My family doesn’t trace lineage to the Mayflower, played no roles in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War. And I don’t remember anyone referring to our grandparents and great grandparents as “migrants”; they were “immigrants,” people from specific European places seeking new lives in America. And, in those days, roughly from the Civil War to 1900, the biggest groups of immigrants to the United States were German speaking people from war-tossed, shifting borderlands across Northern Europe. Further north, Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians joined the emigration to America, theirs an escape from family farms that had been whittled, generation by generation, to parcels unable to support families.Read Rich’s Post →
My last rambling blog post tried to link missionaries Whitman and Spalding, Catholic and anti-Catholic Northwesterners, Yale historians, Manifest Destiny, the Fur Trade, Whitman College and Bison Books into a tidy essay on history and historiography. I could have done a blog post on each, I imagine, rather than make that untidy bundle.Read Rich’s Post →
And immigration too. If we think about it, we, as individuals, families, communities, and a nation are conflicted about both race and immigration, and always have been. This came to mind this week with news that White House advisor Stephen Miller was exposed as having advocated blatantly white nationalist literature. This is the same Miller who designed many of the president’s border and overall immigration policies: the anti-Muslim travel bans, border policies on separating children and families, etc.
I say we are conflicted about immigration and race because most of us in this country trace ourselves—proudly—to immigrant forbearers. My family arrived from Germany and Norway in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When I lived in California, many of my Mexican classmates and neighbors lived in ancestral places and houses, when they were part of Mexico! Anyone who can trace ancestry to African-American slaves has, along with the Mexican-Americans sited above—and many more in Arizona and New Mexico—been “American” in family much longer than I have. “Immigrant” is a conflicted term!
We are conflicted about color and race because white has not always been white enough. When Irish, Greek, and Italian immigrants came to America, most of them huddled in ethnic enclaves in Eastern cities, took jobs that proper white Americans did not want (sometimes jobs that had been done by slaves before our grueling Civil War). The promulgators of Manifest Destiny, like all but seven or eight of our 45 presidents, were “Anglo-Americans” who saw this country as the natural heir to the British Empire, the new arrow of Civilization.
Jewish immigrants have their own sad stories of not being white enough. In the run-up to WW II, in 1939, a ship with 937 refugees fleeing Nazi Germany landed in Havana, Cuba, where 28 passengers were allowed to debark—The US and Canada then refused to allow any departures, and the ship returned to Europe, where the
Holocaust was unfolding.
Subsequent American actions helped staunch the Nazi Anti-Semitic Aryan nationalist movement, and, in the process brought white Italian, Irish, Scandinavian, German and Jewish Americans together with Anglo-Americans and called them all white. Black troops served in a segregated military through that war; integration of the military occurred in 1948.
Majority society’s attitudes about ethnicity are most conflicted when it comes to the original Americans—misnamed from the beginning, “Indians.” The Indians were ravaged by European diseases, and drastically reduced in population as the country moved west and appropriated Indian lands through wars, fraudulent treaties, and overwhelming numbers.
There were always partisans who acknowledged these takeovers with minor or major misgivings. Official policy—and the accepted attitude of most Americans—became one of “assimilation,” making Indians white. The most generous advocates for Indians thought their cultures interesting and worthy of holding in museums, but also thought that the only way to save them was to “kill the Indian and save the man” in boarding schools and through policies that would make Indians farmers, make them city dwellers, make them white.
The Indian population of the country has rebounded from a low of 237,000 in the 1890s to over five million today—a population intent on saving and advancing ancient languages and cultures. Maybe most telling is the number of white Americans who now proudly claim a half-Cherokee grandmother or some other tie to the original Americans. Conflicted on ethnicity.
Not Stephen Miller. The new information about him follows an election and three years of rhetoric from the president and advisors that touches on—or settles squarely on—race. I believe that the election and support of this president is firmly rooted in race. Italian -Americans and Anglo-Americans, who once were divided by concepts of race, have made up and married and now fear the day when non-white Americans will be a majority in the country.
Yes, some religious conservatives look past anti-immigrant policies and continuing convictions of corrupt officials to the appointment of anti-abortion judges. And other traditional conservatives look past offensive remarks and actions to tax cuts and robust returns on investments. But the hard core of support for the current political regime is racial fear.
And that fear of becoming some kind of minority in “our own land” allows the likes of Stephen Miller to advocate racist policies in the White House and, importantly, engenders a quiet acquiescence to overt white nationalism and white supremacism among a large number of Americans.
In Wallowa County and majority white communities like ours, we support our Mexican, Thai, and Chinese restaurants, and hire Mexican crews from outside the area to sheetrock our homes and work in our fields, but fear the floodgates of new immigrants and the tilt of the nation-wide racial balance.
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A few years ago my sister had a DNA profile done. To her surprise, the family stories, passed down from Minnesota Germans and Norwegians, that said our mother’s people were pure Scandinavian and dad’s side was all German, turned out to be more complicated.
Our maternal grandfather came to Minnesota from Hadland, Norway, in the early 1900s, when he was in his teens. He married another Norwegian, whose family had arrived in Minnesota in the 1880s, and they made a family. They spoke Norwegian at home—until mom, their first child, went to school and was made fun of by other kids. Although grandpa spoke with a severe accent, the slap at his daughter rankled him, and he had enough English to declare himself American and English as the language spoken in the house from that day forward.
Dad’s side is a little murkier, but Wandschneiders and Steindorfs came to the States in the great migration out of Germany in the late 1800s. Grandmother was a Steindorf born and raised in Minnesota; our grandfather was not yet two on his arrival. Dad said that his grandparents did not speak English, but we never knew them, and I never heard his parents—our own grandparents—speak German. Maybe they too had decided “to be American.”
Here is the DNA breakdown that my sister got back from the testers:
West & Central Europe—17%
And then traces from Africa and South America!
Two thoughts came immediately to my mind: the marauding Vikings and the shifting borders in Central and Eastern Europe. Germans and Germanic people have slipped and slid across empires and countries from Central Asia to Western Europe for millennia. And the Norsemen made repeated raids in the British Isles, and certainly brought women home with them. Their travels also included the Mediterranean, where they would have run into slavers that might account for African traces. Viking travels and world-wide slavery can probably also account for South American traces.
Borders have always shifted and people have always traveled–even before there were nations. The first thing to remember is that nation-states are a relatively recent historical category, that more than likely most of the world for most of history identified by local tribe—and language—rather than as members of a German, Norwegian, or Ghanaian nation.
Which ties into my interest in the twin evolutions of Manifest Destiny and the American concept of whiteness. In a review of a new book, Making the White Man’s West: Whiteness and the Creation of the American West, by Jason Pierce, in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Jennifer Kerns explains how Anglo-Americans fueled the westward movement and the taking of Indian lands as “lesser” groups of whites—Irish, Slavs, Eastern Europeans—filled eastern cities and industrial jobs: “Boosters of the West… intellectually imagined the West as a restorative place for Anglo pioneers whose inherent character was at risk of decline when located in the urban East among ‘motley’ immigrants.” I’ve said it before: In its time Manifest Destiny was not about the white—or even European—westward expansion. It was about the Anglo notion of empire and superiority being passed from British Anglos to Anglo-Americans.
Jason Pierce also explains how the railroads, operating with the largesse of the federal government in allotting them Western lands, went to Europe and recruited Germans and Scandinavians they thought hardier and more industrious than other whites. So these Scandinavian and German men (because our history is almost always about men) eventually joined the lead—Anglo-American—jockeys riding Manifest Destiny to the Pacific Ocean.
Only later, in my mind after and in part as a consequence of World War II, did those “lesser” groups of whites become the right kind of white.
The Indians were more complicated. Apparently some early Puritans thought them one of Israel’s lost tribes, and the Mormons found a special place for them in their theology. Some Europeans even mimicked or joined tribal peoples, but for the most part, from Plymouth forward, the Indians were only an obstacle for Anglo-Americans on their march to the Western Sea. Indians–who had grown across two continents and evolved 2500 languages and tribal cultures–died of diseases the immigrants brought from another world, fought when they could, continued to move and mix genes with other tribes and eventually with some Euro-Americans, and miraculously held onto some older languages and markers of identity.
The new DNA analysis business shows us a world as complicated as the 2500 indigenous American languages added to those of other continents. And “the right kind of white,” like my sister’s DNA, is obviously more complicated than many of its defenders would like to know. What modern DNA analyses tell us is that ultimately, as far as the human race is concerned, we’re all related.
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|American Progress, by John Gast 1872
Manifest Destiny was an idea long before it had a name, and what it was really about was not the “white man’s burden,” but an Anglo-American one, the idea that the arrow of civilization and mantle of world leadership had passed from the British Empire to the emerging Anglo-American Empire. The accession of Mexican lands and the Philippines, adventures in Central America, and most importantly for our own national history, the Westward Expansion that displaced Indians and seized tribal lands across the continent, were all part of a grand idea that Anglo-American civilization was destined to lead the entire world.
From the founding of the United States forward, Anglo-Americans were in political control: immigrants from other European places grouped themselves in Eastern city neighborhoods and on Midwestern farms—Greeks, Irish, Scandinavians, Bohemians, Slavs and Jews from Central Europe and more. German immigrants—the largest share of all immigrants between 1850 and 1900—built factories and Midwestern cities. They were white, but not Anglo-white, and while the Irish and Italians ran their neighborhoods and Germans made beer, Anglos ran national politics. Thirty-eight of our Presidents trace ancestry to the British Isles, Eisenhower was the first German-American, Kennedy the first Catholic.
The West was historically a sparsely populated region whose natural resources and agricultural possibilities dazzled and attracted people from the “United States” and countries around the world. Spaniards, Mexicans, and Indian workers dealt early in tallow and hides. The Chinese came to build railroads and work in mines, and Filipinos and other Asians came to Hawaii to work in fields, and then hopped to the Mainland. In other words, from territorial days and Mexican, Russian, and British claims forward, the West was more colorful than the East, but not as politically powerful.
European westward settlement proceeded over decades; twentieth century wars transformed the country in months. Especially World War II, a bi-coastal war that brought tens of thousands of young American men from across the country to camps in California and Washington on their way to war. Men, and women too, moved to shipyards on the West coast, and thousands came to Los Alamos and Hanford to work on the atomic bomb. In 1994, historian Richard White told an Oregon Fishtrap audience examining change in the West that “prior to WW II the West was a hard-scrabble place looking for population, capital, and an industrial base. WW II gave the West all three.”
African-Americans came too, but the military was strictly segregated (until 1948), as were shipyards and Hanford workers barracks. So while Anglo-Americans and Italian-Americans, Scandinavians and even Jews served together, lived and mixed together in war and at home, blacks were firmly separated.
At that same Fishtrap conference, historian Alvin Josephy, who had been a Marine Corps journalist in the Pacific, said that WW II didn’t unite the country—the G.I. Bill did. What we didn’t talk about, and what seems clear to me now, is that WW II and the G.I. Bill that followed united “white America,” and laid the ground for what is dividing us now.
African-Americans, who’d traveled north and west to work in urban factories since the early 1900s, found no place in the emerging post-WW II suburbs, where William Levitt, his followers, and the GI Bill used federal money to build tract homes for the mixed ethnic bag of white WW II veterans. Federal money supported suburban infrastructure while it ignored deteriorating urban infrastructure in city cores which were becoming increasingly black; and federal policy winked or ignored redlining as suburbs stayed white.
But WW II showed blacks other worlds too, and soon baseball and the military were integrated, a Civil Rights Bill was passed, and the reign of Anglo presidents finally gave way to the Irish, to a poor white Southerner, and, finally, to an African-American.
Today, the old ethnic and “tribal” identities are jumbled and waiting for DNA counts to tell us who we are—or were. Families are split across the country. There are more and more boxes on government forms—and the easy response from far too many is to scream “White!”
Maybe in New York City, long a landing place for new immigrants, and here on the West Coast, where soldiers have long settled down with war brides and wars have deposited millions of Asian refugees, where opportunism and intermarriage have stirred the pot harder, a new multi-cultural identity is growing. But here and everywhere there are too many pockets of Supremacists, people who want the white back they thought they always had, people who lost their own anchors of place and “ethnic identity” sometime around 1944.
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I believe that Manifest Destiny was the nineteenth century idea that the United States of American—led by Anglo-Americans—was picking up the mantel of world leadership and the white man’s burden from the British Empire and would become greater than its predecessor. I think it was an idea that began decades before its formal declaration, and continues in some diminished way to the present.
I think that Manifest Destiny was not about white Greeks and Bohunks, Irishmen, and Swedes. I think that “white” didn’t become a standard classification to include all Americans of European ancestry until after WW 2, when Bohemians and Swedes, Greeks, Italians, and Irishmen all served together. Until then—even through the Dutch-American Roosevelts, Anglo-Americans were the ideal, and the story of Manifest Destiny their story of crusading against and bringing Civilization to a vast wilderness. (Which of course leads to totally ambivalent attitudes towards American Indians—but that is another story.)
If you look at one factor only, the ethnicity of our presidents, fully 38 of the 44 Presidents’ backgrounds, and 39 if you count Trump’s maternal side, are from the British Isles. Until about 1950, Scandinavians were farming; Germans were brewing and baking and doing business. National political leadership was left to or taken by Anglo-Americans.
Eisenhower was our first German American President, Kennedy the first Irish—and Catholic—President. The clump at the top of this chart doesn’t really break apart until after WW 2.
The other whites. The vast majority of early non-Anglo European immigrants to the U.S. came to Northern cities and Midwest farms. Northern cities were made up of ethnic neighborhoods, where Italian, Polish, Irish, and other non-Anglo European-American groups clustered. Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics often attended their own churches in adjoining neibhborhoods.
In my Minnesota birth town several Lutheran churches ministered to their unique immigrant communities. The German Lutheran Church still used the German language; the Swedish Lutheran Church used Swedish. The largely Scandinavian population who had fled farms too divided to maintain and sustain found farms in Minnesota and the Dakotas that had some resemblance to country they had left. Willa Cather found Bohemian farmers in Nebraska in the same circumstance.
But, you say, under Jim Crow, Southern restaurants, public restrooms and drinking fountains said “whites only” and not “Anglo only”? Although I do not have experience in the South, my reading is that Southern culture was long dominated by Anglo-Americans—maybe beginning with Jamestown. That domination hiccupped during the Civil War and Reconstruction, then continued until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
At a church meeting in Washington D.C. in 1968, not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, I heard a white woman from South Carolina—and significantly, I do not remember her name or ethnic identity—describe herself as “white trash.” She said that that she and her kind were looked down on by the region’s leaders, but given racism as a way to make them feel superior to someone while keeping them in their place. If this is true, “whites only” was a crude tool left in the wake of failed “Reconstruction” to keep the original, largely Anglo slave owners in control.
To bolster my theory about the impact of WW 2 on homogenizing white in America, remember that troops were totally segregated through the War; the military was integrated by President Truman in 1948.
I think one can also argue that ethnicity had, from the 19th century on, through the period noted as Manifest Destiny, been of less concern on the Frontier. People left old homes and alliances to move West—and the intermingling was almost immediate. In Wallowa County where I live, there were not enough French Canadian DeBoies and Beaudoins to keep intermarriage of that ethnic group sustained.
We should also remember that the Great Migration of Southern Blacks is recent; 1916-1970 are the normal given dates. And Blacks did displace some ethnic neighborhoods as whites moved to GI housing in all-white but ethnically mixed suburbs.
All of this is to say that the renewed concern about race in America is different from racist attitudes of other days. And that my hunch is that WW 2 kicked off the new divisions that have worked their way to Trump and some of his angry followers.
So today, many whites of all stripes feel threatened—and united in their fears—by sixty years of Civil Rights legislation, legal immigration from many continents, and the economic jostling at the southern border that just might have started with the Bracero program of WW 2.
And by the advent of an African American President.
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|1738 Indenture contract signed with an X