"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, October 7, 2016

Hispanics Are The New Italians. History Says That May Not Be A Good Thing.

The towns on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River were built by successive waves of immigrants, and no group settled in greater numbers than the Italians.  Today we celebrate their success in achieving the American Dream.  We have largely forgotten that their arrival triggered a national reaction, an expression of America’s “other side,” a combination of racism and ethnocentricity.  Today we are seeing a resurgence of that reactionary attitude, against the newest large wave of immigrants, Hispanics.  In what can only be described as bitter irony, many of those hostile to these new people are themselves the proud descendants of the people that triggered that same reaction upon their arrival in this country.

The 1920s saw a major turning point in U.S. immigration history, and Italian immigrants—and people’s opinions about them—were central to what happened.  As busy as Ellis Island had been in the late 1800s, the early years of the 20th century saw an even greater surge of immigrants.  Between 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War, some ten million people arrived on our shores.  1907 was the peak year, with over 1 million people arriving, primarily at New York.  The migrations of the previous century had brought people different from our English forefathers to these shores, but these new 20th century immigrants even more different, too different for many people.  Many of these were the people from southern Italy.  This fact would have a lasting impact on the American view of race and ethnicity. 

The First World War brought this massive movement of people to a complete stop, of course.  At war’s end, the number of desperate people in Europe who would have welcomed a chance to come to America was very much larger than it had been, and immigration began to rise again.  America, however, was in a very different mood by the 1920s.  Italians and the other “Industrial Immigrants” had arrived in a time of great economic expansion, when industries desperately sought new workers.  By 1920, a postwar recession had people worrying about new immigrants taking away jobs.

This was just one part of an era, America’s attempt to return to “normalcy.”  The Progressive Era was an increasingly distant memory as America elected as president Warren Harding, a man whose sole qualification for the job was that he looked “presidential.”  The early 1920s then saw a reexamination of several traditional American policies, with immigration prominent among them.  The shameful result was the first attempt to structure America by race.

By the 1920s, while every new ethnic group could claim to have faced discrimination, Italians were being viewed with the most suspicion.  As best-selling author Bill Bryson, in his study of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, caught the mood of the time: “Wherever problems arose, Italians seemed to be at the heart of things.  The widespread perception of Italians was that if they weren’t Fascists or Bolsheviks, they were anarchists or Communists, and if they weren’t those, they were involved in organized crime.”  He quotes a New York Times article as saying that it was “perhaps hopeless to think of civilizing [Italians] or keeping them in order, except by the arm of the law.”  A University of Wisconsin sociologist (in a statement quite evocative of today) insisted that the crime rate had fallen in Italy only “because all the criminals are here.”  Such widespread allocation of blame had previously been reserved for Jews, and they continued to suffer from it, but the huge number of Italians made them far more obvious targets. 

This negative attitude against Italians was in no way unique; it actually followed the traditional American pattern.  Americans have always rated their component peoples on a positive-to-negative scale.  Ethnicity and Religion help to place the markers between peoples, but the prime determinant is skin color; the lighter you are the better. That’s why, by 1920, the huge numbers that had arrived from the south of Italy provoked such concern.  A few tall, blonde Lombards were one thing, but boatloads of those dark, swarthy Sicilians were quite another.  

Congress decided to take action, and created The House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization to take a look at the situation.  The Committee appointed as its expert advisor a man named Harry H. Laughlin, perhaps the most racially extreme supporter of what is politely known as “negative eugenics,” which in Laughlin’s case meant to “purify the breeding stock of the race at all costs.”  He meant the Caucasian race, of course, rather narrowly defined.  He offered to a rapt audience of Congressmen “evidence“ that ranked the comparative quality or degeneracy of various ethnic groups, and Italians did not fare well. 

Fortified by these “facts,” the Committee promptly wrote what became the Emergency Quota Act upon its passage in 1921.  Note the word “Emergency”; Laughlin had done his work well.  The Act was the first attempt to restrict immigration on a national basis (the West Coast had already been legislating against Chinese and Japanese immigrants).  This was unprecedented, but the method was even more radical: restrict immigrants by nationality.  Its overall purpose was clearly reactionary.  The Act was the first attempt to freeze the components of the American people according to a selected numerical relationship among them.  It restricted a country’s immigrants to 3% of the number of residents from that country living here in 1910.   Under this formula, the countries of northern and western Europe were allowed considerably more new immigrants to the U.S.

With emergency measures taken, Congress took a longer look at the numbers and did not like what they saw.  They took further action by passing the Immigration Act of 1924, which itself encompassed the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act.  This Act lowered the percentage of a country’s citizens allowed into the U.S. to 2%, but more significantly, made this number according to the 1890 Census.  This was a deliberate move against Italians (although not against them alone), most of whom had arrived after that year.  It was also effective.  Immigration from Italy during the early 1920s, already much lessened by the 1921 Act, was cut a further 90%.  It is estimated that between 1900 and 1910, some 200,000 Italians immigrated the U.S. annually.  Following the 1924 Act, that number dropped to about 4,000.  Storing up trouble for the future, the Act also helped to plant the concept of “illegal immigrant” in the American mind.

The Acts of the 1920s also contained some provisions—and one omission—that resonate today: it greatly restricted the immigration of Africans, and banned both Arabs and Asians outright.  It did not, however, set any limits on immigrants from Latin America.  These attempts to preserve the nation’s racial and ethnic balance effectively capped entry across our eastern and western borders but neglected our southern border. 

This provides a delicious irony to the subsequent history of immigration to our country in the 20th Century.  This protection of our seacoasts worked pretty well, even though a more liberal approach crept in with the extensive reworking of the entire immigration quota system in 1954.  That “maintain the existing ethnic balance” thing largely continued, if a great deal more subtly.  Or so people thought.  We managed to at least keep down the numbers that might have crossed the oceans, but not those who could walk.

So now here we are, not quite one hundred years after our national attempt at maintaining a nation dominated by its residents from northern and western Europe, and it was all pretty much a waste of time. A new ethnicity—Hispanics—has arrived in large numbers, despite all the legislative and enforcement measures enacted to prevent just such a thing from happening.  Oh, and Asians have developed a substantial presence also.

This raises a question: could Hispanics today—and perceptions of them—be playing a role similar to that of the Italians back then?  If so, then the irony of Italian-Americans being prominent in the voices being raised against this new immigrant group should be appreciated.  This is a relevant question everywhere, but particularly relevant to the still-stagnant towns along the lower Schuylkill River, which need the type of stimulus historically provided by the successive waves of immigrants.

Among these, the immigration issue is most important to the largest of these towns, Norristown, Pa.  More Italians settled there than anywhere else in the lower Delaware Valley, by far, and almost all of them were from the southernmost part of Italy, Sicily.  As fate would have it, their town now has the largest number of Hispanics, by far.  The more things change...

The purpose of this essay was not to minimize the maltreatment suffered by other ethnicities during their entrance into American society, particularly Jews, for whom such a reception had long historical traditions.  It is simply to point out that the recent immigration to the U.S. by Hispanics, primarily Mexicans—and the reaction to it—adheres broadly to a pattern we’ve seen before, at least so far.  It’s the next step in that pattern that is disturbing, because it is so uncertain, and history might sort of repeat itself, because some people certainly are.

That’s why I’m devoting this next series of posts to immigration, its past significance to the Schuylkill River towns and its important future.  There are lessons to be learned here, so that history does not follow the same pattern it did back in the 1920s, when Italians were the newest—and most suspect—presence in our urban communities.

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