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Journal of Policy History 13.4 (2001) 484-487

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Book Review

Making White Americans and Excluding Nonwhite Americans Through Immigration Laws

Jennifer L. Hochschild

Desmond King. Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000). Pp. xi + 388. $45.00

"Research on American immigration policy and history is considerable, and research on American racial attitudes and policies is vast--but embarrassingly few people have drawn clear and compelling links between the two topics. This book does. Making Americans is history for our times; it brings a completely contemporary sensibility to a very traditional subject and thereby illuminates both current debates and historical causes."

That is what I wrote for the back cover of Desmond King's newest book, and I'm relieved to report that upon rereading it, I would write exactly the same thing. This book does not break brand-new conceptual ground, but that is not its purpose. Instead, it provides a thorough and fascinating study of the racial impetus behind America's restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s and, not as thoroughly, of its embarrassed retreat from those laws in the 1960s. King focuses less on the effects of immigration policy for immigrants and would-be immigrants than for people who are already Americans, especially those of African origin. He also continually draws our attention to the fact that immigration policy and its consequences together create and delineate whiteness and, by implication, blackness or foreignness or non-Americanness.

King begins with a serviceable delineation of various ways in which non-Americans could be incorporated into American society, ranging from assimilation into an Anglo-Saxon mold through [End Page 484] cultural pluralism to a full-blown multicultural celebration of difference. Most of the book revolves around the front end of that continuum, since debates over incorporation in the first few decades of the twentieth century ran the gamut from complete assimilationism to melting-pot assimilationism (which permitted the possibility that Anglo-Saxons might change a little at the same time that immigrants were changing a lot). After its conceptual beginning, Making Americans is organized chronologically with something of a topical focus for each chapter--the 1911 Dillingham Commission that established the old immigrant-new immigrant distinction, the role of eugenics in shaping the debate over immigration law, the congressional debates over the 1924 national origins law, the changes in immigration policy resulting in the 1965 rejection of national origins quotas, and so on. The most innovative topic is a heartbreaking depiction of how African Americans struggled to be included in the definition of "American," how they were (at best) ignored or (at worst) cast out and lynched, and how their lives were consequently affected.

The main effect of that discussion is to make one wonder why so many African Americans tried so hard for so long to be incorporated into a polity that treated them so badly. King's sympathies are (perhaps too often) made clear, and he backs his sympathy with eloquent quotations and striking data. The second most interesting topic, also clarified by illuminating quotations and pertinent data, is the way in which the category of "white" (which was roughly synonymous with "American" and "good") was defined, redefined, refined, and otherwise massaged in the half a century after 1880. The category "white" shifted from encompassing only Anglo-Saxons and Protestant Germans (remember the ads that said, "Pure Americans. No rats, no Greeks" and "No Irish need apply") to encompassing all northern Europeans, to evicting Germans and Irish along with southern Europeans, and so on. As international politics, religious and linguistic anxieties, the supposed science of eugenics, and settlement patterns shifted, so did the list of favored "races." At various points (for example, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1917 Immigration Act excluding most Asians, the 1921 law favoring northern Europeans, the 1924 law favoring the English over other northern Europeans), a particular choice of who was allowed to be "white" would be enacted into law. King tracks these shifts beautifully and his underlying point about...


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