The Immigrant Within

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Heartsick Negroes were reaching a crossroads. At best, integration had a faint suggestion that for blacks redemption could be found only by a change of skin. “Nobodydemanded of the Irish, Italians or Jews,” said historian Oscar Handlin, ”… that they become a vanishing element.” Once more the appeal of separation was sounded in the streets—by Black Muslims and Black Panthers. Yet it was hard to know if a black world, isolated from the major tides of American society, would fare any better psychologically or economically than it had in the “integrated” underdog role.

In a sense the situation presented different problems for blacks and whites; blacks had to achieve some unity to develop a solution to their dilemma, and whites had to make their accommodation to the undying reality of black aspiration. Yet it was also a crisis for the nation as a whole, and it was, once again, an ethnic conflict presenting a familiar pattern. The union workers, the low-income homeowners on the margins of the black inner cities, the people who would literally have to move over to make room for oncoming blacks, were by and large of recent immigrant stock. They were now the “native Americans” confronting the barbarians at the gate. Many of them felt resentful. They were asked to bear, in taxes, a burden of reparation for an original sin—enslavement—that was not of their making. They were asked to commit their children to a new order that, even if they were being unreasonable, they desperately feared. They were asked to rework their values on behalf of a race that appeared to lag far behind them in the cleanly and parsimonious virtues of good Americanism—and a people, moreover, whom they disliked as if by instinct and who were now sufficiently self-aware to return the dislike openly. In many ways, particularly economically, these whites were closer as a class to poor blacks than they were to the affluent liberals who preached racial equality at them; this seemed only to deepen their sense of betrayal.

It had happened before. But the circumstances are more dangerous in 1970 than they were in 1910. There is a steadily contracting market for unskilled labor, little room for growth within the major cities, a huge public budget that keeps much of the individual’s surplus revenue from being used in entrepreneurial activities. In short, there is no frontier—literally, less room for maneuver and, it seems, less time to maneuver in. There seems to be no consensus of social values to which newcomer and old-timer can both conform. It is a violent, anxious era. The nation is fused by mass media but is not cohesive in beliefs—performers and audience, not a community. The prospects seem ominous.

Yet despair is always slow to see the first edge of sunlight on the morning horizon. Solving the dilemmas of human diversity was a task the American people met reasonably well during a long period of unrestricted immigration. There is no reason to think that the many assets the nation brought to the work have now disappeared. The restrictionists of the 1920’s were foolish to believe that by barring the doors they would solve the problems of ethnic mixture. It may be equally foolish for a crowded America fifty years later to believe that the problems cannot be solved at all.