Immigration and Segregation
Studies and reports continue to bear out not only a persistent economic and wealth gap between Whites and many groups of color, but a widening of that financial chasm as well. It is due, in large part, to the failure to properly and thoroughly deconstruct and fundamentally address the social impact and economic consequences of White privilege.
The notions of racial inferiority evolved over time, shaped in part by an intense need for labor (in other words, economic factors) in the US colonies. Slavery had become so widespread, that for many Whites it seemed the natural state for Black people. Many of the European-descended poor immigrants began to identify themselves, if not directly with affluent Whites, certainly with being White.
Between 1880 and 1920 the US acted as a huge magnet for immigrants from all directions. Most settled in large cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Boston. Previous immigrants had come to the United States from western and northern Europe and were often well educated, spoke English and were considered as having useful skills. Except for the Irish, most were also Protestant.
By 1880, the trend of immigration changed. Most coming to the United States were from southern and eastern Europe and tended to be Catholic or Jewish, poor and knowing no English. Their habits and culture were very different from native-born U.S. citizens.
The United States was viewed as the “golden door” to opportunity – hope of a better life. For this new wave of immigrants, life in Europe and Asia was difficult at best. They came seeking to escape famine, land shortage and religious or political persecution. Others, known as “birds of passage”, wanted to come to the United States temporarily for money with the intention of returning to their homeland.
There were some political efforts in some southern states to recruit immigrants from more “desirable” locations such as Germany and Belgium in an attempt to increase the White labor force for mills and the selling of farm land.
Most immigrants arrived by steamship. Travel across the Atlantic from Europe took approximately one week, while Pacific crossing from Asia took nearly three weeks. The cheapest accommodations were in steerage, the cargo area where conditions were crowded and unsanitary.
Upon arrival at the designated port of entry, immigrants faced the question of whether they would be admitted to the U.S. The process at Ellis Island in New York City required a physical exam and government inspection of documents. As the major immigration station in the US at the turn of the century, nearly 20 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island.
When those who would later be deemed white became citizens, in spite of possible and initial hostile reception, they had the opportunity to gradually adopt the ideologies, norms, and practices of whiteness, to be accepted as White, and to become entitled to the accompanying systemic advantages.
The prevailing narrative of the European immigrant is that they came here with nothing, worked hard and achieved success. An admirable accomplishment, nevertheless, it is usually told and recited as a defense of the supposed U.S. system of meritocracy and fairness.
The part that is usually missing from this account, however, is the countless people of color who worked just as hard, and in many cases harder, and had nothing to show for it in the end. As a matter of fact, not only did they accrue no net increase for their labor, they actually lost more than they gained.
The segregation levels for Asian Americans are at a level not unusual for immigrant groups, no doubt to some degree reflecting choices to live in ethnic enclaves. However, the segregation indices for African Americans remain uniquely high, despite decline from the peak 30-40 years ago. The opportunities for employment, real estate appreciation, and quality education are greatest in the suburbs, so it is significant that whites are most likely to live there.
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