Reparations for All: Ethnic Studies in America.

american diversity flag - The Founding Project

America was doomed to fail. Endless ethnic and religious conflict was a grand teacher. Only one formula existed for a state to achieve peace and prosperity: sovereign borders enclosing an ethnically and religiously homogenous population. The Thirteen Colonies was the antithesis on both counts. Sovereignty was claimed and contested by the Old-World British, Dutch, French and Spanish, and the New-World’s First Nations. In the first hundred years the colonies mixed diverse Indian tribes practicing traditional religions, English Anglicans, Puritans and Pilgrims, and west Africans following traditional religions. Peace and prosperity were stillborn. 

From British colony to independent nation, the United States evolved in a giant petri dish of contested sovereignty and increasing diversity. It wasn’t to everyone’s satisfaction, but countless wars, negotiations and treaties eventually settled the issues of sovereignty.

Living in an undeveloped land across the Atlantic Ocean where people lived in fear of starvation, diseases, and Indian raids was not appealing, making a second homogenous nation of British Anglicans impossible. Indeed, it was nearly impossible to get anyone to voluntarily immigrate. Once Britain saw the promise of growing tobacco, solving the problem of insufficient labor became job one. Prisoners and victims of kidnapping from the British Isles were forced to fill the labor force. They were indentured servants, with initial indentures from 4-20 years, but most died from disease, starvation, overwork, or war before tasting freedom. 

18th century. The religiously and politically persecuted Presbyterian Scots-Irish began arriving in the northeast in the early 18thcentury. They weren’t wanted in Britain, and they weren’t wanted in Britain’s colonies. The frontier was reserved for unwanted immigrants, making it ideal for the Scots-Irish. The frontier was a euphemism for lands where conflict with the Indians was inevitable. Newly stateless and religiously diverse German-speaking populations also began arriving in this century. Non-British and German speaking didn’t endear them to anyone. They built settlements on undeveloped land, mostly in colonial Pennsylvania, while relying on the Scots-Irish to guard the frontier. 

Too poor to pay their passage, most immigrants in the 18th century came as indentured servants. Prisoners and kidnapped adults and children continued to populate the labor pool. Most prisoners were guilty of stealing food to feed self and family, while others were jailed for opposing government tyranny. These servants labored alongside a growing population of African slaves. A primary distinction between servants and slaves was religion. Servants were born Christians, slaves were not. In the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), slaves were non-Muslims: mostly European Christians and Africans following indigenous faiths. A secondary distinction was African chieftains sold black slaves without terms or conditions, but servants had these. The absence of conditions and an unlimited supply made slaves a perfect fit for the burgeoning labor demands of southern plantations responsible for delivering colonial dividends to Britain. Slaves had been playing a similar role for the French, Spanish and Portuguese empires on their New-World colonial plantations for more than 100 years. To the empires, slavery was good business. They profited from the trade and then from their labor. This was true of indentured servants too, but servants, had a relatively brief stint as private property. 

Excluding British elites, voluntary and involuntary settlers were generally dirt poor, but they had been tough enough to survive a journey across the Atlantic, that depending on the voyage. took the lives of 10-50%, In short order, another 50-66% of servants would die from diseases, starvation, wars, and overwork. 

19th century. America became more enticing following the American Revolutionary War (1775-1778), the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and the War of 1812. Her independence from Britain seemed assured, conflict with the Indians in the east had subsided, and the nation was now equipped with modern conveniences found in Europe. Many prospective immigrants rejected slavery, but the south was anyway unappealing. Immigrants needed to work, and it was hard to compete with free labor in the south. For people in war-racked, freedom starved, socially immobile Europe, democratic America offering the chance to be a landowner became the refuge of choice. 

Diversity remained on a tear and predictably so was racial, ethnic, and religious conflict. Old-World immigrant populations that despised each other brought their animosities with them. But now these populations coexisted in a common land, and they were competing for jobs and resources.

In the 19th century, trying to escape hundreds of years of heinous religious persecution culminating in a British facilitated famine, starving Irish Catholics boarded “death ships” to America. It’s hard to envision a less welcome immigrant group, but they faced good competition from poor Jews fleeing pogroms in the Russian Empire. Russian Christians held a healthy disdain for the Jews. America was, however, uninterested in inheriting the Russian and European question of what to do with the Jews – the Jewish Question. Later millions of poor, starving southern Italian Catholics shunned by northern Italian countrymen arrived. It was a trifecta of ethno-religious groups despised in Europe and detested by America’s northern European Protestant majority. The Irish, Italians and Jews converged in northern cities and competed for work in sweatshops, as domestics with the known probable risk of sexual abuse, and doing the dirty and dangerous jobs needed to build an industrializing nation. They would be joined by recently emancipated, poor blacks migrating north. Their pay was paltry, work was hard, and they lived in disease-racked ghettoes in a nation where others saw them as inferior. 

Seeking work, land, and gold, Chinese and Japanese immigrants made the long journey across the Pacific to the West Coast. Some were indentured servants and others indebted laborers. These Asian immigrants joined Americans and immigrants of all religions and ethnicities that survived the arduous westbound journey. They too sought land, jobs, and gold. Competition was intense, but American citizens had the upper hand. That excluded Asians and many Irish.

1900-1964. In the early 20th century, hyperinflation, revolutions, Jewish pogroms, and WWI, instigated massive emigration from the south and center of Europe. They were mostly Jews and Catholics, poor, unskilled, and mostly non-English speaking. America was now hosting the world’s largest unskilled job competition. Survival was at stake. For many jobs, there were signs that said Irish, Jews, Mexicans, Negroes, Italians, Filipinos, Japanese or immigrants need not apply. 

Perpetuated by disreputable opportunists operating against unenforced laws, the indentured servitude of people from the south and center of Europe continued into the 20th century. Dangerous work, long hours, despotic foreman, meagre pay, crowded and unsanitary accommodations in a land unreceptive to their origins, sent some packing for home. Tired of second-class status many blacks seized the chance for a new life in Africa. For others, life in America was horrible but there was hope. Back home it was horrible and there was no hope. Some Irish Americans knew Ireland was hopeless, but northern states authorized illegal deportations for spurious reasons. Legal immigration for the Chinese temporarily ended in 1882. Then in 1924, with a bullseye on the Italians, America for all intents and purposes barred immigrants from everywhere but northern Europe. Why? Because others were “scientifically” inferior.

During WWII, about 800,000 American citizens and residents that were from or descended from Germans, Italians or Japanese were labeled enemy aliens and interned, relocated, and put under curfew and surveillance. Meanwhile, serving in the American military were 16 million immigrants and descendants from Africa, Asia, and Europe, including nearly half from Germany and Italy. They were Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Protestants. Ethnicity and religion were irrelevant. Even blacks in segregated units were united as Americans fighting to protect the existence or promise of cherished freedoms in the United States. More than 1.2 million diverse Americans were killed, injured, and imprisoned. 

1964 – present. During the war, the United States had proven that a diverse population could also be homogenous when Americans shared common values and aspirations. Afterwards, there was the reality of unity fractured by legal systems that treated people unequally. WWII inspired soul searching. Discrimination had always been an ordinary practice. Having superior and inferior populations was a way to order society formally or informally. Beginning in 1964, that would no longer be legally permissible in the United States. America was embarking on the world’s most ambitious anti-racism agenda. Systems of racism were removed. In 1965, an immigration policy was implemented that valued all nations/ethnicities equally. America was opened up to tens of millions of immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Like the immigrant groups before them, these immigrants seek safety and political and economic freedoms that lead to a better life.  

But these immigrants come to a very different America. Never again would there be signs saying some ethnicity need not apply. No one would be prohibited from living anywhere. Servitude and sweatshops are gone. There are social safety nets for all Americans, and many noncitizens. The requirement that immigrants not be public charges has been eliminated for those needing refuge from persecution. 

The outcomes since 1964/1965 are nothing less than extraordinary. America’s racial, ethnic, and religious minorities are a global success story. African Americans are the most prosperous and educated black population in the world. They also have the highest household income of all but one of the fifty black majority-nations.[1] Black immigrants arriving in the late 20th and early 21st century have experienced exceptional success. Nigerian Americans are second to Indian Americans from India when it comes to household income. In 2018, Nigerian Americans had a median household income of $68,658. In 2020 the per capita income in Nigeria was $2,432. In 2018, Haitian Americans had a median household income of $53,800. In 2020 the per capita income in Haiti was $2,000.

Politically, among minorities and in some cases among all racial and ethnic groups, blacks are the most successful. In 1967, Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as a justice to the Supreme Court. America has elected fifty-seven current black Congress people, an Afro-Caribe woman is the first elected female to occupy the oval office, and black mayors have been elected to lead 1/3rd of the nation’s 100 largest cities. Since the early 1990s, black cabinet members have more often than not exceeded proportionate representation. 

The GDP of US Latinos is higher than any country in Latin America. This includes Brazil, which has three times as many people. Latino household income is also higher than exists in any Latin American (Latam) nation. The Latino population has grown nearly 1000% since 1964. Politically, Latinos have already secured a strong voice. There are forty-seven diverse Latino legislators today and one Supreme Court justice. These legislators are Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian.

No indigenous population has been courted more to ensure fair compensation for their land or received the protected freedoms, concessions, and financial transfers as Native Americans. This is a relatively small population (about 2.4%), but they too find success as elected officials. Today there are four congress people that are Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Winnebago.

Asian Americans are the most educated and most highly compensated racial group in America. They average 25% greater household income than whites. Asians from India are the most successful of all. They average 60% higher household income than whites. 

The Asian-American population has grown 3000% since 1964. It’s grown from 500,000 in 1964 to 5 million in 1990 and then to 15 million in 2020. In short order they are finding political success too. Today, there are 16 diverse Asian-American legislators and one vice president. They are Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese.

America’s history of mixing diverse populations has not been pretty. No racial, ethnic, or religious immigrant group has escaped discrimination. This isn’t an American deficiency; it is a human deficiency. Many nations minimize racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination by tightly controlling who can live in their nations. They know that heterogeneity has always been a wellspring of discrimination and intractable conflict. Inadvertently at first, the Thirteen Colonies took the diversity challenge and so did America. Outsiders and others that were misinformed called America a melting pot, but diverse races, ethnicities, and religions never melted in America. Every non-British, non-Protestant ethnic and religious group was rejected, and many British were rejected for their religion or social class.  

After 1965, America poured diversity on top of a nation that had just solidified its commitment to anti-racism. It was reckless. If legislators didn’t know it; they should have. America’s history was filled with lessons on increasing diversity. After nearly 400 years, white ethnicities managed to accept ethnic differences as long as everyone adopted common American values, but there were still long-standing problems between its black and white ethnicities. It would have been prudent to resolve these problems before inviting unprecedented and unending changes to the population mix. American politicians though have a bad habit of feigning amnesia to score political points that always come back to bite the nation. The new immigration policy changed the population mix so dramatically; any other nations would have exploded into a sea of conflict. No question, America’s self-inflicted diversity by fire has instigated conflict, particularly for black populations, but America is proving the naysayers wrong. Diverse populations can live in peace and with prosperity. 

Before 1964, discriminatory practices in the United States included slavery, indentured servitude, internment, asset confiscations, sexual abuse, vigilante justice, deportations, ethnic and religious intolerance, and legal and illegal exclusionary policies and practices. Any overtly discriminatory practices, like these, that existed in 1964, were on a fast path to extinction. What was left were covert practices. By the 1980s, increasing awareness to these practices led to their virtual disappearance. In America, all people enjoy a robust supply of protected fundamental freedoms. Americans that engage in anything perceived as discriminatory are socially ostracized. Discrimination is not okay in America. Achieving this is the ultimate anti-racist milestone. But getting to this point has not been easy. Up to the mid-20th century no racial, ethnic, or religious group was spared the unremitting mental and physical challenges of building a nation from the ground up in an increasingly diverse society. After 1964, the challenges are fewer, but every new immigrant group must accept that being a member in the world’s most racially, ethnically, and religiously heterogeneous society is different. What binds Americans is not culture, but common values. This is America’s source for homogeneity. 

This book tells the unique story of how America built a racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse peaceful and prosperous nation. Many believed it was impossible. Absent democracy and capitalism, they may have been proven right. 


[1] The Bahamas has higher household incomes. It has <1% of the Americas black population. Significant revenue comes from being a tax haven and from corporations attracted to financial secrecy. 

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