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White immigrants weren’t always considered white — and acceptable

Italians, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Slavs and other European groups had to overcome prejudice over many years

Who, exactly, is white?

The answer sounds obvious — we know a white person when we see one, we think. But when Italians poured into America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were not considered white upon arrival. A century later, though, when Teresa Giudice of The Real Housewives of New Jersey maniacally hoisted a table on national television, she did not do so as a member of a supposedly inferior people. No, she was a crazy white lady throwing furniture.

The story of how European immigrants during that era became white enlightens us on our current political realities. Italians, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Slavs and other European groups, at the time called “new immigrants,” sought to overcome their subordination by showing, through their behavior, to be deserving of being considered white.

In 1911, Henry Pratt Fairchild, an influential American sociologist, said about new immigrants, “If he proves himself a man, and … acquires wealth and cleans himself up — very well, we might receive him in a generation or two. But at present he is far beneath us, and the burden of proof rests with him.” They ultimately met that burden and crucial to their success was that they were not black and they actively helped in maintaining a racist society.

I understood this to be true after finishing historian David R. Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness, a book about how new immigrants became white. Between 1886 and 1925, 13 million new immigrants came from southern, eastern and central Europe. Up until that point, people considered white generally hailed from England, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavian countries. Roediger, a professor at University of Illinois, argues that new immigrants, until they were fully brought into the white family, lived in a state of in-betweeness, meaning they were placed in a racial pecking order below whites but above people of color.

Newly arrived immigrants disembark from the passenger steamer Thomas C. Millard upon their arrival at Ellis Island, in New York, early twentieth century.

Newly arrived immigrants disembark from the passenger steamer Thomas C. Millard upon their arrival at Ellis Island in New York in the early 20th century.

Bain News Service/Interim Archives/Getty Images

The influx of new immigrants led to apocalyptic predictions about the impending doom awaiting America — foreigners would impose their inferior biology, peculiar religious practices, and substandard ways of living onto this country, lowering an elevated civilization. Many held that they were not white, rather members of a lower biological order. The kinder view held they were simply culturally inferior — dirty, less intelligent, criminal-prone — but could assimilate.

Not being considered white led to new immigrant misery. Economist Robert F. Forester wrote in 1924, “in a country where the distinction between white man and black is intended as a distinction of value … it is no compliment to the Italian to deny him his whiteness, but that actually happens with considerable frequency.”

Greeks, for example, fretted about being mistaken for Puerto Ricans, mulattoes or Mexicans. J.D. Ross, an Alabama politician, dubbed himself the “white man’s candidate” and campaigned on Greek disenfranchisement. In Utah, Greek and Italian copper miners were classified as “nonwhite.” White workers in Steelton, Pennsylvania, refused to take “hunky jobs” — jobs traditionally held by Hungarians — even during the poor economy of 1908, preferring unemployment.

New immigrants had a choice — fight for inclusion into the white race or align with people of color, who they knew fared even worse than them. One Serbian worker said during the era, “You soon know something about this country. … Negroes never get a fair chance.

They chose whiteness and sought to demonstrate their cultural and biological fitness. They soon learned, though, when whites said “prove yourself,” helping protect and expand white supremacy was considered convincing evidence.

They watched whites abuse blacks, mimicked whatever they saw and whiteness — the carrot they had long reached for — slowly came closer to their grasp.

Essayist James Baldwin frequently mused on how whiteness was made. How did whites become white? “By informing their children,” Baldwin wrote, “that black women, black men and black children had no human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of black people, they debased and defined themselves.” As one Slovakian woman in Connecticut said, “I always tell my children not to play with the nigger people’s children, but they always play with them just the same … This place now is all spoiled, and all the people live like pigs because the niggers they come and live here with the decent white people and they want to raise up their children with our children.

New immigrants’ participation in the widespread use of racially restrictive covenants, an integral tool in achieving residential segregation, was most crucial in their proving themselves. This covenant is an agreement homeowners signed, pledging not to sell their property to persons of a certain race, generally blacks. If a white person violated it, white neighbors could sue to stop the sale.

Ship loaded with immigrants, coming to New York. A Greek family embarking on Ellis Island, to come to America.

Ship loaded with immigrants, coming to New York. A Greek family embarking on Ellis Island to come to America.

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New immigrants hungered for home ownership, even penny-pinching just to own property. Thus, when New Deal-era politics put home ownership at the center of the American dream by making more families homeowners, whites needed new immigrants’ assistance in making Negro-free neighborhoods.

In the early 20th century, new immigrants in many cities were more segregated than were blacks. By the 1950s, the opposite was true. With these new immigrants living in the same neighborhoods, intermarrying, attending the same schools, mingling, and, most importantly, committing racism against black folk, through successive generations, they became white.

As this tale demonstrates, whites have agreed to privilege themselves over nonwhites. Moral revulsion has compelled many whites to opt out of this agreement. Yet, some white Americans pin their hopes on whiteness, as did the new immigrants, and, therefore, the siren song of a politician promising to enhance the social and economic value of white skin seduces them.

The story of how new immigrants became white teaches us whites can look at people they once deemed their inferiors and consider them part of their team.

President Barack Obama remarked that racial advancement doesn’t proceed in a straight forward-moving line. Instead, moments of progress give way to regressions. He’s right. And whether white supremacy surges or wanes modulates this phenomenon.

I believe we will witness a moment of racial triumph in the future, and elation will overwhelm those longing for a racially fair-minded America. The next “whitelash,” however, can only be prevented if whites conclude that joining with nonwhite peoples of similar socioeconomic standing will bring them closer to happiness than seeking to protect white privilege.

The work to overcome white supremacy will exhaust the nation. Given the stakes, however, the work is worth pursuing.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.