine the intersection of immigration and the construction of race throughout American history. Conzen, Gerber, Morawska, Pozzetta, and Vecoli, in “The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the USA,” argue that ethnicity is “a process of construction or invention which incorporates, adapts, and amplifies preexisting communal solidarities, cultural attributes, and historical memories. That is, it is grounded in real life context and social experience…Ethnicity is continuously being reinvented in response to changing realities both within the group and host society.” (5-6)  They focus on the relationships among various immigrant groups and the dominant culture of study, which, in this case, is Anglo American. They find that Americans became conscious of different ethnic groups in the early nineteenth century, when Europeans began immigrating in larger numbers to America. The authors pay particular attention to how the various ethnic groups reacted to, invented, accommodated, negotiated, and renegotiated their identities, patterns of daily life, and culture in America. They examine three case studies: The Scots, English, and Irish in Buffalo, New York in the 1840s and 50s; the development of ethnic identity among East European immigrants from the 1880s through the 1930s; and the ways in which Italian Americans continually negotiated their ethnic identity.

Matthew Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race examines the history of racial classification in America. Jacobson argues that the history of whiteness in America is fluid and that the notion of whiteness is an expression of power. His argument rests on a few premises: that races are invented categories, race is central to the history of European immigration and settlement, and race is not a product of nature but a product of politics and culture. His book is divided into three sections, the first being “The Political History of Whiteness,” which describes how race has been used for political purposes. Beginning in 1790, Congress gave all free white persons the rights of citizenship, thus binding the idea of whiteness and citizenship together. With a spike in European immigration in the 1840s, the concept of whiteness was re-imagined to include certain physical characteristics rather than merely skin color. With the rise of nativism, eugenics, and an understanding between “desirable” and “useless” races, Irish, Italians, and Jewish people were considered “others” and excluded from whiteness. After World War I, the notion of a Caucasian ethnicity displaced the idea of a white race, and this new notion took cultural and environmental, rather than biological factors, into account. Jacobson’s second section, “History, Race, and Perception” examines Africans, African Americans, Indians, Mexicans, Asians, and Jewish people in nineteenth century America. Travel accounts written by Americans in Africa trumpeted the view that Africans were much worse off than African Americans in America, despite centuries of slavery. The transition from Reconstruction to post-Reconstruction in the South revealed the power of race in framing politics. White Americans had to deal with the inclusion of Indians, Mexicans, and Asians into mainland America, despite their not being “wholly white.” They were painted as savages, bandits, and endangering to the native-born American workforce. Jewish Americans were depicted as physically different, with different blood, and unable to assimilate into American culture. With America’s entrance into World War II and the unearthing of the horrors of Nazi Germany, Jewish Americans soon came to be understood as white. Jacobson’s third section, “The Manufacture of Caucasians,” is his most compelling and examines the legal history of race in America and the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. The usage of the term Anglo-Saxon came to prominence in an effort to distinguish native-born white Americans from Mexicans, Celts, and Pacific Islanders. Jacobson aptly demonstrates how, legally, whiteness is a slippery concept, and argues that the court system created their own understanding of race that drew on science, popular understanding, history, and legal precedent. He examines several key cases in detail, including In re Ah Yup (1878), which made the term white synonymous with Caucasian and reified the Caucasian race as a meaningful legal and scientific concept. In re Halladjian (1909) made the construction of whiteness more inclusive, and legally discontinued the ideas of white, yellow, black races as a concept. From the 1870s through the 1920s, the courts normalized and reinforced the idea of a unified community of white people. The phrase ‘white persons’ became an instrument of exclusion. Jacobson’s chapter on the Civil Rights Movement demonstrates how, by the 1920s and 30s, race in America was binary: a person was either white or black. Former white races, like Italians, Poles, Hebrews, Celts, etc., vanished into this new idea of whiteness. Racial difference among whites vanished as the struggle by black Americans for equal rights took center stage.

David Roediger responds and adds to Jacobson’s work in Working Toward Whiteness: How American’s Immigrants Became White – The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. Roediger diverges from Jacobson in important ways: he notes that “Jacobson assumes at times that the key sites of racial transformation are legal and intellectual” (8) while he seeks to view “whitening as a process of social history in which countless quotidian activities informed popular and expert understandings of the race of new immigrants, as well as new immigrant understandings of race.” (8) He traces the history of immigration in America during the long early twentieth century (1890 through 1945) and how immigrants occupied an “in-between” position in American society. Like Jacobson, Roediger divided his book into three sections. The first looks at race in the history of immigration. Beginning with Ellis Island, Roediger looks at how customs officials started gathering more information on immigrants, noting their race, color, country of birth, mother tongue, and religion. Roediger charts the birth and usage of racial terms like guineas, greasers, and hunkies. These terms frequently brought immigrants together while also distancing them from white, native-born Americans. The term guinea, for example, connected African Americans, Italians, and later, Asians. The term greaser brought new immigrants into contact with Mexians and Puerto Ricans. In this way, race was not simply a category imposed on new immigrants but also an identity that they embraced. In the second section, Roediger looks at everyday life for immigrants who lived in-between. In the early twentieth century, courts helped to solidify the in-between status of immigrants with decisions like Thind, which placed them above African Americans but below native-born, white Americans. In the workplace, employers preferred a work force divided by race and national origins. Many immigrants were barred from joining labor unions, including the American Federation of Labor. Roediger also examines whether the new immigrants were white on arrival (WOA), white before coming (WBC), or racial thinkers before coming (RTBC). New immigrants tended to be WBC and therefore carried racism in their own cultural baggage. New immigrants quickly learned that the worst thing to be in America was African American. In the third and final section, Roediger argues that changes in urban race relations, housing, and state policies pushed new immigrants toward wanting a firmly white identity. World War II is generally accepted as the turning point of when new immigrants were accepted as white Americans. Prior to that, in 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act was passed, which set quotas on how many immigrants could migrate to America. A strong nativist feeling had engulfed white America, and white Americans insisted on “one hundred percent Americanism.” With the Great Migration, Johnson-Reed Act, and Great Depression, the main sources of immigrant labor were shut off. Southern and eastern European immigrant communities lost many of the cultural attributes that had previously deemed them unfit to be classified as white Americans. For many immigrants, owning a home was a special badge of honor enabled them to escape the threat of eviction and served as a bulwark against insecurity. White Americans soon began to segregate housing with restrictive covenants, and new immigrants were pushed further into the white American racial category and away from their in-between status. Many New Deal policies worked to relieve only white Americans. The New Deal state did not contest discriminatory hiring and layoff policies and its policies kept people of color from the best compensated forms of work relief, as well as those most connected to securing steady employment. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was committed to racial justice and nonracial syndicalism, which was the belief that a racially mixed workplace gave rise to a common workplace experience. Because workers labor together, the CIO argued, they should also be able to unionize and live together. New Deal housing policies also pushed African Americans to the margins while pushing new immigrants towards whiteness. African Americans were unable to get integrated, private housing through federal programs. By the end of the World War II, new immigrants were considered to be “white.” Roediger’s book succeeds in adding to Jacobson’s earlier work on immigration and race formation, although a few thoughts could have been expanded. His typology of immigrants as WBC, WOA, and RTBC is fascinating and could have included more in-depth examples. Similarly, he could have included a larger, fuller analysis of the lived experience of immigrant women throughout his work rather than drawing on their experience in only one section (“Youth, white houses, and generations of race” in chapter six, “Finding Homes in an Era of Restriction”).

Mae Ngai, in Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, examines illegal immigration and the nation-state from the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act in 1924 to the passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965. The immigration restrictions imposed by the Johnson-Reed Act created a new legal and political subject, the illegal alien. Illegal aliens are “impossible subjects” because they cannot exist and yet are an unsolvable problem. Ngai identifies two themes in her work: immigration and citizenship, and immigration policy and the production of racial knowledge. The former seeks to show that the category of illegal alien is fluid and not fixed, and is being continually made and re-made, typically by the state. Ngai uses the second theme to argue that the immigration restrictions imposed in the 1920s hardened and realigned the legal understanding and meaning of race. Ngai also focuses on nationalism and sovereignty, as foreign policy and immigration policy are inevitably linked. She details the experiences of Mexican, Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants in the middle sections of her book. The final section examines the implications of the Hart-Celler Act, which Ngai argues made illegal immigration the central problem of American immigration policy for the remainder of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century.

Discussion questions

  1. What is different and similar in how Jacobson, Roediger, and Ngai approach the construction of race in response to increased immigration to the United States and the subsequent tightening of immigration in the early twentieth century?
  2. How do Cozen, Gerber, et. al. approach immigration and the construction of ethnicity, and how does their approach differ from Jacobson, Roediger, and Ngai?
  3. After reading the books and article, what did you find to be the largest factor in helping shape new immigrants’ racial identities? Was it politics, the state, legal decisions, society, or culture?
  4. How were African Americans affected by the influx of immigration over the course of the long early twentieth century?

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