My grandmother, who came to the US from Ireland in the 1920s, had a story about taking my mom and her siblings into Boston to run some errands. There was a department store with a day care where you could drop off your kids for while you went shopping, and her plan was to bring them there.
When my grandmother got to the gate, the woman working there, upon hearing her accent, said that they didn’t take immigrants. My grandmother who, despite being raised in rural Ireland, had the demeanor of a striking Teamster when crossed, told the woman her children were American, and she’d be back in an hour.
Somewhere between then (which was probably around 1950), and 1960, the Irish went from being a group maligned for their funny accents and blatant popery, to one where they could occupy the highest office in the land. Fast forward to now, and everyone in America can calculate their Irishness by the nearest whole number.
Given the above, I’m dedicating the inaugural month of this site and podcast to the subject of immigration – a subject that, despite being of interest to next to zero voters until 2016 (I looked up the data – literally ZERO), is one of the most discussed and divisive issues today.
To help provide some historical context around today’s conversation, I invited Professor K. Scott Wong of Williams College to join me for the first episode of You Don’t Have to Yell. While traditional American immigration lore tends to focus on people like my grandparents, who came over here from Europe and raised kids who only had to lose an accent to be considered assimilated, Scott’s focus is on the experience Asian immigrants had trying to establish a new home in the United States.
The bulk of our discussion focused on the first migrations from China, when Chinese laborers came to the country seeking work during the California Gold Rush and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 19th century. They come at a time when the debate around slavery had Americans trying to determine the racial identity of the country, and the Chinese find themselves on the wrong side of the conversation.
Add to this the economic hardship many white Americans were suffering as a result of the Civil War, and you have an environment not unlike the one we're in today, where new arrivals were quickly otherized for their seemingly strange language, food, and dress.
Despite experiencing a less than welcoming American populous and outright discrimination by the law (read up on the Chinese Exclusion Act for further reference), the Chinese community, like most new arrivals, clung to the idea they could build a better life in this country, and used the US legal system to assert their rights as citizens.
From my grandmother's stories, I've often felt that America was a place where new arrivals literally had to fight for their right to be there - rightfully or not - and it was our system of laws that allowed them to exist and ultimately thrive. What I learned from my conversation with Scott, is that the history of slavery in this country leaves a racial tinge to what it means to truly assimilate into American culture, and today's debate about immigration - specifically the focus on Muslims and Latinos - is an echo of this 200ish year old debate.
I've included the audio from my interview below and would love to hear your comments. Feel free to leave them below.