America has been through rough patches before. Bad ones. Decades of race riots and anti-immigration hysteria and belief that the best kind of government was one that did almost nothing and certainly didn’t tax rich people. Frankly, it’s a little eerie how much America today echoes the America of a century ago. Eerie, and more than a little disheartening.
Between 1850-1920 America had a massive influx of more than 26 million immigrants from Ireland, Southern Europe, Central Europe, Slavic nations, and China. In the 1830s just shy of 98% of Americans were native born. By 1850 only 90% of the population was native born, and the number of foreign-born Americans was skyrocketing, especially in large cities.
This caused fits of weeping howls among some of the native born population:
Nativists feared the new arrivals Lack the political social and occupational skills needed to successfully assimilate into American culture. This raised the issue of whether the U.S. was still a “melting pot”, or if it had just become a “dumping ground”, and many old-stock Americans worried about negative effects on the economy, politics and culture.”
Why were the nativists so freaked out? Mainly because the newcomers weren’t “white”. This racism wasn’t just aimed at Asians or people with dark skin tones, either. Back then, the Greeks, Italians, Russians, Poles, Irish, and many other people with Caucasian looks weren’t “white”. Hate groups wrapped in a false patriotism, like the Immigration Restriction League, “criticised these new arrivals along with immigrants from Asia and southern and eastern Europe, as culturally, intellectually, morally, and biologically inferior.” They were going to dilute the racial “purity” of America and destroy American culture and drag the country down to their nasty, flea-ridden level. Real Americans — White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans — would disappear, drowned out by the hoards of non-white immigrants.
Nativists were also gibbering about the rising number of Jews in America for the same reason. Not only were the non-white Jews bringing disease to the American body politic, they were going to steal all the jobs. Jews were the embodiment of the “perceived evils of capitalism and industrialism … because of their alleged racial/religious inclination for financial exploitation and, more specifically, because of the alleged financial manipulations of Jewish financiers … Jews were at the center of an international conspiracy to fix the currency and thus the economy to a single gold standard.” (You think that a small group who secretly controlled the world could prevent themselves from being persecuted, wouldn’t you?)
There were also profound fears about the Catholics pouring into America. Catholics were regarded with the same fear and suspicion that Muslim Americans face today; Catholics were seen as inherently dangerous because of their radical religion. Catholic countries were a hotbed of civil fighting and anarchy and chaos. Catholics were always bombing things and shooting people in order to achieve their political agenda. All Catholics were either terrorists or would-be terrorists. You never know when the sneaky devils were going to blow things up at the behest of the Pope.
Worse, according to nativists, the terrorist Catholic scum were going to try to undermine American democracy and end the separation of Church and State … forcing everyone to become a Catholic too. They were going to put all Americans under Sharia Law … oops, force Catholicism on the people of the USA.
The Irish, being both non-white and Catholic, were especially targeted — “American workers, who were afraid the Irish would take jobs away from them, made virulent attacks against the Irish, branding them as lazy drunks who were more akin to apes than human beings.” The more Irish that poured into the country in the hope of a better life for their children, the more they were hated and denigrated by the native born white population. The more they were presented as a danger to America.
The Irish Catholics were apparently going to enforce their evil Catholicism on decent folks via the use of the liberal leftist politicians — which at the time were the Republicans. Irish Catholics were, in essence, a liberal plot to destroy America.
Immigration and the immigrants were blamed for everything, including low wages and systemic inequality cause by a lack of unions and low taxes for the uber-wealthy. Real Americans – AKA white Protestants — were urged to “take back” their country and many joined radical right-wing political parties and supported politicians that promised to keep these scary migrants OUT. For example, there was the “American Party” … who were also called the Know-Nothing Party:
Know-Nothings scored startling victories in northern state elections in 1854, winning control of the legislature in Massachusetts and polling 40% of the vote in Pennsylvania. Although most of the new immigrants lived in the North, resentment and anger against them was national, and the American Party initially polled well in the South, attracting the votes of many former southern Whigs. The party name gained wide but brief popularity. Nativism became a new American rage: Know-Nothing candy, Know-nothing tea, and Know-Nothing toothpicks appeared. Stagecoaches were dubbed “The Know-Nothing”. In Trescott, Maine, a shipowner dubbed his new 700-ton freighter, Know-Nothing. The party was occasionally referred to contemporaneously in a slightly pejorative shortening, Knism.
The popular support of nativism (AKA racism) had enough political traction that it pushed both the Immigration Act of 1882 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 through Congress. The Immigration Act of 1882 “provided the basis for future federal immigration policy as it detailed what types of “undesirable” people would be blocked from entering the United States”. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 “banned the immigration of all Chinese peoples into the United States and called for a one-year prison sentence and $500 fine for any person attempting to smuggle Chinese labourers into the country.” The excuse for the Chinese Exclusion Act was, naturally, that all Chinese people were inherently rapists and criminals and drug fiends that would harm America.
An 1882 newspaper article from the Wisconsin State Journal outlined the racial motivation behind the legislation:
(Nevada Senator John P. Jones) final conclusion was that the Chinese race is as obnoxious to us and as impossible for us to assimilate with as was the negro race. His race has outlived every other because it is homogeneous, and for that reason alone it has imposed its religion and peculiarities upon its conquerors and still lived. If immigration is not checked now, when it is within manageable limits, it will be too late to check it.
The Klux Klux Klan, whose numbers peaked in the 1920s, were considered by themselves and (sadly) many others to be the stalwart defenders of WASP America against immigrants and Catholics. And by defenders, I mean a bunch of murderous, vile, louts who used terrorism to keep nonwhite populations under an oppressive thumb. Yet in their own minds they were patriots protecting America from a clear and present danger … such as Irish Catholics. If they got rid of the immigrants and other undesirables, they would make America great again.
People not officially affiliated with the KKK also indulged in ethnic cleansing throughout America. Sometimes these were framed as massive race riots, such as the Philadelphia Nativist Riots aimed at Irish immigrants. Additionally, individual Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants (or those with names indicating that ethnicity) were lynched, although not as often as black Americans. People with Chinese or Asian heritage, or Native Americans, were targeted throughout the South and West.
These race riots and lynchings were on top of the ‘normal’ murders of black Americans, and the recurrent periods of nationwide racially motivated murders of blacks, such as the Red Summer of 1919, when “38 riots were documented across the nation and at least 43 blacks were lynched by white mobs, while 11 black men were literally burned at the stake.” Blacks, you see, had done a little TOO well proving themselves to be good soldiers and servicemen during WWI, and now had to be ‘put back in their place’ lest they become ‘uppity’.
Of course, the insane fear of a nonwhite America due to European immigration would be shown to be utter bullshit within a few decades. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these non-white ethnic groups became white when they started speaking English with an American accent and gained economic security. Furthermore, having sufficient money made Poles and Irish people whiter than their blonde hair ever could. And do you know how they made the money they needed to become white? (Other than crime, the go-to way out of poverty for any struggling minority?)
They made it in two ways. The first was via socialism — “the nascent labor movement, New Deal reforms, and a rise in home-buying.”
Make no mistake about it — Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal and pro-union stance was socialism, no matter how often he claimed it wasn’t “really” socialism. It was democratic socialism, but like ANYTHING where you pay taxes as a group so the government will provide it — such as police departments, fire fighters, public roads, and sewers — it was socialism. And that includes the military, because a standing armed force is socialist as hell.
FDR, like his cousin and predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, fought for unions and upped taxes on the 1% and redistributed to the people who worked because they were socialists, and it was their efforts that created a way for the majority of the working class to rise from poverty to become the middle class. Once people became middle class, they became “white” to match their skin colour.
Moreover, the socialism of the Roosevelts was how the USA narrowly avoided becoming communist. The Roosevelts’ moderate socialism provided enough equality so that communism didn’t seem appealing to the oppressed masses any longer. We’ve kind of ignored it in the history books, but communism was spreading like wildfire in the USA until FDR put the kibosh on obscene inequality. Of course, a lot of that socioeconomic levelling was dismantled after the 1940s thanks to the Cold War and the ability to label anything helpful as “communist”.
Although the evidence that inequality was the source of America’s cultural ills, many people ignored the complexity of the sociopolitical forces at work against them and swallowed the simple & easy anti-immigrant rhetoric of the nativists hook, line, and sinker. They fought against the New Deal for the same reason they fought for racial ‘purity’. For them, attempted change in systemic inequality was also coming from “outside” the USA, and therefore communism (like all evils) could be stopped if immigration was stopped.
The second way immigrants became white was through unrelenting racial hatred toward those whose physical features meant they couldn’t pass as white no matter how much money they made. From the outset was not uncommon for the aggressors in race riots or lynchings to be other ‘minorities’ or immigrants trying to prove they were white enough to hate nonwhites, too. If they were committing lynchings, it was implied, they had to be white. Proving you were ‘not black’ or ‘not yellow’ by slaughtering those who had African or Asian ancestors was one of the first steps a group took to go from nonwhite to white. Initially, ‘real’ whites found this idea laughable. A German or an Italian was no “better” than a Chinese or black person. They were all lowlife nonwhites.
Over time, however, the immigrant groups that were killing Asians and blacks became ‘white’. The implication that it was a white privilege to murder nonwhites obviously carried subconscious cultural capital.
The Irish, being among the lowest ranked and worst treated of the pale-skinned nonwhites, were a group who particularly targeted blacks. Part of it was that the Irish didn’t want free blacks (who were the preferred ‘race’ to be used by those with money enough to hire labour) to be able to compete with them for jobs. A larger part of it was that the murder of black Americans was some sort of ‘proof’ that the Irish were — if not white — at least whiter than blacks. The fact that the Irish were equated with black Americans more than any other nonwhite (but light complexioned) minority group made the Irish most vehemently racist toward black people in a kind of desperate and deluded self-defence.
It took the Irish longer than many other ethnic groups, but thanks to the unionisation, heaps of money made through organised crime during prohibition, and systemic violence toward blacks, the Irish eventually became white as well.
Hmmm … hysteria over non-white immigrants and immigrants of the “wrong” religion mobilising millions, aided by the growth and prevalence of income inequality? Gee, why does that look familiar? Could it be that America had been suffering another resurgence of this imbecility due to the fact that systemic inequality is lowering the quality of life for ‘Average’ native-born Americans, and immigrants/Muslims make an easy and simplistic scapegoat for these perplexing difficulties?
Donald Trump played to nativist fears (which are racist whether the nativists want to admit it or not) by promising to make America great again. Like the nativists of yesteryear, Trump promised to get rid of “birthright citizenship” by amending the Constitution. (He can’t. The POTUS is not a king who can do that sort of thing.) The answer to America’s problems, according to Trump and his adherents, isn’t the FDR solution of taxing billionaires and investing that money in schools, infrastructure, and social safety nets. The answer is codifying Real America as White America once more! It’s getting rid of those icky nonwhite, non-Protestant Christian immigrants! Look over there at those ‘illegals’! Not at the rich person behind the curtain stealing your pension and your future!
This rhetoric ignores reality on so many levels, not the least of which is that illicit immigration started to decline 5 years ago. The number of illegal immigrants in the USA is about 4% of the population; much, MUCH less than the 10% of foreign–born citizens that were postulated to destroy America in 1900. Legal immigration is declining steadily as well, and has been for more than a decade. The systemic inequality in the US means it is no longer being seen as the land of opportunity. The new generation of Americans will live shorter lives and have less economic opportunities than their parents and grandparents for the first time in 100 years. Middle class kids are going to grow up to become poor, and poor kids are totally screwed. Hating on ‘illegals’ and letting ICE lock up and deport parents who are trying to save their baby’s life isn’t going to help that. Socialism would help that. But understanding socialism is complex, and saying Make America Great Again while enjoying an unwarranted feeling of superiority is simple.
We’ve had more than 150 years to learn from our mistakes, but Americans still turn to nativism … even though it is just the same ol’ creepy candy coating of racist simplification that elides the large social problems caused by inequality that it always has been. We need a new New Deal to tackle inequality, or America is screwed.