Surviving in America: Race, assimilation and 19th-century Catholic immigrants

In a New York Times Op-Ed late last year, the political science professor Zoltan L. Hajnal argued that President Obama’s executive actions on immigration might not actually give Democrats the political boost many pundits predicted they would. In fact, Prof. Hajnal—co-author of a new book titled White Backlash: Immigration, Race and American Politics—argued that Democratic support for immigrants was “for many whites...a powerful motivation to vote Republican.”

History actually suggests that neither conventional political wisdom nor Prof. Hajnal may be quite right. Authors such as Jonathan Reider and Samuel G. Freedman have argued that immigrants and their children do indeed lean conservative, but only after several generations, mainly because, for the first time in their lives (as Freedman put it in The Inheritance: How Three Families Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond), these families finally “had something to conserve.”

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At a time of heated debate over immigration and assimilation, it is curious how few observers look to past American struggles with these topics. Consider another recent book, by Aviva Chomsky, titled Undocumented. Chomsky makes the academically fashionable case that immigration only recently “became” illegal because of anti-immigrant sentiments. Readers could be excused for believing nativism is a relatively new phenomenon, since Chomsky barely mentions earlier immigrant experiences in the United States, documented or otherwise.

But if history matters at all, then the experiences of 19th-century immigrants certainly deserve more attention, given the profound impact they, their children and grandchildren—the “unmeltable ethnics,” in Michael Novak’s memorable phrase—had on American urban life. Much attention has been paid to whether or not 21st-century immigrants are assimilating swiftly enough. And yet, there has been precious little substantive analysis of how—or even if—the offspring of 19th- and 20th-century immigrants have properly or fully assimilated.

Other than ignoring them completely, the dominant trend among historians when it comes to 19th-century European immigrants—particularly Catholics—is to note that they strove to “become” white. They were first marginalized, the argument goes, but in “choosing” or “fighting” to obtain “white privilege,” Italians, Irish, Poles and other ethnic Catholics went on to exacerbate America’s terrible racial problems.

This is a far-too-narrow reading of complex issues that continue to bewilder pundits and shape politics and culture in the 21st century.

Race and Politics

What about class and religion? What about the travails of immigration and the anxieties of assimilation? We ignore these broader topics at our own peril. The United States currently is absorbing its largest waves of immigrants in a century, an influx unprecedented in its diversity. Nearly 20 nations have sent more than 500,000 immigrants to the United States in recent years, including heavyweights like Mexico (11 million) and China (2.1 million), to go along with India, El Salvador (both over one million), Guatemala and the Dominican Republic (each nearly one million). If we fail to acknowledge the past’s complex interplay of race and class, religion and assimilation, then we run the risk of repeating the same mistakes—or making new, more perilous ones.

Consider a much-praised new book, All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn, The Conflicted Soul of the Northeast, by Jason Sokol, a professor at the University of New Hampshire. Prof. Sokol focuses on race relations in post-World-War-II Brooklyn, Massachusetts and Connecticut—from Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough right up to the trailblazing elections of Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and President Obama.

Though he compares racial conflict in the North and South, Mr. Sokol never really analyzes the radically different ways both regions evolved. His focus is on the latter half of the 20th-century, yet there is no way to understand the post-war urban Northeast without exploring the immigration patterns as well as the class and religious conflicts that created, say, the post-war Brooklyn, or Boston, that embraced (or rejected) Jackie Robinson.

The Church and the Machine

In the mid-19th century, as immigrants poured into an America already teetering on the edge of a civil war, it was the northern Democratic Party that embraced the newcomers. Urban Democratic machines were corrupt and aligned with southern slave owners. Nevertheless, in the large Northern cities, they—along with an activist and rapidly-expanding Catholic Church—also gave desperate, starving people access to some kind of social power. As Terry Golway, the historian of Tammany Hall, writes in Machine Made, Northern political machines “achieved their rarefied status in politics not by slapping backs and pouring pints but by devoting themselves to the unglamorous work of forging relationships, listening to constituents and providing services.”

On the other side of the aisle was the newly formed Republican Party, a broad, diverse coalition of abolitionists and urban reformers, yes, but also ex-Whigs and (more importantly for this discussion) anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativists, including former members of the infamous Know-Nothing party.

The New York City Draft Riots of 1863—a horrific spasm of violence initiated by anti-war immigrants and laborers, which left scores of African Americans dead and compelled many others to leave the city—only hardened the views of certain urban reformers. They believed that ethnic working class Catholics could never be properly assimilated, much less converted to progressive American views.

When, a decade later, blood again ran in the streets of New York following deadly clashes between Catholics and Protestants that became known as “The Orange Riots,” wealthy Republicans including diarist George Templeton Strong knew whom to blame: the “base and brutal Celts.” Similar views were reflected in the wildly popular political cartoons of Thomas Nast, who exposed corruption and (sometimes) spoke out for African American rights but whose vile, nativist, anti-Catholic cartoons might well be at home in the pages of Charlie Hebdo—minus the irony and satire. In short, first- and second-generation Catholics viewed their political opponents as upper-class hypocrites, happy to congratulate themselves for their racial high-mindedness, all the while dismissing working-class ethnic minorities as disloyal papists or violent, backward-thinking drunkards.

Too many histories ignore these complex but powerful conflicts, even though they endured well into the 20th century. Subsequent progressive crusades—Prohibition, exposing the political machines—were typically shot through with barely contained class, ethnic and religious hatred. This hatred culminated in the 1920s, with Al Smith’s doomed presidential campaign and the rise of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant (as well as racist) Ku Klux Klan, which grew to two million strong.

Catholic Racism

Let us be clear: In a better world, marginalized white Catholics might have made common cause with the descendants of slaves, who consistently saw their human rights violated in the most horrifying ways. But America’s original sin of racism had many consequences; realistic hope that those clustered at the lower end of the North’s economic ladder would build effective coalitions was one of them. Class tensions and labor competition intensified racial conflict, but there is no need to minimize the racism of white immigrants and their children. Yet, as John T. McGreevy, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, wrote in Parish Boundaries, there also is some value to “understand[ing] Catholic racism, not simply catalog[ing] it.”

Furthermore, the role of the Roman Catholic Church in helping immigrants and their children emerge from abject poverty is easy to underestimate and even easier to sneer at, especially for those who (even today) decry what they view as the church’s illiberal, even reactionary, doctrines. But theology was not all that was on the minds of struggling, big-city Catholics. Food and shelter, along with salvation, were available in precious quantities, from the cradle to the grave, in working class parishes invariably described (by Sokol and many others) as “insular.” What may seem pejorative to some may be complimentary (or at least necessary) to those who actually lived there. As Gerald Gamm noted in Urban Exodus, Catholics were particularly bound to (and, inevitably, defensive of) their turf, since parish lines were set and fixed in ways different from, say, synagogues, which could more easily follow their congregants if they chose to move. The Chicago novels of James T. Farrell and the cuddly Bing Crosby priest movies of the 1940s do not have much in common, but what they do depict is an “insular” Catholic world unto itself. This is, for better or worse, what made it possible to survive in America, from the Irish Famine through The Great Depression.

Postwar America

Which brings us to the end of World War II, when it is generally believed these “old world” values and conflicts were on the decline. It cannot be denied that the post-war years were a golden age, in many ways, for urban Catholics. Nevertheless, readers looking to the bestseller lists in 1949 would see Catholic Power and American Freedom, a respectable screed against papist influences in the United States. The book’s author, Paul Blanshard, was a writer for the (progressive) magazine The Nation and served as a commissioner for (Republican, anti-machine) New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

That same year, Eleanor Roosevelt—another progressive, but a Democrat, thus foreshadowing the seismic political shifts of the 1960s—dove into a fierce debate over federal aid for parochial schools, leading to charges that the former first lady was “anti-Catholic.” Finally, Tammany Hall Irish immigrant William O’Dwyer ran for mayor, defeating an aristocratic fellow named Augustus Newbold Morris, a machine-bashing Groton School and Yale graduate whose family had been in New York since the Colonial era.

It was into this still-simmering cauldron of ethnic, religious and class tension that the Brooklyn Dodgers and their fans welcomed Jack Roosevelt Robinson. Or not.

“[There] was a lot of bigotry among...the Irish, the Italians, the Swedes.... It was a lot of union guys saying ‘Sure, first they get into baseball, and then they’ll be taking my job’,” Sokol, in All Eyes Are Upon Us, quotes one Brooklyn native saying. Another, identified as an “Irish American,” adds: “The Irish and Italians...were upset when Robinson came to the Dodgers. They were outraged.”

As disturbing as these quotes are, they also beg to be interpreted for what they might reveal about class, labor and ethnicity. Right up to the 1990s, Sokol notes, “white Catholics” were reliable voters for Rudolph Giuliani, a white conservative, rather than David Dinkins, a Democrat and an African American.

Yet Prof. Sokol—and many others—never really wrestle with the roles class, ethnicity and religion might have also played in these voters’ political decisions. Alternatively, consider a disturbing detail from Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s masterful look at South Boston—graffiti which reads: “Gays Suck. Liberals Suck. Brits Suck. N***ers Suck.”

Can such ugly sentiments be defended? Of course not. Yet to pretend such repugnant sentiments do not reflect a vast range of issues beyond race is not only to be willfully ignorant but might well contribute to a hardening of these feelings.

Historical Amnesia

At one point, Dr. Sokol contrasts northern and southern views of history: “The past was an encumbrance to unload.... Agony and anguish were the names for the southerner’s ordeal.” But in the Northeast, “the past...was something to affirm.” That might seem true for a descendant of, say, John Winthrop, whose 1630 sermon to fellow Puritans lends Mr. Sokol’s book its title. But for the children and grandchildren of Catholic immigrants, the past was decidedly more hardscrabble.

This was so much the case that these histories could be called upon for distasteful reasons. Prof. Sokol quotes one Massachusetts voter who says: “My parents came here from Europe with nine children. I worked days, went to school at night...but [Edward Brooke voters] don’t work like we did. They want everything handed to them.”

White ethnic Catholics are certainly guilty of their own hypocrisies. Many pundits and voters with decidedly ethnic names want, inexplicably, to slam the doors on today’s immigrants. Others have convinced themselves their ancestors made it in America without “handouts,” forgetting those mighty charitable organizations, Tammany Hall and the Catholic Church. Even today, some Catholics speak of Muslim immigrants in language shockingly similar to that which was used against their own “disloyal” ancestors.

Why the selective memory, the historical amnesia, on the part of both white ethnic Catholics and historians? There are no simple answers. Therefore, too many people choose to avoid the questions entirely. This only prevents us from fully exploring the postwar white Catholic experience—including its fascinating diversity, from Senator Joseph McCarthy to Mario Cuomo to the Berrigan brothers to Congressman Vito Marcantonio.

The 21st Century

All of this raises the question: Why is any of this important in the 21st Century? There are at least two reasons. First, the illiberal/reactionary white ethnic Catholic has remained a remarkably durable—albeit two-dimensional—archetype.

In the classic film “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), high school hooligan Artie West (identified by hero teacher Glenn Ford as “Irish American”) is a racist psycho who wreaks havoc on the very concept of the melting pot. The film’s conflict is not resolved until an American flag is used to physically disarm the forces of reaction. This might seem a tad heavy-handed, though it stunningly foreshadowed (in reverse) the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph “Soiling Old Glory” from 1976, when opponents of busing students as a way to integrate schools racially attacked an African-American person with a flag. Later films, including “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and “Summer of Sam” (1997), are all populated by familiar, backward-thinking, “insular” Italian Catholic goons.

And in 2015, the august pages of The New York Review of Books praised Atticus Lish’s new novel Preparations for the Next Life as “astounding” and “transcendent.” In the book, a vulnerable Chinese immigrant and a troubled Iraq war veteran are menaced by an Irish union carpenter and his seething son. For the record, recent gorgeous novels by Matthew Thomas (We Are Not Ourselves) and Alice McDermott (After This, among others), render these folks with decidedly more complexity. But too often working-class white ethnics are presented not so differently than they were in the days of Thomas Nast.

Meanwhile, the issues of race and assimilation remain front and center in urban America. Consider the ongoing tensions between police and minority communities. Observers—whether radical protesters or sober analysts —generally acknowledge two things: the persistence of police brutality and the changing demographics of urban police departments. This became tragically evident when two Brooklyn police officers—one Hispanic, the other the son of Chinese immigrants—were assassinated in December 2014 in the wake of high-profile police brutality allegations.

To some, the changing face of police officers will eventually help to heal the cop-community problem. “I am all but certain the Asians, Latinos, blacks and other so-called minorities on the force vote and think differently, in significant social ways, from the Irish and Italian cops at the forefront of the union,” Bedford-Stuyvesant native and Brooklyn College teacher Ron Howell wrote in a New York Daily News op-ed article late last year. That’s one possibility.

Another possibility is that there is—and has always been—a lot more to urban conflict and politics than skin color. Time will tell how new immigrants and their children—finally with something to conserve, living in the same residential enclaves that produced earlier generations of white Catholic police officers—balance their old-world traditions with the new-world realities of the 21st-century.

But one thing is for certain: Until we establish the far-reaching consequences of how previous generations of immigrants “melted” (or did not), it is going to be difficult to forthrightly analyze the assimilation of today’s immigrants and their children.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Atkinson
2 years 3 months ago
America was land of discovery, land of unlimited resources, land of opportunity back after Columbus discovered these lands, then the Americas became a land of immigrants, thousands mostly from Europe, coming over with all their religions, prejudices, biased and bigotries, most especially religious and race differences. Today America is an occupied lands.. It is a populated lands with limited resources, opportunities, and no longer in need of discovery and immigrants. Now is the time to erase the ills that plaque a well settled land, especially those religious, ethnic, and economic differences. Some of the most quarded, especially religious, institutions and groups of peoples - and a lot of individuals, that would deny certain rights seen by Americas founding father to others are ills and even evils that plaque this new well founded republic. One goes back in history to see these ills, back even to those who created entities and organizations, especially religious that intentionally or unintentionally, developed social systems the were biased, prejudiced and bigoted; way back to the Abrahamic, Moses, Solomon and David, Prophets, Kings right down to Christians and on to today. Interesting fact how many Disciples and Apostles of early Christianity were minorities, women, different races, nationalities. Pretty much Jesus gave himself without restrictions to all, even His institution of Eucharist to all the world. Yet today the Christian churches are the leading group in society that practices the ills of separation, bigotry, prejudices, biases withholding the very Jesus, and putting certain humans in places lower than equals, without the very spirit that the Christ came to sacrifice and provide the way to His kingdom.
Mike Evans
2 years 3 months ago
It may be also helpful to reflect on the attitudes of Catholic clergy back in the 1930 to 1960 era. There was little or no talk of joining fellow Christians in mutual activism. The Episcopal clergy were considered the "Republican Party at Prayer." Jewish leadership was kept in the ghetto, except in the business world. Methodists and Lutherans were part of the declared enemy and we Catholics were forbidden to ever enter one of those churches. The phrase " there is no salvation outside the (Catholic) Church was both enforced and believed. Blacks from the south and east had their own African Methodist Episcopal Church since they were excluded by mainline protestants from attending white churches. And today, the "prosperity gospel" preached by evangelical baptist clergy on TV allows no room for inter-racial or inter-religious discussion. In fact, the return to Fundamentalism has curtailed most outreach from all churches, building up a general distrust of religious figures everywhere. Catholics are both defensive and offensive (7 current Catholics vying for the presidency, all on separateness). No impending Nirvana of cooperating Christians or inter-faith groups is likely to arise to talk about God's kingdom instead of the protection of many conflicting special interests.
José Acosta
2 years 3 months ago
Immigration is a legal but also a moral issue and both must stand together. As Christians we are called to help our brothers and sisters regardless where they come from. However, it is painful to admit the USA is the only country on earth where tolerence on immigration goes beyond common sense. With knowledge and consent of federal and state officials, our Immigration Laws are meaningless to millions and a real mess!!!
Barry Fitzpatrick
2 years 3 months ago
Amazing article. Lots of food for thought. What do we do now, though? Armed with our historical perspective and a sense of what has worked and what has not, how do we plan and build a better future? In the Boston of "Common Ground" the poor whites were pitted against the poor blacks successfully by the politicians even thought their interests were largely congruent. Editorial pages of some big city dailies still carry an all too visible hint of anti-Catholicism. When our Catholic high schools, for the most part, are populated by largely white middle to upper middle class students, how can we expect these young people to develop healthy attitudes toward immigrants or others who are different? And what message is being preached from the pulpit to the small percentage of those who identify as Catholic when it comes to incorporating the lessons of our Catholic American history into the present day issue of immigration? Thanks, Mr. Deignan, for a great article. Way too much to think about!! Thanks again.
Robert Lynch
2 years 3 months ago
Thanks, Tom Deignan; lots of food for thought. One point, relative to Ron Howell's op-ed on the police union leadership, he may be guilty of that same lack of sufficient complexity you perceived in others in his assumption that the leadership is all Irish and Italian Catholic. The top-line leaders alone include just one Irishman, Patrick J. Lynch, one Italian, John Puglissi, one Black Muslim officer, Mubarak Abdul Jabbar, one Hispanic officer, Joseph Alejandro, and one other white mixed ethnic, Robert Zink. Fairly good mix which will likely diversify more, and could use another sex......
Vince Killoran
2 years 3 months ago
Good article. Even during the so-called "white ethnic revival" of the late '60s/early '70s there were plenty of progressive Catholic ethnics. Many worked with civil rights activist Msgr. Geno Baroni.

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