Basil Bruno won election as the Sheriff in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1925 after he declared his membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Bruno was the child of Italian immigrants who were the primary targets of the Klan’s attacks on Catholics in the United States during this time period. Red Bank, as a community, rigorously segregated Italians with African Americans in the first three decades of the twentieth century. It was racial politics like this policy that persuaded Carter G. Woodson to organize Black History Week celebrations to challenge dominant ideologies supported by the Ku Klux Klan. However, with the ascendance of Black History Month as an annual celebration of inclusive democracy in the United States, the impact of African Americans as civic actors on behalf of immigrants has been lost. Indeed, without the African American struggle for justice and equality, the United States would not be the “nation of immigrants” President Obama often describes.
“Any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.” When the Congress adopted this language in 1790 it set a standard that has persisted (and adapted) in American law for the last two hundred and twenty-five years. “Free” and “white”, as qualifiers, have numerous meanings and interpretations. In fact, the former is probably easier to understand than the latter. Freedom, then, was the ability to prove that no one held legal documentation of ownership over your body. Whiteness was a function of European heritage, but it was mostly applicable to people born in Germany, France, Great Britain, or Scandinavia. People from Spain, Russia, Portugal, and other parts of Europe were, somehow, less “white.” Irish people were a particular oddity in this formulation. Subject to British authority, they were certainly not “white” by conventional standards. However, they were cheap labor, so many came to the United States between 1790 and 1870 to make better lives. Thus, as the Northern states sold their kidnapped Africans into Virginia and North Carolina in this time period, the Irish became the new “blacks” of the emerging urban commercial markets in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Congress expressly abridged the early naturalization language to protect the descendants of kidnapped Africans and allow all people the full protection of the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment is an unprecedented expansion of freedom in human history. Most importantly, it established the “equality” of legal freedom for all citizens of the United States – extending a protection only previously offered to the states themselves – in 1868. As an idea, this amendment creates the twentieth century concept of “freedom.” It is the promise that drew tens of millions of immigrants into San Francisco and New York between 1870 and 1924. The unwavering disruption of the Confederate economy led by enslaved Africans between 1861 and 1865 was the foundation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the opportunity for freedom that attracted couples like Basil Bruno’s parents. Catholics and Jews remained outsiders to full, social inclusion as white Americans throughout this time period, but the legal promise of equality made several paths to assimilation more possible by 1964.
“No person acting under the color of law shall … apply a [different procedure from existing local standards].” In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the responsibility for equal protection became very specific. People given the power of civic leadership must use the same standard for judgment and inclusion for every American citizen. The law goes further in sanctioning private enterprises for any discriminatory acts or policies. Beyond the revolutionary potential of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act forbade any form of public, racial discrimination in the United States. It was the absolute repudiation of the conceit that the United States existed only for “free, white persons.” Just as the Reconstruction efforts of kidnapped Africans opened the door of freedom for European immigrants in the nineteenth century, the Civil Rights Movement created unprecedented new opportunities for Latino and Asian immigrants in the twentieth century. The decade of legislation that followed the Civil Rights Act abolished the National Origins system that attempted to preserve some sense of “white” or “European” hegemony in American politics. It was an era that invented the concept of “globalization” in the private sector in ways that both exploited world markets and destroyed the limited, imperial commercial networks that caused both World Wars. Where Jewish and Catholic families became white by 1968, Latinos, Chicanos, East Asians, South Asians, and even some African Americans have followed.
So, as Black History Month unfolds in 2015, how have the ideas of “free” and “white” continued to change? Paragon historian Nell Irvin Painter conceives these changes as “enlargements of whiteness” in her book, “The History of White People.” The inclusion of Catholics and Jews after 1945 forms the third stage of this process and the transformation of the American public since 1965 constitutes a fourth stage. The ability of the American public to rally in support of President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, in contrast with the resistance of the Republican Party in defense of early versions of whiteness, may create a fifth stage in the evolution of racial perceptions and economic inequality. Immigrants from Turkey, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and central Asia have formed new communities in the metropolitan United States over the last decade. Scholars and pundits alike wonder if Islam and Eastern Europe can adapt and join western, global markets. Are Muslims and Ukrainians the most recent “blacks”? Will the continuing efforts to liberate and uplift African American communities in the United States translate into unimaginable opportunities in these distant, diverse regions? Perhaps everyone will take another step towards simply being “free,” instead of limiting humanity with standardized and arbitrary tests of whiteness.
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (www.icmetrogrowth.com) and is the author of the award-winning historical monograph, Suburban Erasure. He is also the primary instructor for the “Engines of Wealth” initiative at Monmouth University. His work is available on Twitter (@worldprofessor / @icmgrowth), Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). For bookings (workshops and speaking engagements), contact NJ History (email@example.com).