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The Second Generation from the Last Great Wave of Immigration: Setting the Record Straight

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The Second Generation from the Last Great Wave of Immigration: Setting the Record Straight

As a new second generation born to post-1965 immigrants comes of age and take its place in today's America, inevitably comparisons are made with the children of European immigrants in the last great wave. This is not surprising.

Beginning around 1880 and ending in the mid-1920s, the last wave brought more than 23 million immigrants to the United States; by 1910 almost 15 percent of the population was foreign born. These earlier immigrants, the majority from southern, central, and eastern Europe, left a lasting imprint on the nation, and the experiences of their children have shaped our understanding of the processes of assimilation and becoming American.

Today, this earlier second generation is usually portrayed as making rapid upward progress and achieving success with remarkable ease and speed. In popular accounts, it is a tale of rags-to-riches, as the second generation moved out of tenements and sweatshops to leafy middle-class suburbs and professional office suites.

The academic literature also mostly focuses on the positives. The children of European immigrants, sociologists Alejandro Portes and Rubén Rumbaut have recently written, "clawed their ways through schools and entrepreneurship into economic affluence."

For many commentators, this account helps to distinguish the previous era of incorporation of mainly European immigrants and their descendants from the current one, in which immigrants to the United States come mostly from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In contrast to the massive upward mobility and assimilation of the second generation during the mid-20th century, some researchers believe today's second generation faces far more uncertain and contingent prospects.

Such exclusively upbeat portrayals of the past, however, fail to capture the complexities of second-generation mobility paths then. To be sure, the story of yesterday's second generation overall is one of progress and advancement.

Yet the climb up was often slow and gradual rather than a matter of giant leaps forward, and some of the second generation suffered painful setbacks and difficulties along the way. Much of the time, the second generation of the new groups confronted prejudice and discrimination that bordered on racism.

Exclusionary barriers — for example, in educational institutions and in residential areas — were erected by more privileged Americans, especially white Protestants. Starting in the 1920s, government immigration policy was formulated to drastically limit the numbers of the new groups and hence their influence on American society.

In depicting this complex record, the focus here is on eastern European Jews and southern Italians, the two largest ethnic contingents in the turn-of-the-century immigration who were also heavily concentrated in the Northeast, especially New York. In 1910, more than half of the nation's foreign-born eastern European Jews and a quarter of the Italian born lived in New York City.

Jews were an unusually successful group — something that needs to be kept in mind in assessing the achievements of the second generation in the last wave, since the "Jewish success story" so often stands out in memories and accounts of the past.

Despite this unrepresentative record, Jews still need to be to be included, if only because their parents were a significant proportion of turn-of-the-20th-century immigrants — about one of seven of the approximately 12 million arrivals between 1899 and 1924 who did not return home — and because they faced strong exclusionary forces in their drive to succeed.

The Italians, who came mainly from southern Italy, are more representative of the overall character of the southern and eastern European immigration, and they were a large part of it, more than a third. They frequently entered the American labor market on its lowest rungs, and the wages of the immigrants fell well below those of their native-born American peers, thus representing a very low starting point relative to societal norms.

A Question of Historical Time

Before exploring the experiences of second-generation Jews and Italians, it must be noted that it is not correct to speak of a single second generation that passed through the 20th century together. This view puts a too rosy gloss on the second-generation experience.

American economic ascendancy, the expansion of higher education, suburbanization, and government assistance to veterans are specific historical conditions in the post-World War II years often mentioned as facilitating the prospects for mobility by members of the second generation.

What is generally overlooked is that a substantial part of this generation, by some estimates around a quarter, was born too early — before 1910, say — to benefit much from these forces. The influence of postwar prosperity on the second generation depended on their age and life stage at the time.

In fact, the earlier cohorts of the second generation matured during the Great Depression of the 1930s and suffered diminished opportunities as a result. In truth, the Great Depression affected all but the small number of the second generation who were born after it ended, and for most it meant economic and social dislocations and declines, even if these were temporary.

In other words, in the depths of the Depression, members of the second generation's prospects for mobility depended on whether they were children still in school, teenagers facing bleak job prospects, or adults in their prime working years, struggling to keep (or get) a job and support a family.

The Move Upward: Often through Modest Improvements

Assimilation, as sociologists Richard Alba and Victor Nee write in Remaking the American Mainstream, has been the master trend among the descendants of immigrants from Europe. Indeed, the children of eastern and southern European immigrants generally did better than their parents.

Furthermore, over time, there was a growing and impressive convergence with the average socioeconomic life chances of the descendants of the various European groups from still earlier immigrations. In particular, the disadvantages that were once evident for groups like the Italians, who had largely peasant origins in Europe, eventually faded, and their socioeconomic attainments increasingly resembled, and even surpassed, those of the average white American.

But if there was considerable second-generation progress, the ascent up the socioeconomic ladder was often more difficult — and less rapid — than is remembered. "My son the doctor" may have been a cherished phrase of Jewish immigrant parents, but "my grandson the doctor" is more accurate. Indeed, for turn-of-the-20th-century European immigrants, the leap into the professions was generally a third- or fourth- generation phenomenon.

Second-generation Europeans usually made relatively modest moves up the socioeconomic ladder when compared to their parents — as historian Joel Perlmann puts it, typically they did appreciably, rather than vastly, better than their parents — and some, of course, did not move up at all but stayed at the same level.

In 1950, in New York City, a quarter century after the massive influx from southern and eastern Europe had ended, the majority of the Italian and Jewish second generation were clerks, skilled workers, and small-business owners. Only a small proportion of second-generation Jews — and an even smaller proportion of second-generation Italians — were then in the professions (see Table 1).

Occupational Distributions of First- and Second-Generation Italians and Jews, New York-New Jersey SMSA, 1950 (in percents)
 1st gen2nd gen1st gen2nd gen1st gen2nd gen1st gen2nd gen
managers & proprietors3227131012842
clerical & sales workers14286172863840
crafts workers161024222122
private household workers00002010
service workers431464244
not reported11111111
Source: Miriam Cohen, Workshop to Office (Cornell University Press, 1992)

Blue-collar work in New York and elsewhere continued to be the mainstay in the Italian second generation among males and females alike; Jews were more likely to be found in clerical and sales jobs and as managers and proprietors. It was not until the 1950s that Jews really began a mass program of college education; for Italians it would not be until a decade or two later.

It took almost 100 years from the time the Italians' mass immigration began in the late 19th century before it became clear that as a group they would make it, educationally and occupationally, into the American mainstream.

The Context of Reception

The "context of reception," a concept elaborated by Portes and Rumbaut, calls attention to the complexity of the situation that immigrants enter and the disadvantages that they and their children confront: Success in the new society depends not only on what immigrants bring, such as skills of use in the new labor market, but also on how they are received.

From the late-19th through the early-20th century, the barriers in the context of reception can be identified in terms of the attitudes of native-born white Americans towards the new groups, government policy towards them, and the institutional policies intended to exclude them from critical societal arenas.

In terms of the comparison between past and present second-generation incorporation, some of the indicators of what sociologists Portes and Min Zhou have described as "downward assimilation," such as school failure and entry into criminal careers, illuminate forgotten similarities.

Attitudes of Native-born Americans

Nonwhite race is frequently seen as a characteristic that distinguishes today's immigrants and second generation from those of past eras, who could assimilate more easily because they were "white." However, as the "whiteness" literature makes clear, racial matters were not so simple at the turn of the 20th century, when huge numbers of immigrants were arriving.

These southern and eastern European immigrants were legally white — that is, they were not prevented from naturalizing as were Asians; and they were not subject to the antimiscegenation laws that existed in many states. But they were, socially and ideologically at least, of questionable whiteness — the "inbetween peoples," as historians James Barrett and David Roediger label them, or inferior or "probationary" whites, in historian Matthew Frye Jacobson's characterization.

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, scientific racism flourished, and it took the southern and eastern European groups into its scope. They were believed to have distinct biological features, mental abilities, and innate character traits that marked them as inferior to northern and western Europeans, who were viewed as the genetic fundament of the American stock.

There is a considerable literature of the time that made these claims. One of the most famous is Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race, which expressed widely felt anxieties about the genetic debasement of this stock by the addition of new groups, especially, for the socially patrician Grant, the Jews.

A Congressional study, the Dillingham Commission, even documented the inferiority of the new groups; the last portion of its 41-volume report was issued in 1911. One of the earliest uses in the United States of the newly invented IQ test was to demonstrate the mental deficiencies of the southern and eastern Europeans, Jews included.

This racism crept into popular attitudes towards the new groups. Undoubtedly, in light of descriptions of, say, Italians and Jews in terms of distinctive visible physical features — "swarthy skin" in one case and large noses in the other — many Americans believed them to be physically identifiable (whether they were right in this belief is another matter). Cartoons of the era often drew them in this way. The racist element in popular attitudes is conveyed also by a common epithet for the Italians —"guinea." This word refers to the African west coast and extends back into the history of American slavery.

The ferocity of popular antipathy towards the new groups is exhibited also in the violence to which they were sometimes subject. The 1913 lynching of Leo Frank, a second-generation German Jew, is still well known. But Italians were also the victims of lynchings, which took place in the North — in Colorado and Pennsylvania, for example — as well as the South. The lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891 is among the largest mass lynchings in American history.

The immigrants and their children were also witnesses to symbolic violence directed against them. During the 1920s, the anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, then undergoing a "remarkable revival," according to historian Thomas Guglielmo, staged numerous rallies in northern cities like Chicago, where the new groups were denounced as "mongrel hordes" threatening "Anglo-Saxon civilization."

Government Policy

The lack of welcome towards the new immigrants and their children is revealed by the degree to which federal immigration policy was formulated to keep their numbers in check. The nativist agenda of limiting immigration and preserving privileges for the native born, which had waxed and waned in popularity during the 19th century without reaching a resolution, surged forward as the number of southern and eastern European immigrants grew. The xenophobia sparked by World War I also played a role.

The immigration-restriction legislation of the 1920s was a direct result of nativism, buttressed by the scientific and journalistic portrayals of the inferiority of immigrants from certain countries and parts of the world.

While these laws did not entirely bar immigration from southern and eastern Europe, as they did from Asia, they drastically reduced it through the device of the national-origins quota. These quotas were designed in a way that was explicitly ethnic/racial. The immigration they allowed was intended to reproduce the ethnic composition of the white portion of the American people as of 1890, before the southern and eastern European immigration had really taken hold.

Thus, practically overnight, the number of legal arrivals from Italy plummeted from over 200,000 a year, its average during the first two decades of the 20th century except for the wartime period, to 15,000 a year.

The laws of the 1920s, which introduced numerical limits on European immigration, created for the first time a large-scale problem of illegality among the new European immigrant groups. Lack of legal status was especially a problem in the Italian community, and periodic immigration raids captured some of them, including the mother of Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), as Americans learned during immigration reform debates in April 2006.

The Italians were also subject to government surveillance during World War II, at least until 1943, when Italy surrendered. At the outbreak of war, there were 600,000 noncitizen Italian immigrants residing in the United States whose loyalty was open to suspicion. While the number who were interned — no more than a few thousand —was small compared to what Japanese Americans experienced, many more suffered restrictions on their movements and activities. This happened even to the father of baseball's Joe DiMaggio, at the time a national hero.

Italian-American communities, increasingly composed of second-generation families by the 1950s, came in for further surveillance when government policy singled out southern Italians as the source of the nation's organized-crime problem. The Kefauver hearings in the U.S. Senate in 1951 claimed the existence of a national crime group, the Mafia.

The link between Italian Americans and organized crime reached its apogee in the 1968 Report of the President's Crime Commission, which identified the "core" of the organized-crime problem as 24 Italian-American crime families. Their structure, the report declared, "resembles that of the Mafia groups that have operated for almost a century on the island of Sicily."

Institutional Barriers

As members of the second generation sought to advance, they often faced discrimination and exclusionary policies by largely Protestant middle and upper classes who attempted to preserve their privileges. Considerable struggle was involved as the second generation sought to overcome barriers.

Jews were frequently the target of attempts at social closure, largely because of their relatively early educational gains. During the 1920s, when second-generation eastern European Jews acquired the educational credentials to gain entrance to Ivy League schools in large numbers, efforts were made to keep them out; Harvard imposed a quota on the number of Jewish students who could be admitted and, in one form or another, many other elite colleges followed its lead.

From the 1920s onward, many Jews were denied admission to professional schools. Elite law firms would not hire them, universities denied them faculty positions, and elite social clubs systematically excluded them. During the Depression, New York City's largest employers — including public utilities, banks, insurance companies, and home offices of major corporations — rarely hired Jews.

Consequently, Jewish professionals fell back on a pattern of self-employment, setting up their own practices and catering to largely Jewish clientele. In New York City, many Jews entered the civil service after Mayor LaGuardia implemented a merit system in the 1930s for hiring and promotion.

In the postwar decades the barriers began to fall, partly because of the robust and expanding economy, which provided new opportunities, and because the legal and social environment had changed both during and after the war.

But it was not just outside forces and altered circumstances that opened doors. Jewish organizations, in which the second generation played an important role, fought to overturn rules and regulations blocking advancement. Jewish organizations campaigned against the use of religious and racial criteria in admissions; they pressed the case for antidiscrimination legislation, especially in New York State, where a good number of prestigious, exclusionary institutions, such as Columbia and Cornell, were located.

An initial success was achieved in 1946, when the New York City Council adopted legislation threatening the tax-exempt status of nonsectarian colleges and universities that discriminated based on race or religion. Columbia was thereby forced to revise its admissions procedures, and some other schools, seeing the handwriting on the wall, did the same.

New York State followed with an antidiscrimination statute in 1948. By the mid-to-late 1960s, Yale and Princeton finally had ended their unofficial quotas that had severely limited the number of Jewish students.

Jews and Italians both faced impediments to living in the most desirable neighborhoods. Restrictive covenants, which the U.S. Supreme Court did not ban until 1948, frequently excluded Jews from the purchase of homes in privileged neighborhoods.

Italians were also viewed as undesirable neighbors and, according to Guglielmo, were listed just above African Americans and Mexican Americans on a ranking of groups that realtors and the federal government commonly used to determine neighborhood suitability for investment.

Signs of Second-Generation Distress

Though the extent of second-generation upward mobility was quite different between eastern European Jews and southern Italians, both groups showed signs of distress.

These signs were much more varied among the Italians and very much in evidence in their educational record, something that was not the case for the Jews. Second-generation-Italian educational attainment was on average well below that of other U.S.-born whites. Southern Italian parents frequently took their children out of school as early as the law allowed and sometimes earlier.

The historian Thomas Kessner has estimated that as many as 10 percent of Italian children living in New York City during the first decade of the 20th century did not attend school at all.

In Providence, Rhode Island, the low educational achievements of second-generation Italians relative to other groups, as Perlmann notes, was glaring. In 1915, only 17 percent of native-born Italian boys and nine percent of the girls entered high school and only a third of them graduated.

In the early 1940s, the New York educator Leonard Covello found that Italian youngsters had a much lower rate of high-school graduation than did the city's other groups, as well as higher rates of truancy and delinquency.

For both second-generation Jews and Italians, the lure of crime often competed quite successfully with mainstream opportunities. Remarkable as this may seem from today's perspective, there was a Jewish "crime wave" in early-20th-century New York. As described by sociologist Stephen Steinberg, about a sixth of the city's felony arrests were Jews; his analysis does not make clear whether these criminals belonged to the second generation or the 1.5 generation (generally defined as children who immigrate before their early teens). In the eyes of Jewish community leaders at the time, the arrests made clear that Jewish immigrant parents had lost control of their children.

Many young Jewish criminals gravitated toward the "rackets," where they met up with the children of Irish, Italian, and other immigrants. During Prohibition and afterwards, the more successful of these gangsters formed organized-crime groups that monopolized trade in the various realms of vice, such as gambling.

For several decades after World War II, the dominant figures in organized crime were second-generation Jews and Italians, often working in concert. The notorious Murder, Inc. was led by Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who came to the United States at the age of 10, and Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, born on New York's Lower East Side.

The identity dilemmas the second generation confronted were depicted by psychologist Irvin Child in Italian or American? Studying second-generation Italian Americans in New Haven, Connecticut, during the late 1930s, when American hostility toward Fascist Italy was rising, Child found both loyalty to the Italian identity and assimilation to the American one to entail a high degree of risk and anticipated loss. The American identity, in particular, required Italians to relinquish their ties to the group without any guarantee of acceptance by native white Americans. Many Italian Americans lapsed into what Child deemed an "apathetic" identity state.


If there is one lesson to be learned from the experiences of the earlier second generation, it is to be wary about romanticizing the past. A common tendency is to emphasize only the positives in looking back to the European second generation's mobility paths. As shown, the ascent up the socioeconomic ladder was not problem-free for the children of southern, central, and eastern Europeans whose parents arrived on America's shores a century ago.

Views of the past matter partly because they inform our understandings of the present. When the story of the earlier second generation portrays only the positives, it suggests that the contemporary second generation and its incorporation difficulties are altogether unique.

An awareness of the complexities involved in the path to mobility in the past — and the stumbling blocks along the way — provides a realistic basis for comparison. An historical perspective also makes clear that the second generation's ascent up the socioeconomic ladder was not inevitable, but, rather, the outcome of specific historical forces.

Recognizing the possibility of similarities and continuities between the second generation of southern and eastern Europeans and today's second generation opens up the possibility for learning lessons from the past that have significance for the present and future.


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