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American Amnesia About Immigration

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Philip Jenkins - published on 01/13/15 - updated on 06/07/17

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.

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