Friday, November 23, 2012

The Assault on "Traditional America"

It's unfortunate that we are hearing from the disappointed Right an old refrain, perhaps best exemplified by Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly's reflections on the reelection of President Barack Obama. O'Reilly said, "The demographics are changing." He lamented that, "The white establishment is now the minority," and "It's not a traditional America anymore."

John Stewart's send up of O'Reilly's comments is classic political parody and worth considering as much for its historical substance as for comic relief.

Stewart points out the irony in O'Reilly's sturm und drang concerning America's downfall given O'Reilly's Irish ancestry.  But the fact is, there was a general prejudice against newly arriving immigrants of other nationalities, as well. In 1908, Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham published an article in The North American Review in which he contended that at least half the city's criminals were Jews. The face of Italian immigrants, wrote Charles Bancroft, a doctor who worked on Ellis Island, displayed "a lack of intelligence." The Mayor of New York in 1912, William Gaynor, was quoted as saying, “We have in the city the largest foreign population of any city… and a large number of them are degenerates and criminals." A powerful clique of eugenicists began to argue that the new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were genetically prone to crime, disease and depravity and should be kept out.

Today, some in our country hope to make life so difficult for immigrants that they will exercise "self deportation." Others promote building 700-mile long fences across our southern border. States are passing laws that permit police to stop people who "look suspicious" and ask them for papers proving they are legal residents. Given our history, all this isn't surprising, but it is troubling, and it is certainly disappointing.
Italian school children, New York, 1890

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