White on Arrival

February 24, 2015

There's a claim by "whiteness studies" enthusiasts that when Italians first immigrated to America they were considered "non-white" or "in-between black and white" and denied privileges as a result. American historian Thomas Guglielmo disproves this by showing that whatever ethnic prejudice Italians faced was based on their "race" (e.g. South Italian, Latin, Mediterranean etc.) but not their "color", which was always classified as white/Caucasian, even by anti-immigrant racialists.

In January 1942, Ed Peterson, an African American from Chicago, wrote a letter to the Chicago Defender. With America's wartime propaganda machine glorifying the nation's past, Peterson was irritated that this past so often ignored African Americans. Instead, thrifty, hard-working European immigrants supposedly made America—settling its untamed wilderness, laboring in its factories, and farming and peopling its vast frontier. "One would imagine," wrote Peterson, "that the colored race never did any thing to build up the country." Moreover, he argued, European immigrants arrived in the United States with privileges that most African Americans could only dream of.

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All of this said, however, Ed Peterson's remarks contained more than a kernel of truth. In the end, Italians' many perceived racial inadequacies aside, they were still largely accepted as white by the widest variety of people and institutions—naturalization laws and courts, the U.S. census, race science, anti-immigrant racialisms, newspapers, unions, employers, neighbors, realtors, settlement houses, politicians, and political parties. This widespread acceptance was reflected most concretely in Italians' ability to naturalize as U.S. citizens, apply for certain jobs, live in certain neighborhoods, marry certain partners, and patronize certain movie theaters, restaurants, saloons, hospitals, summer camps, parks, beaches, and settlement houses. In so many of these situations, as Peterson and the Defender well recognized, one color line existed separating "whites" from the "colored races"—groups such as "Negroes," "Orientals," and sometimes "Mexicans." And from the moment they arrived in Chicago—and forever after—Italians were consistently and unambiguously placed on the side of the former. If Italians were racially undesirable in the eyes of many Americans, they were white just the same.

They were so securely white, in fact, that Italians themselves rarely had to aggressively assert the point. Indeed, not until World War II did many Italians identify openly and mobilize politically as white. After the early years of migration and settlement, when Italy remained merely an abstraction to many newcomers, their strongest allegiance was to the Italian race, not the white one. Indeed, one of the central concerns of this book is to understand how Italianita', as both a racial and national consciousness, came to occupy such a central part of many Italians' self-understandings. For much of the turn-of-the-century and interwar years, then, Italians were white on arrival not so much because of the way they viewed themselves, but because of the way others viewed and treated them.

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To understand fully these consequences, one more conceptual tool is critical: the distinction between race and color. Initially, I conceived of my project as a "wop to white" study, an Italian version of Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White. I quickly realized, however, that Italians did not need to become white; they always were in numerous, critical ways. Furthermore, race was more than black and white. If Italians' status as whites was relatively secure, they still suffered, as noted above, from extensive racial discrimination and prejudice as Italians, South Italians, Latins, and so on. [...] I argue that between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries there were primarily two ways of categorizing people based on supposedly inborn physical, mental, moral, and cultural traits. The first is color (which roughly coincides with today's census categories): the black, brown, red, white, and yellow races. Color, as I use it, is a social category and not a physical description. "White" Italians, for instance, could be darker than "black" Americans. Second is race, which could mean many things: large groups like Nordics and Mediterraneans, medium-sized ones like the Celts and Hebrews, or smaller ones like the North or South Italians. [...] For example, the federal government's naturalization applications throughout much of the early twentieth century asked applicants to provide their race and color. For Italians, the only acceptable answers were North or South Italian for [race] and white for [color].

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Finally, this study is deeply indebted to whiteness historiography and the indispensable work of David Roediger, James Barrett, Theodore Allen,
Alexander Saxton, and many others. Nonetheless, I challenge several key arguments in much (though not all) of this historiography, especially the claim that European immigrants arrived in the United States as "inbetween peoples" and only became fully white over time and after a great deal of struggle. Numerous scholars in a wide range of disciplines have uncritically accepted this argument. I contend that challenges to Italian immigrants' color status were never sustained or systematic and, therefore, Italians never occupied a social position "in between" "colored" and "white." Often failing to understand the distinctions between race and color, some scholars have assumed that challenges to a group's racial desirability as, say, Latins or Alpines, necessarily called into question their color status as whites. This was not the case. Italians, for instance, could be considered racially inferior "Dagoes" and privileged whites simultaneously. This point is vividly apparent when one compares their experiences with those of groups whose whiteness was either really in question (e.g., Mexican Americans) or entirely out of the question (e.g., African Americans and Asian Americans).

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Rising [anti-immigrant racialism and restriction], however, never challenged Italians' whiteness in any consequential way. According to virtually all racialists at both the national and local Chicago levels, if Italians were a national peril, they were a "white peril" just the same. [...] Taken together, whether one spoke about physical stature, intellectual endowments, social customs, or other hereditary characteristics, one thing was certain to racialists: southern Italians (and sometimes northern ones as well) were racially inferior to the Nordic, "the white man par excellence." Interestingly, this racialist assault on Italians and other "new" immigrants stopped well short of questioning their color status as whites. It seems that most racialists—even as they did their best to emphasize racial difference—took the whiteness of "new" European immigrants for granted. As Henry Pratt Fairchild explained casually in his book Immigration, "the new immigration is made up from people of a very different racial stock, representing the Slavic and Mediterranean branches of the Caucasian race." Madison Grant included southern and eastern Europeans within the white/Caucasian category, even while questioning its overall usefulness: "The term 'Caucasian race' has ceased to have any meaning except where it is used, in the United States, to contrast white populations with Negroes or Indians or in the Old World with Mongols. It is, however, a convenient term to include the three European subspecies [Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean] when considered as divisions of one of the primary branches or species of mankind." Racialists, then, like many other Americans, made an important distinction between race and color—even if they failed to use these exact terms.

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Scientific racialists, then, placed Italians (and other "new" European immigrants) in an ambiguous social position. After devoting years of research and writing to "demonstrating" the racial inferiority of southern and eastern Europeans, they still viewed these groups as white. The message seemed to be that "new" European immigrants were inferior—but not that inferior. For all their dangerous inadequacies, they still occupied a place within the "superior" color division of mankind, even if they were relegated to an "inferior" racial branch.

Thomas A. Guglielmo. White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2003.

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