Freedom in a bowl of salad

Making Americans

June 16, 2000

The evolution of an American national consciousness, with its shifting racial concerns and classifications, continues to receive scholarly analysis. Making Americans offers fresh insights into the related issues of United States immigration policies from the Progressive era to the 1960s, conceptions of "citizenship" and the enforced exclusion of African-Americans, Asians and southern and eastern Europeans from the American polity. Like other recent commentators, including Matthew Frye Jacobson, Michael Rogin, Noel Ignatiev and David Roediger, Desmond King is concerned to assert and identify the primacy of "whiteness", in successive formulations of an "Anglo-Saxon conception of US identity". He breaks new ground in synthesising the arguments of eugenicists, racists and proponents of immigration restriction during the 1920s and relating them to contemporary debates over multiculturalism and group-interest politics.

The United States, one is reminded, began as a multi-racial society composed of voluntary and involuntary immigrants (as well as "resident" Native Americans), but quickly came to privilege what King terms the "Tocquevillean view" of American identity - later paraphrased succinctly by novelist Toni Morrison as "America means white". Hostility to "new immigrants" was evident in the 19th century, but a dramatic change occurred during the 1920s when advocates of immigration restriction argued for "racial" quotas that would effectively exclude the (allegedly inferior) "new immigrants" from southern and eastern Europe, who began arriving in the 1880s. The restrictionists had already received a welcome endorsement from the conclusions of the Dillingham commission's report of 1907 that "formalised and generalised the dichotomy between old and new immigrants, inflating the dangers of the former group and flattering Americans' depictions of the latter". Moreover, these pseudo-scientific findings echoed earlier depictions of the Chinese and Japanese, already excluded from the "melting pot" metaphor, and "reinforced the marginality of African-Americans" in the age of Jim Crow discrimination. Ironically, as King observes, the quotas enacted by immigration legislation during the 1920s helped to fuel the Great Migration of black southerners to the northern states - where they encountered proscriptions and prejudices as debilitating and demeaning as those they had suffered in Dixie. He also suggests that the minstrel tradition, the most popular form of entertainment in the early 1900s, "fuelled the division between whites and others, since it was the former who were blacking up".

Enthusiasts for programmes of "Americanisation", which "placed individual commitment to the United States above collective ethnic identities", focused on southern and eastern Europeans and omitted African-Americans. Yet as Mary White Ovington, a founder member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, announced, African-Americans living in New York City were more fully assimilated than were most "new" immigrants. Again, even such notable advocates of cultural pluralism as Horace Kallen and John Dewey ignored the African-American contribution to American identity. Despite an attempt by white southerners to exclude Caribbean peoples from entry to the US from 1900 to the mid-1930s about 150,000 blacks entered the country and formed the core membership of Marcus Garvey's flamboyant and separatist Universal Negro Improvement Association. The national origins legislation passed in 1929 explicitly excluded "the descendants of slave immigrants" from the American population count of 1920 in the determination of quotas and quota eligibility, and substantiated King's contention that "policy-makers wanted to make Americans in a white image".

Immigration policies during the 1920s, based on the misapplication of eugenic theories, together with prevailing assumptions of black inferiority, exposed the yawning gap between American democratic precepts and practices. Not surprisingly, members of minority groups came to embrace the metaphor of the salad bowl - rather than the melting pot - to articulate their interests. As a consequence of liberalised immigration laws in the 1960s, John F. Kennedy asserted that "the use of the national origins system is without basis in either logic or reason", and with the passage of civil-rights legislation under Lyndon Johnson, America in the 21st century is a more culturally and nationally diverse society than it was in 1900. Yet the contentions of "assimilationists" such as Peter Salins and Dinesh D'Souza, who continue to stress American homogeneity rather than diversity, fears of illegal immigrants, opposition to affirmative-action policies for the historically disadvantaged, the resurgence of populist "white supremacy" movements and alarming increases in "race hate" crimes, all testify to the dilemmas and uncertainties of cultural pluralism. The root cause of these problems, King suggests, is a case of chickens coming home to roost - the "integration of the autonomous worlds and cultures of those groups that were politically marginalised historically as a consequence of intentional policy choices or unintended effects of legislation". His perhaps overly sanguine conclusion is that America's ability "creatively to harness individualism and to design political institutions that maximise individual freedom (and, as a consequence, diversity) augur well for the future". Making Americans should be required reading for assimilationists, multiculturalists and the undecided - on both sides of the Atlantic.

John White is reader in American history, University of Hull.

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

Author - Desmond King
ISBN - 0 674 00088 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £.95
Pages - 388

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