By David Morse / New American Dimensions
Part One: White Americans
Nativism, a kind-of political “first come, first served” resentment toward the latest wave of immigrants, haunts American history during periods of demographic change fueling fear, anger, and resentment.
Throughout its history, America has largely considered itself a nation of white, English speaking Anglo-Protestants, what political scientist Eric Kaufmann has called the “national ethnic group”. Benjamin Franklin expressed open hostility to immigrant Germans whose growing numbers threatened his beloved Pennsylvania colony. In 1798, the Federalist Party’s Alien and Sedition Acts extended the five-year citizen residency requirement nine additional years to plug the perceived political threat of radical immigrants seeping in from France and Ireland. Northeastern nativists decried the Irish Catholic immigration surge of the 1830-50’s until quieted by the Civil War. Well into the twentieth century, slogans like “No Irish Need Apply” (later, “No Wops Need Apply), “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion,” and later, “The Chinese Must Go” and “Japs Keep Moving,” proved nativism’s on-stage presence; only the players switched roles.
In the mid-1840s, great numbers of Irish Catholics (and Germans) began arriving on American shores, jeopardizing the vision of a unified nation. Driven by the devastating Irish potato famine of the 1830s and 1840s, and by discrimination at the hands of their English overlords, 1.3 million Irish Catholics arrived on American shores in the decade between 1846 and 1855; another half million arrived in each of the next four decades. Native-born Americans struck back. They disdained their anti-social behavior and squalid living conditions, though Catholicism provoked the most outrage, and native hostility took on a decidedly religious tone. Many felt that the immigration waves of the mid-1840s threatened democratic institutions and the Anglo-Saxon race, and it was unclear at the time whether or not the Irish were “white.”
The last great wave of white immigration occurred at the turn of the 20th century, when more than 23 million immigrants, mostly from Eastern, Southern, and Central Europe arrived between 1880 and the early 1920s. By 1910, America’s population was 14.7 percent foreign born, a level never reached again, though we are coming close; in 2015, it was approximately 13.5 percent. However, with the last white immigration wave, there was a significant break with the past. Unlike many of the Irish, most spoke no English. According to the racial thinking of the day, most were “non-white”. Much ado was made about the “swarthy” complexion of the Italians and the odd facial features of the Jews who hailed from Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, a nativist fury resulted, as Americans railed at their un-assimilability and racial inferiority.
Discrimination against Jews was endemic in America well into the 1950s, and they were largely kept out of the higher ranks of corporate America, prestigious law firms, the faculties of Ivy League universities, and prestigious clubs. Italians were frequently labeled as “Wops,” “Dagos,” “Guineas,” a term which linked them to blacks, and “Greasers,” an appellation pairing them with Mexicans, and their “swarthiness” was constantly invoked as a marker of their racial inferiority and non-whiteness. The massive inflow of Italians and Jews, paired with the lesser but significant immigration of Slavs and Poles, and in the West, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans, led thinkers of the early 20th century to denounce what they viewed as “race suicide,” and they constructed new theories which contrasted the “new immigrants” with those already established whose whiteness was taken for granted. The most extreme advocated a comprehensive system of government-sponsored eugenics to weed out America’s undesirables, a movement inspired by England’s leading Darwinian scientist, Sir Francis Galton, and this narrative became intimately tied to fears about degenerate immigrants.
By the early 1920s, a new view of American society emerged, that of the “melting pot,” a term first coined in a play by the same name, written by Jewish immigrant Israel Zangwill in 1923.
Zangwill’s vision came to be embraced by native-born Americans who saw the “foreignness” of the new immigrants as a social problem unparalleled in American history. The Great Depression of the 1930s led to the emergence of a strong national culture that began to undermine ethnic barriers. As so many Americans found themselves enmeshed in the throes of poverty, differences between ethnicities and classes began to diminish. Perhaps most significantly, as the second generation, and increasingly, the third generation, came of age, intermarriage between ethnics became more frequent, and Old World languages were losing ground. By 1940, while the majority of second generation Americans still tended to marry co-ethnics – 65 percent of Italians, 55 percent of Poles, and 41 percent of Russians – foreign language usage was well on the decline.
Following World War II, the United States emerged with the strongest economy in the world, and as the economy grew, the government strove to build an American (white) middle class by developing programs that encouraged young men to go to college and married couples to buy houses in the suburbs. The 1944 Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill of Rights, extended benefits to 16 million GIs, including preferential hiring, financial support during the job search, small loans for starting up businesses, and low-interest home loans. The Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration provided low down payment, low-interest, long-term loans to young buyers, and the National Defense Highway Act of 1941 authorized the federal government to fund a national highways system, making suburbs and automobile commuting a way of life for millions of Americans. These government programs created the means for millions of working-class Americans to rise into the middle-class. However, benefits were largely limited to whites, and ultimately, they had the effect of exacerbating the socio-economic differences between blacks and whites.
In the 1960s, liberation movements, fueled by the war in Vietnam, urban ghetto riots, and student demonstrations, brought blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans, women, and gays out of the shadows and introduced the idea of diversity to the white male-dominant, culture. There were many who saw the very idea of sharing a country with so many people unlike themselves as an existential threat. Countless whites were resentful of demands made by minorities on the government. They were outraged by what they saw as the expansion of the welfare rolls resulting from Johnson’s Great Society. They saw government as being on the side of minorities, ignoring the plight of working whites. There was heightened ethnic consciousness among whites, and buttons and bumper stickers such as “Kiss me, I’m Irish,” “Ukrainian is Beautiful,” and “Slovak Power” proliferated.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president in a kind of “counter-reformation,” and a reassertion of “traditional” American values, opposing such issues as affirmative action, abortion, gay rights, gun control, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Part and parcel of this movement was a “voltafaccia” from the ethnic revival of the seventies to a return to a melting pot mentality of the 1950s. Historian John Higham proclaimed in 1982 that "the ethnic revival is over.” By this time, most of the offspring of early twentieth century immigrants were either third or fourth generation Americans, and as a result of extensive intermarriage, they were increasingly of mixed, albeit European, origins.
In the era of Donald Trump, there again appears to be an affirmation of white identity, one that in many ways, is different from that of the 1960s and 1970s, and other periods in our history. Rather than being an articulation of “ethnic” pride, the rise of Trump and his normalizing of bigotry gives white Americans (at least many who support him) a sense of identity, one they feel may be slipping away. The result, as evidenced by the appeal of Trump’s call to “make America great again,” is a nostalgic backsliding in attitudes on race among white Americans. White anger based on perceived cultural changes that benefit blacks and Hispanics seems to be the primary force driving race relations today.
It’s not an encouraging trend. Charles Pierce eloquently summed up the reasons for the seemingly nonsensical sense of victimization white Americans feel:
Now, though, thanks to 50 years of steady drum-beating about how it was in the 1960s in which the country began to slide into decline, and how it was in the 1960s that the power drained away from You in the direction of Them, a culture of victimization has arisen despite all the data proving that the victims in question have not been victimized at all, at least not in comparison to their fellow citizens, anyway. What has victimized them are economic and trade policies that have drained the country of decent paying jobs, the decline of organized labor, and a lot of sleight-of-hand political jibber-jabber that continues to this day. It's just easier to get people to blame each other. And that's what's coming to a head in the country now.
The decline of white cultural dominance and, verifiably, the decline of economic stability for white Americans, as Pierce says, “curdles into a rage that lashes out blindly at all the wrong targets.” Those wrong targets are black and Hispanic Americans, and increasingly and frighteningly, Muslim Americans.
The state of race relations in the U.S. in 2017 is strangled by misperceptions, misdirection and an outsized sense of entitlement among millions of white Americans. And anger. It may have to get worse before it gets better. However, before passing the anticipated threshold of becoming just another minority, millions of whites are making it known that they won’t go down without a fight.