White immigrants have greater odds at success than longstanding Black citizens
America has always been considered to be the land of milk and honey. If you work hard and follow the rules, success was sure to follow. But with COVID-19 rampant and political unrest not so uncommon, financial security is far less certain. And for many Blacks, losses due to racial discrimination still abide.
There is little knowledge about the dire circumstances that immigrants to America had to escape. The misconception was that it was only necessary to get to the U.S., where white privilege would painlessly produce a comfortable life. In his weekly WGBH TV series “Finding Your Roots,” Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. presents the stories of the adversities faced by many of those coming to the U.S.
The program entitled “The Shirts on Their Backs” covered the families of Christopher Meloni and Tony Shalhoub, both well-known actors. Meloni’s great-grandfather Enrico was from a small village near Genoa, Italy. He was abandoned as a baby, so Meloni’s prior ancestors are unknown. The church cared for Enrico, the great-grandfather, until he was 12, at which time he was on his own. He figured out how to book passage to the U.S., where he arrived in 1896.
Enrico sold olive oil, married and produced a son who became a doctor. Enrico’s grandson also became a doctor.
Tony Shalhoub’s family were farmers in Lebanon when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. His grandfather was drafted to fight for Turkey in World War I, and he died in battle. At that time a plague of locusts wiped out their crops and his grandmother died of starvation. Tony’s aunt, who was only 16, pretended to be much older and took his father and other siblings to France to board a ship to join distant relatives in the U.S.
Numerous “Finding Your Roots” programs have also featured genocidal attacks against Jews in Poland and Russia that have forced them to flee for their lives. Then there was the history of the Irish Potato Famine from 1845-1849. Ireland had a system of tenant farmers who would cultivate crops for the landowner but could grow a kitchen farm for themselves. When their potato crops failed, farmers had to leave to find food elsewhere.
Early Irish immigrants to Boston were not well received. Employers would post ads stating that “no Irish need apply.” Protestant Yankees were not all kindly to the impoverished Irish Catholics.
In Massachusetts, Robert Morris became the second Black admitted to the practice of law in 1847, and in addition to being a civil rights lawyer, he became the lawyer for the Irish. Some white Protestant lawyers did not want to risk their reputations.
So even after leaving life-threatening circumstances in Europe, Jews, Italians and Irish residents all came to the U.S. for safety and solace. Professor Gates’ accounts indicate how far they were able to advance. It is interesting to note how people with such diverse backgrounds were able to be accepted as prominent members of American society within a fairly reasonable time.
Nonetheless, the passage of time has not softened attitudes towards Blacks at a reasonable pace. There is no significant history of Black hostility towards whites, despite the brutal history of slavery. Many Black families have been American citizens for generations longer than some abusive white descendants of relatively recent immigrants.
After the attempted Jan. 6 insurrection, many Americans have begun thinking about what kind of country they want and what we have to do to get there. But, being realistic, it is clear that nothing short of democracy will survive.