When White People Weren’t White
America would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a Negro, and then be hanged for it. I find this sentiment generally approved.
– William Freeman (1881)
The largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans in 1891 — and it wasn’t African-Americans who were lynched, as many of us might assume. It was Italian-Americans.
After nine Italians were tried and found not guilty of murdering New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy, a mob dragged them from the jail, along with two other Italians being held on unrelated charges, and lynched them all. The lynchings were followed by mass arrests of Italian immigrants throughout New Orleans, and waves of attacks against Italians nationwide.
What was the reaction of our country’s leaders to the lynchings? Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president, famously said they were “a rather good thing.” The response in The New York Times was worse. A March 16, 1891, editorial referred to the victims of the lynchings as “… sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” An editorial the next day argued that: “Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans. …”
John Parker, who helped organize the lynch mob, later went on to be governor of Louisiana. In 1911, he said of Italians that they were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”
– Ed Falco, author of The Family Corleone
Donald Trump appears to mean making America white again with his slogan of “Make America Great Again”. The fact is Europeans are separated into many different nations and cultures, many of which have histories of conflict and discord with others. In other words, different groups of Europeaners hated each other before, after, and upon arriving in the US. When did we assume there was some kind of unity to “whiteness”?
Civil Rights Movement
Post 1960’s America has seen the definition of “white” extended to all European peoples as the “others” became black people asserting an equal (and not subordinate) status of American citizenship. This was great for people like Trump’s grandfather who immigrated here at that time, and was certainly not considered “white”.
Before then, the old fashioned definition that held in the country was Italians, Slavs, Spaniards, Irish and Greeks were all dirty immigrants. This definition did not even see Catholics as white except for perhaps German and French Catholics. Jews were acceptable if they were Ashkenazi and had colonial or early American ancestry. No Sephardim need apply.
In fact, the 19th and early 20th century didn’t see these southern and eastern European groups as white people at all. Basically “white” people were northern Europeans and Germanic. Southern or Eastern Europe might as well have been Syria, India, or China.
White people then were far more nuanced in how they viewed Europeans immigrants. Basically, if you weren’t of colonial heritage, or arrived here before the 1850s, or didn’t come from the “white” countries of Europe, you were a piece of immigrant trash, would never understand he ideals of his country, and were certainly not of the “white” people of this country. Sound familiar?
It is said that these previously excluded groups assimilated into America denoting an “earning of whiteness” Have you ever known any Italian Americans from Philadelphia? Irish Americans from Boston? Russians from Brooklyn, Jews in New York, Poles in Connecticut and Illinois, recent slavic immigrants, and Greeks in Florida and Chicago? They are extremely different from the northern European, American “normal” of white. These immigrant groups did not and have not seamlessly assimilated into the colonial European basis of US culture any more than any other immigrant group.
You don’t have to be white or emulate white to be proud of being American. It’s nonsense to attempt to make “taking back America” about the triumph of whiteness. Apparently, it is though which is probably why Trump has secured the endorsement of several white supremacist groups.