“What do you mean the Irish/Italians/Jews became white—they were always white!"
Not really. You see, you’re thinking of white merely as a skin color, when in actuality, to immigrants coming to America being white was a privilege, because it gave them access to a better way of life.
In 1912 congressmen debated whether Italians were “fully-blooded Caucausians,” because of their olive skin. An anthropologist actually wrote to a Chicago newspaper and advised the exclusion of Italian immigrants “If you prefer a pure white skin and feel certain that the future welfare of the United States depends on the prevalence of this type, then you will be justified in favoring the exclusion of Italians.”
Luckily for Italian immigrants, they will still largely accepted as white by U.S. political parties, newspapers, unions, neighbors, realtors and employers. The U.S. drew a line in the sand between “white” and “colored” races, the “colored races” consisting of Negroes, Orientals and Mexicans. Despite the people who may have disapproved, the Italian immigrants were always included in the “white” race category. As Thomas Guglielmo wrote in his article “White on Arrival,” color was a social category, not a physical description. Some “white” Italians could be darker than some “black” Americans. But they were given the privileges of being “white” just the same.
Ironically, once the Italians were assured that they had the “white” label, they went one step future and tried to proclaim that Italians were the highest class of whites. When an Italian did something wrong, their family members would say “A good Italian wouldn’t do that,” (they didn’t say a “good white person,”–see the difference?)
Jews came to America for the same reason as other immigrants: “a mixture of yearning for riches, for land, for freedom…a readiness to pull up stakes in order to seek a new life.” But in 1909 a new rule was implemented in Ellis Island: an immigrant would need $25 in order to be admitted, which for all intents and purposes might as well have been 25 million. Hundreds of immigrants were outraged, saying they left their homes and families behind without any money to their names, knowing nothing about the $25 entrance fee requirement. Executives at Ellis Island immediately retracted the fee saying only “some” immigrants would have to pay the fee. The fee wasn’t as important, they were told, as being healthy and knowing a trade. The Jews coming to America were very family oriented and the percentage of Jews coming into the U.S. as young skilled laborers was three times as high as their proportion among all immigrants with occupations. In other words, Jews coming to America made sure they had all their “ducks in a row” so to speak before they entered the country. They realized how important it was to be healthy and have a trade, in order to gain the all-important status of “white” in America.
Irish Catholics came to America in hopes of escaping the oppression they had faced in Ireland, as well as escaping the potato famine. But they came to America in large numbers, hoards of people without money or skills and were forced to live in low-income ghettos among black people. Inevitably the Irish and African-Americans formed relationships and their “mulatto” babies brought the Irish status down as low as the African Americans. In desperation to prove their “whiteness” the Irish began to riot against the blacks and pledge their alliance to support slavery. Instead of supporting the African Americans whom they lived with (and formed relationships and, in some cases families with), the Irish immigrants chose to become the oppressors to ensure themselves a better place in America. More than anything else, it was important to ensure their status as “white.”
So, in conclusion, once again “white” did not refer to skin color. It was a label of superiority, of being entitled and deserving of all America had to offer—freedom, better jobs, better schools and a beautiful home for your family. But apparently white wasn’t a label you were born with—you had to earn it.