Title: White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945
Author: Thomas Guglielmo
Categories: Whiteness, Immigration, Social History, Race
Time Period: 1890-1945
Thomas Guglielmo writes in the historiographic vein of whiteness studies by examining identity and race in early-20th century Italian communities in Chicago. Guglielmo explicitly challenges a core tenet of whiteness literature by refuting the notion that, as "New Immigrants" Italians occupied an "in-between" racial status and had to actively work to obtain the benefits of being considered white. Far from "How the Italians Became White," Guglielmo insists that they arrived white and remained white. To bolster his argument Guglielmo makes a fundamental distinction between color and race. For him, color is a white/non-white binary, while race differentiated the raza Italiana and even more fine-grained distinctions between, say, Northern and Southern Italians. Guglielmo argues that while Italians may have been episodically discriminated against because of their race as Italians, they enjoyed the status of color whiteness in all of the most meaningful arenas: citizenship, housing, jobs, schools, politics, etc. Secure in their color status as whites, Guglielmo notes, Italians were simultaneously more willing to maintain a separate racial identity as Italians for much of the early 20th century - often giving primacy to their racial (Italian) identity rather than a class consciousness. Even when faced with episodes that would seem to heighten their white consciousness - 1919 Race Riot, anti-European debates around 1924 Immigration Act, Democratic political attempts to rally the "white" vote, or the criminalization of Italians by linking them to organized crime - Guglielmo argues that overall Italians clung to a separate racial identity.
Italians began moving away from racial distinctiveness and towards a color consciousness of whiteness beginning in the 1930s. Guglielmo points to their involvement in radical politics (the Communist and Socialist parties) and labor unions during the 1930s and 1940s as beginning the shift towards a broader identity as "white" rather than Italian. This process was accelerated during and after World War II, and in particular crystallized in the arena of housing. In a familiar tale spun by New Suburban historians, Italians began asserting their own whiteness rather than Italian-ness as a means of excluding blacks from their neighborhoods. Much like earlier naturalization laws, the federal government undergirded this process by institutionalizing color into 1930s-1940s housing policies. As they moved towards greater white color consciousness, Guglielmo points out housing as the epitome of the many ways in which Italians had consistently and systematically benefited from their white status.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Differentiation between color vs. race - Italians might have suffered in small ways by being considered racially Italian, but were almost as always color white (especially in eyes of state) and enjoyed all of its systematic advantages
- Challenges traditional whiteness studies - Italians not "in-between" but basically always white (from color standpoint), especially in comparison to Mexicans, Asians, blacks
- Race vs. color division in how Italians saw selves dissolves by end of World War II
- Stasis vs. change - partially a story of stasis (arrived white and remained white) but partially a story about change - changing racial identity
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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