Notes from the classroom: Immigrants Have Always Seemed Threatening

nast-cartoon-american-river-ganges

For my Immigration and the American Dream class tomorrow I’ll be giving a lecture I’m calling “Bible Wars.” In the nineteenth century, controversies about Bible reading in public schools were often flashpoints for tension—and even violence—between native-born Protestants and immigrant Catholics.

Perhaps most famously, a dispute about the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in Philadelphia schools led to days of deadly violence here in the spring and summer of 1844. The danger in relating these stories is that students might find them inscrutable and absurd. Why were Protestants and Catholics killing each other, here in the U.S.? They must have been irrationally prejudiced, the student might conclude. Now, surely, we’ve become more sophisticated.

But if I’m able to provoke the students to think historically, they might begin to be able to see why Catholics might have seemed so threatening. They might begin to see that amid the prejudices were real disagreements about church and state, about education, about the very meaning of freedom (I’ll be leaning heavily on McGreevey tomorrow). Throw in the transnational context of the Irish famine and the Revolutions of 1848 and the vast numbers of immigrants we’re talking about—many of them not English-speaking—and we can begin to see, perhaps, why the influx was so unsettling.

If they can begin to understand this historical context, the parallels to the present day will announce themselves. I won’t even need to say it out loud. The historian Tyler Anbinder had a nice piece about this last week:

Many believe that today’s immigrants are more culturally isolated than those from the past. Previous generations of immigrants had to learn English and assimilate, runs this argument. They could not “press two for Spanish” or use satellite TV or the Internet to isolate themselves from American culture. Yet Irish, German, Italian, Slavic, Scandinavian, and eastern European Jewish immigrants were just as isolated in their ethnic enclaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries as today’s immigrants are in theirs. New York’s Kleindeutschland was so German, bragged one of its immigrant residents in the 1850s, that one could hardly tell it apart from Stuttgart.[1] Half a century later, adult Italian immigrants rarely learned much English. “I didn’t need it,” one New Yorker explained. “Everywhere I lived, or worked, or fooled around there were only Italians . . . I had to learn some Sicilian, though.”[2] When pundits complain that today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like those from the past, they are harking back to a golden era of assimilation that never actually existed.[3]

Some think that the religious beliefs of today’s immigrants pose an unprecedented threat to American values. Muslim immigrants, it is said, cannot be good Americans because they owe ultimate allegiance to foreign leaders and seek to impose their religious views on others. But Americans once said precisely the same things about Catholic immigrants. A Pennsylvania newspaper 150 years ago likened Catholic immigrants to a foreign army in our midst, waiting for the Pope’s command to destroy Americans’ most valued institutions.[4] Catholics would always remain foreign and separate from the rest of society, insisted an Ohioan. They cannot “really [be] Americans, but only residents in America.”[5] That every immigrant group viewed this way in the past has become an accepted part of the national fabric suggests that American Muslims will one day be fully accepted too.

Anbinder’s new book on immigrant New York is a great read by the way.

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