White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945

White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945

White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945

White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945

Synopsis

Immigrating to the United States, Italians, like all others arriving on America's shores, were made to fill out a standardized immigration form. In the box for race, they faced two choices: North Italian or South Italian. On the line requesting information on color, they wrote simply "white." By World War II, the only option they had for race and color questions was "white." This identification is suggestive of the many ways in which Italians became white on arrival in the United States, as Thomas A. Guglielmo demonstrates in this prize-winning book. While many suffered from racial prejudice and discrimination, they were nonetheless viewed as white, with all the privileges this color classification bestowed, in the corridors of American power--from judges to journalists, from organized labor to politicians, from race scientists to realtors. Taking the mass Italian immigration of the late 19th century as his starting point and drawing on dozens of oral histories and a diverse array of primary sources in English and Italian, Guglielmo focuses on how perceptions of Italians' race and color were shaped in one of America's great centers of immigration and labor, Chicago. His account skillfully weaves together the major events of Chicago immigrant history--the "Chicago Color Riot" of 1919, the rise of Italian organized crime, and the rise of industrial unionism--with national and international events--such as the rise of fascism and the Italian-Ethiopian War of 1935-36--to present the story of how Italians approached, learned, and lived race. By tracking their evolving position in the city's racial hierarchy, Guglielmo reveals the impact of racial classification--both formal and informal--on immigrants' abilities to acquire homes and jobs, start families, and gain opportunities in America. Carefully drawing the distinction between race and color, Guglielmo argues that whiteness proved Italians' most valuable asset for making it in America. Even so, Italians were reluctant to identify themselves explicitly as white until World War II. By separating examples of discrimination against Italians from the economic and social advantages they accrued from their acceptance as whites, Guglielmo counters the claims of many ethnic Americans that hard work alone enabled their extraordinary success, especially when compared to non-white groups whose upward mobility languished. A compelling story, White on Arrival contains profound implications for our understanding of race and ethnic acculturation in the United States, as well as twentieth-century immigration, urban, and political history.

Excerpt

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:

The immigrants had all the advantages of coming to the open American white freedom while Negroes had to continue in bondage, at least of thought—for a long while due to the prejudices of the native whites. The immigrant was given encouragement and in time full opportunity to share in the social life of the whites anywhere…. The white immigrant found his unions and his white congressional politician. …The white immigrant finds his way to the top social ranks, though at one time he was a pal of the colored youths who might have lived in his neighborhood. Friends in childhood, in maturity the white one lives in the quiet, healthful suburbs, while the colored one lives in the dusty, dirty restricted neighborhood and can never leave it.

Other African Americans shared these sentiments. In one typical editorial cartoon from the Chicago Defender, an African-American man attempts in vain to open an “equal rights” safe. In the background, Uncle Sam whispers to “the foreigner” (a man with stereotypically Italian features— 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.

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