In the immigration class I’m teaching this semester I’m wrestling with how to contextualize events for my students. I’m often quite uncertain about how I should frame various events and forces. But that uncertainty reminds me to try to convey the deeper critical thinking lesson to my students: that the contextualizing choices I end up making are really historical arguments in themselves. I’m not giving them “the history” that they can safely tuck away with the confidence that they now know what happened. I’m giving them arguments that they should question and probe with counterarguments, using historical evidence.
As we approach the nativist reaction of the 1920s, I’m wrestling with how to contextualize the racism of that decade. The problem is that the racism is so obvious and deplorable that I’m not sure students can take it seriously. Establishing the racist intent of the Johnson-Reed Act is like shooting fish in a barrel. And students don’t need to be convinced that a resurgent Ku Klux Klan with millions of members was not a good thing, or that whiteness as a condition for naturalization is offensive. It’s all so over the top, almost cartoonishly awful, that students are likely to be tempted to separate themselves from white Americans of that period. With surprising frequency, students reach for the comforting assumption that contemporary people are somehow more advanced.
In an effort to ward off those assumptions, on Wednesday I gave a lecture about immigrant radicalism in the early 20th century, with special focus on the anarchist movement. I gave a lot of attention to Emma Goldman’s radical views, and described several episodes of anarchist violence culminating in the Wall Street bombing of 1920. Though the perpetrators were never caught, the bombing was most likely the work of Italian immigrant anarchists. It came on the heels of the 1919 mail bombings and the attacks on the homes of prominent government officials, including U.S. Attorney General Palmer.
So, whatever else it was, the famous Red Scare of 1919-1920 was in part a response to a campaign of terrorism on U.S. soil. The people implicated in these activities were disproportionately immigrants. As the American public was inundated with newspaper headlines linking immigrant groups with political radicalism and violence, it is not surprising that fear, and even hysteria, grew.
We should point out, as I did to my students, that there were many millions of immigrants and only a handful of violent anarchists. But that’s not exactly the point. The point is the quintessentially human overreaction of fear and bigotry on the part of the U.S. public and American policymakers. In other words, the people of the 1920s were like us.
The point of this framing is to help students grapple with the real problems policymakers at the time faced, to see how scary the future looked, and to wrestle with plausible alternatives. Were there alternatives to Johnson-Reed? What would have happened in a world without that legislation? Students might prefer not to face uncomfortable scenarios, such as the possibility that this racist legislation both caused human suffering around the world and reduced future political violence in the United States.
The moral purpose of complicating the story is not to absolve people in the past of their racism, but to implicate ourselves. How might our fears cloud moral clarity and enable inhumanity to our fellow human beings? Take the question to its most extreme example. The profile of a genocide participant is not necessarily monstrous. Just as likely, it’s an ordinary person who is very afraid.