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Foner - In a New Land

Foner - In a New Land - NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS New York...

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Unformatted text preview: NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS New York and London www.nyupress.org © zoo 5 by New York University All rights reserved Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Foner, Nancy, I 94 5— In a new land : a comparative View of immigration / Nancy Foner. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0—8147—2745-X (acid—free paper) ISBN 0-8147-2746-8 (pbk. : acid—free paper) I. Emigration and immigration—United States. 2. Emigration and immigration—Europe. 3. Emigration and immigration—New York (State)——New York. 4. Emigration and immigration—mEngland— London. 5. Emigration and immigtation—«Cross-cultural studies. I. Title. JV6465.F66 2005 304.8'73-udc21 2005004863 New York University Press books are printed on acid-free paper, and their binding materials are chosen for strength and durability. Manufactured in the United States of America In a New Land A Comparative View of Immigration Nancy Foner fil NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS New York and London The Social Construction of Race in Two Immigrant Eras The racial difference between today’s nonwhite immigrant New Yorkers and their white European predecessors seems like a basic ——and obvious—fact. Yet much is not obvious about racial matters then and now. At the turn of thetwentieth century, when nearly all New York City residents were of European descent, recently arrived Jewish and Italian immigrants were seen as racially distinct from and inferior to those of Anglo-Saxon or Nordic stock. Today, although immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean are often referred to as nonwhite or people of color, these blanket terms oversimplify the nature and impact of race among them. The comparison of past and present brings out, in an especially dra— matic way, how race has been socially constructed among immigrants in different eras. And it raises questions about the way conceptions of race have changed, and are likely to continue to change, as a result of immi— gration. The focus in this chapter, as in the three that follow, is on what I have called New York’s two great waves of immigration: between I880 and 1920, close to a million and a half immigrants, mostly Jews and Italians, arrived and settled in the city and, since the late I 9605, more than two and a half million immigrants—mainly from Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America—have moved to New York City. Race is a highly problematic—and highly charged—concept, partly because there are so many scholarly definitions of the term, partly be- cause it has taken on particular meanings in popular discourse that dif- fer from academic understandings, and partly because of a concern that using the term could be taken as an endorsement or legitimation of the very inequalities that it describes. Although there is no one agreed-upon definition of “race,” a definition recently offered by George Fredrickson would, I think, find broad acceptance: race refers to “the belief that socially significant differences between human groups or communities II r; i ”live Social Cirinstmction of Race in Two Immigrant Eras that differ in visible physical characteristics or putative ancestry are innate and unchangeable.‘°1 Racial differences may seem permanent and immutable#as if they are natural and inevitable———but in fact race is a changeable perception. Indeed, the awesome power of race is related to its ability to pass as a feature of the natural landscape. Races are not fixed biological categories, and dividing human populations into “races,” as physical anthropolo- gists have shown, has no basis in genetics. Regardless of its dubious roots in biology, however, race is “real because, to paraphrase W. I. Thomas, people act as though it is real and thus it has become real in its social con— sequences.“2 Race, in short, is a social and cultural construction, and what is important is how physical characteristics and/0r putative ances- try are interpreted within particular social contexts and are used to define categories of people as inferior or superior. Race, as Fredrickson notes, is commonly used as a criterion to justify a dominant and privileged posi~ dam—“accompanied by the notion that ‘we’ are superior to ‘them’ and need to be protected from real or imagined threats to our privileged group position that might arise if ‘thcy’ were to gain in resources and rights. Here we have ‘racism’ in the full and unambiguous sense of the term.”3 As the historian Gary ()kihiro puts it, race is a “conjuring,” but it “ac- quires a searing reality through the weight of history, through the nation’s laws and institutions, through popular culture and everyday practices.”4 In discussing the way race iswand has been—constructed in New York, it may be helpful to think in terms of a series of questions raised by sociologists Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartmann in their attempt to clarify conceptual issues in the study of race, ethnicity, and immi— gratio~n.5 Which groups, they ask, have the freedom to construct them- selves? Which groups, and why, find themselves caught in inescapable categories constructed by others? Which groups, and why and how, are moving from one situation to another? How do both Our definitions of groups and the groups themselves change when populations are moving to the United States—"who gets combined together, who is seen as sepa- rate and distinct? When Jews and Italians Were Inferior Races It may have become a cliché in academic circles to speak of race as a socral construction, but even when racial categories are acknowledged ..,.,M_~% , *A/‘ '.y]\’.. The Social Construction of Race in Two Immigrant Eras I 13 as social constructions that vary across time and place, they have often been used, as Victoria Hattam has recently put it, in transhistorical terms.6 Many accounts in the scholarly as well as pOpular literature speak of “nonwhite” immigrants today in contrast to “white” immi— grants in the past as if the term white meant the same thing as it does now. It does not. Race today is basically a color word, but it was not that way in New York a hundred years ago. Then, Jewish and Italian immigrants in New York were seen as racially different from——and in- ferior to—people with origins in northern and western Europe. They were believed to have distinct biological features, mental abilities, and innate character traits. They looked different to most New Yorkers and were thought to have physical features that set them apart—facial features often noted, for example, in the case of Jews, and “swarthy” skin, in the case of Italians. These stereotypes were used to describe a significant proportion of New Yorkers at the time. Owing to the over— whelming predominance of Russian Jews and Italians in the immigrant flow, they defined what was then thought of as the new immigration. In 1910, Russian and Italian immigrants were almost a fifth of the city’s population; by I 920, with their children, Italian Americans numbered over 800,000 and the Jewish population had soared to over 1.6 million, or, together, about 43 percent of the city’s population. Did this mean that Jews and Italians were not considered “white”? I had not realized I was getting into a historical minefield when I first wrote about this subject in From Ellis Island to fFK and grappled with the way to describe immigrants who, in many contexts, were seen as white, but, in other contexts, as an inferior kind of white or sometimes even distinguished from whites, who were defined as Nordic, Anglo- Saxon, or northern and western Europeans.7 Much of the recent litera- ture on the racial status of early twentieth-century immigrants focuses on this “whiteness” question. Some scholars, like Karen Brodkin, argue that Jews a hundred years ago were not considered fully white; David Roediger and James Barrett suggest the term “inbetween people” as a way to describe Jews’ and Italians’ ambiguous racial status—Seen as above African and Asian Americans yet below “white” people; Mat— thew Jacobson refers to “probationary whites”; and Michael Topp now adds “inconclusively White.”8 Others emphasize that southern and east— ern European arrivals were, to use Thomas Guglielmo’s phrase, white on arrival—that they suffered from their racial undesirability but also, simultaneously, benefited from their privileged color status as whites. In I4 l The Social Construction of Race in Two Immigrant Eras line with this approach would be a decision to speak of inferior races of whites and hierarchic gradations of white people.9 As one historian puts it in his critique of whiteness studies, Americans have had many ways of looking down on people without questioning their whiteness.10 Clearly, we need fine—grained historical research that explores what terms were employed to describe racial differences among Jews and Italians in New York a century ago and the contexts in which they were used, what “white” actually meant then, and the role of considerations other than race-most significantly, religion—in stigmatizing Jews and Italians as inferior and legitimizing discrimination against them.11 There may be debate about eastern and southern Europeans’ color status—whether, as Guglielmo puts it, they were racial outsiders and color insiders—but it is clear that race in early twentieth-century New York was not the kind of color-coded concept that it is today. And historians would agree that when it came to southern and eastern Europeans, characteristics other than color—believed to be innate and unchangeable-were involved in defining them as separate races. Amer— ican scholarship, as Matthew Frye Jacobson, writes, “has generally con- flated race and color, and so has transported a late twentieth century understanding of ‘difference’ into a period . . . [when] one might be both white and racially distinct from other whites.”12 From the start, Jews and Italians were recognized as whites in terms of legal and political rights. They were allowed to naturalize as US. citizens at a time when American naturalization laws only gave “free white persons” or “persons of African nativity or African descent” the right to naturalize, and when the courts repeatedly denied Asian immi- grants access to American citizenship because they were not, in Ian Haney Lopez’s phrase, “white by law.”13 In fact, Guglielmo points out that, at the turn of the twentieth century, the naturalization application asked immigrants to provide both their race and color and expected dif- ferent answers for each; Italians were often listed as southern or north- ern Italians—for race—«and white for color.14 Jews and Italians were allowed to vote in states that restricted the suffrage to whites, and mis- cegenation laws were never enforced to prevent their marriages to other Europeans.“ Yet if Italians and Jews were white, at the same time they were also, as Jacobson aptly puts it, viewed as “racially distinct from other whites.” Whereas today, in Jacobson’s words, “we see only subtly vary- ing shades of a mostly undifferentiated whiteness,” a hundred years gems—«v mW-gwwwamm “fawn”. The Social Construction of Race in Two Immigrant F .J’flS ago, Americans saw “Celtic, Hebrew, Anglo— physiognomies.” Jews and Italians, in Cornell and Hartman ’ tion, were caught in categories constructed b 11 emphasis needs to be put on the constraints ow gories were constructed by others. Most Jewish chose to identify as Jewish (and had done so in Europe as wel[)- . , Italian immigrants eventually came to see themselves as Italian in law?“ ica, even if town and regional loyalties remained supreme 1“ The “It; [cm was being racialized as Italians and Jews-seen as inherentlprci ' ferior on account of their Italianness or Jewishness and Y m- negative images and connotations associated with these ca Far from being on the fringe, full—blown theories ab inferiority of eastern Europeans and southern Italians we the mainstream of the scientific community at the turn of the twentieth century. Openly propounded by respected scholars, such views were also propagated and given the stamp of approval by public intellectuals and opinion leaders and the press. The most influential of the books proclaiming a scientific racism was The Passing of the Great Race, written by Madison Grant, a patrician New Yorker and founder of the New York Zoological Society. The book set forth the notion that people of inferior breeding from southern and eastern Europe were overrunning the country, intermarrying, and diminishing the quality of the nation’s superior Nordic stock—-—and sweeping America toward a “racial abyss.”17 This theme was picked up by figures of the stature of soon-to-be president Calvin Coolidge, who wrote in a popular magazine in 1921 that “America must be kept American. Biological laws show . . . that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.”18 Edward A. Ross, one of the most race conscious of American social scientists, was also troubled that newcomers, with their inborn deficien— cies, would dilute America’s sturdier Anglo—Saxon stock. He condemned Jews for their inborn love of money, and southern Italians for their volatility, instability, and unreliability. Steerage passengers from Naples “show a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, skew faces, small or knobby crania, and backless heads. Such people lack the power to take rational care of themselves.” Ross spoke of the “dusk of Saracenic or Berber ancestors” showing in the cheeks of Italian immigrant children. “One sees no reason,“ he wrote, “why the Italian dusk should not in time quench what of the y others, although the mg to the way the one New Yorkers, after all, tegories. out the racial re well within 16 l The Social Construction of Race in Two Immigrant Eras (Echo—Teutonic flush lingers in the cheek of the native American.”19 Interestingly, in stressing the racial inferiority of southern (as OPPOSCd to northern) Italians, Ross, like other early twentieth-century writers, echoed arguments of Italian positivist anthropologists who, in the con- text of nation-building efforts in Italy and concerns about the destitute and disorganized South, wrote studies “proving” that northern Italians were descended from superior Aryan stock, while southerners were pri- marily of inferior African blood.20 Articles in the press and popular magazines echoed racial views of this kind. Articles with titles like “Are the Jews an Inferior Race?” (19 I2.) and “Will the Jews Ever Lose Their Racial Identity?” (I 9II) appeared in the most frequently read periodicals. The “marks of their race,” said Har— per’s of Lower East Side Jews, “appear in the formation of the jaw and mouth and in the general facial aspect. ”21 Jewish racial features, the New York Sun (1893) argued, made them unassimilable: “Other races of men lose their identity by migration and by intermarrying with different peo- ples, with the result that their peculiar characteristics and physiognomies are lost in the mess. The Jewish face and character remain the same as they were in the days of the PHARAOH. . . . Usually a Jew is recognizable as such by sight. . . . After a few generations other immigrants to this country lose their race identity and become Americans only. Generally the Jews retain theirs, undiminished, so that it is observable by all men.”22 Jews were thought to have visible physical characteristics that marked them off and made them “look Jewish.”23 The Dillingham Commis- sion’s Report on Immigration, A Dictionary of Races or Peoples, had this to say about Jews: “The Jewish nose and to a lesser degree other facial characteristics are found well nigh everywhere throughout the race.”24 To refute the racial stereotypes, Dr. Maurice Fishberg, a professor of medicine at New York University and Bellevue Medical College and a Russian Jewish immigrant himself, actually classified the noses of 2,836 Jewish men in New York City, finding that “only 14 percent had the aquiline or hooked nose commonly labeled as a ‘Jewish’ nose. ”25 In everyday life, there was a racial vocabulary to describe—and abuse-"the new immigrants, and the language of color was sometimes involved. Italians were often described as “swarthy,” and a common epithet for them, guinea, connected them to Africa. Although Guglielmo argues that there was never a systematic or sustained challenge to Ital- ians’ position as whites, he cites evidence that their color Status was often contested. In the Chicago press, which he studied in detail, crime The Social Construction of Race in Two Immigrant Eras I I7 stories frequently marked Italians as racially distinct and problematic by continually stressing their dark skin, and many commentators also racialized Italian criminals by describing them as savage—sometimes simian——beasts more akin to animals than human beings.26 Although the attempt was unsuccessful, in I 903 the Democratic Party sought to exclude Italians (and Mexicans) from voting in their “white primaries” since they did not qualify on color grounds: Eight years later, the US. House Committee on Immigration and Natu- ralization openly debated and seriously questioned whether one should regard “the south Italian as a full—blooded Caucasian”; many represen— tatives did not seem to think so. And a range of Americans shared such suspicions. From the docks of New York to railroads out west, some native-born American workers carefully drew distinctions between themselves—“white men”——and foreigners like Italians. In 1891, for instance, a West Coast construction boss testified before a congressional committee that an Italian was “a Dago” not a “white man.”27 As late as the I9 303, an American history textbook asked whether it would be possible to absorb the “millions of olive-skinned Italians and swarthy black-haired Slavs and dark—eyed Hebrews into the body of the American people.”28 Trying to capture the way others saw her Italian- born grandmother in the 19308 and 19405, Louise DeSalvo says she was ViCWed as a darker shade of white—“Dark White?” Not only was it acceptable to speak about the inferiority of Jews and Italians in newspapers, magazines, and public forums, but also discrimi- nation against them was open and, by and large, legal. Elite summer resorts made no bones about shutting out Jews. In the 18805, many in upstate New York set up placards: “No Jews or Dogs Admitted Here.” When a 1913 New York State law forbade places of public accommo- dation from advertising their unwillingness to admit anyone because of race, creed, or color, more subtle means were employed. When resorts and private clubs announced that they served “restricted clientele,” it was understood that Jews were not allowed. “Restrictive covenants,” clauses in real estate titles that limited the sale or transfer of property to members of certain groups, kept Jews out of some of New York City’s most desirable suburban neighbor- hoods. Toward the end of the I 99.03, apartment-house owners in Jack- son Heights, Queens advertised that their buildings were “restricted” Ill l The Smfial (imislmrlion ofRacc in Two Immigrant Eras and prohibited Catholics, Jews, and dogs. A legal battle over the exclu— sion ensued, but the court upheld the rights of the property owners to clumse their own tenants. It was not until a 1948 Supreme Court case outlawed restrictive covenants that such agreements became unenforce— able in the courts of law.” There were various forms of open discrimination in employment, too. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, pay rates for common laboring jobs could vary by racial group. In 1895, a public notice recruiting laborers to build the Croton Reservoir listed the daily wage schedule of three groups: common labor, white, $1. 30 to $1. 50; common labor, colored, $1.25 to $1.40; common labor, Italian, $1.15 to $1.15. For Jews, the bars were felt higher up the job scale.31 In 1917, the 1.1.5. Army inserted ads in the New York World blatantly stating its need for “Christian“ car...
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