Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 142-144
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Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy
Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. By Desmond King (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2000) 388 pp. $45.00
In recent years, historians have reassessed the Immigration Act of 1924, which, on transparently racist grounds, severely restricted migration to the United States. Building on John Higham's classic, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New Brunswick, 1955), scholars such as Jacobson, Ngai, and Gerstle have portrayed the Act as a watershed in racial formation and in the evolution of American nationalism. 1 King joins this reexamination as a political scientist seeking to put [End Page 142] today's identity politics in historical perspective. He uses the historian's tool of archival research to chart how immigration restriction cemented exclusionary versions of American citizenship and identity. This attempt to "devalue diversity" set the stage for a reaction decades later, in the form of the "white ethnic revival" and multiculturalism (3). King asks important questions, but some of his answers fall short in ways that suggest that he might better have drawn more tools from the political scientist's kit.
The bulk of the book traces how restrictionist policy developed during the first three decades of the twentieth century, in ways that both reinforced and reflected a sense of American identity "as principally white and Anglo-Saxon" (6). King focuses on the congressional Dillingham Commission, Americanization efforts, and the eugenics movement, which shaped the 1924 Act and its system of immigration quotas. This "national origins" system amounted to a racial filter, favoring newcomers from northwestern Europe over southeastern Europeans—who were deemed racially suspect—and excluding Asian immigrants. Among King's most intriguing points is his depiction of restriction as the external face of a "discriminatory regime" expressed domestically in the second-class citizenship imposed on African-Americans (163). The national origins system purported to set entry quotas that reflected the ethnic composition of the American population. The 1924 Act, however, held that when determining that composition, the "'descendants of slave immigrants'" should be excluded (158). The legislation thereby "consolidated the United States's self-image as a white nation," indirectly reinforced Jim Crow, and pushed African-Americans to emphasize black distinctiveness (224). Once Jim Crow crumbled, black political participation "underline[d] the diversity of the U.S. polity's citizenry" (48), helping to fuel multiculturalism—a topic covered by the book's closing chapters, along with the dismantling of the national origins system in the 1960s.
Immigration scholars will find much that is familiar in the book, but King makes an important contribution simply by asking how restriction affected African-Americans. This question—the relation between Jim Crow and racialized nativism—cries out for investigation. Unfortunately, King's answers are unconvincing. He repeatedly asserts that restriction marginalized black Americans politically, but he never demonstrates exactly how this occurred, beyond the whites-only definition of America inherent in the 1924 Act. King, for example, uses a variety of archival sources, including congressional and naacp records, to detail the segregation of the federal civil service under Woodrow Wilson and the failure of anti-lynching legislation. Yet he makes no causal connection between these events and restriction. Indeed, his evidence works against such a link: The segregationist Wilson vetoed three restrictionist bills, while the arch-restrictionist Senator Henry Cabot Lodge helped to advance an anti-lynching bill in 1922. Although King [End Page 143] provides a fascinating account of legislation proposed in 1914 to exclude immigrants "'of the African or black race'" (153), it does not help his argument that the measure ultimately failed.
King's evidence, in fact, hints at a more complicated story than his interpretation admits. Unearthing that story would have required an interdisciplinary approach that considered party politics; the actions of Wilson and Lodge suggest that restrictionist and segregationist agendas could diverge due to party pressures. Wilson had to repudiate his early, racialist...