Red, Brown, and Blue: How our definition of whiteness has changed with each new wave of immigration--and how it needs to change again

Destination Casa Blanca's host Ray Suarez takes a look at a new history of immigration, and the opposition, in America....

One St. Patrick's Day in Chicago, back when I was working as a television reporter there in the 1980s, I wandered up and down the famous parade route on Dearborn Street and asked people in green plastic derbies and kelly-green sweatshirts about the content of Irishness. What were the markers? What did it mean to be Irish? Almost no one had an answer that made any sense. Several people cited devotion to family. Many mentioned the Catholic Church. But most could not name anything that made being ethnically Irish different from being anything else.

As an admirer and student of Irish culture and history, I was stunned that I could talk to as many people as I did, all self-identifying as ethnically Irish, and come away with so little. Literature? Art? Joyce? Yeats? Ireland's suffering at the hands of the British? If family devotion and fealty to the Church were the only markers of Irishness, then being Irish was no different from being Italian, Polish, or Croatian. Or Mexican, for that matter.

On another day, I was assigned to cover the approaching end of farming in Cook County. I headed out to a remote corner of the county once solely devoted to growing corn, wheat, and soybeans. On the way to the farm, I noticed that one of the streets we passed had the same Germanic name as the farmer we were set to interview, and made a mental note to ask him about it.

I walked through the neat rows of corn with a pleasant man in his late twenties as he talked about where he was going to move after the rented land he was farming was graded for a subdivision. I asked about the street and whether it was named for his family. He said it was, that his family had settled in that part of Cook County just before the Civil War.

"Where did they come from?" I asked.

He paused. "Uhhhh . . . Germany, I guess."

In Not Fit for Our Society, Peter Schrag takes us back to the immigration battles that rocked the early United States, as successive waves of newcomers forced the young nation, again and again, to confront difficult questions about assimilation and acculturation. Schrag, a naturalized American who came here as a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany, makes a simple proposition: that just as it is true that the United States has always been a nation of immigrants, it has also always been a nation of immigration restrictionists. There is a centuries-long history of immigration battles the happy parade-goers in Chicago, the presumably German-American farmer in the Cook suburbs, and millions more Americans across the country forget, or want to forget. "Our contemporary immigration battles," Schrag writes, "particularly the ideas and proposals of latter-day nativists and immigration restrictionists resonate with the arguments of more than two centuries of that history." The nineteenth- and twentieth-century arguments got as nasty, racist, and hyperbolic as anything we're hearing today with regard to Arizona's new law.

But Schrag's discussion goes beyond a mere retelling of the immigrant story into a probing meditation on race and ethnicity. He argues that just as assimilation and acculturation eventually broadened the definition of whiteness and American identity, so too will it happen with the coming generations of immigrants. Schrag notes the rapid changes in Latino families already in the United States, and presents the provocative proposal that they may someday resemble the Irish and the Germans in their ability to set aside, forget, and sentimentalize who they once were. The only question is whether the rest of America will let them join earlier arrivals in the act of forgetting.

In a quick sprint of some 232 pages, Not Fit for Our Society lays out a gripping history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigration and sets the scene for the new immigration battles about to be staged on Capitol Hill and across the country. Schrag draws strong parallels between the eugenicist arguments of early twentieth-century scientists like Lothrop Stoddard and Henry Goddard and the recent work of Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein. In 1912, Goddard warned of the birth of "more feeble-minded children with which to clog the wheels of human progress." Eight decades later, Herrnstein and Murray, writing in The Bell Curve, maintained that high levels of immigration lower the country's brainpower. In a March speech to a Tea Party convention in Nashville, former Congressman Tom Tancredo put it more bluntly: "People who could not even spell the word 'vote,' or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House."

Schrag walks the reader through the science and pseudoscience of race in nineteenth-century America. Using the new "sciences" of intelligence testing, racial anthropology, and eugenics, researchers claimed to discover a racial hierarchy among the world's peoples, and their findings swept through universities and scientific institutes. It found "Nordic" Europeans superior to so-called "Alpine" people, who were in turn superior to "Mediterranean" types. Writing in a journal called The Survey, Goddard found 82 percent of Russian immigrants, 80 percent of Hungarians, 79 percent of Italians, and 76 percent of Jews to be morons, and backed up his statistics by noting that Ellis Island was sending home more immigrants as feeble-minded every year.

I guess? I chewed on that answer for a long time afterwards. Would some future Suarez descendant, when asked whether he or she was Mexican or Central American or Caribbean, tell the questioner that one Raul Suarez came at some point in the twentieth century from "Puerto Rico, I guess"?