In mid-February the Public Broadcasting Service aired a four-hour documentary entitled The Italian Americans, an absorbing chronicle of one immigrant group’s struggles and successes in America. It has received rave reviews across the country. For all its virtues, however, the film falls short in at least one important respect: while it claims to overcome “the power of myth” to tell the “real history of Italian Americans,” that history is at best incomplete. To be sure, the documentary captures an important part of the story: the grinding poverty and prejudice that many Italians overcame to reach the “highest echelons of American society,” and the grit, determination, courage, and hard work that helped make this epic rise possible.
But this rise had another, critical source that is too often missing from popular memory about Italian and other European immigrants’ success in America: white privilege. The truth is that these immigrants entered a country with a long, bloody history of drawing deep and distinct color lines — chasms, really — between people socially-defined as white and everyone else, and then assigning rights and resources, power and privilege, accordingly. True, some Americans debated for a time where exactly to place Italians and other Europeans in relation to these lines. At a hearing for the House Committee on Immigration, in 1912, a Pennsylvania congressman wondered whether the “south Italian” constituted a “full-blooded Caucasian.” But, with very few exceptions, European immigrants, Italians included, lived and built their lives on the white side of these color lines. It made all the difference in the world.
It allowed them, first, to become US citizens. During the period of mass European immigration, the right to naturalize was reserved solely for “free white persons” and, after the Civil War, for people of African nativity and descent. And while US courts and government officials in this period routinely blocked Asian immigrants’ efforts to become citizens, they never did so for European newcomers. As a result, migrants from places like Italy, Germany, Poland, and Russia always had relatively easy access to citizenship and, eventually, to its broad range of concrete benefits — voting power, government jobs, and, depending on state law, the ability to own land or to work in certain occupations or to serve in public office.
As Italian and other European immigrants settled throughout the United States, their white racial status came to matter monumentally in other ways as well. Today, it is too often forgotten that the urban North of the interwar years, where most Italian and other European immigrants lived, had its own extensive Jim Crow system of sorts. In Chicago, for example, a black-white (and sometimes white-nonwhite) color line wended its way through nearly every imaginable aspect of city life — hospitals and day care centers, camps and schools, nursing homes and YMCAs, workplaces and unions, churches and settlement houses, bars and cafes, roller rinks and billiard halls, swimming pools and beaches, neighborhoods and public housing projects. In concrete terms, this meant that Italians, and everyone on the white side of these lines, enjoyed immense advantages when looking for work, joining a union, buying a home, attending school, receiving medical care, even relaxing on one’s day off — that is, when making the big and small decisions that fashion a life.
By the 1930s and 1940s, these white advantages only became more deeply entrenched on a national scale. Southern Democrats’ control of Congress meant that many New Deal laws, which built postwar middle class America, contained subtle clauses that channeled hundreds of billions of dollars in government benefits toward whites. Whether it was low-interest home loans or unemployment insurance, Social Security retirement funds or GI Bill benefits, the New Deal amounted to, in the phrase of political scientist and historian Ira Katznelson, “affirmative action for whites.” (An extreme version of affirmative action, it should be emphasized, since none of the more recent programs designed to offset centuries of racism ever came close to distributing resources on the sweeping scale of these New Deal programs.)
But it was affirmative action for immigrant whites, too, sometimes especially so. In a groundbreaking recent study, sociologist Cybelle Fox found that, unlike today, New Dealers often intentionally made welfare programs available to immigrants — particularly European immigrants — regardless of their citizenship or even their legal status. She discovered, furthermore, that European immigrants like Italians were at times New Deal programs’ biggest beneficiaries. Regarding Social Security, which initially failed to cover certain types of work (in which, not coincidentally, African Americans were disproportionately represented), European immigrants were
“more likely than even native-born whites to work in occupations covered by Social Security, and they were also more likely to be nearing retirement when the program was instituted. Consequently, they ended up contributing little to the system but by design benefited almost as much as those who would contribute their whole working lives. For retirees of European origin, Social Security was more akin to welfare than insurance but without the means test and without the stigma.”
The point of highlighting this history is not to insist that European immigrants had it easy. They didn’t. Nor is the point that they had few of the favorable qualities — grit, determination, hard work — honored in The Italian Americans and in popular memory. Many did have these qualities, as did (and do) many immigrants from all backgrounds. The point, instead, is that they received countless advantages in America that nonwhites — foreign-born and native-born alike, especially blacks among them — did not. Those advantages deserve a central place in any honest recounting of European immigrant success in America.
And yet, despite the work of numerous scholars, too few people seem to know anything about them. For the last twenty years, one national poll has found that an overwhelming majority of American residents agree with the following statement: “Irish, Italian, Jewish, and other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors.”
A much better understanding of “special favors” — and who got them — comes from a political cartoon that appeared in the Chicago Defender, a prominent black newspaper, in 1924. It featured an African-American man struggling to open an “equal rights” safe. In the background, Uncle Sam whispers to “the foreigner” (a man with stereotypically Italian features, incidentally — handle-bar mustache, dark, curly hair, dark eyes), “He’s been trying to open that safe for a long time, but doesn’t know the combination — I’ll give it to you.”
Featured image: Mulberry Street, the center of New York City’s Little Italy, ca. 1900. Public domain via the Library of Congress.