Working Toward Whiteness

How America's Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs


By David R. Roediger

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How did immigrants to the United States come to see themselves as white?
David R. Roediger has been in the vanguard of the study of race and labor in American history for decades. He first came to prominence as the author of The Wages of Whiteness, a classic study of racism in the development of a white working class in nineteenth-century America. In Working Toward Whiteness, Roediger continues that history into the twentieth century. He recounts how ethnic groups considered white today-including Jewish-, Italian-, and Polish-Americans-were once viewed as undesirables by the WASP establishment in the United States. They eventually became part of white America, through the nascent labor movement, New Deal reforms, and a rise in home-buying. Once assimilated as fully white, many of them adopted the racism of those whites who formerly looked down on them as inferior. From ethnic slurs to racially restrictive covenants-the real estate agreements that ensured all-white neighborhoods-Roediger explores the mechanisms by which immigrants came to enjoy the privileges of being white in America.

A disturbing, necessary, masterful history, Working Toward Whiteness uses the past to illuminate the present. In an Introduction to the 2018 edition, Roediger considers the resonance of the book in the age of Trump, showing how Working Toward Whiteness remains as relevant as ever even though most migrants today are not from Europe.


Praise for Working Toward Whiteness
“Whiteness studies can enable us to see American history in a wholly new light, and for the development of this field we must thank Roediger . . . . full of thought-provoking anecdotes and observations.”
Boston Globe
“ . . . carefully constructed and referenced . . . ”—Library Journal
“Roediger’s book tills some major historical ground.”
Publishers Weekly
“Drawing upon social and literary history, policy records and popular culture, Roediger carries to the middle of the twentieth century his story of how immigrants to the United States from Europe secured their place in the ‘white race’—and at what cost to themselves, others, and the hope of creating a genuine non-racial democracy in the developing industrial El Dorado. Up to the highest standards of scholarship, Working Toward Whiteness is written with the author’s usual grace and human sympathy.”
—Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White

Our Own Time
Wages of Whiteness
Towards the Abolition
Fellow Worker (editor)

Black on White:
Black Writers on What It Means to Be White

Labor Struggles (editor)
History Against Misery

To Jean

Part One

New Immigrants, Race, and “Ethnicity” in the Long Early Twentieth Century
I had my fill of seeing people come down the gangplank on Wednesday, let us say, speaking not a word of English, and by Friday discovering that I was working for them and they were calling me nigger like everybody else. So that the Italian adventure or even the Jewish adventure, however grim, is distinguished from my own adventure.
This pseudo “white” identity . . . was not something that just fell on us out of the blue, but something that many Italian Americans grabbed at with both hands. Many felt that their culture, language, food, songs, music, identity, was a small price to pay for entering the American mainstream. Or they thought, as my parents probably did, that they could keep these good Italian things in private and become “white” in public.
One sideshow during the 1993 Wimbledon tennis tournament featured the defending champion, Andre Agassi, calling the eventual winner, Pete Sampras, a “monkey.” The excitable press coverage that greeted Agassi’s remark subsided quickly. When Agassi revealed that his own body hair had been removed to make him quicker, he provided a more photogenic story, overshadowing his characterization of Sampras. Unlike former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker’s controversial reference to a dark-skinned teammate as a “fat monkey,” Agassi’s remark lacked any apparently racial bite. Clearly he and Sampras are both white.1
At least now they are. Almost no U.S. tennis star in the past decade would have been considered unequivocally “white” just a century ago. Not Michael Chang, of course, since Chinese nonwhiteness was established by 1900 in court cases, naturalization proceedings, exclusion laws, and pogroms. Certainly not Venus or Serena Williams, who would have been Jim Crowed from tennis clubs and virtually all other privileged public and private U.S. spaces. But not Agassi either. And not Sampras. And not Monica Seles. Agassi, Sampras, and Seles would have embodied the “dark white” (and possibly not white) immigration “problem” that a century ago was thought to threaten the racial foundations of the nation. The backgrounds of all three would have dictated their being called “new immigrants” and doubly damned by the term. On one hand it would have connoted an inexperienced recent arrival, a greenhorn. But new immigrants were also new because they represented a different source of migrants—the streams from southern and eastern Europe that overtook the streams from northern and western Europe as the century turned and furnished the great majority of the more than 14 million newcomers coming in the first two decades of the twentieth century. As an Armenian American, Agassi would have been part of the immigrant group most singled out for ridicule by Henry James in his writings on race and immigration. He would have seen the whiteness, and hence the fitness for citizenship, of immigrants from his homeland challenged by U.S. attorneys before and after an early twentieth-century federal court decision finding them naturalizable as white. The 1911 Dictionary of Races or Peoples, a U.S. Senate document compiled by the Immigration Commission, credited Armenians as the “Aryan race ... of Asiatic Turkey” before noting with alarm their “remarkable shortness and [the] height of their heads,” as well as a “flattening of the back of the head” which “can only be compared to the . . . Malay.” Seles, Yugoslavian born but of Hungarian ancestry, would have been a hunky in the early twentieth century. Sampras’s Greek background would have excluded him from jobs, housing, unions, and public places along with other “Asiatic” nonwhites, especially in the West where his tennis game matured. In the United States of a century ago people did not talk about race in the way we do. To understand their history, we need to learn some of their language.2
In his 1907 contribution to travel literature, The American Scene, Henry James reflected at tortured length on his 1905 “look in” at arriving immigrants from the observation areas at Ellis Island and on other contacts with new immigrants. His account eerily anticipated contemporary debates over race and immigration, though the descendants of those he watched are now considered definitively white. Most of the time James’s tone presaged the panic of the current English Only and anti-immigration movements over the possibility of a racially changed country. At other junctures he less convincingly staked out prematurely multiculturalist hopes that immigration would lead to bigger and better things. James conjured up many images, from cauldron to amalgam, which suggest a melting away of immigrant differences. But he also betrayed sharp anxiety that the numbers and kinds of immigrants and the “hotch-potch of racial characteristics” they brought to the United States would cause the concept of American to lose any sure meaning. For long passages, he scarcely described anything he actually saw but rather his sense of “unsettledness” in proximity to new immigrants. Worrying especially over “Italians, of superlatively southern type” and the “swarming [of] a Jewry that had burst all bonds,” James feared an immigrant “conquest of New York.” He struck fretful chords “no different,” as Alan Trachtenberg aptly writes, “from any other high-toned, prejudiced WASP, save in the elegance of his writings.” Indeed at times James’s reactions to immigrants were so overwhelming that even his customary elegance was excruciatingly undermined:
The Italians, who, over the whole land, strike us, I am afraid, as, after the Negro and the Chinaman, the human value most easily produced, . . . meet us, at every turn, only to make us ask what has become of that element of the agreeable address in them which has, from far back, so enhanced for the stranger the interest and pleasure of a visit to their beautiful country.
But on other levels, James’s gaze at “new immigrants”—a racially inflected term that categorized the numerous newcomers from southern and eastern Europe as different both from the whiter and longer established northern and western European migrants to the United States and from the nonwhite Chinese and other “Asiatics”—opened for him new possibilities and alien dramas. He briefly wrestled with the possibility that the U.S. scene was always one of unsettledness. He raised the prospect that the immigrant accent would be America’s “very ultimate future.” Though it would be one we “shall not know as English,” it might nonetheless become “the very music of humanity.” By turns hopeful and despairing regarding the racial assimilation—what he tellingly called the “mitigation”—of new immigrants, James also registered fears that the “huge white-washing brush” of Anglo-American culture would render them “colourless.”3
Others made more categorical predictions. The “special expert on foreign-born population” to the 1910 census, Frank Julian Warne, issued a jeremiad titled The Immigrant Invasion in 1913. Warne relied heavily on the views of the British socialist and science fiction writer H. G. Wells. In “The Future in America” Wells spoke of native-born U.S. society developing “above a racially different and astonishingly fecund” working class made up of Slavs and Italians. In importing this “darker-haired, darker-eyed, uneducated proletariat from central and eastern Europe,” Wells continued, U.S. industry had undertaken a process that little “differs from the slave trade” and that would add “another dreadful separation of class and kind” to the ranks of the “‘coloured’ population” in the United States.4 Like Warne, Austin Lewis relied on British socialist futurology. In his fascinating tract The Militant Proletariat (1911), Lewis argued for revolutionary industrial unionism and charged that by adopting the strategy of narrowly organizing skilled workers based on their craft, affiliates of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had “segregated themselves from the . . . mass of their fellow workers.” His long, approving quotation from Problems of Modern Industry by the English socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb made it clear that this segregation was increasingly a “racial” one:
A few thousands of millionaire capitalist “kings,” uniting the means of a few hundred thousands of passive stockholders, and served by, perhaps an equal number of well-salaried managers, foremen, inventors, designers, chemists, engineers and skilled mechanics, will absolutely control an army . . . of practically property-less wage laborers, largely Slavonic, Latin, or Negro in race.
On this view, the AFL unions—zealous as they were about rallying workers around organizing to defend “white men’s wages”—might succeed in their narrow project and still leave the great mass of the working population not only unorganized, but racially distinct.5
And yet evocations of an invasion by nonwhite “Slavonic,” “Latin,” Italian, and Jewish races resonate strangely for modern U.S. readers. The typical U.S. history survey course might mention President Theodore Roosevelt’s popularization of the term “race suicide” and his call for a higher “American” birthrate. However, the fact that Roosevelt admiringly borrowed “race suicide” from Edward A. Ross’s 1901 article “The Causes of Race Superiority” is seldom emphasized. Ross, the pioneering sociologist and reformer, not only used the language of race to draw lines between “Asiatics” and whites but also policed divisions among European groups we would today regard as clearly white.6 The spread of the critical study of whiteness and the rediscovery of brilliant works by James Baldwin and other writers of color on southern and eastern Europeans have begun to generate a growing literature on race and the “new immigrants” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Contemporary debates over whether some Asian Americans, Arab Americans, and Latinos are or might become white have given this literature an urgency and edge. However, there is still too little awareness, beyond and within academia, that the nineteenth century ended with predictions that the United States was about to lose its racial moorings, and there is little work comparing the dynamics of race, fear, and immigration at the turn of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.7 One necessity in any writing of the history of “new immigrants” and racial formation is that the account must be jarring enough to keep us from slipping back into easy assumptions that all European immigrants were simply white and that their stories were always ones of assimilation (or not) into American rather than specifically white American ways.
The recent work of Matthew Jacobson in Whiteness of a Different Color makes a bold move in necessary directions. Jacobson takes seriously the racial language that courts, reformers, academics, and others applied to new immigrants and provides an elegant narration of how Italian, Slav, Greek, German, French, Irish, and other European races were gathered under the term “Caucasian” in the twentieth century and thus unified as “conclusively” white.8 However, the elegance and drama of Jacobson’s account comes at some cost. In order to generate a neater narrative of movement toward whiteness, Jacobson assumes at times that the key sites of racial transformation are legal and intellectual. To summarize the triumph of the myth of a common “Caucasian-ness” in those venues represents a formidable task but avoids the welter of further problems raised when we think of whitening as a process in social history in which countless quotidian activities informed popular and expert understandings of the race of new immigrants, as well as new immigrant understandings of race. Those problems introduce messiness to the plot of how new immigrants became fully white.
Organized into three parts, Working Toward Whiteness preserves some of this messiness while imposing order on widely varied sources and advancing a story chronologically. Part 1 recasts what is typically regarded as white ethnic or “immigrant” history as part of the history of race in the United States. It especially concentrates on race as a category into which the social and intellectual structures of the United States placed new immigrants. Part 2 asks what it was like to “live in between” the stark racial binaries structuring U.S. life and law in the years from 1890 to 1945. It focuses on race as a form of consciousness that new immigrants developed in the United States and to some extent brought with them. The last section considers how, when, and why the racial “inbetweenness” of new immigrant communities gave way to a firmer acceptance of their position, as well as their identity, as white. Although World War II was a water-shed, Part 3 argues for a gradual series of changes in urban race relations, housing, and state policies causing new immigrant communities to want and win a firmly white identity. Ironically, the nadir of new immigrant existence—the racial attacks culminating in restricted immigration in the 1920s—ushered in a period in which the “immigrant problem” seemed relatively settled and assimilation to whiteness could occur; at the same time, the great liberal mobilizations of the New Deal and industrial unionism in the 1930s made space in which new immigrants could mobilize as whites and exclude others. As they lived with race and called on the state for aid, the immigrant house, increasingly defined as a “white” house, became a key site for the making of race. As houses were constructed, so too was the idea—validated by popular campaigns for segregation of neighborhoods in the 1920s and then by New Deal housing policy—that African Americans were “antineighbors” and that all Europeans could unify around that realization.
The high ambitions of this book reflect a belief that much is at stake here for how we look at all of U.S. history in what I am calling the “long early twentieth century”—the period from 1890 to 1945. In a celebrated comment made more than half a century ago, Oscar Handlin remarked, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” As a member of the first generation of influential non-Anglo-Saxon Protestant historians, Handlin was delivering an arresting manifesto, drawing confidence that he could change America’s story because he had lived through the increased acceptance of southern and eastern Europeans in national life. However, the truth he told was a partial one and the acceptance of his new departure was fragile. Immigration history opens onto the critical issues of the entire U.S. past in some eras more than others, and all attempts to write U.S. history as immigration history have risked marginalizing the centrality of slavery, settler colonialism, and race. Moreover, Handlin wrote at an ebb of immigration from Europe; by the 1960s civil rights, new immigration, and further democratization of higher education would make race a powerful alternative axis on which to organize the story of the United States. This book seeks to work on both axes.
More than 100 million U.S. residents trace some of their heritage to Ellis Island, the main processing center during the period of the new immigration. The crucial role it played in “remaking” the nation’s working class during the consolidation of U.S. industrial expansion makes the new immigration very important.9 So too do relationships to the state, since southern and eastern Europeans and their children were the main objects of Progressive reform and nativist hatred, as well as the backbone of the New Deal political coalition. In many ways a “long early twentieth century” was defined by the mass arrival of new immigrants beginning in the 1890s and by their victories and defeats in struggling for full political, cultural, and economic citizenship. Moreover, the drama of new immigrant history turns significantly on how migrants were categorized racially and on contacts with people of color. Working Toward Whiteness asks what happens when we think of assimilation as whitening as well as Americanizing, and when we view the deeply gendered clash between first-generation immigrant parents and second-generation children as being in part about who commanded knowledge of the U.S. racial landscape. It seeks to change the whole story of a crucial period in U.S. history without losing track of the wrenching dimension of race experienced by the new immigrants who were at its center.


As national debate over restricting the numbers of “new immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe resounded in 1922, Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt featured the racial commentary of white riders on a train approaching Pittsburgh. One passenger contrasted the “fine” civility of “the old-fashioned coon” who knew his place in society with the supposed surliness of “these young dinges.” Speaking without “one particle of race-prejudice,” he prescribed, “We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place.” He further urged defense of “the rightful authority . . . of the white man.” A “man in a velour hat” then shifted the ground of the discussion, thanking God for immigration restrictions, especially on Italians and Slavs. “These Dagoes and Hunkies,” he reasoned, would have “to learn that this is a white man’s country, and they ain’t wanted here.”10 In his post-World War II novel, Kingsblood Royal, Lewis returns to the same subjects. His central character, Neil Kingsblood, lives in Sylvan Park, Minnesota, which boasts that it is “just as free of Jews, Italians and Negroes . . . as it is of noise, mosquitoes, and regularity of streets.” But Kingsblood’s opening conversation with his wife identifies racial nativism of the sort preached by the “man in the velour hat” as now class-bound and dated. His boss at the bank is “too conservative,” Kingsblood holds. “He thinks only people like us, from British and French and Heine stock, amount to anything. He’s prejudiced against Scandinavians and the Irish and Hunkies and Polacks. He doesn’t understand that we have a new America.” But the new America has its limits. Kingsblood continues, “Still and all and even hating prejudice, I do see where the Negroes are inferior and always will be.” Shortly thereafter, Kingsblood discovers his own partially Negro ancestry and “resigns from the white race.”11
The dialogue in Lewis’s novels challenges our understanding of race and immigration. On the one hand, as the defender of the “rightful authority” of whites in Babbitt has it, race follows color (white, black, yellow) and separates humanity into “grand divisions” in which Europeans stand together as white. On the other hand, in the reckoning of the velour-hatted speaker, “Dagoes and Hunkies” are not wanted in a “white man’s country.” They are not “people like us” to Kingsblood, who nevertheless accepts them into his “new America,” from which his boss would exclude them. The man in the velour hat and Kingsblood’s boss engaged in ethnic prejudice, as opposed to the race prejudice that the first passenger and Kingsblood directed against blacks. But the distinction between the ethnic and the racial was scarcely available to scholars or train passengers when the first novel appeared and was only gaining prominence at the publication of the second. How then do we think about the categorization of those 13 million so-called new immigrants from southern, eastern, and central Europe (excluding Germany) who arrived between 1886 and 1925, with 70 percent of that number coming between 1901 and 1915 alone?12 How do we think about their children’s position? How do we take the measure of the identities adopted by new immigrant communities partly in reaction to their racial categorization?
The problem raised by the railway passengers in Babbitt recurred at the level of social scientific expertise. In 1888, according to experts, there were between two and sixty-three races. In 1924, an exasperated U.S. Supreme Court hearing a case on race and naturalized citizenship complained that various scientific authorities placed the number of races at between four and twenty-nine.13 These wide gaps reflected, on the low end, a division of humanity into a few “color races,” as the historian Reynolds Scott-Childress puts it. On the upper end, the many races listed were mostly what Scott-Childress calls “nation-races,” subdivided much more zealously in Europe than anywhere else. The terminology Scott-Childress proposes was not extant in the early twentieth century. However, it remains useful—if we remember that the categories are frayed at the edges and the color of new immigrants as well as the cultural characteristics of color-races sometimes crept into discussions—in capturing how race served as the ruling terminology and how the meanings of that word bifurcated.14
This book keeps in mind the hard, exclusionary, and often color-based racism of Jim Crow segregation, Asian exclusion, and Indian removal as it retells the drama of European “new immigrants” and their children in, to use a freighted metaphor, “learning the ropes” of the racial system in the United States. It does not argue that new immigrant communities were subject to this hard racism in the way people of color were. Neither did they live outside the system of terror through which the idea of a “white man’s country” was enforced. As new immigrants assimilated to whiteness, what the African American novelist James Baldwin has called “a vast amount of coercion” shaped their trajectories. The double meanings of race, in Babbitt and beyond, made new immigrants “conditionally white,” to use Karen Brodkin’s apt phrase. The context in which they were most securely white took shape when the stark differences between the rights of people of color and of Europeans were at issue. When the “race” of Europeans came under discussion, the deficiencies alleged to plague new immigrants were frequently connected to their fitness for certain kinds of jobs or for American citizenship—to precisely the areas that also defined hard racist exclusions in the United States, though on different frequencies.15
The argument pioneered by the eminent historian John Higham and the scholar of religion Robert Orsi, that new immigrants experienced racialization at times as “inbetween peoples,” must therefore proceed on several fronts. “Inbetween” hard racism and full inclusion—neither securely white nor nonwhite—new immigrants were also chronologically inbetween the sharply posed calls for their racially based exclusion typified by Babbitt’s post-World War I dialogue and the far greater acceptance signaled by the post-World War II exchanges in Kingsblood Royal. To argue for inbetweenness necessarily involves a willingness to keep both similarity and difference at play. As the historian Patrick Wolfe has observed, the new immigrant experience was “not of the same order as the racialization that insulted black people.” Nonetheless it was an experience of racialization. Thus Working Toward Whiteness both illustrates and complicates Thomas Guglielmo’s recent insistence that Italian Americans, and by implication other new immigrants, were categorized as “white on arrival” in the United States. In some ways their ability to naturalize as citizens and other advantages made them such. However, the racial grounds on which they
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  • "Provocative."—Washington Post
  • "Working Toward Whiteness is a tour de force. This book will be the point-of-departure for future studies of 'whiteness.'"—Rudolph J. Vecoli
  • "If race is real and not just a method for the haves to decide who will be have-nots, then all European immigrants, from Ireland to Greece would have been 'white' the moment they arrived here. Instead, as documented in David Roediger's excellent Working Toward Whiteness, they were long considered inferior, nearly subhuman, and certainly not white."—Mother Jones
  • "David Roediger has given us another of our most compelling, incisive, and elegant analyses of racial subjugation and privilege-in-the-making in the United Sates. Working Toward Whiteness is a brilliant investigation of that historical zone where institutions, ideas, and street-level experiences meet and give form to one another. It may be Roediger's most powerful contribution yet. An exemplary work."—Matthew Frye Jacobson, authorof Whiteness of a Different Color and RootsToo: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America

On Sale
Dec 4, 2018
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

David R. Roediger

About the Author

David R. Roediger is the Foundation Professor of American Studies at University of Kansas. The author of The Wages of Whiteness, among other books, he lives in Lawrence, KS.

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