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Reviewed by:
  • Americans All: The Cultural Gifts Movement
  • Robert Fleegler
Americans All: The Cultural Gifts Movement. By Diana Selig (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2008) 367 pp. $49.95

In recent years, the United States has been divided by controversies about diversity, multiculturalism, and what immigrants need to do to become truly “American.” Such debates have occurred repeatedly throughout American history, most notably during the second major wave of immigration between 1882 and the passage of restriction in 1924. Selig’s impressively researched book describes the efforts of various individuals and groups to promote a more pluralistic nation during the period of limited immigration between 1924 and World War II.

Selig begins with a thorough discussion of the work of social scientists and psychologists to undermine the scientific racism that prevailed in the first quarter of the twentieth century. These scholars sought to demonstrate that differences in intelligence were environmental—rather than genetic—in origin. They also researched the roots of racial prejudice, finding that bigotry was learned rather than innate.

Within this intellectual framework, educators like Rachel DuBois at the Service Bureau of Intercultural Education created school programs to expose children to the “cultural gifts” brought by the Ellis Island wave of immigrants, and, to a lesser extent, by African Americans. For instance, students were taught about the artistic contributions of Italian Americans and the scientific contributions of German Americans. Selig shows how “cultural gifts” advocates first designed these programs to reduce prejudice among native-stock children by educating them about the benefits brought by the newcomers. By the 1930s, however, they became more concerned with raising the self-esteem of the second-generation immigrants. At the same time, the interfaith movement, led by organizations like the National Conference of Christians and Jews (nccj), advanced religious pluralism by promoting the concept of a “Judeo-Christian” nation. By the late 1930s and the early 1940s, the “cultural gifts” approach, with its focus on the contributions of different ethnic groups, fell out of favor as the need for national unity took precedence during a time of international peril.

Selig is critical of the “cultural gifts” approach to the black/white divide. In her mind, its focus on education often ignored the economic and institutional realities of segregation. She also argues, like many scholars of “whiteness,” that its efforts expanded the boundaries of Americanism to include white immigrants while excluding blacks. For instance, she writes that the nccj’s interfaith programs “solidified a definition of whiteness that included Jews and Catholics, even as it marginalized other religions and reinforced racial divisions between white and nonwhite peoples” (150).

Selig might not have the last word on this point. Although many of these programs did not thoroughly challenge the Jim Crow framework, in the face of the intense nativist and racist climate of pre-World War II [End Page 465] America, these groups helped to lay the groundwork for the more liberal postwar climate that allowed the civil rights movement to flourish.

American All features extremely detailed discussions of numerous topics. Some of the sections in the book, like the one on changes in social science, could have been edited to make the book more readable without diminishing the substance of Selig’s argument. Nonetheless, Selig has used a tremendous array of archival sources to produce a valuable addition to the literature on pluralism between the wars.

Robert Fleegler
University of Mississippi


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pp. 465-466
Launched on MUSE
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