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Excluding newcomers is a tradition as old as the Republic

April 5, 2019

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“Those [immigrants] who come…are generally of the most ignorant stupid sort…they will soon so outnumber us that…we will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious… and [they] will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

Who raised this bluntly racist alarm? The Christchurch shooter? The Pittsburgh synagogue murderer? An anonymous white supremacist troll in some dark corner of the internet?

Benjamin Franklin.

Writing in 1751 in his “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” about a wave of German immigrants to Pennsylvania that he was afraid were “so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them,” Franklin used anti-immigrant tropes that feel eerily familiar to those we hear today about very different populations.

The fear that we are being sent the “dregs” of another country — the idea that whomever the most recent immigrants are will not learn English and will not assimilate into American culture, or that they will somehow destabilize our political system — are fears we have heard echo throughout U.S. history.

While Franklin was alarmed by German Protestants, these same fears have been raised about Catholics, Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, Latino people, Muslims. The list goes on and on and on. While the names of the villains in the story changes, the plot remains wearily the same.

I regularly lecture on the history of American immigration policy and America’s longstanding love-hate relationship with immigration, and use the Franklin quote early in the lecture to illustrate the ambivalence that has marked that relationship since colonial times. Audiences are routinely shocked and confused by the quote. The shock comes from hearing such crude language come from a beloved Founding Father. It is never fun to learn one’s heroes have feet of clay.

The confusion is more complicated, and comes from the last bit of the quote: “[they] will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion” (emphasis mine). Audiences are puzzled by this. Don’t Germans and English people have the same complexions? Aren’t they both white?

Not in the 1700s.

Our notions of “race” have evolved over time and, in the 18th century, what we now consider different European “ethnicities” were seen as distinct “races” with very different places in a rigid racial hierarchy.

Franklin saw the English “race” as superior to the German race and definitely superior to the Irish, a common attitude among those of English descent at the time. African-Americans, and of course African slaves, were relegated to the bottom of this hierarchy.

Nonetheless, this attitude toward the Irish was so prevalent in the U.S. in the 19th century that Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine in the 1840’s were routinely depicted as apes in political cartoons of the day, a fact which startles many of the visitors taking our “Irish Outsiders” tour at the Tenement Museum, where I serve as president.

In the late 19th century, racism reared its ugly head in the passage of the first major immigration restriction in American history. Alarmed by the influx of Chinese immigrants, who were seen as taking American jobs, politicians like Denis Kearney, a labor leader and (somewhat ironically) himself an Irish immigrant, wrote in the manifesto of his Workingman’s Party in 1879 that:  ”We declare that white men, and women, and boys, and girls, cannot live as the people of the great republic should and compete with the single Chinese in the labor market,” going on to say, “To an American, death is preferable to life on par with the Chinaman.”

Prompted by agitation like Kearney’s, Congress would enact the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, a sweeping piece of legislation that would de facto ban the entry of Chinese people for close to a century.

By the early 20th century, though, the racial hierarchy had shifted again, with the Irish, the Germans, the English and the Scandinavians — once seen as distinct races — now being seen as one group (the “Nordic” race) that was racially superior to those of Southern and Eastern European descent.

With large numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans entering the U.S., the alarm was raised at a new group of people deemed to be “racially inferior.”

In 1927, Washington Congressman Albert Johnson spoke of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europeans as a “a stream of alien blood” threatening to corrupt the “pure” blood of the Nordic peoples. Such sentiments had led to the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924, of which Johnson was an architect, placing strict quotas on how many immigrants could come from each nation. It essentially choked off immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe while also broadening the Chinese Exclusion Act to cover virtually all people of Asian descent. It would not be until the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 that America would open its doors to immigrants on a broad scale again.

Today this all seems silly, as we consider people of European descent to be white, period, whether they are English, Irish, German, Italian or Polish. We teach this history at the Tenement Museum precisely to remind our visitors how our notions of “race” are fluid and continue to evolve. A recent conversation I had points this out: I noted with pride that the student body of my alma mater, Harvard, is now majority people of color. A fellow (white) alum replied, “Well, I guess that’s true, if you count Asians as people of color.” Was he suggesting that Asians are now “white”? Having once been excluded because they were seen as being of a different race, were Asians no longer seen as such by my friend?

From Germans protesting the Irish in the 19th century to the Germans, Irish and Italians opposing African-American communities who were flocking to Northern cities during the Great Migration, race has and is a tool used by the powerful against the powerless, who are typically newcomers.

Those newcomers often settled in tenements in the Lower East Side, and we acknowledge that despite living side by side and in similar conditions, tenement dwellers — from the Irish to the Italian to the Chinese — did not always see their neighbors as racially equal. By looking at the history of the Lower East Side in this deeply intimate manner, we reinforce the sheer absurdity of such judgements, both from person-to-person and from the government itself.

Despite this dark history, there are certainly moments of light. Take what Sarah Burinescu, one of the former residents of 97 Orchard, the historic tenement building at the heart of the Tenement Museum, would tell her daughter, Jacqueline, about her neighbors:

“You learn to judge people by themselves and not what they are.’ And that’s how we made friends.  There’s good and bad in every race, creed, or color.  So, you stay away from troublemakers and you make friends with the nice people.”

We as a nation would be wise to take Sarah’s advice to heart.

Jennings is president of The Tenement Museum. He served as assistant deputy secretary of education under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011.


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