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American Amnesia About Immigration



Philip Jenkins - published on 01/13/15

Today's immigrant population resembles that of 100 years ago

Only two things in American life are predictable and constant, namely change and amnesia.

The first of those needs no explanation. Ever since the first European settlement, North American societies have lived in a constant state of ferment and transformation, as each new generation experienced a reality that would have amazed its predecessor. Variously, those changes have been social, technological, geographical, and political. At the same time, though, each of those generations has felt the need to be amazed and disquieted by this fact, to dream that once upon a time, matters were stable and tranquil.

The historian’s role is to confront this national habit of amnesia. As we contemplate the coming decades, we could do no better than to seek guidance from the country’s history a century or so ago. In understanding the processes at work, an appreciation of ethnic and religious history is invaluable. And as I’ll show in my next post, Catholic history is a particularly important part of the whole story.

As they contemplate the coming America, experts of all shades of opinion are fascinated by the coming arrival of a “majority-minority” world, in which no single ethnic group (such as non-Latino Whites) will have a simple majority. Since the immigration reforms of the 1960s, certain ethnic groups have come to play a much larger role in the American ethnic landscape: Latinos, of course, but also Africans, East and South Asians, and people from the Middle East. Already, four US states have this majority-minority status, and it will characterize the whole nation by the 2040s. Experts and observers – among whom I include myself – speculate about the political and social consequences, and are particularly intrigued by the implications for American churches.

Not to trivialize this epochal shift, though, it is worth remembering that we have, in a sense, been here before. Let us shift our perspective from the standpoint of 2015 back a century to 1915. We live today in an era of very high immigration, an era quite unprecedented in the nation’s history  – well, that is, unprecedented since the last strictly comparable wave, a century ago. The proportion of foreign-born Americans in 1915 was very close to what it is today.

In 1915, the vast majority of those immigrants were from Europe, rather than the Global South. They were Italians and Poles, Hungarians and Serbs, Ukrainians and Germans. They were also religiously different from the old-stock population, in that most were either Catholic or Jewish. No less significant, by the standards of the time, most were not White, any more than are immigrants today.

That point demands explanation. We live in a world where the term “White” has a widely recognized meaning, but that meaning has shifted tectonically over time. Over the past generation, “Whiteness” has been the subject of many academic studies, which trace the stages by which different groups were admitted to that exalted category: first the Irish and Germans, later Slavic and Mediterranean peoples, and then Jews. In a well-known 1995 study, historian Noel Ignatiev traced How the Irish Became White

In 1915, though, ethnic categories were still very much in flux. Fearful contemporaries foresaw the imminent creation of a nation where true Whites would no longer represent a majority, among all the Italians, Slavs and Jews. In short, America faced becoming what we would call a majority-minority society.

Making the prospect all the more disturbing was the vast and flourishing literature about the evils that these non-White minorities brought to the country: the ignorance and systematic poverty, criminality and political violence, an utter inability to live as citizens of a mature democracy. According to nativists, that ignorance and immaturity was clearly demonstrated by the child-like superstition of the Catholic faith that so many immigrants brought with them. Moreover, labor violence and political terrorism all, allegedly, pointed to the apocalyptic racial fate awaiting the United States.

America of course would indeed suffer terrible trials during the early twentieth century, crises of poverty and pollution, disorder and rampant crime. In retrospect, though, the racial and ethnic nightmares seem wrong-headed to the point of being incomprehensible. Most modern observers find baffling the suggestion that the ethnic newcomers were anything other than fellow-Whites.

Now, that whole story is deeply problematic. Scholars of “Whiteness” trace disapprovingly how new ethnic groups over time acquire the badges of White privilege, which mark them as automatically superior to other groups, especially African-Americans. For present purposes though, I just note how language and perceptions change over time.

Do we see here a lesson for the coming decades? Projections of a majority-minority nation depend entirely on high projections for the numbers of Latinos. But roll that film forward a couple of decades, to an age when the great majority of Latinos will maintain some kind of separate linguistic or cultural identity, but only to the extent that Polish-Americans or Italian-Americans do today. Also, be sure to factor in frequent and easy intermarriage. In that scenario, surely, the ethnic or racial line separating “Whites” and “Latinos” fades to near-invisibility. Future generations might question how anyone ever considered the matter differently.

We actually see instructive signs of such a process in recent media complaints about the lack of “minority” representation in high tech industries, symbolized by Silicon Valley. Such headlines stress that those work-forces are overwhelmingly “White and male” in their composition. Reading a few lines into the story, though, we find that this racial language applies to non-Latino Whites, but also to South and East Asians, who for media purposes appear to have segued invisibly into fully White status. That remark does not excuse the exclusion of some ethnic groups from these booming industries, but it does remind us that the “White” category is already a very expansive one.

If twentieth-century history is anything to go by, concerns or dreams about a majority-minority America are deeply flawed. Core lesson: we can’t talk about majorities or minorities until we realize what a fluid and flexible concept Whiteness has been and (presumably) will be.

In my next post, I will suggest what a critically important role religion plays in this process.

Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor Universityand author ofThe Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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