One of the things I talk about in my research is the process by which various immigrant communities in the United States have slowly been assimilated into the category of "white," with all the political and cultural power that entails. This is obviously a process that has been going for a very long time; books like David Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness and Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White trace that history especially amongst working-class Irish immigrants in the early 19th century. The latter book has always been particularly fascinating for me, both because it examines my adopted home of Philadelphia, and also because it was the rare work of critical race studies that actually crossed over into a mainstream market. It was widely discussed when it came out, and I seem to recall that supposedly Bill Clinton read it avidly.
The 1950s, which is of course my own area of interest, saw another surge in assimilation. There were many factors involved in this, but the one particularly highlighted by this reunion was the geographic mobility created by World War II. Cultural coherence requires spatial coherence; it's a lot easier to maintain traditions if you live in one neighborhood, where your church, community center, social club, local newspaper and radio station, and all sorts of other institutions can cater to your language and traditions. As soon as the massive migration to the suburbs began, those institutions became to difficult to maintain--just by way of example, the percentage of radio stations broadcasting in a language other than English declined by 40% between 1942 and 1948.
And all of this happened in dialogue with academia and politics. The period after World War II was when the mainstream social science consensus began to use the term "ethnicity" rather than "race," that is, privileging culture over biology. This was a move made with liberal intentions, although certain categories of human beings--especially African Americans and Asian immigrants--were still subsumed under the idea of "race" rather than "ethnicity." This tension over who counts as biologically different as to who counts as merely culturally different was especially reflected in McCarran-Walter Immigration Act of 1952, which substantially liberalized immigration for those coming from Europe, while maintaining strict quotas for those from other parts of the world. This was accomplished by pinning immigration to the 1920 census: each European country was given an annual quota equal to one-sixth of one percent of the citizenry in 1920 descended from that country. Effectively dismissing immigration from the previous three decades, the Act had the effect of encouraging more immigration from Ireland and Germany, and less from Eastern Europe. The rest of the world, however, was treated not along ethnic lines, but the racial: immigrants from Asian countries were counted together as one block, rather than individual countries. And if you were, say, a Brit of Asian descent, you were counted as Asian rather than British, and had to fight for one of the 2,000 slots allowed from Asia.
As the country yet again begins to discuss immigration reform, it's always good to remember these past engagements. Purely racial arguments are rarely made in mainstream political discourse anymore; we more often hear arguments having to do with culture. Language, obviously, but as one defendant of the proposed Arizona anti-immigration law puts it, also fashion, even shoes. When someone starts spouting nonsense like this, it's a good guess that there is a racial logic underneath!
Rep. Bilbray: They will look at the kind of dress you wear, there’s different type of attire, there’s different type of—right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes. But mostly by behavior it’s mostly behavior, just as the law enforcement people here in Washington, DC does it based on certain criminal activity there is behavior things that professionals are trained in across the board and this group shouldn’t be exempt from those observations as much as anybody else.