Cen­sus & Sen­si­bil­ity

Forward Magazine - - REVIEWS - By Glenn C. Altschuler Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Cor­nell Univer­sity.


By Kather­ine Ben­ton-Co­hen

Har­vard Univer­sity Press. 343 pp. $29.95


By Joel Perl­mann

Har­vard Univer­sity Press. 451 pp. $45 In 1943, Earl Har­ri­son, the U.S. Com­mis­sioner of Im­mi­gra­tion, an­nounced his bureau would re­move the des­ig­na­tion He­brew from its “List of Races and Peo­ples.” Hence­forth, the Bureau would clas­sify He­brews as white and de­ter­mine group af­fil­i­a­tion by the lan­guage they spoke and the coun­try in which they resided. Stu­art Rice, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor in charge of statis­tic stan­dards in the Bureau of the Bud­get, thought these re­vi­sions might be rel­e­vant as well to U.S. cen­sus enu­mer­a­tions. Many Jews, how­ever, con­tin­ued to worry that govern­ment of­fi­cials might use the data they gath­ered to dis­crim­i­nate against them.

In “Inventing the Im­mi­gra­tion Prob­lem,” Kather­ine Ben­ton-Co­hen, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, as­sesses the Dillingham Com­mis­sion. Cre­ated by the U.S. Con­gress in 1907, the Com­mis­sion pro­duced 41 vol­umes of re­ports, one of the largest projects ever un­der­taken by the fed­eral govern­ment. Dillingham’s rec­om­men­da­tions laid the ground­work for the Im­mi­gra­tion Act of 1924, which con­tin­ued to bar Asians and set quo­tas based on coun­try of ori­gin that ex­cluded the vast ma­jor­ity of im­mi­grants from south­ern and eastern Europe.

These days vir­tu­ally all his­to­ri­ans re­vile and re­ject the Dillingham Com­mis­sion. Ben­ton-Co­hen re­veals, how­ever, that the Dillingham re­ports, which did not al­ways sup­port the Com­mis­sion’s rec­om­men­da­tions, tell us a lot about a time, not un­like our own, of “si­mul­ta­ne­ous sus­pi­cion and cel­e­bra­tion of im­mi­grants, fear of govern­ment power and con­fi­dence in pub­lic pol­icy, need for man­ual la­bor” and con­cern about wages and jobs for so-called An­glo-Saxon Amer­i­cans.

The Com­mis­sion, Ben­ton-Co­hen points out, paid close at­ten­tion to Ja­panese im­mi­grants and vir­tu­ally none to Mex­i­cans, even though the lat­ter out­num­bered the for­mer in the United States by more than two to one. Al­though Yam­ato Ichi­hashi, a Har­vard Ph.D. who served as re­search as­sis­tant and in­ter­preter for the Com­mis­sion, found that Ja­panese were in­dus­tri­ous and ea­ger to learn “Amer­i­can ways,” his rec­om­men­da­tion that re­stric­tions on nat­u­ral­iza­tion be eased went nowhere.

Other Dillingham staffers, Ben­tonCo­hen in­di­cates, dis­sented from the con­ven­tional wis­dom about “the new im­mi­grants.” Jett Lauck’s study of work­ers did not jus­tify the con­tention that they were re­spon­si­ble for in­creases in crime. Anna Herkner, who held a de­gree in Slavic lan­guages from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, and was one of scores of women who held po­si­tions on the Dillingham Com­mis­sion, de­scribed the ab­hor­rent im­pact of steer­age on poor im­mi­grants, point­ing the way to­ward fed­eral reg­u­la­tion.

And Franz Boas, al­ready a pre­em­i­nent an­thro­pol­o­gist and critic of the the­ory that bi­ol­ogy was des­tiny, was (sur­pris­ingly) re­tained by the Com­mis­sion to mea­sure the cra­nial pro­por­tions and body mea­sure­ments of 118,000 im­mi­grants and their first gen­er­a­tion chil­dren. Boas con­cluded that they tended over time to “be­come sim­i­lar to the Amer­i­can type.”

Ben­ton-Co­hen sug­gests as well that the mod­ern Jewish lobby emerged at the turn of the cen­tury to help shape im­mi­gra­tion law.

Lines dis­tin­guish­ing kinds of ori­gin are get­ting fuzzier.

In “Amer­ica Classifies the Im­mi­grants,” Joel Perl­mann, a re­search pro­fes­sor at Bard Col­lege, pro­vides a co­gent and com­pelling anal­y­sis of the mud­dle of mean­ings em­bed­ded in the terms race, peo­ples, na­tional ori­gins, and mother tongue as used by schol­ars, politi­cians, and ad­min­is­tra­tors in the Bureau of Im­mi­gra­tion and the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau. At the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, he notes, sup­port­ers and op­po­nents of im­mi­gra­tion re­stric­tion ac­knowl­edged that govern­ment clas­si­fi­ca­tions were based on com­mon us­age; they were nei­ther pre­cise nor sci­en­tific. Bu­reau­crats in the Bureau of Im­mi­gra­tion did not clar­ify the re­la­tion­ship, if any, be­tween their long list of races (in­clud­ing He­brews, Ital­ians, Poles and other “un­de­sir­able” groups), dis­tinc­tions based on skin color (white, black, yel­low, and red) or the no­tion that three an­cient races (Nordic, Alpine, and Mediter­ranean) had pre­vailed in Europe. They did not in­di­cate whether the terms races and peo­ples were in­ter­change­able. The lines be­tween bi­o­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­pla­na­tions of the trans­mis­sion of group men­tal traits, more­over, re­mained loosely drawn.

Like Ben­ton-Co­hen, Perl­mann un­der­scores the special chal­lenges Jews posed to im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials. Should He­brews be clas­si­fied as a race, a na­tion­al­ity, or a re­li­gion? Did Ben­jamin Dis­raeli re­main a Jew af­ter he joined the Angli­can Church? Should Jews who resided in Rus­sia be clas­si­fied as Rus­sians or as a Jews? Should their “mother tongue” be recorded as Yid­dish or Rus­sian?

Af­ter a pe­riod of un­cer­tainty, Perl­mann in­di­cates, the Cen­sus Bureau re­tained race as a clas­si­fi­ca­tion for non­whites but dropped race as a cat­e­gory for whites. How­ever, the racial­iza­tion of Euro­pean white sub­groups, which had been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in the Im­mi­gra­tion Act of 1924, re­mained in force for four decades.

By the 1950s and ‘60s, Perl­mann re­minds us, eth­nic­ity was re­plac­ing race as the pre­ferred term of so­cial sci­en­tists, ge­neti­cists, and pol­icy mak­ers. Mem­bers of eth­nic groups, they claimed, shared a com­mon cul­ture, lan­guage and re­li­gion, a sense of com­mon ances­try and his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity, and dis­tinc­tive com­mu­nity in­sti­tu­tions. With the suc­cesses of the black rights move­ment, the emer­gence of white eth­nic pride, the abo­li­tion of quo­tas in the Im­mi­gra­tion Act of 1965, and the ben­e­fits granted by govern­ment to “pro­tected” mi­nor­ity groups, vis­i­bil­ity be­came far more ad­van­ta­geous than it had been in the bad old Dillingham days.

The chal­lenges in track­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of groups, how­ever, did not go away. His­pan­ics and Asians be­came “pan-eth­nics.” Their na­tion­al­i­ties were sub­or­di­nated to claims of shared discrimination. With ad­vo­cacy groups de­ter­mined to in­crease their num­bers, paneth­nic ori­gins mat­tered for cen­sus-tak­ers no mat­ter how dis­tant they were in time. Al­though be­gin­ning in 2000, the cen­sus per­mit­ted re­port­ing of mul­ti­ple racial/ eth­nic af­fil­i­a­tions, His­pan­ics were not al­lowed to de­clare mixed His­panic/nonHis­panic her­itage on the ori­gins ques­tion.

As fed­eral of­fi­cials pre­pare for the 2020 cen­sus, Perl­mann points out, the na­ture and author­ity of the con­cepts of race and eth­nic­ity have been called into ques­tion, and the “lines dis­tin­guish­ing kinds of ori­gin are get­ting fuzzier or at least shift­ing.” Para­dox­i­cally, how­ever, al­though racial and eth­nic iden­tity are now per­ceived as so­cial con­structs and mat­ters of in­di­vid­ual choice (not all that dif­fer­ent from re­li­gion), ethno/racial groups re­main as en­trenched (and for those in Pres­i­dent Trump’s cross-hairs as vul­ner­a­ble) as they’ve ever been.

Stay tuned.


ROUGH PAS­SAGE: Im­mi­grants gather on El­lis Is­land, circa 1880.

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