restricted access 66 How White People Became White
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66 How White People Became White JAMES R. BARRETT AND DAVID ROEDIGER By the eastern European immigration the labor force has been cleft horizontally into two great divisions. The upper stratum includes what is known in mill parlance as the English-speaking men; the lower contains the "Hunkies" or "Ginnies." Or, if you prefer, the former are the "white men," the latter the "foreigners." John Fitch, The Steel Workers In 1980, Joseph Loguidice, an elderly Italian-American from Chicago, sat down to give his life story to an interviewer. His first and most vivid childhood recollection was of a race riot that had occurred on the city's near north side. Wagons full of policemen with "peculiar hats" streamed into his neighborhood. But the "one thing that stood out in my mind," Loguidice remembered after six decades, was"a man running down the middle of the street hollering ... 'I'm White, I'm White!'" After first taking him for an African-American, Loguidice soon realized that the man was a white coal handler covered in dust. He was screaming for his life, fearing that "people would shoot him down." He had, Loguidice concluded, "got caught up in ... this racial thing."l Joseph Loguidice's tale might be taken as a metaphor for the situation of millions of "new immigrants" from Eastern and Southern Europe who arrived in the United States between the end of the nineteenth century and the early 1920s. That this episode made such a profound impression is in itself significant, suggesting both that this was a strange, new situ~ ation and that thinking about race became an important part of the consciousness of immigrants like Loguidice. How did this racial awareness and increasingly racialized worldview develop among new immigrant workers? Most did not arrive with conventional U.s. attitudes regarding "racial" difference, let alone its significance and implications in industrial America. Yet most, it seems, "got caught up in. this racial thing." How did this happen? If race was indeed socially constructed, then what was the raw material that went into the process? How did these immigrant workers come to be viewed in racial terms by others-employers , the state, reformers, and other workers? Like the coal handler in Loguidice's story, their own ascribed racial identity was not always clear. A whole range of evidence-laws, court cases, formal racial ideology, social conventions, and popular culture in the form of slang, songs, films, cartoons, ethnic jokes, and popular theatre-suggests that the native born and older immigrants often placed the new immigrants not only above African- and Copyright © 1996 by James R. Barrett and David Roediger. Reprinted by permission. This material appears in a different form as "Inbetween Peoples: Race, Nationality and the 'New Immigrant' Working Class," in AGAINST EXCEPTIONAUSM, edited by Rick Halpern and Jonathan Morris, London: Macmillan, 1997. Copyrighted Material How White People Became White 403 Asian-Americans, for example, but also below "white" people. Indeed, many of the older immigrants, and particularly the· Irish, had themselves been perceived as "nonwhite" just a generation earlier. As labor historians, we are interested in the ways in which Polish, Italian , and other European artisans and peasants became American workers, but we are equally concerned with the process by which they became "white." Indeed, in the u.s. the two identities merged, and this explains a great deal of the persistent divisions within the working-class population. How did immigrant workers wind up "inbetween"? ... We make no brief for the consistency with which "race" was used, by experts or popularly , to describe the "new immigrant" Southern and East Europeans who dominated the ranks of those coming to the u.S. between 1895 and 1924 and who "remade" the American working class in that period. We regard such inconsistency as important evidence of the "inbetween"2 racial status of such immigrants. The story of Americanization is vital and compelling, but it took place in a nation also obsessed by race. For new immigrant workers the processes of "becoming white" and "becoming American" were connected at every turn. The"American standard of living,"'which labor organizers alternately and simultaneously accused new immigrants of undermining and encouraged them to defend via class organization, rested on "white men's wages." Political debate turned on whether new immigrants were fit to join the American nation and"American race." Nor do we argue that new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were in the same situation as nonwhites . Stark differences between the racialized...