America’s Journey

Race, religion, and ethnicity have always been at the center of America’s journey to discover what it truly means to be “American.” Immigration has been at core of this endeavor since the beginning. When we talk about immigration today which groups mostly come to mind? Usually Latinos from Central America and Mexico. In fact, however, they come from all the world.

The rapid rise in the numbers of first-generation immigrants who look, dress, and worship differently than “us” has often led to a backlash from those we call “Nativists”. Today our political and cultural landscape is riding a wave of anti-immigration sentiment.

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But this is not the first time that we ride this kind of wave. Sometimes it has come in other forms such as during the anti-communist McCarthy era of the 1950’s, were many in Hollywood lost their careers forever simply because of suspicion of them being communists. Office and factory workers were literally reporting their co-workers to authorities. A more recent type of Nativism we can point to is the anti-Muslim fever that came on the heels of Nine-Eleven.

File:ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS (1905) ELLIS ISLAND NY.png – Wikimedia Commons

There is also a flip side to the position that “they” are too slow to integrate into “our” ways. This other side argues that maybe there is not really anything to worry about. This is because often by the second, and almost always by the third generation, these immigrants become fully “Americanized.”

Maybe you have not noticed, but there is often an underlying tension in immigrant families between daughters and their mothers, for example. If you don’t believe this try talking to a friend or colleague who is second generation (meaning that their parents immigrated but they were born here) and ask them about it. The clash often centers over how “liberal” the kids have become. The parents worry about corrupt morality of America influencing their children too much. Teen age children from Mexico, Pakistan or India are very likely to have different views about sex before marriage than their daughters, for example. The stress of the tug and pull values is a real struggle for these kids.

The point is this. While there is much push into American culture from without, there is an equal or even greater pull towards it. American culture is its most powerful weapon of influence in the world, not military power. Its music (hip hop, rock, jazz) and fashion (tennis shoes, blue jeans, T-shirts) have shaped much of the world today. The fact that internet technology was developed here sped this up even more.


In light of this, we are going to focus on one group: Italians. Between 1900 and 1915, 3 million Italians immigrated to America, which was the largest nationality of “new immigrants.” These immigrants, mostly artisans and peasants, represented all regions of Italy, but mainly came from the mezzogiorno, Southern Italy.

In short, we are going to learn how this group of hated and despised outsiders became insiders. In other words we are going to learn how they became “white.”

For this discussion lesson you will read the following and answer the questions that follow:

Read this article from the New York Times archives and answer the following questions:

How were Italian immigrants referred to in the piece? You must provide both quotes and comment from the article to get credit.
Do you think we are more politically correct about how we talk about others now or then? What is your evidence?
Next read this piece, also from the New York Times, and answer the following question:

3. How did Italians move from being identified as a “raging bunch of criminals” to finally become “white?”

4. Also, do you think that immigrants today from places like India, Pakistan, Mexico, China, Guatemala or elsewhere, will also become “white” one day? You need to explain your opinion in thoroughly and justify it. Remember, the term “white” does not mean skin color here. Rather it implies full assimilation and acceptance into the dominant culture and value set that is identified as “American.”

5. Is this context for understanding the history of immigration in America a useful one in your mind? Why or why not?

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