Van Ens: The fight to keep America white is not right
Moms enrich families by not playing favorites among their offspring. Each child has different strengths and weaknesses. Caring moms nurture their children, treating them like key ingredients in a mixed green salad. Diversity within families acts like seasoning in tasty salads.
Like mothers who accept differences among their children, some Americans compare our nation’s racial composition to a mixed green salad, which features colorful varieties of lettuce, fruits and vegetables.
Others find distasteful the variety of immigrants entering the U.S. The salad metaphor applies only if mostly light-skinned immigrants arrive on our shores, say critics whose taste buds savor immigration quotas looking like “mostly light green lettuce salad.”
Prior to the 1880s, the “mixed green salad” metaphor accurately described American immigration patterns. The Irish escaped the potato famine in the 1840s and migrated to Manhattan. Other Northern European refugees seeking jobs boarded ships bound for New York, Philadelphia and Boston. My paternal grandparents were part of this huge immigrant surge.
Midwesterner Ed Gleason describes what the mixed green salad immigration surge looks and feels like. “We have always been a nation of immigrants who came here with a dream, and through hard work have transformed their lives and the lives of their descendants.
“Maybe the first generation did not come here with engineering or medical degrees,” he observes, “but subsequent generations have gone on to college and have become leading citizens. They were raised with a tireless work ethic and that work ethic has fueled our economy, stabilized our neighborhoods, fought our wars and built this country” (The Wall Street Journal, “Letters to the Editor,” May 28, 2019, p. A-18).
At the 20th century’s turn, my paternal grandparents migrated to the U.S. as single young adults with little cash. They spoke halting English. When they died, my grandparents still lacked significant monetary assets from farming during the Great Depression. What increased was the size of their family.
Motivated by a sense of duty and national pride, they urged their seven children to enter the U.S. army in 1941. Three sons fought in the infantry in Europe. As military nurses, three daughters cared for wounded soldiers. The fourth son felt called to the fight in the Lord’s army, so he received a seminary deferment and studied for Christian ministry.
My grandparents believed God cares for and watches over immigrants (Psalm 146: 9). Singing biblical psalms in Dutch daily at 5 a.m. before milking cows, these stalwart Republicans confessed confidence in God who shows compassion for immigrants with diverse identities.
In the late 19th century, a Republican majority dismissed this vision of the “mixed green salad,” calling it “Pollyannaish.” They believed God preferred light-skinned immigrants who would build a strong U.S. economy. Their vision of America’s racial composition is not unlike what George Orwell described in his book “Animal Farm”: “All animals are equal [in status before God], but some animals are more equal than others.” Like white people.
By the end of the 1880s, some white Americans had their fill of the mixed salad metaphor. They grew anxious because 5.2 million foreigners applied for citizenship, roughly 15% of the U.S. population. During the 1890s, more immigrants arrived from Eastern and Southern Europe, easily surpassing whites immigrating from Northern European countries. In 1907, these “inferior-looking foreigners” totaled 85% of all those entering the U.S.
Born into a blue-blood Boston family, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924) feared the superior Anglo-Saxon race was disappearing. In 1891, Lodge published three essays warning about the recent swarm of immigrants stealing jobs from white working-class Americans, causing an economic threat and “an infusion which seems to threaten deterioration.” In other words, children from mixed marriages who diluted pure white bloodlines.
Prior to the late 1880s, custom officials asked questions about immigrants’ character, such as “Did they have a criminal record?” “What was their employment history, health record and family composition?” In the late 1880s, however, questions riveted on race more than character. Immigration officials’ prime concern was: “From what stock did these newcomers originate?”
Voicing racist impulses, Lodge achieved his goal: “… the institution of racially driven quotas in 1921, and even more restrictive ones in 1924, that would be the law of the land [under three successive GOP presidencies in the 1920s] until overturned in 1965” (Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us about Our Past and Future, James Shapiro, Penguin Press 2020, p. 145).
Again in 2016, immigration officials followed this trajectory of using racial categories to decide who enters the U.S to prevent the U.S. from a surge of alleged “rapists, murderers and thieves.”
The 2018 mission statement of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service incorporates language that shifts from immigrants becoming productive citizens to “us versus them” verbal barriers, such as “safeguarding, protecting [Americans], and securing [the homeland].” Missing from custom officials’ vocabulary were promises of help for immigrants, expressed as “providing, granting, promoting, and understanding.”
Publisher Peter W. Marty concludes, “The message of the changed language was unmistakable: it’s time to focus more on keeping immigrants out than allowing them in” (Christian Century magazine, May 9, 2018, p. 3).
President Joe Biden is reversing this goal of “making America white again.” The way he treats immigrants reflects how mothers accept diversity among their children rather than punishing them for it.
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian ministry who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, (www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.