Immigrant history shows not all whites had white-skinned 'privilege'

Immigrant history shows not all whites had white-skinned 'privilege'
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The Sierra Club has condemned legendary 19th century naturalist and club co-founder John Muir as a white supremacist, according to a Washington Post report — a decision not based on any actions he had taken or policies he advocated but because he “once referred to African Americans as lazy ‘Sambos’” and described Native Americans he encountered on a walk as “dirty.”   

But how do these offhand statements make Muir a white supremacist? Guilt by association. Equally troubling, according to a Sierra Club spokesperson, were Muir’s close friendships with those who became leaders of the Eugenics Society.  

The Post article was correct to characterize members of the Eugenics Society as white supremacists who “labeled nonwhite people, including Jews at the time, as inferior.” However, it neglected to mention that, at the time, white supremacy reflected the perceived superiority of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) so that Catholics from eastern and southern Europe were among those who were considered inferior.


This was an extension of the earlier anti-Catholic movement that was populated by the same WASP elite. Mid-19th-century Irish immigrants experienced no white-skinned privilege. For decades, vaudeville blackface depictions of the Irish were no different than depictions of Black Americans. Irish immigrants were consigned to the most arduous jobs. Southern plantations hired Irish laborers for their most dangerous jobs, rather than risking the lives of enslaved Blacks. While the Chinese built the western end of the transcontinental railroad, it was the Irish who largely built it up to the Rockies. Horrendous living conditions generated exceptionally high rates of deaths among young Irish children. And through the 1870s, children’s protective societies would use the courts to take away Irish children to be raised by Midwestern Protestant families.

The Irish responded by building an insular society centered around the Catholic Church — its schools, social clubs and employment networks. As one early 20th century parishioner stated, “The Church calendar was our [family’s social] calendar.” Jewish immigrants also were able to somewhat insulate their communities. Like the Irish, Jews concentrated their employment outside of WASP control. For the Irish, it was construction and later nonprofessional government employment; for the Jews, it was garment manufacturing, small retail businesses and entertainment.  

By contrast, Italian immigrants were unable to insulate themselves from the anti-Catholic bigotry. Moreover, since they were from southern Italy, much of the WASP elite considered them members of an inferior Mediterranean race. The anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish barriers and racist theories that underpinned them came to a halt only after World War II, when Americans learned the true horrors of these WASP-supremacist beliefs.

The fact that John Muir had close friends who held eugenics views was unremarkable. At the beginning of the 20th century, virtually the entire WASP elite thought that newer immigrants were inferior. The only difference was between those who believed the source of this “inferiority” was primarily genetic and those who thought it was primarily cultural. It was the latter group who populated the Progressive movement, intent on “Americanizing” these redeemable immigrants. One of its leaders was Theodore Roosevelt. During his 1903 commencement address at Wellesley College, he urged the graduates to have many children to stem the tide of “race suicide,” which he associated with the high birth rates of inferior immigrants. 

It is not surprising that sex educator and birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, with her singular focus on aiding poor immigrant women, would make accommodations for those who held these racist views. By contrast, both sociologist Jane Addams and philosopher John Dewey rejected these views. In her 1908 address to the National Education Association, Addams chastised educators for their one-sided view on Americanization. As the historian Jeffrey Mirel summarized:


“She argued that by relentlessly immersing immigrant children in Anglo-American culture and by ignoring the background of immigrant families, the schools were driving a wedge between parents and children, weakening parental authority, and creating serious problems of youthful alienation and delinquency.”

Dewey also thought that schools should incorporate immigrant cultures in a positive manner. In response to wartime jingoism, he declared: “No matter how loudly any one proclaims his Americanism, if he assumes that one racial strain, any one component culture, no matter how early it was settled in our territory, or how effective it has proved in its own land, is to furnish a pattern which all other strains and cultures are to conform, he is a traitor to an American nationalism.”

Though the Post article did not do so, it’s difficult to ignore that eugenicists directed their energies not against Black Americans but against white Catholics and Jews. Yet the fact that white Catholics were considered racially inferior and subjected to severe bigotry at a point in our nation’s history may be an unwelcome message in today’s political environment where whites are considered privileged. 

In the past 20 years, do Black Americans face greater barriers than Italian immigrants did a century earlier, or Irish immigrants before them? Do Black Americans today face greater barriers than newly-arriving immigrants? While not ignoring the structural barriers they did — and still do — face, Black Americans should heed the immigrant experience and rely on themselves, their families and their communal organizations. Despite America’s warts, individual effort and perseverance continue to be rewarded, and embracing these ideals must be part of any effective strategy for change.

Robert Cherry is professor emeritus in economics at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center. He is the co-author of “Moving Working Families Forward: Third Way Policies That Can Work.” He is a member of the 1776 Unites forum.