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Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs Paperback – August 8, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Too much recent scholarship "simply ignores the long, circuitous process by which 'new immigrants' became 'white ethnics,' " declares Roediger (The Wages of Whiteness), finding that the process in the early 20th century was slower and messier. Well-detailed examples include Greeks and Italians victimized by white mobs at the turn of the century (with the Chicago papers providing the parenthetical identification "Italian" in crime stories just as they did "Negro"). Jobs, Roediger finds, were often divided on lines that separated whites from European immigrants, but unions opened to European immigrants more readily than to blacks, Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans. Most significantly, he sees the oppression faced by Europeans as qualitatively different than that faced by other groups and goes into painful detail. Roediger hearkens back to the 1924 immigration restrictions, showing how they drove the "great migration" of African-Americans northward, thus rendering immigrants less "foreign" to some entrenched whites. Reinforcing that were the immigrant drive for home ownership, backed by New Deal–era restrictive racial covenants and laws against interracial marriage. While slow going, Roediger's book tills some major historical ground. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

When immigrants from southern and eastern Europe arrived in America, their status was somewhere below that of "native" white Americans but above that of blacks and other nonwhites. In the period 1890 to 1945, social upheavals in labor, housing, and politics shifted and allowed these immigrants to take on the mantle of whiteness. Roediger explores the social forces that elevated the social status of these immigrants and contributed to deepening racial divisions. This ethnic focus is really deemed by Roediger as part of race history in the U.S., how people were placed within an evolving intellectual and social structure. Roediger focuses on the early twentieth century, when these new immigrants lived an in-between existence as their white consciousness took form. Segregated housing practices, and labor unions favoring the immigrants over blacks, helped to solidify the whiteness status. U.S. policy, notably the New Deal, also helped to confirm the inclusion of people who had formerly suffered the low social status of unassimilated immigrants. Vernon Ford
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 7.9.2006 edition (August 8, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465070744
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465070749
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #122,627 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Autonomeus TOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 30, 2005
Format: Hardcover
David Roediger has been toiling for years in the historical trenches, documenting the social construction of race. This is another solid entry in that category. It's not exhaustive, but compiles material on how Eastern and Southern European immigrants to the U.S. "became white." The category of "white people" is treated as a given, and as a constant in the U.S. today, but Roediger and others reveal the shifting meaning of the category, and the fight that various groups have waged to gain entry into the "white club" with its privileges. Just one example: the club was established by the British, of course, and from their point of view the Irish were certainly not white. The ruling WASPs had the power to keep the Irish out, viewing them as practically subhuman, and it took the Irish many decades to fight their way in. So "white" is a marker of group boundary between the more and less powerful, pure and simple, a marker of division, not an inherent biological OR cultural category.

One of the original works in this field was Ted Allen's THE INVENTION OF THE WHITE RACE. Noel Ignatiev, inspired by Allen, wrote HOW THE IRISH BECAME WHITE, and launched the journal RACE TRAITOR as well, with the slogan "treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity." In the meantime, Roediger had emerged as a major voice in history, legitimating the line of research that led to Allen gaining a wider audience and Ignatiev writing his Ph.D. thesis. Another recent book that covers much of the same territory as WORKING TOWARD WHITENESS is WHITENESS OF A DIFFERENT COLOR by Matthew Frye Jacobson, which I highly recommend. Yet another valuable work in the field by a sociologist is THE ETHNIC MYTH: RACE, ETHNICITY AND CLASS IN AMERICA by Stephen Steinberg, which documents how ethnic/racial boundaries have been used to justify and enforce economic (class) subjugation in the U.S.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Joseph R. Goldman on September 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is one of the finest sociological treatises on American immigration of a former "underclass"- -working Whites from southern and eastern Europe who came to this country in droves between the 1880s and 1930s. Roediger presents a solid analytical framework for readers to use as a compass through the complex history and transformation of "foreigners" of the same color into "gradual natives" whose color is a badge of acceptable passage over time. Here we see Jews, Italians, Poles, Ukrainians and other "undesirables" sweat their way across factory floors, climb to academic heights, even get elected to high national offices beyond the dreams of their ancestors. The data are presented clearly; the interpretations are crisp and penetrating. Roediger does a great service to his subjects who happened to be "Americans in the making". A must study for any scholar of race and assimilation, and a good read for anyone interested in how some of us got to be "Americans" even with the wrong religions, national origins, or accents as impediments fueled by homegrown bigots of an earlier time!
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Vato-Curandero on December 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
As a teenager, one of the most common questions I heard on a regular basis was people of all racial/ethnic backgrounds asking "Are Italians white?" If only I could have given them a copy of David Roediger's Working Toward Whiteness for the full story on this matter...

Roediger effectively demonstrates that racial categories are social/cultural constructions, and not inherent biological realities. Anyone who tries to argue otherwise simply needs to read this book first. Roediger meticulously illustrates that "white" is not only NOT a biological category, but many of the people who Americans today regard as "white" (Jews, Italians, Slavs, Poles, Irishmen) were overwhelmongly regarded as members of "inferior races" who threated "white" (Anglo-Saxon Protestant) America in the not-so-distant past. From 1900-1960, the meaning and conceptualization of "whiteness" underwent a dramatic transformation that came to include peoples of Eastern and Southern European descent.

From the mines, sweatshops, and factories of America's cities at the beginning of the 20th century, Eastern European immigrants toiled and labored in a sort of racial/ethnic limbo in America where they occupied an intermediate status - clearly more socially desirable than blacks, Asians, or Mexicans, but clearly inferior to "Nordic" and "Anglo-Saxon" Americans of Northern European heritage and Protestant religious beliefs. Following World War II and the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, these peoples came to become "white ethnics" - fully accepted into the American mainstream. Roediger's book is a must-read to understand how this metamorphosis occurred.

A great feature of this book is that it is NOT written in heavy, technical, academic jargon!
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By Anthony B. Bradley on March 26, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Stunning!! It is impossible to understand race in America without reading the history outlined in this book.
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