Immigration, Race, and Women’s Rights, 1919 and TodayRoundup
tags: racism, history, immigration, womens rights, 1919
Arnold R. Isaacs, a journalist and writer based in Maryland, has written widely on refugee and immigration issues. He is the author of From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani and Afghan Americans in post-9/11 America and two books relating to the Vietnam war. His website is www.arnoldisaacs.net.
Reading about immigration policy, religious and racial bigotry, and terrorism fears in America in 1919 offers an eerie sense of decades melting away and past and present blurring together.
The blend isn’t exact. Bigotry was expressed much more explicitly a century ago, not in code as it usually is now. Jim Crow laws in the South and other forms of racial segregation in the rest of the country were seen by most white Americans as the normal state of affairs. In the national debate on immigration, the most inflammatory rhetoric was largely aimed at immigrants from Asia, not Latin America or the Middle East; Slavs, southern Europeans, and Jews from Eastern Europe also faced widespread hostility. Religious prejudice was typically directed at Jews and Catholics, not Muslims. Yet despite those differences, many of the underlying attitudes and the tone of the immigration argument 100 years ago were strikingly similar to those that roil our society today.
I haven't read of anyone in 1919 saying "make America great again" or referring to unwanted immigrants' homelands as "shithole countries." But those exact ideas, if not precisely the same words, were commonly expressed a century ago. And some key words and phrases appeared then as now -- referring to immigration as an “invasion,” for example, or disparaging immigrants as dirty, poor, and criminally inclined.
A pair of quotes illustrates the common thread, a widespread feeling in both eras that, after several decades of large-scale immigration, American identity itself was under threat.