Throughout American history race and ethnicity have been used to justify colonization and to maintain order in society. In 1790 the Naturalization Act allowed any immigrant to gain citizenship, assuming that they were white, had lived in the US for two years, and were “of good moral character.” However, after slavery was abolished and America moved into the Jim Crow Era, further categorization of ethnic backgrounds, placing Italians, Jewish, and Irish further down in the racial hierarchy. By the 1850s the immigration population had swelled as European Immigrants were recruited to fill the land in the west, that was formerly Mexico. These immigrants were a good source of cheap labor and they were white bodies that could secure the political gap in the west. However, as immigrants started coming from further Eastern European countries, white Americans began to feel threatened by the number of immigrants as they were an economic threat. In the late 1800s and early 1900 the American government was forced to define who was considered “white.” Influenced by Hitler’s creation of a superior race, the Dillingham Commission was assembled to establish which ethnicities were fit to racially mix with. Following, the Emergency Quota Act was passed to limit immigration from Poland, Yugoslavia, and Italy, slowing immigration by the 1920s. While these restrictions were still in place during WWII, Greek, Italian, Polish, and Jewish immigrants, who had been in the US for a generation received little discrimination because Ethnic intermix had occurred during the baby boom.
My grandfather, or Papa’s, family immigrated from Italy in the 1880s to Springfield moved to Massachusetts. They came to the US for better job opportunities. Since they came to America in the 1880s, before any strict immigration acts were put in place for Italy, they had easy access to the United States. My great-grandfather was well educated and found work as an engineer at Bosh America making tanks for the US Army. “In 1916, the former president repeatedly asserted that the immigrant who does not become an American in good faith “is out of place.” Complete assimilation was expected of immigrants, and ideas emerged that some groups could be assimilated into American culture more easily than others”(Gerardo 2020, 95). So, when my Papa was born in 1940, his parents would not speak to him in Italian because they wanted him to assimilate well.
Growing up, my Papa and his family did not experience many racial issues because the timing of their arrival and because they were “white enough” to assimilate. However, neighborhoods at this time were still, for the most part, ethnically segregated. He grew up often going to the Italian club and has taken me back to visit a few times. The racial segregation was another reason there were not many racial issues during the time. He lived in an Italian neighborhood and the neighborhood next to him was Irish. The only time he recalled there being issues was when the Mob and the Police, who were mostly Irish, had problems. However, his family was not from Sicily, the section of Italy that the Mafia came from. So, they never ran into any racially motivated problems.
Because my family originates from Italy, we have had generational white privileges. There was only one instance where my mom was not allowed to be a member of a Country Club when she was younger because she was Italian. While I do not know much about my family history because of forced assimilation, I have grown up without the burdens of racial discrimination.
Gerardo Martí says
Interesting background, and interesting that an assimilation happened. Would be very interested to learn more of how this came about in your family.