|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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