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Roediger, A Vast Amount of Coercion-1

Roediger, A Vast Amount of Coercion-1 - ALSO BY DAVID R...

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Unformatted text preview: ALSO BY DAVID R. ROEDIGER Our Own Time Wages of Whiteness Towards the Abolition Fellow Worker (editor) Blaolc on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White (editor) Labor Struggles (editor) History Against Misery WORKING TOWARD Whitenes HOW AMERICA’S IMMIGRANTS BECAME WHITE The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs David R. Roediger BASIC BOOKS A Member of the Perseus Books Group New York CHAPTER 5 -——-—-—'— “A Vast Amount of Coercion”: The Ironies of Immigration ‘ Restriction Now everybody knows that a black man is inferior to a white man (except, of course, jews, Italians and Slavs). W.E.B. DU BOIS, FREEDOM FIGHTER (1924), WITH RICH AMBIGUITY There is much of similarity between the case of the negroes and that i of the modern immigrants. To be sure, the newcomers of today are for the most part white-skinned instead of colored, which gives a difi’er— ent aspect to the matter Yet in the mind of the average American, the modern immigrants are generally regarded as inferior peoples—— races he looks down on, and with which he does not want to associ- ate on terms of social equality. l HENRY PRATT FAIRGHILD, EUGENICIST (1911) i," he second prize in the Pepsi-Cola Portrait of America art competi- ;' tion for 1944 went to Philip Evergood’s Wheels of Victory. The artist i was born Philip Blashki, the son of a Jewish father who migrated from 3 Poland to New York City. As a child raised in Britain by his wealthy Eng— lish mother, Blashki suffered anti~Semitic exclusion from schools before his name was changed, on the advice of none other than Winston Churchill, to the promising Evergood, as whom he gained admission to the elite halls of Eton. Back in the US. during World War II as a radical 133 . rum”. _,...4__.4«<~«M._WM..M,.W iw.__~v—.».._.._ -7. . 134 —— David R. Roediger painter of the “proletarian grotesque,” Evergood took exclusion as a cen- tral theme in Wheels of Victory.1 Alongside powerful images of war- winning men and machines, another drama plays out in the painting. Four centrally located and well-illuminated white workers huddle, exchanging words and the time of day. Looking wistfully at them from a catwalk is a patrolling black guard. The painting strikingly captures what civil rights leaders at the time called the need for a double V—victory over the Nazis abroad and victory over racial exclusion at home. But what the painting assumes is perhaps as important as what it argues. The four foregrounded figures, checking watches, stand for the included white worker. But just a quarter century before, during the World War I era, the dress and the sometimes orientalized and sometimes “hunky” features of the four would have signaled their “inconclusive” whiteness.2 Indeed, synchroniz- ing watches, they might easily have been construed during World War I as new immigrant saboteurs rather than as cogs in the “wheels of vic- tory.”3 Clearly, important processes of inclusion were occurring, shaped by continuing exclusion of people of color. COMPLICATING CHRONOLOGIES 0F WHITENESS If the racialization of new immigrants was messy—-varying widely across time, space, and circumstance—we would hardly expect the change that Evergood’s painting registered to be easily summarized or dated. As the “whitening” process is considered from many angles in Part 3, the complicating question “According to whom?” deserves consistent foregrounding. Where large public processes were at work, courts, nat- uralization bureaucracies, army recruiters, and executive orders on fair employment left considerable paper trails, though they hardly led in only one direction. Unions and employers likewise spoke volublyf'as we have seen, to the question of which immigrants were acceptable, but their utterances created crazy—quilt patterns, with wide local variations based on the demographics of particular workplaces and industries, pat- terns of strikebreaking management strategies, language acquisition, and labor markets. Popular cultural images abounded, but questions of audience reception remain vexed. Academic discourse was uneven, changing from a language of race in its discussion of new immigrants to a language of minorities in and after the 1930s and ethnicity in and after Working Toward Whiteness —— 135 the 19405. But the broader influences of such scholarly writings are dif- ficult to gauge.4 The messy micro—encounters in which whiteness was and was not made best illustrate how important the question “According to whom?” is when looking at racial categorization. Nelson Algren’s novel Never Come Morning (1942), for example, forcefully captured the ways in which new immigrants judged each other racially, even as they were judged, and showed how situational whiteness could be. Early in the novel, a Greek tried to join a gang rape and was told “Beat it, Sheeny, this is a white man’s party.” He replied to the Polish Americans excluding him, “Make half those gorillas stay out of it and I’ll show you who the white man is.” He was murdered shortly thereafter. Later in the novel “sheeny” found its more conventional slurring application, to Jews, but Mama Tomek ended her anti-Semitic tirade by turning to her Jewish janitor and exempting him from the racial insult: “Not you, Snipey. You’re a white sheeny.” A Jewish bar owner esteemed by eastern Europeans was “the only white kike in the business.” New immigrant “white hopes” abounded in the boxing sequences in Algren’s novels. An ethnic contender, hardly secure in his racial place, happily heard applause on entering the ring. The “white men” in the audience cheered him on “for bein’ white too.” The “whole white man’s house” roared him to victory: “The Polack had made it a white man’s evening after all.”5 Similar judgments of situational white- ness were reported by sociologists, oral historians, and their immigrant informants. The Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill wrote of Sicilians as “dark white” but also as “crossed with the sons of Ham from [the Mediterranean’s] southern shore.” Irish Americans, so often the teachers and arbiters of race, could make Italians “guineas” and Jews “kikes.” Native—born whites, even at their most anti-Italian or anti-Jewish, took care to admit the possibility of the occasional “high—class” new immigrant amid the “trash.”6 Indeed discrimination almost always involved making choices about merit within as well as across “racial groups.” At the level of racial consciousness, the coming of whiteness likewise presents difficult problems regarding periodization and evidence. Partic— ularly important is the extent to which immigrants’ assertions of their own difference, often in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of racial difference, could occur in perverse and even inverse relationship to the lived experience of U.S. racism. Thus, as Eric Goldstein’s work shows, 136 —— David R. Roediger Jews in the last three decades of the nineteenth century often spoke of a Jewish race, distinguished “not only in cultural particularity but in biol- ogy, shared ancestry and blood.” During this period, Jews “felt confident that they could employ a racial self-description without being subjected to demonization on racist grounds.” Middle—class Jewish American women were particularly apt to speak in the language of race. However, in the early twentieth century, immigration of east European Jews “swelled to unprecedented numbers,” and Jim Crow, Asian exclusion, and empire tightened racial distinctions in the United States. In these new conditions, Goldstein finds, Jewish use of the language of race declined in the interests of self-protection. Viewed as both “dark—complected and alien in custom,” new immigrant Jews faced “racial” perils but did not necessarily experience “racial” consciousness. Goldstein writes, “If in the late nineteenth century, Jews’ claims to racial distinctiveness cast them as a variation of the ‘Caucasian’ race, in the twentieth century their per- ceived racial peculiarities threatened to place them beyond the pale of whiteness.” Jewish race talk, though far from disappearing, declined: “Not until . . . ‘ethnicity’ was coined . . . would American Jews again have an emotionally satisfying and politically safe vehicle for the expression of their identity.” On other frequencies, such as Americanizing of names, the same curious dynamic in which securing whiteness made it more pos- sible to express difference also ensured complexity.7 Not surprisingly, given such a multiplicity of factors, no turning point can mark a definitive and universally accepted whitening of new immi- grants, at the level of how they were seen or how they desired to be seen. Nonetheless, the search for patterns, processes, and turning points is in— structive. To the extent that the question has been broached by historians, scholars have most often seen World War II as such a turning point. At about the time when Evergood painted Wheels of Victory, a number of barometers measured change in the racial status of eastern and southern Europeans. In an anti-Nazi war, intellectual space for antiracist arguments opened dramatically and the question of intra—European racism assumed exterminationist dimensions. Clearly the inclusion of new immigrant com- munities under the “Americans All” banner of antifascist mobilization was far more consistent than that of African Americans. The army, however, remained Jim Crow with black support troops often assigned to serve im- migrants and the children of immigrants in combat. Italian Americans, Working Toward Whiteness — 137 whose support for fascism had been consequential before the start of the war, largely escaped being put in camps by the government, even as Japan- ese Americans were massively intemedfl The substantial emphasis on the immigrants’ record of heroism and on anti-Nazi resistance fighters in Eu- rope created a very different picture from World War I, when the new im— migrants’ performance had sometimes drawn praise but often suspicion. Unlike the World War I—era race riots, when immigrants abstained from joining in white terror in crucial instances, in the 1943 Detroit race riots young members of the eastern and southern European immigrant com— munities mobilized decisively. One Italian American remembered the war years as a time when his friends went to Harlem to “beat up some nig— gers.” He recalled that “it was wonderful. It was new. The Italo—American stopped being Italo and starting becoming American.”9 In popular culture, the music of Glenn Miller’s band gave World War II a beat. The segre— gated “all-American team” of Miller, according to Lewis Erenberg, “in- cluded ethnic minorities” but not African Americans.10 Coming from the vantage points of political economy and political sci- ence respectively, Mike Davis and Jennifer Hochschild illustrate the ways in which inclusion and exclusion came together during World War II. Davis contrasts World War I, when suspicion of immigrants prevented development of “nationalist unity” among the working class, with a World War II nationalism “broadly inclusive of the white working class.”11 Hochschild finds that the “language” of race, still broadly applied to new immigrants in the 1920s, “disappeared over the next few decades in favor of an increasingly general category of ‘white’ or ‘American.”’ World War II stood out among historical circumstances that sped this process be— cause it “blurred ethnic divisions into Americanness as the children of new immigrants worked and fought beside great-grandchildren of the old against the racist scourge of Nazism.” People of color, Hochschild adds, were not just left out of this process. Rather, the move of some to full whiteness “arguably required the existence of a race which could not tra— verse the same path.” The war and war shortages exacerbated tensions “between newly identified ‘whites’ and blacks, as well as between ‘whites’ and Asians.” But such tension was also part and parcel of a long process “of solidifying the new category of ‘us’ against a category of ‘them’ who by comparison are even more different from whites than Slavs are from Ital— ians or Anglo-Saxons.”12 138 — David R.Roediger Both Davis and Hochschild posit the dramatic inclusion of the 19405 as part and parcel of a longer drama of the expansion of whiteness, one with especially important roots in the New Deal and the inclusive trade union mobilizations of the 19305. Matthew Jacobson’s attempts to con— struct a chronology of when intra-European “racial” difference receded ranges back still further. “Whether the critical decade is the 19305 (ac— cording to John McGreevey) or the 19405 (according to Michael Den- ning), the general trend between the 19205 and the 19605 is unmistakable.”13 Jacobson adds a fascinating, partially developed insight that proposes yet another turning point. Breaking promisingly from a commonsense history of the whitening process as a linear one leading to ever greater inclusion, he argues that the immigration restrictions of the a 19205 articularl 1924 mar e a 1v0 rn ' ” new immigrants and their progen into the ranks of a “monolithic white- clusion, Jacobson’s observations recall James Baldwin’s contention that a “vast amount of coercion” helped make new immigrants buy into the “lie of whiteness.” Jacobson’s brief description of why the 1924 restrictions mattered so much develops one aspect of the legislation’s impact. Seeing the restriction of immigration as the fevered triumph of the “racial sci- ence” of eugenics, Jacobson holds that the 1924 act in a sense “solved” the immigration problem as posed by eugenicists and paved the way for the triumph of the idea that the racial label “Caucasian” united all Euro- peans as white.14 Apt as it is in many ways, Jacobson’s discussion cannot fully explain why immigration restriction dissipated anti—immigrant racism. After all, the “threat” of southern and eastern European immi- grants exercising political power was much greater in the 19305 than in the 19205. Moreover, U.S. racism sustained a deep fear of genetic inter- mixture with African American, Latino, and Asian American populations that were relatively small in comparison to the “white” majority. To un- derstand Why 1924 so impacted the racial status of new immigrant com- munities requires a more sustained analysis, stressing social as much as intellectual history and attending not only to the hard racism of eugenic thinkers that came to the fore in the early 19205, but also to softer vari- ants of Progressive Era race thinking that demobilized during debates on immigration restriction. Working Toward Whiteness —— 139 IN THE SHORT RUN: THE YEAR1924 AS A VERDICT ON THE RAGE OF NEW IMMIGRANTS? In 1924, the Johnson—Reed Act was passed and set the basis of immigra— tion law for decades to come. The restrictionist legislative initiative origi- nally set quotas based on the (alleged) origins of the population in 1890, since that mixture was vastly more northern and western European than had been the pattern of immigration in recent decades. “New stock” would not be allowed to destroy the “racial status quo.”15 That status quo continued as a viable mix but was under threat. Calvin Coolidge, the president who signed the bill, put himself firmly on record as endorsing . this sense of racial peril. Writing in Good Housekeeping, he favored “the right kind of immigration.” Citing “biological” laws that are “as great a ne— cessity to a nation as immigration law,” Coolidge held that “racial consid- erations too grave to be brushed aside” made it clear that “divergent people will not mix or blend.” “The Nordics,” he continued, “propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deteriora— tion on both sides.”16 As it deliberated, Congress was deluged with letters registering grave fears at the prospect that the “distinct American type,” undergirded by the northern and western European “Nordic race,” might be swamped. Ku Klux Klan membership swelled as Klan leaders promised “real whites” that the organization would defend the victimized “American race,” a “mass of old-stock Americans . . . a blend of various peoples of the so—called Nordic race” against the “mongrelized.” Nordic supremacist writers had unprecedented popularity. Grant’s Passing of the Great Race enjoyed a vogue in the early 19205 that had eluded it when the book ap- peared in 1916. Moreover, as Matthew Pratt Guterl has shown, Grant oc- cupied key policy roles in shaping restrictionist legislation regarding . immigration. The best-selling U.S. magazine, Saturday Evening Post, praised Grant and sponsored Kenneth Roberts’s massively mounted jere— miad warning that continuing the same pattern of immigration would yield “a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for- nothing mongrels of Southeastern Europe,” whose skulls, Roberts stressed, in opposition to the optimism of the antiracist anthropologist Franz Boas, were not destined to change shape in the United States. 140 — David R.Roediger Even so, eugenic biologism and hope for a monitored Americanization of new immigrants often coexisted in the skull of a single reformer. Thus Harry H. Laughlin, whom Desmond King calls “the eugenicist with the greatest influence on immigration policy,” proposed in 1920 that a “na- tional registry of aliens” be set up to follow the “naturalization and Amer- icanization” of all immigrants.17 Coinciding with the Thind decision, and with massive racist attacks on African Americans, the restrictionist momentum was part of a pro—white tide that swept new immigrants, temporarily at least, to the wrong side of the line setting apart the master race. Albert Johnson, the Washington congressman who shepherded the restrictive legislation bearing his name through Congress, was a veteran anti-Japanese campaigner.l8 Gerard Leeflang, author of the marvelous American Travels of a Dutch Hobo, was set upon by a “big fellow” in rural Iowa in 1923 because Leeflang’s companion announced that they were from Pennsylvania. “Lots of for- eigners and aliens there,” the Iowan countered, “too many—we don’t like to have them here and to have our communities polluted with Negroes, Jews and other nonwhites like in Pennsylvania. . . . We sure have to take care that America remains white.” Barney Keefe, a memorable character in a scene from James T. Farrell’s novel The Young Manhood of Studs Lontgan, set in 1924, had virtually the same line, as he tellingly mixed race and culture: “You know, you can tell an inferior race by the way they dress. The Polacks and the Dagoes, and niggers are the same, only the niggers are the lowest.”19 In many ways, then, immigration restriction represented the triumph of starkly reactionary, pro-Nordic racism against new immigrants. Clearly the sharp concerns over new immigrant loyalty, willingness to fight, and aptitude that World War I provoked helped legitimate this point of view. Robert Ward’s contemporary commentary on the 1924 legislation traced its triumph convincingly to scrutiny (however jaundiced) of the behavior of the “various alien racial groups” during the war. Madison Grant’s co- thinker, Lathrop Stoddard, reflected that the “late war” had conclusively demonstrated “the truth that the basic factor in human affairs is not pol— itics, but race.”20 Although the national state made some wartime efforts to curb open displays of anti—immigrant hatred (“I mustn’t call you ‘Mikey’ and you mustn’t call me ‘wop’/F or Uncle Sammy says it’s wrong and hints we ought to stop”), the coercive power of the nation worked to Working Toward Whiteness — 141 foster nativist racism. The government’s wartime loyalty programs and its deportation of alien radicals in response to the postwar “red scare” re- sulting from the 1919—1920 strike waves furthered the conflation of race and immigration as threats. A battery of highly biased intelligence tests for soldiers added the issue of genetic inferiority...
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