Race has been the elephant in the room since the beginning, the creature around whom, as Tocqueville foresaw, a kind of Herrenvolk democracy in America was built. After the successful tax revolt against the British, all had seemed perfectly clear about who was an American citizen–white men were, Africans and Indians weren’t. Yet in the decades after the Civil War, the meaning of citizenship, the exclusive privilege of free white men until the Fourteenth Amendment, grew far murkier. The descendants of Africans were slaves no more, yet the Protestant white majority viewed their emancipation as too problematic in reality for any solution other than white supremacy below the Mason-Dixon line and the finessing of racial equality in the constitutional doctrine of separate but equal.
Citizenship for Africans complicated citizenship for the new European immigrants streaming out of Ellis Island. The challenge of assimilating the new whites (“strangers in the land,” in historian John Higham’s memorable phrase) inspired comparable disquiet among the Anglo-Saxon elite. European newcomers found themselves stigmatized by the same citizenship stereotypes that “old stock” Americans foisted on African-Americans. As Richard Slotkin observes in his massive new book Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality, “likeness to the Negro (or the Indian) was the sign that native-born Americans always used to declare a new immigrant group beyond the pale of equal citizenship.” Not surprisingly, immigrant groups learned almost overnight to distance themselves from black people and to interiorize mainstream society’s race prejudice.
By the first decade of the American Century, the immigrant conveyor belt had turned an Anglo-Protestant land of farmers, mechanics, traders and merchants into a polyglot beehive of low-wage industrial toilers who fueled, then as now, the world’s most powerful economy. Much of the Progressive leadership, applying itself to municipal reform, merit-based government service and moral uplift, saw a fatal point of no return fast approaching in the vital matter of national character. The Melting Pot was predicted to be but so many degrees away from its melting point. Disparaged as “dingy” whites, the newcomers seemed to multiply like kudzu in dark, festering ghettos where city machines owned every poor man’s vote. Ten years into the new century, well-financed, powerfully connected nativist organizations dedicated to preserving an America purged of runaway hyphenation–like the Immigration Restriction League (IRL), the Anglo-Saxon League and the American Eugenics Association–flourished.
Charged by Congress with investigating the facts of immigration, the 1911 Dillingham Commission trolled reams of records and observed thousands of Ellis Island immigrants to produce a report of surpassing ominousness. It found the great majority of Jews to be feebleminded, Italians to be criminals and other “races” (of which some fifty were enumerated) to be carriers of disease and bearers of suspect mores. The intelligence test developed by Stanford University’s Lewis Terman was accepted nationwide as scientifically ascertaining the inborn mental aptitudes of groups as well as individuals: the newer the immigrant group and the darker the “race,” the lower the IQ. This book’s revelation that a group of Chicago politicians scored in the “moron” range may have corroborated the Stanford-Binet’s “objectivity” in the public’s mind.
The dissenting multiculturalist voices of W.E.B. Du Bois, Horace Kallen, Randolph Bourne, the Hapgood brothers and Waldo Frank were drowned out by the cacophony of hyper-nationalism that set the stage for America’s intervention in World War I. As Boston Brahmins and Roosevelt Progressives ordered officers’ uniforms from Brooks Brothers, they were prey to massive doubts about the men they had to beat into shape for battlefield slaughter. No better than the Negroes, the hyphenated Americans had “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government,” IRL men fretted in the spring of 1917 as President Wilson’s war commenced. That same year, Congress overrode Wilson’s veto and imposed the first immigration literacy test.