February 18, 2011

I have not been adding to my blog recently, as my time is consumed with revising my dissertation right now. There are a lot of history-related topics I have wanted to address, but I have held off. However, while summarizing a discussion in class this week -partly for the use of a disabled student who has difficulty taking her own notes, and partly for my own benefit and future use -I realized that the material could be adapted and shared with a broader audience (if they were interested.) I present below a generalized transcript of the class as I taught it- in "real time" there was a lot of socratic Q-and-A. The class is the second half of the U.S. history survey -The United States since 1877. Prof. David Roediger teaches the class, and I am one of several TAs; I lead three discussion sections with 25 students in each. Bear in mind that this is a basic overview of some very complex issues, many of which had to be dramatically simplified; any one of those could be expanded significantly, and in more depth.

Discussion of How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis

Racial Hierarchy, Immigration, and New York

OVERVIEW: We have been discussing How the Other Half Lives, the 1890 book by Danish-American photojournalist and social reformer Jacob Riis. This work caught the attention of middle-and-upper-class white America, exposing them to images from the most impoverished neighborhoods of New York City. We have examined the paradox that Riis, himself an immigrant seeking to bring attention to the plight of the poor with his photographs, expresses in the accompanying text many shocking (to modern readers) ethnic and racial stereotypes about the very people he is trying to help.

In going over the paper drafts I noticed that several people caught on to the fact that the old vs. new immigrant situation was important, but did not understand the details about that situation, thinking it was only a matter of “old” immigrants like Riis being more established and out of poverty. It was more complex.

America, from the time the first English colonies were established, has had a very rigid racial and social hierarchy (or “pecking order”.) That began to change somewhat in the 1960s and 70s, with the Civil Rights and women’s liberation movements and the election of JFK (an Irish Catholic), but is by no means gone completely. It was especially true during Riis’s time.

A hierarchy is a structure. If you wanted to rise to the top of that structure you had to be a WASP –a word that was pretty common when I was growing up in the 70s but isn’t heard that much anymore. WASP stands for “White Anglo Saxon Protestant.” (You could add the word “male” in there, too.) In other words, for most of American history, to be accepted at the highest levels of society you need to be descended from white English people.

As the “W” shows, that structure is racial as well as social. I demonstrate below a model of the racial hierarchy created in colonial America, which was the structure Southern culture was based on until the Civil War. Wealthy white planters were at the top of the structure, followed by artisans and craftsmen who would later be referred to as the middle class, then by a large number of poor whites. Below that is a thin layer –free blacks. There wasn’t a huge number of them. At the base of the structure were slaves- the foundation on which the whole culture was laid.

It was not in the best interests of the wealthy planters for poor whites and blacks to figure out they had anything in common –although in a lot of ways they had more in common with one another than with the other groups. These are the same tactics used in the 19th century to prevent blacks and whites from uniting in labor unions, as mentioned in lecture. Therefore, a line of demarcation was introduced into the structure:

It was, of course, a color line. Since this is a power structure, and white is on top, you could also call it a whiteness line. The people at the very top could tell poor whites: “Hey, maybe you don’t have as much money as us, or education, or opportunity… but at least you’re on the right side of The Line- you’re white, just like us, and that means we’re on the same side… and, if nothing else, you’ll always know you’re better than the people on the bottom side of the line.” Hence, poor whites in the South –who could not afford slaves, and probably never would –went out and fought for the right of wealthy whites to own slaves. Even though slavery meant poor whites had very few job opportunities. (NOTE: in the mountainous Southern Appalachians, where cotton could not be grown and there were few slaves, most poor whites supported the Union.)

We talked in an earlier class about the 1970s sit-com All in the Family. The character of Archie Bunker is a middle-aged, working class white man who is a) extremely bigoted and b)extremely upset about the ways the world he knows is rapidly changing. Archie grew up in an America where -even if he didn't have much going for him -at least he was better than those people. That position of security -being on the WASP team -gave him an innate sense of privilege which the socially progressive movements of the 60s and 70s threatened.

Now we will travel WAY back in time. “Anglo-Saxon” in WASP means “English.” Why is that? It comes from the names of two Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons. These groups migrated to the British Isles in the late Roman period (5th century C.E.) and came into conflict with the people who already lived there: Celtic groups including Britons, Gaels, and Picts. Eventually the Celtic people were pushed to the edges, in a sense: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. The Anglo-Saxons became what were later called English.

NOTE: These maps are much nicer than the ones I drew on the blackboard, which were abysmal.

The English viewed the other inhabitants of the British Isles as inferior, savage, and barbaric. It is safe to say that they didn’t always treat them very nicely. 18th century writer Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) wrote a famous satire of the heartless British policies towards Ireland in “A Modest Proposal,” in which he recommended that the English eat Irish children. There is a theory, which I find convincing, that the British policies toward the Irish would later influence how they treated Native Americans in North America.

What does all this have to do with Jacob Riis and 19th century America? It ties in with the difference between the “old” and “new” immigrants.

The earlier wave of immigrants that appeared on the scene in the mid-19th century were from Western and Northern Europe, mostly Germans, Scandinavians (from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway), and Irish. Germans and Scandinavians were accepted into U.S. society fairly easily- Irish were not. Irish were neither Anglo-Saxon nor were most of them Protestant, whereas Germans and Scandinavians usually were Protestant and, like Anglo-Saxons, were Germanic. From the same “race”, as people viewed it then. In other words: If the “best” race was the Englishman, the next-best must be his Germanic cousins. Irish, on the other hand, had long been viewed as brutish and savage by the English. Thus in the United States Irish immigrants were mistreated and suffered prejudice; businesses sported signs saying “No dogs or Irish allowed,” and people posting job ads specified “No Irish Need Apply.” In 19th-century newspaper cartoons in both the U.S. and Britain, Irish were depicted as dark and apish, as in the examples below:

Do Irish people look significantly different from English people in real life? Of course not. But in these and similar cartoons the difference is striking. In essence, there was a new “color line” in the U.S. and the Irish were below it. They were not accepted as part of the “white race.”

The late 19th century saw a wave of “new” immigrants. Most of them were NOT from Western and Northern Europe. They were from Central and Eastern Europe, many of whom were Jews; they were from Southern Europe, including Italy and Portugal; they were from farther afield, including Asia- particularly China. Like the Irish, the “new” immigrants were not accepted into the upper levels of the social hierarchy; like the Irish, none of them were considered exactly “white.” It is worth noting that Italian-Americans were sometimes the victims of lynch mobs in late 19th century Louisiana. The Chinese, meanwhile, were singled out for exclusion, with laws prohibiting further Chinese immigration in the 1880s.

In essence, a new socio-racial hierarchy was in place in the U.S. by the late 1800s. Like in the earlier racial hierarchy model from the antebellum South, there is a line of demarcation that could be called a “line of whiteness”:

In this model, the farther away an immigrant group is from Northern/Western Europe –thus the farther away they are from Anglo-Saxon –the less acceptable they are.

Just as in the colonial model, African Americans are on the bottom. Writers and historians –from W.E.B. Dubois and James Baldwin to Winthrop Jordan –have long proposed that white identity in America was formed in opposition to black, using blackness as a defining “other.” I may write more about that idea on another occasion. Suffice it to say that for Irish and other immigrant groups to rise to the level of “white,” they had to also define themselves against the other end of the racial spectrum and make it clear they were not “black.”

Case in point: The New York Draft Riots of 1863.

The Civil War was raging, and a draft had been instituted on both sides. In New York, a large number of Irish immigrants were drafted, sometimes shortly after they got off the boat. At that time, anyone able to pay a substantial fee didn’t have to serve –which meant that wealthier men didn’t have to be drafted if they didn’t want to be, whereas poor men had little choice. It was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” This contributed to the anti-draft feeling in the city. What started as anger directed at draft officers in July, 1863, quickly escalated into a race riot that lasted for days, with largely Irish mobs invading the black neighborhoods and killing an untold number of African Americans (possibly hundreds, although the exact number is not known.) Among other things, they burned down a colored orphanage. African Americans had little or nothing to do with Irish immigrants’ situation; the fact they were targeted shows that the Irish knew where they were on the hierarchy.

As James Baldwin put it in the introduction of his 1985 work The Price of the Ticket (p. xx):

“…the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking. The Irish, therefore and thereafter… had absolutely no choice but to make certain I could not menace their safety or status or identity: and, if I came too close, they could, with the consent of the governed, kill me.”

W.E.B. Dubois wrote, in his essay “The Soul of White Folk,” that

“[America] aspires to sit among the great nations who arbitrate the fate of ‘lesser breeds without the law’ and she is at times heartily ashamed even of the large number of ‘new’ white people whom her democracy has admitted to place and power. Against this surging forward of Irish and German, of Russian Jew, Slav and ‘dago’ her social bars have not availed, but against Negroes she can and does take her unflinching and immovable stand... She trains her immigrants to this despising of ‘niggers’ from the day of their landing, and they carry and send the news back to the submerged classes in the fatherlands.”

This is how racial hierarchies work. To work your way into the upper levels, one must show solidarity with the upper levels against those on the bottom. Another important element is paternalism ; in fact, I would say that paternalism is the oil that greases the socio-racial hierarchy machine.

Paternalism, as the name implies, means assuming a superior position and treating your subordinates like children. In this scenario, since they (whichever groups are below yours) are “inferior,” then it follows that they cannot take care of themselves, make their own decisions, or solve their own problems. You have to do it for them, and of course you do, and isn’t that nice of you. British poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem in 1899 inviting the U.S. to engage in imperial pursuits in the Philippines, saying famously “Take up the white man’s burden!” It was the civilized, “superior” white man’s duty to take care of all those non-whites: to “seek another’s profit and work another’s gain” even though they would not be grateful for it, and would complain that you were pulling them out of the darkness for their own good.

This brings us back to our earlier discussion about All in the Family. The son-in-law Michael (or, as Archie called him, Meathead) was a liberal grad student engaged in many progressive causes, which was a source of endless arguments with his father-in-law. It was always evident to the viewer, however -especially when he was interacting with his (apparently only) black friend -that he had a strong and condescending feeling of paternalism.

THEREFORE: Bearing in mind that Jacob Riis was from Denmark, and thus a Germanic “old” immigrant, and that the ethnic groups he was examining in New York (with the exception of the Germans, and they came off looking pretty good compared to everyone else) were all from groups that were either “new” immigrants or, like the Irish and African Americans, fell below that “line of whiteness”… and that “superior” groups are often paternalistic against “inferior” ones… perhaps Riis was not so much a paradox as at first he seems, after all. From that perspective, it actually makes sense that he could say in one breath “I really feel sorry for these poor people, I want to help them,” and in another breath say that they suck, and throw in a bunch of racial and ethnic stereotypes. And bear in mind, he was writing the book to encourage middle-and-upper class whites to come to the aid of their social inferiors, to take up their “white man’s burden.” Also bear in mind that, in order to be accepted into the “upper strata” as an immigrant, it was important that he demonstrate that he had those powered people’s attitudes toward the “lower strata.” This is a key to understanding Riis and his work, and the time in which he lived.


How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis

The Price of the Ticket by James Baldwin

Making Ireland British by Nicholas Canny

“The Soul of White Folk" by W.E.B. DuBois

How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev

White Over Black by Winthrop Jordan

"The White Man's Burden" by Rudyard Kipling

How Race Survived U.S. History by David Roediger

Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White by David Roediger

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by George Takaki