When Immigrants Were Welcomed

Congress has failed immigrants again. But in the 1920s, this plan quieted xenophobes and nurtured new Americans.

By Jim Sleeper

Tagged immigrationmediaprogressivism

Now that the Senate has failed once again to produce an immigration bill that the president might sign, it’s time for those of us who’d rather welcome newcomers and deport xenophobes to rediscover an old and, for many progressives, scary word: “Americanization.” This is what Progressives did a century ago, and, with some fortuitous twists and turns, it worked.

They weren’t all “progressives” in today’s vaguely democratic-socialist, multiculturalist sense of that term. In the 1920s, members of the Progressive Party considered American national identity and what Herbert Croly called “The Promise of American LIfe” a true vessel of democracy, and some of them  used commercial advertising to draw immigrants toward citizenship. Frances Kellor, head of the Progressive Party’s research and publicity department, and, later, of the “Americanization” programs at the federal Bureau of Education, also had brands such as Mazola Oil and Washington Crisps Cereal place ads in the immigrant Italian Il Progresso, the Greek Atlantis, as well as Yiddish newspapers. “One million dollars… spent in selling American goods to the foreign-born in America will do more good than all the investigations [of foreign subversion] ever set on foot, simply because [immigrant newspaper] publishers will feel that America… wants them to make good, and they will return it,” she wrote.

Yet the idea wasn’t just to draw immigrants into vapid consumerism. It was to use capitalist and civic “carrots” instead of the nativist “stick” of resentment to get people from often-hostile Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Slavic, and Hebrew “races” to accept one another as fellow Americans. (Later, building on that precedent, many of these groups would come to join the African-American and Latino civil-rights movements.)

Now that the current occupant of the White House and his party are fanning and re-institutionalizing racial resentments, it’s time to retell this century-old story. (I told it 20 years ago in my paper, “Should American Journalism Make Us Americans?” for Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center for The Press, Politics, and Public Policy.)

In 1921, the conservative, Anglo Saxon Daughters of the American Revolution published a manual for immigrants, in 18 languages, that began:                

To the men and women who come from far-off lands to seek a new home in America,… the DAR extend a cordial welcome. We ask you to make yourselves worthy to become a citizen of our country, to study its history, to become acquainted with its literature, its traditions, and its laws… It is a proud honor to have American citizenship conferred upon you. It is more honorable to deserve such citizenship…. We offer you these opportunities.

A welcome like that would prompt justified skepticism today: To whom, really, was the DAR promising equal opportunity? And at what cost? Still, it presented citizenship not as an exclusive ethnic or economic club but as a democratic project to achieve common ideals that Americans couldn’t achieve by acting alone or apart.

In those days, American national identity had been strengthened—though not always for better—by new technologies (telegraphs, railroads) and important economic entities and practices (continent-spanning trusts, tariffs). Both captains of industry and Progressives sought a strong state—the former to protect and carry their investments, the latter to make sure those investments would serve worthy social ends.

And news media were central in this goal: Muckrakers such as Lincoln Steffens boosted Progressive reforms, but mass-circulation publishers such as William Randolph Hearst also produced “fake news” that stampeded the country into its first imperialist venture, the Spanish-American War.

At its occasional but often decisive best, the Progressive American national identity managed to advance human rights and individual dignity across lines of color, creed, and even class. Today, that identity is weakened by global media conglomerates that use innovations not to inform active citizens but to assemble audiences on whatever pretexts—sensationalist, erotic, nihilist, bigoted—will keep us glued to their screens.

Contrast this with a Des Moines Register editorial of 1918 that declared, “America is not primarily a piece of land or a language, or a church, or a race, but rather a high level of human attainment,” rebuking Iowans who were trying to ban the German language in public schools during World War I. More than 20 million other immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were bringing unprecedented diversity to America and, with it, a challenge to newspaper editors to trying to balance two seemingly irreconcilable demands.

The first came from working-class whites and was represented by elite writers such as Madison Grant, who feared that immigrant races were corrupting their communities and taking their jobs. They wanted them barred, deported, or consigned to low-wage labor.

The second demand came from immigrant leaders and American champions of pluralism such as Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne. Deploring not only nativist bigotry but also commercialism, they defended a pluralist vision of America that prefigured some of today’s identity politics. It was suppressed during and after World War I by advocates of “100-percent Americanism.” But Frances Kellor and other Progressives touted a more welcoming national identity that transcended defensive ethnocentrism: Americans might be raised in religious or ethnic subcultures, most of which nurtured universal aspirations, but many of them (Michael Dukakis? Mario Cuomo? Barack Obama?) would eventually join a national civic culture that represented a rolling synthesis of demographic, technological, and economic currents.

The result would be the Des Moines Register’s “high level of human attainment”: A citizen would take pride in entering a jury room not as the delegate of an ancestral ethnic group but as an American committed to judge the evidence and the defendant only by standards shared with jurors from other backgrounds. And to do that, immigrants would need to belong to a common civic culture. As early as 1888, A New York Times editorial advocated what we now call a path to citizenship when it opposed importing (i.e., smuggling) rights-less Chinese laborers. “It is as important that American citizenship should not be so downgraded by immigration as that the economic needs of the country should be answered by it.”

Few immigrants were reading the Times then, but by 1920 there were more than a thousand foreign-language newspapers in the United States, reaching four or five-million readers. For their different reasons, both American capitalists seeking productive workers and Progressives opposing corporate rapacity wanted immigrants to assimilate.

Although mainstream papers stuck with long-standing nativist xenophobia (even The New York Times had declared, in 1880, that “We know how conservative of his dirt and ignorance is the average immigrant who settles in New York, particularly if he is of a clannish race like the Italians… A bad Irish-American boy is about as unwholesome a product as was ever reared in any body politic.”), such hostility strengthened Americanization’s allure to immigrant children eager to prove themselves “worthy” in public schools that were blast-furnaces of Americanization. The New Deal and the nationalism of World War II were also critical in muting contempt for the unwashed and coaxing immigrants out of defensive ethnocentrism. It wasn’t all about Mazola Oil ads in foreign-language papers.

Still, half a century later, by 1998, U.S.-based corporations had achieved “jaw-dropping success” in marketing Spanish-language versions of Readers Digest, National Geographic, Glamour, and People. Such publications draw readers closer to mainstream American lifestyles. But the Progressives of a century ago would now likely wonder why newspapers such as the Miami Herald, The Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times have followed suit, publishing separate Spanish-language editions, sometimes even with separate staffs producing ethnically distinct journalism. A liberal-democratic polity can’t thrive without major daily storytellers enriching a shared language and civic culture.

When the writer Pete Hamill edited The New York Daily News in 1997, he noted that a newspaper written for both newcomers and older Americans in one language fulfills two purposes: “One is to explain the city to newcomers; the other is to explain newcomers to the rest of the city. Let’s say there are a large number of people who don’t speak English and get their news coverage from Spanish-language TV or Korean newspapers. But their kids are going to use the English-language papers as guides to the U.S., and, on that level, it’s very important to get their attention.”

Although print newspapers don’t matter now as much as they did even 20 years ago, today’s highly contested national story lines need to be aired in public venues whose civic ground-rules of reasoned argument and mutual respect remain un-contested. But shareholder-driven media companies and ad-hungry websites have replaced such a democratic “public” with the passive audiences mentioned above.

News reporting and commentary that are dedicated to making public life go well are costly to produce and often suffer blowback when they report on what the powerful don’t want the public to know. “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” reads the slogan of the Washington Post, now owned by Jeff Bezos, and so far, he’s been generous enough to The Post to keep its pursuit of advertising from devouring journalism. But democracy dies also in a deluge of commercial “speech” that swamps democracy as surely as authoritarian regimes suppress it.

That leaves public schools the most likely locus of civic education for newcomers uprooted from ancestral languages and cultures. Even immigrants who don’t intend to become “worthy” of the DAR’s idea of citizenship, hoping only to make a living and return home, may have impressionable kids who need a civic culture to grow up in. One highly successful model of civic education is Facing History, whose teacher-training, curricular development, and mobile programs have transformed students, teachers, classrooms, and entire schools around the country.

For all its terrifying resorts to racism and sexism, American national identity has never been convincingly grounded in ethno-racial myths of sacred blood and soil. Precisely because the country has been so diverse and changing, countless citizens have poured their hearts and talents into reinforcing shared principles and practices for the kind of citizenship on which a good jury relies. How many members of Congress and publishers are now doing the same, instead of profiting off its opposite?

When the late Barbara Jordan, an African-American congresswoman from Texas, chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1995, she said that the word “’Americanization’… earned a bad reputation when it was stolen by racists and xenophobes in the 1920s…. But it is our word and we are taking it back.” We should take it back, too, not only from white supremacists and other ethno-racial extremists but also from technological and commercial currents that are fragmenting our citizenry into vapid consumerism and niche markets. If Congress keeps on betraying DACA dreamers, families seeking reunification, and cities that are trying to offer sanctuary to immigrants who really need it, it will also have betrayed the kind of “Americanization” this country badly needs.

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Jim Sleeper is a writer on American civic culture and politics. He taught political science at Yale for 21 years and is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.

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