Racial Discrimination in America During the 1920's
The motto of the United States of America is "E Pluribus Unum" meaning 'Out of one, many'. It neatly recognises that although America may be a single nation, it is also one originally made up of immigrants who arrived not only from Europe and Asia, but forcibly as slaves from Africa and of Native Americans. It's population is the most racially and culturally diverse in the world and for that reason is often referred to as a "Melting Pot".
During the 1920's
, racial tensions in American society reached boiling point
. New non-protestant immigrants like Jews and Catholics had been arrived in their masses from south-east Europe since early on in the century. Together with Orientals, Mexicans and the Black population these minorities suffered the most at the hands of those concerned with preserving the long established White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (W.A.S.P.) values that were an integral part of American life. Prejudice and racism reared its ugly head in many areas of society, with people showing a tolerance for racist views in the media, literature and towards organisations like the Ku Klux Klan. Also the language, living and working conditions and Government legislation that ethnic minorities were subjected to is further evidence that the twenties was an openly discriminatory decade. It was also during this period of grave hostility directed at ethnic groups that America's 'open door' attitude of "Give me your tired, your poor" towards immigration, officially became a part of history.
In the 1920's Anti-Immigration Organisations that had been founded in the latter parts of the first decade of the twentieth century began to receive much larger and an increasingly influential following. The Immigration Restriction League was one such group, it claimed to have 'scientific' evidence that the new immigrants from Southeast Europe were racially inferior and therefor posed to threaten the supremacy of the USA. They believed strongly in WASP values and certainly did not wish to see them become polluted by other religions from minorities like Catholics and Jews. This Social-Darwinist belief was not just popular with the masses, but it's appeal spread to people of considerable eminence. For example the principals of important American universities like Harvard, Stanford and Chicago were numbered among the Leagues supporters. Another similar organisation looking to conserve the American way if life was the American Protective Association. A leading member, William J.H. Tranyor spoke for their cause when arguing against giving the vote to "every ignorant Ago and Pole, Hun and Slav" and all other "criminal riffraff of Europe" that arrive on Americas shores. During the 1920's the growth and continually support of anti-immigration fraternities from the American people serves to highlight the increasing resentment and concern over foreign influences. The influential author Madison Grant, whose book "The Passing of a Great Race" became a best seller in its time, echoes such sentiments. Grant, another Social-Darwinist, called for absolute racial segregation, immigration restrictions and even forced sterilisation of "worthless race types". In his book he described ethnic minorities as "human flotsam" and that the "whole tone of American life, social, moral and political has been lowered and vulgarised by them". Madison Grant, together with authors that shared a similar perspective on ethnic groups, influenced many people in America, the fact that this type of literature was popular shows this.
The language that native-born Americans adopted to describe those of ethnic minorities can be used as an indicator of their dislike of them. To begin with nicknames for minorities were only mildly abusive, but as time went on the terms became uglier. For example the term used to describe a person of Latin background was "Spic", said to originate from the expression "No Spic Inglis". Also Italians had a number of names, 'Dogo', Guinea, and 'Greaser'. Other nicknames for minorities that became popular in the twenties were kike, Chink, Polack, Hun and numerous others. Black people around this time were still being referred to as either Negroes or more commonly Niggers. Although these colloquial terms are fairly mild compared with those used today, their sheer presence in American vocabulary at the time tells us that people were becoming much more intolerant of the ethnic minorities they encountered.
In reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, came widespread fears that a similar communist revolt might sweep through America. This so called 'Red Scare' was the accumulative belief that it was the foreign influences, especially those immigrants from eastern Europe that were to blame for the 'Bolshevik inspired' incidents throughout the USA, such as labour strikes and riots. On the 20th January 1920, at the height of the Red Scare, the Justice Department co-oridinated federal marshals and local police in raids on the homes of suspected communists and anarchists. With no search warrants, they arrested more than 6000 people, grossly violating civil rights and simple decency. These "Palmer Raids" named after the then Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer, who arranged them, reflected the paranoiac mood within the nation towards foreigners. Even though the Red Scare died out by the end of 1920, it did leave an acrid aftertaste on the USA. Throughout the twenties there was an upsurge of nationalism with the term 100 % Americanism coined at this time and more people began to clamour for tougher restrictions on immigration. For example in a letter to the New York Times in 1922, the writer stated "America for Americans, I say" and in referring to the immigrant issue, "Keep 'em out, at least until folks here get a better life."
The foreign connections of so many radicals strengthened the belief that the state was in danger from 'alien' influences and celebrated cases like that of Sacco and Vanzetti merely enforced this idea. They were two Italian immigrants, arrested for robbing a paymaster in Massachusetts on the 15th April 1920. The evidence against them was extremely weak, but they were found guilty and sentenced to death in 1921. The judge was openly hostile to the defendants, calling them "those anarchist bastards" in private and made it clear that they must be guilty because of their national origin. Many in rural America supported the executions, they believed that cities were full of foreigners determined to overthrow the existing America way of life. The Sacco and Vanzetti case is an example of how racial prejudice can cause justice to suffer.
In response to the call for further restrictions on immigration, Congress passed two laws. Firstly the Emergency Immigration Act in 1921, which restricted new arrivals to 3% of the foreign born of a nationality. In 1924 the Johnson-Reed Act stiffened these terms, limiting the number of people from any nationality to 2% of the total number of that national origin living in the USA in 1890. This law also set a permanent limitation of 150,000 people a year coming into the USA. This new act, which came into effect in 1929, virtually ended immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and excluded Asians almost entirely. A historian Paul S Boyer refers to the act: "Fed by wartime superpatriotism, the long standing impulse to turn America into a nation of culturally identical likeminded people culminated in 1924 act." Calvin Coolidge, the then President, observed when he signed the law: "America must be kept American". However the quota systems did not place any restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, and consequently from immigration from Mexico and French Canada soared during the 1920's. The fact that the US Government was now officially acting on the wide spread fear and dislike of those from ethnic backgrounds reflected the national mood of the twenties.
During the 1920's the Federal Government did little to alleviate poverty and socio-economic disadvantage amongst its ethnic minorities. However at this time few Americans would have expected it to intervene in the way it does nowadays. There were rare instances where President Warren Harding spoke out against racial segregation, for example in Birmingham, Alabama, heartland of the racist South. However some cynics have argued that he did so primarily to win the electoral support of northern blacks. One historian even claimed that Harding had been inducted into the Ku Klux Klan in the White House during his presidency. Moreover the various administrations throughout the twenties seemed to condone racial discrimination
. A half-hearted attempt to introduce an anti-lynching law in 1921 was defeated, with Southern Senators using filibustering tactics to prevent the legislation from being passed. Despite acknowledging the issue of lynching in his first address to Congress in 1923, Coolidge subsequently did not act on the problem. Moreover, on the 18th August 1925 the Ku Klux Klan was able to stage a 40,000 man parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C with no intervention from state officials. Furthermore the segregated facilities in government buildings introduced in the first decade of the century remained unchanged. The fact that the American government during the twenties was seen to be continually ignoring and avoiding issues related to ethnic minorities did not help to improve the hostile attitudes of its people.
The growing spirit of intolerance erupting throughout America can be witnessed none clearer than in the wartime revival of the secret society, the Ku Klux Klan. The newly re-modelled organisation of the Civil War days claimed to be fighting to protect native white Protestants from the alien elements within. They argued that the American way of life was under threat not only from the Negroes but also from Catholics, Jews and all immigrants. It emphasised the notion of 100% Americanism. Its appeal was mainly sited in the Southern states, where the majority of black people lived, where the powerful idea of 'white supremacy' went unquestioned. The Klan's appeal also spread to the western and northern states, where Catholics and Jews became the targets. Throughout the 1920's the Klan's membership saw an increase, estimates at the time ranged from 3-5 million and profits rolled in from the sale these memberships, regalia, costumes and rituals. The burning cross became their symbol. The Ku Klux Klan used intimidation, threats, beating and even murder in their quest for a "purified America". Klan members, between 1920-27 it has been estimated, carried out the lynching of 416 Blacks in the Southern States. Research by writers at the time indicated that most of the victims were innocent or were only accused of minor offences. The Klan's influence reached it's peak in the state of Indian where the 'Grand Wizard', David Stephenson was politically powerful. It was also alleged that in 1924 the Klan helped elect governor in Maine, Colorado and Louisiana.
There is little doubt that while not all would go to the extremes of the Klan in terms of violence, many in rural America supported it's ideology. However the Klan did not receive as strong a following in the larger cities of the north. Despite this, the support and more importantly the tolerance that many American people showed for the Ku Klux Klan during the twenties serves as evidence to show that attitudes towards ethnic minorities had been very much altered.
The racial discrimination towards ethnic minorities during the twenties can also be seen in the job opportunities available to them. Blacks, Mexicans, and the recent immigrants clustered as the bottom of the wage scale. All were usually the last hired and the first fired and performed menially jobs. Mexicans were employed as cheap labour on Californian farms. Wherever the minorities worked the 'native' Americans saw them as a threat to their livelihood, as they normally accepted jobs that the whites did not want. Despite emancipation from slavery after the Civil War, the former slaves remained at the bottom of the social scale in the southern states, where most blacks lived. They lacked economic independence, since they largely worked in white-owned land. Many poverty stricken Blacks migrated from the south to the north during the twenties, to fill the demand for unskilled labour in the North. This however led to resentment from the white workers who saw them as competitors. To add to their problem, Blacks were subject to discrimination at work too. Memberships to unions remained low throughout the twenties. Although the American Federation of Labour officially prohibited racial discrimination, the independent unions within the AFL did discriminate against Black. Some had constitutional clauses limiting membership to whites only; others followed a de facto exclusion policy. The historian Hugh Brogan refers to black peoples problem's: "Trapped on a treadmill of poverty, poor education and discrimination, blacks faced formidable obstacles."
During the 1920's various groups of ethnic minorities were discriminated against through the act of segregation. Most commonly associated with Blacks, who were separated from whites in most public areas including trains, parks and even cemeteries, also extended to other minority groups. Orientals living in America were compelled to attend segregated schools. Catholics, shunned by the Protestant majority in organised sport, formed a separate high-school athletic conference early in the 1920's but was not allowed to merge with the public system until forced legislation to do so in 1966. Jews continued to be discriminated against in the twenties. They were casually excluded from large parts of American society. Attempts to restrict Jewish admission to law school began in the twenties, arising from resentment of their success in various careers. It was at this time that the expression "Five o'clock anti-Semitism" entered the language. It meant that people would work with Jew during the day (if they must), but wouldn't dream of socialising with them in the evenings.
In can been said that the 1920's were marked considerably by racial tensions between the ethnic minorities and those who upheld white Anglo-Saxon values. Grievances regarding ethnic minorities, that had been simmering throughout the 'native' American population decades before, got stronger and came to be recognised. Tolerance for racist views in the media, literature and in organisations like the Ku Klux Klan. Similarly the hostile attitude of the Federal Government during the twenties did not set a good example for its people regarding ethnic groups. The racial prejudices that had been ingrained throughout American society in the 1920's would only subside with the passage of time.