Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy

Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy – Book Review

Justin Nordstrom

Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. By Desmond King (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. 400pp.).

Over a decade ago, a talented group of historians began looking intently at the category of race as a cultural construction, rather than a set of predetermined biological characteristics, and the influences that a flexible understanding of race could have on the study of America’s social, political, and cultural history. Led by Matthew Frye Jacobson, Noel Ignatiev, George Lipsitz, Michael Rogin, and several others, these writers looked beyond a static black/white dichotomy of race to explore the complex hierarchical models of ethnicity developed by generations of American politicians and social analysts. In this latest study, Desmond King joins that discussion, providing unprecedented insight into some of the Gilded Age’s most crucial pieces of legislation, and demonstrates critical links between America’s policy toward external European immigrants and the internal segregationist and racist status quo, suggesting that the same attitudes and behaviors that shaped resentment and restriction of immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also substantiated Jim Crow and Asian exclusion acts. Negotiating this link is the most unique and ambitious feature of King’s book, which also provides an effective overview of turn-of-the-century immigration themes.

King begins this volume by surveying the various approaches American policy makers have used in coming to terms with their nation’s increasing pluralism. In his first two chapters, King introduces popular models for understanding immigrants’ place within American society–such as the “Melting Pot” ideal, “Americanization” techniques, attention to “cultural pluralism,” and “whiteness” concepts. Each of these approaches, King insists, relied in varying degrees on instilling submission to the dominant White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture. Building on Gary Gerstle’s studies of immigrant communities, King sees “Americanization,” or the transition from European to American culture, as both transformative and coercive. This was particularly true as the United States moved from a practice of welcoming nearly all would-be European immigrants in the nineteenth century to a highly selective regime of quotas designed to preserve America’s British cultural “inheritance” in subsequent decades.

In his third and successive chapters, King examines gradual attempts to document, condemn, and, ultimately, curtail European immigration to the United States. King sheds light on important developments in immigration policy, such as the Dillingham Commission of 1907, which first applied the influential labels of “old” immigrants (to refer to eighteenth and nineteenth century immigrants, largely from England and northern Europe) and “new” immigrants (referring to late nineteenth and twentieth-century immigrants from southern and eastern Europe), praising the former while condemning the later group. In subsequent chapters, King examines the importance of public school education, wartime patriotism, settlement house movements, and other “reform” efforts, demonstrating a shift in attitudes toward immigrants from a philanthropic approach to a pseudo scientific, eugenic model of inferiority, in so doing, King musters an impressive array of sources and introduces a diverse cast of characters, including lawmakers, ph ilanthropic agencies, YMCA groups, educators, journalists, and scientists to demonstrate the range of responses to European immigration.

Ultimately, King characterizes twentieth-century immigration as an exercise in “Anglo conformity” in which the dominant WASP culture sought to shape the behavior and values of European “outsiders” (p. 85). Perhaps the most provocative aspect of King’s study is his insightful look at the development, spread, and application of eugenic arguments, and how they shaped a finely-tuned hierarchy of European ethnicities. Applying pseudo-scientific arguments to bolster their claims of WASP hegemony, early eugenicists pressured lawmakers to enact measures to preserve America’s racial demographics. Warning that rampant immigration would undo the achievements of “settler” races from northern Europe, Congress launched a series of increasingly rigid immigration restriction measures in the 1920s, culminating in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and its further intensification in 1929. This legislation used census data to develop strict quotas aimed at preserving America’s presumed WASP heritage from being overrun by less desirab le races. In later chapters, King turns his attention from immigration restriction in the 1920s to focus on attempts at widening the scope of immigration in the mid 1960s. Although his examination of post World War II debates is more cursory, illustrating both the creation and loosening of restrictive bounds in the twentieth century is a particular strength of King’s book, since most other works of immigration historiography focus on one aspect or the other.

Also significant is King’s attention to the self-reinforcing dimensions of eugenic and restrictive arguments toward European immigration on one hand, and racism and violence toward Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans already living in the US on the other. King intersperses his discussion of European immigration trends with references to the Dawes Act that dissolved Native American reservations, lynchings of blacks in the New South, labor restrictions against Asians in the West Coat, and similar examples of nativism and resentment toward non-WASP races–both residents and newcomers alike.

However, although King presents a thorough overview of how policy makers conceptualized and endangered immigrants, there are significant gaps in his analysis, particularly in his lack of attention to how racial “outsiders” understood, reacted to, and defied WASP culture. King focuses largely on actions taken on behalf of non-white races, rather than what these individuals themselves did to combat or cope with racial discord. In particular, King seems intent on painting immigrants as victims of “Anglo conformity” while overlooking how immigrants and their culture endured and flourished in America. As David Glassberg and other historians have noted, expressions of ethnic solidarity and pride were transformed, strengthened, and even created in America, and as Jay Dolan, Robert Orsi, Kathleen Conzen, and numerous other scholars have shown, family, neighborhood, and religious connections allowed immigrant groups to preserve European celebrations, rituals, languages, and folkways despite “reformers”‘ efforts to dim inish or do away with these practices. Moreover, examining immigrants’ perspectives could further nuance King’s account, demonstrating, for instance, that while eugenicists might have viewed non-WASP races in a similar light, immigrants themselves did not. Immigrants and their descendants frequently battled with minority races, or with other immigrant groups, for access to jobs, housing, and social prestige, as Iver Bernstein, Tom Sugrue, John McGreevy, Noel Ignatiev, and similar writers have indicated. In part, King’s emphasis on attacks launched against immigrant culture, or efforts on immigrants’ behalf, stems from his macroscopic approach to social policy on the national (and, occasionally, state) level. Balancing this perspective with more attention to individual communities, in which “dominant” WASP conventions could be modified or set aside, would have enriched his portrayal of the immigrant experience.

Despite this significant shortcoming, readers looking for a solid grounding in immigration history will find King’s work a welcome introduction, particularly in the connections he draws between otherwise disparate historical sub-fields. Though some aspects of ethnic and immigration history are covered more completely in other works, King should be applauded for documenting remarkable shifts and subtleties in twentieth-century immigration policy.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group