Working Toward Whiteness by David Roediger - Book Review

By Clinton Sandvick

Immigrant inspection at Ellis Island

David Roediger’s book Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs continues his provocative exploration of whiteness studies by examining how southern and eastern European immigrants became white during the first half of the twentieth century. Roediger argues that “the long, circuitous process by which ‘new immigrants’ became ‘white ethnics’” matters. He recasts immigrant “ethnic” history as a part of American racial history, examines the in-between nature of the immigrants’ race and explains how a number of changes in race relations, housing, and the Progressive New Deal policies ultimately whitened the immigrants. The immigrants’ ticket price for becoming white required them to sacrifice their own heritage and take part in a political alliance which focused on the continued exclusion of nonwhites, most notably African Americans.

From 1890 through 1924, the United States faced a wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. These new immigrants challenged Americans’ fundamental understanding of race. Roediger states “[t]he racial landscape discovered gradually by new immigrants to the United States was a mess.” American racial views were maddeningly inconsistent and regional. By the 1920s, American nativism and organized racism were strengthened by this wave of immigration, but it was not universal. There was no agreement in white America whether these new immigrants could or even should be assimilated into America. Roediger defines these recent immigrants as neither white nor black, but “in-between.” He highlights how being racially in-between affected the immigrants and their ultimately successful attempts to become white.

The immigrants brought their own racial attitudes toward America and they believed that they were white. They were surprised to learn upon arrival that they were not white Regardless of their own racial attitudes it quickly became apparent that they did not want to be categorized as Black. While white America discriminated against recent immigrants, Roediger makes it clear that African and Chinese Americans still faced much worse discrimination and racial violence.

Roediger begins his discussion by explaining how Americans in the first half of the twentieth century viewed race and the new immigrants’ place in it. His examination of the political, legal, popular and academic sources is illuminating because he observes that Americans sorted the new immigrants based on their understanding of race, not ethnicity. Americans did not embrace the modern nuanced usage of ethnicity until the 1960s. He essentially recasts immigrant history in terms of American racial history.

Working Toward Whiteness by David Roediger

While white Americans generally excluded the new immigrants from the white race and perceived them as inferior, the state’s view of these individuals was more muddled. Under American immigration laws, whites could be naturalized as American citizens. Recent immigrants had an interest in portraying themselves as white in court to be naturalized. These legal actions forced the courts to determine who was white on a case by case basis. In 1923, the Supreme Court in the Thind case gave up in trying to scientifically determine race and instead developed a rule utilizing the “common speech” or “popular understanding” of whiteness. This rule was, not surprisingly, unhelpful because Americans themselves did not know who among the new immigrants could or should be classified as white. Recent arrivals challenged Americans notions of whiteness because it included skin color, nationality, and religion.

Roediger provides of illustrative example of this confusion, “[i]f, for example, an immigrant from Sicily walked about a city long enough or frequented universities and governmental institutions, she could accumulate racial labels indefinitely, finding herself part of the Latin, mixed (with Africans), new immigrant, southern European, Mediterranean, Italian, South Italian, Catholic, non-English speaking, Caucasian, white, and dark races.” Roediger argues that the only certainty in race relations was that African Americans were still at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. Ultimately, Roediger states that the courts consistently allowed new immigrants who were of ambiguous European origins to be naturalized while denying that right to non-Europeans.

In addition to navigating America’s muddled racial waters in court, new immigrants faced confusing race relations in the labor market. Roediger states that immigrants were typically excluded from specialized skilled jobs and limited to difficult or tough jobs. Often immigrants competed with African Americans for jobs at the bottom rung of the labor market. To emphasize this point, Roediger discusses the racial slur “hunky” (used commonly to describe Slavic immigrants.) Slavic workers were concentrated in dangerous jobs in the railroad industry and over time, this slur was used to describe not just Slavs, but disabled railroad workers.

Roediger argues that while the Johnson-Reed Act Immigration of 1924 was intended to stop the flow of southern and eastern Europeans into the United States, instead it helped ensure that the new immigrants would assimilate and become white. The second and third generation immigrants gradually became less distinguishable from white Americans. Roediger states that when the European immigration was stopped, businesses in the North and Midwest were forced to look to southern African Americans as labor. Immigrants’ views of African Americans hardened as they began to perceive themselves as white and they too began to frequently discriminate against them.

Roosevelt’s New Deal also facilitated the whitening of the new immigrants by subsidizing white housing and programs that benefited white America disproportionately. Roosevelt’s alliance with and naturalized recent immigrants and Southern Democrats ensured that the reforms of the New Deal struck stark lines between black and white. By aligning themselves politically with Roosevelt, the new immigrants profited. Roediger argues that the new housing policies pushed immigrants and their families out of the slums and into homes in the suburbs. Unlike the immigrants, African Americans were excluded from home ownership in the suburbs by the use of restrictive racial covenants and institutionally racist lending practices.

While Roediger loses steam in his discussions of the CIO near the end of his book, this eloquent and well-researched book provides a satisfying explanation for how the new immigrants became white. Typically, this transformation from in-between to white has been seen as a product of the Second World War, but America’s racial attitudes did not change overnight. Instead of simplifying this transformation, Roediger has developed a strong thesis which emphasizes the importance of the passage the New Deal, the Johnson-Reed Act and acceptance by the recent immigrant of white American nationalism. This book is essential for understanding the modern notions of American whiteness.