Friday, March 27, 2015

Affirmative action for immigrant whites _ By Thomas A. Guglielmo

An incisive critical review of the documentary The Italian Americans; debunking the myth of European American bootstrap mobility; a myth still entrenched in the popular imagination:

"And yet, despite the work of numerous scholars, too few people seem to know anything about them. For the last twenty years, one national poll has found that an overwhelming majority of American residents agree with the following statement: “Irish, Italian, Jewish, and other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors.”


"But this rise [Italian American success] had another, critical source that is too often missing from popular memory about Italian and other European immigrants’ success in America: white privilege. The truth is that these immigrants entered a country with a long, bloody history of drawing deep and distinct color lines — chasms, really — between people socially-defined as white and everyone else, and then assigning rights and resources, power and privilege, accordingly. True, some Americans debated for a time where exactly to place Italians and other Europeans in relation to these lines. At a hearing for the House Committee on Immigration, in 1912, a Pennsylvania congressman wondered whether the “south Italian” constituted a “full-blooded Caucasian.” But, with very few exceptions, European immigrants, Italians included, lived and built their lives on the white side of these color lines. It made all the difference in the world.

It allowed them, first, to become US citizens. During the period of mass European immigration, the right to naturalize was reserved solely for “free white persons” and, after the Civil War, for people of African nativity and descent. And while US courts and government officials in this period routinely blocked Asian immigrants’ efforts to become citizens, they never did so for European newcomers. As a result, migrants from places like Italy, Germany, Poland, and Russia always had relatively easy access to citizenship and, eventually, to its broad range of concrete benefits — voting power, government jobs, and, depending on state law, the ability to own land or to work in certain occupations or to serve in public office.

As Italian and other European immigrants settled throughout the United States, their white racial status came to matter monumentally in other ways as well. Today, it is too often forgotten that the urban North of the interwar years, where most Italian and other European immigrants lived, had its own extensive Jim Crow system of sorts. In Chicago, for example, a black-white (and sometimes white-nonwhite) color line wended its way through nearly every imaginable aspect of city life — hospitals and day care centers, camps and schools, nursing homes and YMCAs, workplaces and unions, churches and settlement houses, bars and cafes, roller rinks and billiard halls, swimming pools and beaches, neighborhoods and public housing projects. In concrete terms, this meant that Italians, and everyone on the white side of these lines, enjoyed immense advantages when looking for work, joining a union, buying a home, attending school, receiving medical care, even relaxing on one’s day off — that is, when making the big and small decisions that fashion a life

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