The American Paradox: A nation of immigrants with a shameful history of hating and opposing successive "new immigrant" groups that arrive on our shores or cross our borders in conspicuous numbers.
The United States of America was formed from 13 Atlantic Coast English colonies; at one point proud British empire-builders were referring to their country as 'the Atlantic nation.' That British Empire genesis means that English-speakers enjoyed in-group status from the get-go when a country called the 'United States of America' was being invented.
English speakers weren't the only national group on the Colonial ground before independence. Those colonies included Dutch, Swedes, French and plenty of Germans and Scots (the last group inclusively 'British' since the merging of England and Scotland in the early 17th century) in addition to those with English ancestry,
People of Northern European, Protestant backgrounds were largely accepted by the English-speaking majority of the new country, while other nationalities, even if they were European, faced antagonism, prejudice and a significant hazing period before they were accepted as American citizens like the rest of 'us.'
This proved especially true for immigrants who came in large numbers, such as the Irish, Italians, Eastern European Jews and other nationals from all the other countries of Southern and Eastern Europe.
English, Scandinavian, German, and the so-called Protestant Scotch-Irish immigrants continued to find acceptance in 19th century America. If, however, you were Catholic (or Jewish) and did not speak English, the doors to social acceptance were barred. It took a lot of battering, over decades, or generations, to force a way in.
The concept that best accounts for the degree of acceptance or rejection newcomers faced in America generally goes by the name "race," a word that has no scientific definition. Scholars refer to race as "socio-political" construct. And while the US is hardly the only country to reject and 'otherize' some group of people on racial grounds, the United States defined itself from its beginning as a "white" nation.
After a new form of government embodied in the US Constitution was adopted by the independent American 'states' in 1789, the first law to address the concept of citizenship, The Naturalization Act of 1790, defined those eligible to become citizens as "free white persons" of "good moral character."
The concept of 'white,' those who study its history tell us, was created to distinguish an 'us' from the 'black' peoples encountered in Europe's age of exploration, colonization, and -- of particular importance to the US -- slavery.
When 'white' Americans resisted Irish immigration (the first large influx of Roman Catholics) in the first half of the 19th century, the pejorative stereotypes used on the Irish were borrowed from those already abroad. As Noel Ignatiev explains in his intriguingly titled book, "How the Irish Became White" the "drunk and belligerent foolish Pat and Bridget were stock characters on the American stage" in the pre-Civil War period. The memes of this type -- "happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance" -- were clearly borrowed from from the racist typography applied to the African-Americans brought to this country in chains. To which anti-Irish prejudice added drunkenness and criminality.
While Irish immigrants worked their way into the fabric of the American mainstream -- building churches, schools, laboring on the country's ever-expanding infrastructure, claiming space in the big cities, electing councilors and mayors -- a new major challenge to the definition of whiteness was posed by the heightened stream of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe drawn to the promise of work in American factories following the Civil War.
Writing on the large wave of Italian immigration during this period author author Ed Falco states, "America has a proud tradition as an immigrant nation, but it also has a long history of marginalizing those it marks as 'other.'" That darker heritage "includes suspicion, hostility, abuse and even death, leveled against ethnic groups as they arrived one after another in waves over the past 2½ centuries."
Falco focuses on an egregious example in which Italian nationals living in the US were treated to an American custom widely bestowed on black Americans: lynching.
"...(T)he largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans in 1891 — and it wasn't African-Americans who were lynched, as many of us might assume. It was Italian-Americans."
Eleven men were dragged from a New Orelans jail and lynched, after a court found them not guilty of killing the city's mayor. As shameful as the act was, Falco writes, the reaction of 'white America' made it worse. The victims were described by news sources in racist terms as "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins." The crime was praised by Theodore Roosevelt as "a rather good thing." The New York Times opined that "Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans."
The lynch mob's leader was later elected governor of Louisiana on an openly racist platform. Italians, he said, were "just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous."
What Falco calls "marginalizing," and I'm calling "otherizing," is hardly uniquely American, but it has been a prominent feature of America's 'socio-political' history. Other examples include widespread prejudice against Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century and the similarly 'race'-based antipathy to immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe such as Poles, Russians, Greeks, Serbs, and Turks during the same period.This is the kind of racially driven "otherizing" we to see today when, for example, an irresponsible politician such as the current occupant of the White House refers to Mexicans as criminals and "rapists."
And when the same racist seeks to exclude all residents from a number of Muslim-majority countries from traveling to America -- even as students, valued employees, and eminent scholars -- because they're likely to be terrorists.
Long ago, as a college freshman, my American History discussion group considered the institution of African slavery and wrestled with a scholarly theory that different races find it impossible to live together without absolute institutional boundaries. I don't believe that theory any more now than I did then; and I don't believe that "racial" characteristics make some national groups especially difficult to integrate into American society -- as the makers of restrictive immigration laws have argued whenever Americans have taken to scapegoating minorities for fundamental problems such as economic injustice.
But I do believe that our history shows certain groups have had to pay a steeper price for acceptance into the mainstream by the recognized 'white' in-group than others. Maybe if we learn this history better than we have in the past, we can avoid repeating it.