How America's Immigrants Became White

By David R. Roediger

Basic. 339 pp. $26.95

As Americans, we do not often reflect upon the tribalistic nature of our history. Yet for a nation imbued with ideals of political equality, we have proved extraordinarily creative in categorizing and denigrating Americans we consider different from ourselves -- especially people who do not live in our own neighborhoods or work or worship with us. Today we blandly celebrate a multicultural America, a country rich in social and ethnic diversity; but in fact, the history of America's response to immigrants reveals generations-long, bitter struggles over jobs, housing and political power.

In waging those battles, native-born white Protestants seized on any number of social differences -- language, skin color, religion, cultural traditions -- to discriminate against newcomers from foreign countries. And yet, as David R. Roediger suggests in "Working Toward Whiteness," people who identify themselves as white have constituted the largest, most powerful and ultimately most exclusive tribe of all. In this provocative but unwieldy book, Roediger argues that people of non-African descent could and did eventually work their way into "whiteness" -- thereby gaining admission to America's largest and most powerful tribe.

He focuses on the so-called New Immigrants, the 23 million men and women (most of them from Eastern Europe) who arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1920. These newcomers faced multiple forms of oppression in the workplace and public places, and old-stock, white Americans devised a laundry list of ethnic slurs to justify various forms of discrimination. But over time, immigrants were able to shed their outsider status and blend into the mainstream of white America. Roediger suggests that the story of people "whitening" themselves and being "whitened" by government officials constitutes "a deep tragedy with important lessons for today: that proximity to oppression could also lead new immigrants to distance themselves from black Americans."

Roediger begins with the hostile reception accorded New Immigrants, groups wedged in between native-born whites and native-born blacks. Indeed, the first part of the book consists mainly of a dispiriting compendium of ethnic insults hurled at, and among, New Immigrant groups. Certainly ethnocentrism was not a uniquely American development, and many Eastern Europeans hailed from communities that were intensely chauvinistic, honed by centuries of religious and cultural conflict. Yet in the United States, immigrants who wanted to assimilate and claim a robust citizenship first had to embrace the time-honored traditions of Jim Crow that relegated African Americans to the lowest rungs of society. Roediger focuses on the milestones of the process -- in particular, 1930s New Deal federal housing and social-welfare legislation and post-World War II workplace and labor-union policies -- that solidified the status of people who were born (or whose parents were born) in Eastern Europe over that of African Americans. Throughout this "whitening" process, people of Asian and Mexican descent also remained marginalized, their status and opportunities more akin to blacks' than New Immigrants'.

Roediger has read widely in the historical and social-scientific literature, and he also considers novels, memoirs and popular culture -- all sources that deal with late-19th-century and early-20th-century immigration. He discusses, among other topics, academic and political discourse, federal immigration policies, housing patterns and the history of the Congress of Industrial Organizations to reveal the significant privileges accorded specific groups, as well as state-sanctioned forms of discrimination that belied American ideals of equality.

If Roediger intends to convey the confusing and convoluted nature of racial and ethnic ideologies, he undoubtedly succeeds here. Specifically, one of the major problems in studies of race (such as this one) is the lack of precision in the term. Indeed, in the early 20th century, native-born white Protestants identified New Immigrants as members of as many as "forty-five or more different 'races.' " Depending on the specific context, "racial difference" could be used as shorthand for people who were poor, non-Protestant or non-English speakers. At the same time, African Americans remained uniquely vulnerable to violence and discrimination because they lacked the protection of citizenship rights accorded the New Immigrants. In the competition for jobs and for political rights more generally, even recently arrived groups soon discovered that they could claim superiority over African Americans, the majority of whom could not even vote until the mid-1960s.

Thus "whiteness" became an embraced identity that gave Eastern Europeans tangible advantages over blacks (and Mexican and Asian immigrants as well). But Roediger might have highlighted regional variations on this theme in order to pinpoint the precise factors that caused native-born whites to disparage immigrants and immigrants to disparage blacks. Over the generations, many whites have considered citizenship rights, jobs and housing to be factors in what is ultimately a zero-sum game; in other words, these whites have assumed that for blacks to prosper, whites must fail, and that for blacks to gain, whites must lose.

The bleaching of successive waves of foreign immigrants has a long history, beginning with the drive for respectability among impoverished Irish immigrants during the antebellum period; one key to their relative success was that they were able to become active members of the Democratic Party. For many newcomers, assimilation was a process that could rarely be completed within a single generation. By the 1930s, however, many children of the first wave of New Immigrants were speaking English, voting, going to the movies, wearing "American" clothes and holding stable jobs -- as well as trying to keep blacks out of their unions and neighborhoods. American citizenship was not a right for individuals but a competition among groups, and the children of immigrants believed -- rightly -- that membership in the white people's tribe was the most powerful form of assimilation of all.