A cogent analysis of culture and race in early 20th-century America that ranks with such classics as Grace Hale’s Making Whiteness (1998) and Linda Gordon’s The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (1999).
Look around a grocery store, subway or church: many of the people we now think of as ‘white’ would have been viewed as distinctly not white just a century ago. That’s the premise with which Roediger (History/Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) opens his exploration of how fin de siècle immigrants to America negotiated race. Back in 1900, “Slavonic” and “Latin” were understood to be racial designations, just like “white” and “black.” By 1950, that had changed; Jews, Italians, Poles, the Irish and other European immigrants were considered as white as Betsy Ross. How and why did this transformation take place? According to Roediger, many factors were at work. Immigrants who wanted to marry outside their ethnic group quickly learned that whiteness was crucial, since laws forbade dating and marriage between people perceived to be of different races. Second-generation immigrant kids defied their parents to become friends with children of different ethnicities. Roediger’s title is a double-entendre: immigrants worked or strived to become white; and the jobs they held, as well as their participation in the labor movement, shaped their racial status. One of Roediger’s most interesting arguments has to do with housing. Home ownership is an indicator of the extent to which immigrant groups had been accepted into mainstream, white American society, he acknowledges, but immigrants “did not so much ‘buy into’ the American Dream of home ownership as help create it.” They made significant sacrifices to own homes, and helped turn a house into a badge of success.
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