How immigrants to America become “white”

For De Correspondent, I wrote on the white supremacist movement surrounding the Trump campaign, and the complicated history of “whiteness” in America. An excerpt on Polish-Americans:

Here it is important to understand how, exactly, Americans ‘become white’. The history of Polish-Americans is an illuminating example. Upon arriving in the U.S. en masse in the late 19th and early 20th century, Poles endured discrimination based on their appearance, religion and culture.In 1903, the New England Magazine decried the Poles’ “expressionless Slavic faces” and “stunted figures” as well as their inherent “ignorance” and “propensity to violence”. Working for terrible wages, Polish workers were renamed things like “Thomas Jefferson” by their bigoted Anglo-Saxon bosses who refused to utter Polish names.

The Poles, in other words, were not considered white. Far from it: they were considered a mysterious menace that should be expelled. When Polish-American Leon Czolgosz killedPresident William McKinley in 1901, all Poles were deemedpotential violent anarchists. “All people are mourning, and it is caused by a maniac who is of our nationality,” a Polish-American newspaper wrote, pressured to apologize for their own people. The collective blame of Poles for terrorism bears great similarity to how Muslims (both in the U.S. and Europe) are collectively blamed today.

But then something changed. In 1919, Irish gangs in blackface attacked Polish neighborhoods in Chicago in an attempt to convince Poles, and other Eastern European groups, that they, too, were “white” and should join them in the fight against blacks. As historian David R. Roedigerrecalls, “Poles argued that the riot was a conflict between blacks and whites, with Poles abstaining because they belonged to neither group.” But the Irish gangs considered whiteness, as is often the case in America, as anti-blackness. And as in the early 20th century Chicago experienced an influx not only of white immigrants from Europe, but blacks from the South, white groups who felt threatened by black arrivals decided that it would be politically advantageous if the Poles were considered white as well.

Over time, the strategy of positioning Poles as “white” against a dark-skinned “other” was successful. Poles came to consider themselves white, and more importantly, they came to be considered white by their fellow Americans, as did Italians, Greeks, Jews, Russians, and others from Southern and Eastern Europe, all of whom held an ambivalent racial status in U.S. society. With that new white identity came the ability to practice the discrimination they had once endured.

Read the whole thing at De Correspondent

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