Notions of race in an immigrant culture

In almost eight years of research, writing and editing on my current book, I’ve learned a few things. One is that our views of history are shaped by our preexisting knowledge of how it turns out. We become enamored with alternate outcomes or unusual events that seem to have shaped fate. However, the people of the time were slogging through a lot of uncertainty, just like us now. 

Another lesson is that it is always tempting to place contemporary views and expectations onto historical people and events. Nowhere is this more evident than in discussions of race, justice and the power structure at the core of American history. There were debates about these things in history, but they were debates built upon understandings of their time, not our time. 

The fact is that racism at minimum, and frankly a wide variety of prejudices, were deeply embedded in both American culture and American political institutions. When you read every edition of a daily newspaper between 1913 and 1926, as I have, you cannot avoid this conclusion. The modern question is whether you think this fundamental influence of institutional racism is still here today, whether it’s better, or whether you think somehow that it’s all gone away.

Given the extreme racism of our great-grandparents generation, it’s hard to imagine all of it just evaporating. In my view, various forms of racism remain a malignant presence in our society. Again, it’s hard to avoid the evidence.

So where do we place early 20th century immigrants in this historical understanding? They had nothing to do with slavery, for instance. That was another fascinating discovery in my research. Iron Range immigrant workers from Italy, Croatia, Finland and Norway arrived to American in the early 1900s largely disengaged with discussions of race. They had prejudices, even some sectarian, religious or political hatred, but the notion of “black” and “white” was literally a foreign concept to them. Black people were a curiosity to them, but so were the rich white Americans with their fancy clothing and strange habits.

Even though these immigrants weren’t concerned with race at first, they nevertheless immediately faced evaluations determining whether they themselves were “black” or “white.” This did affect them, enough that their views on race suddenly became meshed with their strong desire to achieve the status and prosperity of the big shots — the foremen, merchants, doctors and policemen — who now controlled their lives.

Like the mid 19th century Irish immigrants of New York, Iron Range immigrants also feared the economic effects of free Blacks on their jobs. Mining companies openly threatened importing “negro” labor and did so to secure compliance from their workers. All were subject to the same sorts of race propaganda that had become so common elsewhere in America..

When we talk about race and racism in America today, we’re really talking about political and cultural power.

Next Wednesday, Nov. 29, I’ll be delivering a lecture at Chucker Auditorium at the Minnesota North-Itasca campus in Grand Rapids entitled, “Race, Justice and the Immigrant Story of the Iron Range.” The presentation starts at 6 p.m. 6:30 p.m. and is sponsored by Kootasca Community Action. Admission is free, but preregistration is required. Email to register. 

Those of you hungry to read my long-overdue book might enjoy some of the sneak previews from this talk. Hope to see you there!


  1. Paul A Sturgul says

    Thanks, Aaron,
    This looks like a very interesting presentation. As I am in Hurley, and its a long jaunt to Grand Rapids, will your talk be available via zoom/archived?
    Do the extensive Dillingham Immigration Commission Immigration Reports [1911] discuss this?

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