White Enough to Be American? Race Mixing, Indigenous People, and the Boundaries of State and Nation

By Lauren L. Basson | Go to book overview

4 Anarchist
Americans

Lucy Parsons,
Foreign Bodies,
and American
Soil

In order to understand what it means to be American, it is important to also consider what it means to be un-American. The increasingly ideological and ascriptive dimensions of what it meant to be American developed not only in response to the challenges of U.S. expansionism and the inclusion of a more diverse citizenry within U.S. borders but also in the context of the exclusion of people deemed unAmerican and, therefore, alien on the basis of their political beliefs. The ideological and ascriptive borders distinguishing aliens from Americans grew much sharper in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As U.S. soldiers fought the last Indian wars and overseas imperialism replaced the battles over the continental frontier, a burst of tremendous industrial expansion posed its own challenges to conventional definitions of the nation and state. The rapidly growing capitalist economy required laborers, prompting large numbers of new immigrants from Europe to convene in crowded, U.S. cities to fill these positions. Working conditions were harsh, and most laborers found it difficult to earn enough to provide themselves and their families with the basic necessities of life, let alone any additional comforts.

In this new, urban context, a variety of labor movements began to address the concerns of working people. Some of them advocated an eighthour working day and called for strikes when laborers did not receive sufficient pay or were denied other basic benefits. Sometimes, the U.S. government employed the same military personnel who fought American Indians to control strikers and oppose demonstrations that authorities feared might become violent (C. Smith 1995, 106–7). Many wealthier, U.S.-born European Americans came to view laborers in the newly industrialized economy as a threat to the sociopolitical order. Reflecting these views, some U.S. officials and journalists applied racialized stereotypes historically associated with American Indians to members of the growing industrial work force (see, e.g., Slotkin 1985, Rogin 1987, Kovel 1997). U.S. observers were particularly likely to apply such stereotypes to workers engaged in socialist or communist politics.

Socialists of varying persuasions called for fundamental changes in a sociopolitical system that allowed great disparities and inequities to develop between the working poor and the capitalists who owned the vast

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