Reparations for All: Ethnic Studies in America
America was doomed to fail. Thousands of years of ethnic and religious conflict created a powerful lesson. Diversity killed peace and prosperity. The antidote was ethnically and religiously homogenous populations living within internationally recognized sovereign borders. The Thirteen Colonies was the antithesis on all 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 alone, the colonies mixed: diverse Indian tribes practicing traditional religions; English Anglicans, Puritans and Pilgrims; and west Africans following Islam and local religions. Peace and prosperity in America were stillborn.
From its origins as a 17th and 18th century British colony to the time it became an independent sovereign, 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. The petri dish of increasing diversity became a perpetual experiment.
The Thirteen Colonies. For the first 200 years it was hard to get anyone to come to the Colonies. Imagine the travel brochure. First, you’ll travel in a cramped, unsanitary boat over 4,200 seasick ocean-going miles where you will have a 10-50% chance of dying. Upon arrival, you’ll be met by no one, unless you are an indentured servant in which case you may be met by potential “buyers” who may feel your muscles and examine your teeth. Food might be plentiful but then again, you should be prepared to go hungry. Dying of famine and diseases will take many lives. If these don’t get you, the Indians might. If you survive everything, you’ll be part of the Colonies ongoing survival of the fittest competition.
Suffice it to say, it was next to impossible to get anyone to voluntarily immigrate. Recreating a New World colonial version of homogenous Britain was impossible. Many of the early voluntary settlers were fleeing Britain because they didn’t fit Britain’s mission to rule an ethnically and religiously homogenous population. This was a British Anglican population.
When Britain saw the promise of growing tobacco in the early 17th century, solving the problem of insufficient settlers now became job one. English, Scottish, and Irish prisoners and victims of kidnapping were forced into becoming the Thirteen Colonies’ labor force. They were indentured servants, with initial indentures from 4-20 years. Most died from disease, starvation, overwork, or war before tasting freedom.
The religiously and politically persecuted Presbyterian Scots-Irish, began arriving in New England in the early 18thcentury. They weren’t wanted in Britain, and they weren’t wanted in Britain’s New World settlements. The frontier, a euphemism for lands where conflict with the Indians was inevitable, was reserved for unwanted immigrants, making it ideal for the Scots-Irish.
Newly stateless and religiously persecuted German-speaking populations also began arriving in the 18th century. Being non-British, German speaking and arrogant didn’t endear them to anyone. They were undeterred and built settlements on undeveloped land, mostly in colonial Pennsylvania, while relying on the Scots-Irish to guard their frontier. Many Scots-Irish and Germans were too poor to pay their passage and spent their early years, and sometimes only years in the Thirteen Colonies as indentured servants.
Prisoners and kidnapped adults and children continued arriving in the 18th century. England transported 60% of its convicted felons to her colonies, of which 12-20 % were women. Most prisoners were guilty of stealing food to feed self and family, while others were jailed for opposing government tyranny. Women were commonly jailed for poverty or prostitution, the latter a common profession for impoverished woman.[i]
A growing population of indentured 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. A secondary distinction was servants had contracts that defined specific terms, and slaves did not.
Excluding British elites, the settlers, both voluntary and involuntary 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. Slaves tended to be more durable and that was another reason they were preferred to servants.
The United States. America became more enticing to immigrants following the American Revolutionary War (1775-1778), the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and the War of 1812. This was because 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 immigrants rejected slavery, but the south was anyway unappealing. Immigrants needed to work, and it was hard to compete with the south’s wageless labor. For people in war-racked, freedom starved, socially immobile Europe, democratic America offering opportunities, like being 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, resources, and survival.
19th century. Trying to escape hundreds of years of heinous religious persecution culminating in a British facilitated famine, the 19th century brought starving Irish Catholics aboard “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 becoming the answer to the Russian and European questions 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 and doing the dirty and dangerous jobs needed to build an industrializing nation. They would be joined by recently emancipated, poor blacks migrating north. For all of them, their pay was paltry, work was hard, and they lived in disease-racked ghettoes in a nation where others saw them as inferior. For women, they worked in sweatshops or as domestics. Being a domestic was another hazardous job. Domestics were accessible targets and “the dangers to maidenly virtue were proverbial.” [ii],[iii]
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 were joined by Americans and immigrants of all religions and ethnicities that survived the arduous westbound trek across the Oregon Trail. They too sought land, jobs, and gold. Competition was intense, but American citizens had the upper hand, and this meant that Asians and many Irish did not.
20th century. In the early 20th century, hyperinflation, revolutions, Jewish pogroms, and WWI, instigated massive emigration from the south and center of Europe. Immigrants were mostly Jews and Catholics, poor, unskilled, and mostly non-English speaking. America was now hosting the world’s largest survival of the fittest, unskilled job competition. Many faced a handicap of blatant discrimination that was demonstrated with signs that said Irish, Jews, Mexicans, Negroes, Italians, Filipinos, Japanese or immigrants need not apply.
Perpetuated by disreputable opportunists the illegal indentured servitude of people from the south and center of Europe continued into the 20th century. Dangerous work, long hours, despotic foreman, meagre pay, and 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. All 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, Europe, and Latin America. Nearly half were German and Italian American citizens and noncitizens. Soldiers were Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Protestants. Ethnicity and religion were irrelevant. Blacks fought in segregated units, but all 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.
During the war, the United States proved history wrong. Americans demonstrated 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 and social systems that treated or permitted people to be treated unequally. This was a time of soul searching. All over the world, discrimination was an ordinary practice. Having superior and inferior populations was the way to order society formally or informally. Moving forward, and beginning in 1964 this 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 equally. America was opened to tens of millions of immigrants from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Like the immigrant groups before them, these new immigrants are seeking 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 ethnicities need not apply. Skin color and ethnicity were irrelevant to seizing opportunities. Citizens would never again be deported. 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. 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.
Political success for blacks is unprecedented for any minority group anywhere in the world. In 1967, Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as a justice to the Supreme Court. America currently has fifty-seven elected 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 often exceeded representation that is proportional to their population.
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.
Diverse 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 Asian Americans 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 that fractures national peace and prosperity. Inadvertently at first, the Thirteen Colonies took the diversity challenge. Later, so did the United States. Outsiders and others that were misinformed called America a melting pot. 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. The history of America’s Golden Door offers countless lessons on the challenges of increasingly heterogenous societies. None so poignant as the 400-year process for white ethnicities to embrace that ethnic and religious differences are irrelevant as long as everyone adopts common American values. Or the still unresolved lesson on why black and white ethnicities haven’t reached the same conclusion. It would have been prudent to tackle this challenge before inviting unprecedented and unending diverse 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 American people. The 1965 immigration policy changed the population mix so dramatically, any other nations would have exploded into a sea of conflict and economic malaise. No question, America’s self-inflicted diversity by fire has instigated conflict, which seems to be particularly intense for its 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. These stem from behaviors that people unconsciously exhibit. By the 1980s, increasing awareness to these behaviors led to the virtual disappearance of unconscious behaviors that could result in discriminatory actions. Americans that engage in anything perceived as discriminatory, even if it stems from the unconscious, can be 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 superpower from the ground up in an increasingly diverse society. After 1964, the challenges are fewer, but every new immigrant group must recognize that being a member of the world’s most racially, ethnically, and religiously heterogeneous society is different. Immigrants at home probably had the comfort of a homogenous populations where people look like most of their neighbors and share a common culture. That’s not America. What binds Americans is not appearance or culture; it’s common values. This is America’s source for homogeneity.
Reparations for All: Ethnic Studies in America tells the unique story of how America built a racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse peaceful and prosperous nation. Many believed it was impossible. Absent the foundations of democracy and capitalism that confer power to the people, they may have been proven right. But they are not. The right foundation has allowed Americans to achieve the impossible.