The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, but not all of them have been welcomed or received the same opportunities for a better life. The difference in treatment is explained by the concept of whiteness, which has evolved since colonial days. The immigrant group that set the standards of whiteness was the Protestant, White American who could trace his ancestry to the first Anglo-Saxon settlers. During the nineteenth century immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe began to make their way to American industrial cities such as Chicago. While these immigrants fared much better than the African slaves who preceded them, they were not exempt from discrimination and segregation. White Protestant Americans defined what was considered American. Dominic A. Pacyga is correct when he asserts that there was much anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and general anti-immigrant sentiment toward the new arrivals because they were culturally, religiously and linguistically different from mainstream Americans (Chicago: A Biography 154). After World War II, the focus of discrimination shifted to African Americans, who after World War II replaced European immigrants in industrial city jobs. Whereas the definition of whiteness had centered on ethnic, religious and cultural differences, after World War II, the focus of whiteness shifted along racial differences. The targets of discrimination were now Blacks, Mexican-Americans, Asians and women of all races. In terms of the “culture of exclusion” alluded to by Nancy MacLean, (Freedom Is Not Enough 13), these minorities were accorded second-class citizenship; barred from educational and economic opportunities; these groups were trapped in a vicious circle from which it was very difficult to escape.
The ideas of Madison Grant expressed in his book The Passing of the Great Race, are representative of the feelings of many early 20th century Americans: neither education nor favorable environmental conditions could alter the hereditary factors that doomed the Negros to an inferior condition (Madison Grant 12). Anti-ethnic and anti-racist feelings are unmistakably clear when the author decries assimilation of newly arrived Polish Jews into mainstream society (Madison Grant 12).
The city of Chicago was the stage of intense anti-racial and anti-ethnic feelings by mainstream Americans; it was as if the new immigrants did not conform to their standards of whiteness—native-born, Protestant White and speakers of English. Fear played an important role in shaping negative attitudes toward immigrants before World War I: Pacyga (154-155) points to two incidents to support this point. The assassination of President McKinley by a Polish anarchist named Leon Czolgosz and the shooting of a Russian Jewish immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, who attempted to deliver a package to Police Chief George Shippy. The youth was accused of trying to deliver a bomb, an accusation which turned out to be false upon subsequent investigations. While both incidents seemed to be related to anarchist activities, anti-Semitic feelings may have been the real cause of the murders
The immigrants of Chicago were strictly confined to the physical boundaries of their ghettos. Nevertheless, these immigrants worked hard and prospered, creating a class of managers and entrepreneurs (Pacyga 189). They established their own school where instruction was carried out in English and in their native language. While these immigrants took pride in their communities, the fact remains that they were segregated communities (Pacyga, 156). Eastern and Southern Europeans shared the benefits of a bilingual education and financial success. Gradually, they also moved out of their ghettos and integrated into the wider society. This was not the case of Blacks and other brown minorities who truly bore the brunt of the practices associated with the “culture of exclusion.”
During the 1950´s the negative effects of segregation were present throughout the United States, but it was in the South that its effects were felt more strongly because in this region segregation was enforced by law, custom and violence (MacLean 13) Two deeply ingrained conditions gave support to the culture of exclusion: Firs, the family wage system, which placed White male bread winners at the center of public and political life at the expense of males and females from minority groups such as Blacks and Mexican Americans. Second, the sharecropping system perpetuated segregation and disenfranchisement to the detriment of Black Americans (MacLean 14). It is ironical that such beliefs were supported by Americans who otherwise felt great pride in the democratic and liberal values of the country: they sincerely believed that ’America was by right a white nation, a Protestant nation, a nation in which true Americans were native-born men with Anglo-Saxon ancestors.’(qt in MacLean 14). Even Congress restricted citizenship to white person, a prerequisite which was only removed in 1952 (MacLean, 14).
As a result for nearly all of its history, a majority of the country’s adult inhabitants faced second-class treatment: African Americans, seen first as slaves then as racial inferiors; Mexican Americans seen as conquered people of the Southwest or illegal immigrants; Asian Americans seen as “aliens” unfit to assimilate; women seen as wives and daughters dependent on men; even for a long time Jews and Catholics, seen as outsiders in a culture defined by Protestant Christianity (MacLean 14).
Even politicians upheld the system by compromising on New Deal social reform legislation, denying benefits to farm and domestic workers who were mostly Black; voting rights were only accorded to Blacks in 1965 (MacLean 17). In factories Blacks were restricted to the most menial and lowest paid jobs; even with a few years of college Black girls were often forced to take jobs as maids in white households (McLean 17). The cycle of economic exclusion seemed unbreakable as grossly underfunded segregated schools failed to prepare Black children for skilled jobs. Nevertheless, this apparently stable system of exclusion was about to crumble by a series of events that would culminate in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.
As Americans prepared to fight Nazi Germany, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 which prohibited discrimination by companies holding war related government contracts (MacLean 22). Many Black veterans upon returning from Europe and Japan began to question the hypocrisy of white America who fought for freedom abroad but fought to curtail freedom at home. While the struggle for economic justice and freedom suffered a setback during the late 1940´s because of anti-Communist fears sparked by rivalries between the Soviet Union and the United States, these same rivalries favored the struggle of Black Americans as the United States attempted to compete with the Soviet Union for political influence in Africa, Asia and Latin America (MacLean 33). The decisive event that finally ripped apart the system of exclusion was the 1954 landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education which made school segregation unconstitutional. Commenting on the magnitude of the Brown vs. Board of Education case the Black scholar Horace Cayton remarked that ‘a large hole had opened in the dyke of segregation, and through it would soon pour a torrent’ (qt in MacLean 34).
Grant, Madison. The Passing of the Great Race. 1916. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
MacLean Nancy. Freedom is not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace. 2006. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
Pacyga, Dominic, A. The Immigrant Capital and world War I. Chicago: A Biography. By D. A. Pacyga. 2009. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.