Between 1880 and 1930, despite heavy restrictions on immigration, millions of people from Eastern and Southern Europe emigrated to the United States. As they settled into the urban cities, native-born and second-generation American citizens saw these immigrants and their foreign values and behaviors as a threat and thus sought to “Americanize” and assimilate them into the mainstream American society. However, Americanization in the eyes of the native-born was different from how immigrants understood Americanization. There were formal institutions for learning English and the American government system but the new immigrants learned just as much about the American way of life on the factory floor from their co-workers, on the streets from gangs, and at radical political party rallies from the Socialist recruiters.
The three major factors in the Americanization process were the influence of Irish American culture, the working class culture, and the “support” for a melting pot society.
The Irish were unavoidable in the urban cities of the Northeast and Midwest. By 1920, ninety percent of the urban population was Irish and they were dispersed throughout the inner city and the city limits (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 4).
If a new immigrant moved to New York or Chicago, their neighbors were most likely Irish. For many new immigrants, whose lives remained within the city limits where there was work, the Irish people were American people and if they were to learn the American way of life, it was the Irish and their way of life that they observed (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 4). Irish American women played a vital role in the process of Americanization as public school teachers, as labor organizers and social reform activists, as marriage partners with men from various ethnic backgrounds, and as spouses and mothers within the Irish American community helping to produce notions of citizenship (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 6).
Irish street gangs also helped Americanize the immigrants; specifically, they taught them the importance of racial boundaries. Unlike some street gangs which are mostly defensive (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 8), Irish gangs went out looking for fights, even if it meant fighting amongst themselves (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 9). As the first immigrant group to settle in American cities, they managed to gain control of much of the residential space and move slightly up the social hierarchy where they were factory foremen and store clerks. They resented any incursion by other ethnic groups for fear that their bosses would give job preferences to foreigners willing to work for little money (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 9). There was also a fear of interracial marriage and romances and a general sense of entitlement to an entire neighborhood (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 9). So, they created ethnic spaces that persisted for decades and were validated by adults.
The other immigrants as well as African-American migrants learned and imitated this exclusive attitude and formed street gangs themselves. Certain streets like Wentworth Avenue in Chicago remained a site for racial conflict long after the Race Riot of 1919 (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 8). The obsession with race and racism became a part of the American identity. The Irish also tried to Americanize the Catholic Church but this Americanization was very different from the Anglo-American nativist Americanization. With the exception of the Jews, most if not all of the new immigrants were Catholic (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 4) like the Irish but their ideologies varied greatly. Most of the new immigrants considered the “Americanization” of the Catholic Church more like “Hibernicization” instead since the Irish wanted the immigrants to adhere to Irish Catholic ideologies (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 19).
The Irish saw the festas, folk festivals dedicated to a community’s patron saint and central to a peasant’s religious life, as barbaric (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 21). Some of the new immigrants did not go to church every Sunday or contribute towards the collection box every Sunday. In contrast, the conservative Irish were well-known for their reverence. They would attend Mass at least weekly and one would notice that in the Irish enclaves there was a church every three or four streets (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 21). Some Italian enclaves did not have a church at all and some Italians called “priest eaters” were even hostile towards Catholic bishops (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 20), considering their religion as distinct from the institutional church (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 21). Americans, Protestants, and Catholics came to regard the Italians as little better than pagans and idolaters (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 22) and great effort was made to stamp out Italian free thought.
As far as the native-born Irishmen were concerned, in order to be a good American, one needed to be a devout Irish Catholic. Even though priests and nuns followed their congregation from the Old World and built ethnically based religious schools, hospitals, and other social institutions, the people holding authority over these places were usually Irish (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 17). This was not always a bad thing though since the Irish leaders often supported progressive positions on welfare policies such as pensions, public housing, social insurance, the right to organize, and many other social issues that their Eastern and Southern European followers were interested in (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 25). Irish Catholic nuns also played a vital role in Americanizing more recent immigrant children in the parochial schools (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 19). Supervisors and foremen were constantly teaching immigrant laborers how things worked in American factories, specifically who was in charge, to do what they were told, and to keep working (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 1004).
Many companies either sponsored their own English instruction and citizenship classes or worked in conjunction with the YMCA and other agencies to put on evening or plant classes (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 1003). Steel mills, meat packers, and textile plants established acculturation programs similar to Henry Ford’s Five Dollar Day plan where case workers would investigate the immigrant’s work record and his home life to see if he qualified for the five dollar incentive pay. Ford argued that these men must be taught American ways, learn to speak English, and the right way to live (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 1003). He even went so far as to fire nine hundred Greek and Russian workers who missed work because they celebrated Orthodox Christmas, which took place thirteen days after December 25th, to show that immigrant laborers must observe American holidays (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 1003).
The earlier generation of immigrants, who had lived in the United States for less than a decade, had developed ways to cope with these rigors of wage labor and had years of urban and industrial experience. The new immigrants along with Black and Mexican migrant workers also learned to coexist and learn from these “old” immigrants. Racism did occur since these old immigrants were comprised of British, German, Scandinavians, English-speaking Canadians, and Irish laborers. However, these people understood the value of interethnic cooperation and thus a new working class culture was born. Many of the ideas, organizations, and institutions commonly associated with the working class culture today developed out of Old World values and experiences but applied to America’s industrial setting (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 999-1000).
There was a high advocacy for trade unionism and Socialism which praised the laborer. Reading material that the immigrants had access to preached the values of atheism, health foods, popular science, temperance, etc (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 1006). Many educated and politically active immigrant laborers from various ethnic backgrounds and joined the Socialist Labor party and the Communist party. They shared a vision of a new and better world where laborers could have access to the kind of wealth that their bosses had (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 1007). Activists encouraged immigrants to practice their Constitutional right of free speech and defend themselves, to speak out against long work days, unfair foremen, and poor working conditions which were “against the Constitution” (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 1009).
How were they supposed to raise their children as good “American” children with “American” standards of living without higher wages, shorter work days, and better working conditions (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 1009)? When unions organized, all racial, religious, and cultural barriers went away. As far as they were concerned, class struggle was more important than race struggle (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 1006). The labor union was the only place the Slavs, Lithuanians, Germans, and Irish mixed together well until mixing along other lines eventually came into play (“Americanization from the Bottom Up” 1010). This certainly was not the kind of Americanization that employers and the native-born citizens had in mind but it was how many new immigrants discovered America. The social construction of whiteness was also vital in the Americanization process. The new immigrants had status as “in-between” people, better than the Asians and Blacks but also below “white” people (“Inbetween Peoples”, 4).
The immigrant working class was referred to as “temporary Negroes” and the Greek Americans in the Midwest would be perceived as Mexican, mulatto, Puerto Rican, or Arab (“Inbetween Peoples”, 8). The Italians were called the “Chinese of Europe” and at the same time as “black as the blackest negro in existence” (“Inbetween Peoples”, 8-9). It was not just informal racism from native-born citizens that the immigrants faced; they also had to contend with the institutionalized racism. There was especially great fear over interracial relationships despite their infrequency. An immigrant woman could be prosecuted for race-mixing and a native-born woman could lose her citizenship if either became involved with immigrant men categorized as non-white (“Inbetween Peoples”, 5).
U.S. naturalization laws focused heavily on race, consistently preventing any non-whites from gaining citizenship (“Inbetween Peoples”, 9). European immigrants would be allowed into the country being perceived as white and would usually be granted their whiteness in naturalization cases in the courthouses only to have their racial status and their fitness for citizenship constantly questioned by the public (“Inbetween Peoples”, 10) Thus, an Americanization effort was mounted where the mixing of the Eastern and Southeastern European races and the “white” English-speaking race of Americans would make the nation stronger as a whole. Black, Asian, and Mexican migrants were consistently excluded from this process since they were consistently perceived as non-white and therefore unfit for citizenship (“Inbetween Peoples”, 10).
Nonetheless, there was harsh opposition from both Conservative and Progressive Americans who believed in Eugenics and were afraid that the “inferior races” would ruin the American race. They believed that the violence and brutality associated with Italian stereotypes could be inherited genetically and would cause a moral deterioration of the country (“Inbetween Peoples”, 12). Some supporters of the melting pot did not want the English-speaking races overrun with un-American Slavic and Southern-European biology as if language and culture were also things that could be inherited genetically (“Inbetween Peoples”, 12). Also, having a pale skin color and the ability to speak English did not always ensure that one could become white. For example, in the South, an American would not engage in agricultural, manual labor, that was work for the Negroes.
Naturally, seeing that the Italians were willing to do this work, U.S. Southerners concluded that Italians were un-American and lacked dignity (“Inbetween Peoples”, 32). During World War I, the status of recent immigrants as Americans especially came under scrutiny because the native-born citizens wanted to know whether the immigrants’ political loyalty lied with the United States or their mother country. In order to be one hundred percent white and one hundred percent American, immigrants had to completely abandon all sense of national pride and identify completely with the United States. A large part of the immigrant population did so willingly while some immigrants like the Jews and Italians chose to identify with nonwhites with whom they often shared their lives with.
In general, the new immigrants chose not to talk about race whenever possible and instead focused on nationality and loyalty to American ideals (“Inbetween Peoples”, 31). Americanization for the new immigrants meant various things depending on where in the U.S. they lived and who they encountered. It was a lifelong process that involved daily observation and learning new ideas from a wide variety of sources such as the vaudeville house, the saloon, the workplace, and the street corner. Americanization was just as much about establishing race and class divisions as it was about integrating the Eastern and Southern European immigrant groups with the Northern Europeans. It was usually a coercive process since their lives and their jobs were dependent upon them becoming American.