Race, immigration, and the presidential election

The World

If there’s one compelling argument that race, and to some degree color, are constructed from the fabric of society, rather than biological certainties, then the history of European immigrants to the United States is it. this historian is author of �How the Irish Became White,� �in the settling of this country, white meant mainly Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. Later on as Catholic Irish and German, it came to mean northern European. White race changed its definition over time.� And that definition was fluid, arbitrary, and rife with pseudo-science. When the pages of the 19th century folded into the 20th, a new kind of European began disembarking en masse, from ships anchored near Ellis Island. There were southern Italians, Eastern European Jews, Poles and Greeks, all considered inferior by Eugenicists, Social Darwinists, and many American politicians of that era. This University of Illinois historian, David Roediger, �The transition to full acceptance of white was much more prolonged, much more contested, there was a long period where immigrants were on trial politically.� And socially. Greeks’ struggles are documented here at Chicago’s Hellenic Museum. This woman, a first generation Greek from the Peloponnesian region, is the director of Education and Oral History here. She says, �It’s interesting to see how perceptions change even in the last 100 years because whenever you take surveys it’s white, Caucasian, there’s not even a category for what we used to be considered.� They were not red, black, yellow or brown, as color considerations go. They were olive skinned with exotic religious rights and customs, and so suffered the indignities common to a racially punitive society. The museum director, �In the south, the KKK did commit crimes against them, they did view them as another race.� And says the woman, �Many organizations that actually were established in the 1920s were in response to racism, like the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association. They were started in the 1920s in response to hate crimes committed against Greeks and ethnicities, like people of darker skin.� There for example was the ethnic cleansing of the entire Greek population of Omaha, Nebraska in 1909. It followed the alleged killing of an Irish policeman by a Greek immigrant. He was on the run after being accused of having an affair with a white woman. Every Greek home and business was apparently razed to the ground by an angry mob and the immigrant in question barely escaped being lynched. According to witnesses at the time, many in the crowd used the �N’ word to make their point. Historian David Roediger, �Color is obviously itself is something that gets constructed and perceived and Greeks were seen as being darker, curly hair, that left them not quite white and closer to Mexican-Americans, sometimes probably in a place like Chicago when that was pointed out about Greeks, it would be used as a fighting word because it allied them with African-Americans in the popular imagination.� Today he says it’s hard to imagine Greeks, Italians, Poles and Jews being regarded as any color but white. A huge event, World War II, forced a breakthrough. Millions of young men left their Little Italies and Polish towns for barracks. The movies of the era always had a wisecracking Italian, a hard nosed Irish kid, a good ole boy from Dixie, and sometimes a Jew. Their common struggle changed them, finally into becoming a Band of Brothers. After the war, the survivors did not go back to their familiar surroundings but moved into the suburbs, married outside their ethnic groups, assimilated. This woman in her 70s says as a child growing up in Chicago’s Greek town, she thought of herself as only Greek, �We lived in a big apartment building, about 83 families.� Then the bulldozers came, leveling Chicago’s Greek Town to make way for the expansion of the University of Illinois, �We didn’t disperse because we wanted to, it’s because we had to.� Her family packed up and made its way to the suburbs north of Chicago. Once outside of the solidly Greek neighborhood, she says her neighbors started to see her differently, �We spoke Greek in the house but outside with our friends it was always in English, all the time, we blended in with America all the way.� The way European immigrants became white also informs how we think about color and immigration today says historian David Roediger, �In the 1890s, just like in the 1990s, there were people who were predicting the United States was going to change its racial character for the 21st century. Well that didn’t happen and it didn’t happen because more and more Europeans got solidly admitted to full privileges of whiteness, at least where government was concerned.� Could similar historic patterns be repeated in the 21st century? Roediger and others don’t think so. Mass European immigration halted long ago, newcomers hail from Latin America, Asia and Africa. So even for those immigrants who desire to transition to whiteness, they may find the going far rougher than the passage taken by the Greeks, Italians, and Eastern Europeans who preceded them.

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