An 18th century New England commentator vexed about the flood of immigrants coming to America through the area’s ports. He railed against the poor work habits and low morals of these new immigrants. Ironically, one complaint about their habits was the fact they ate lobsters, which no person of his acquaintance did.
Throughout the history of America, new immigrant groups become objects of discrimination once they grow big enough to be noticed.
The history of the Irish in America is replete with stories of discrimination. For almost a century in Massachusetts, Irish leaders battled for recognition in the political process with the Protestant elite. By sheer weight of numbers, they wrested control of that state. This conflict is beautifully portrayed in the book and movie titled “The Last Hurrah.”
So too was the long fight for recognition in Ohio and other Midwestern states by German immigrants.
Italian immigrants also faced discrimination in cities throughout the country. Few remember the slights done to them during the last century. What changed all that for Italian-Americans and other ethnic groups was the GI Bill, enacted after World War II. This act enabled many of their sons to go to college and move up the economic ladder.
But even with a college degree, some avenues to success were blocked. Banks and other large institutions sent these grads into support services rather than into positions where they could reach the levers of power – the so-called C-suite level.
Today, thanks to anti-discriminatory laws, Hispanic applicants are being afforded opportunities not available to other immigrant groups. One major difference between Hispanics and other immigrant groups is the fact that America is now a two-language country – English and Spanish.
Other immigrant groups were forced to learn English. This led to a more homogeneous American culture, which subsumed ethnic words and food into the total culture. Up to the 1950s, for example, pizza could not be found outside of Italian enclaves. Today 78 percent of American families have pizza at least once a month.
Asian and particularly Chinese immigrants were heavily ostracized, and laws were passed to restrict immigration. This came despite the fact that they, along with Irish immigrants, built many of the railroads constructed in the 19th century. Today, Asian children consistently out perform other groups in educational achievement.
The common bond that enabled all of these groups to join the mainstream was their willingness to do the hard, dangerous work others shunned. This is the lesson everyone should take to heart: Hard, determined work ethics do lead to success.
Donald Mazzella is a lifelong journalist who spent his career chronicling the changes in America after World War II. His newest book, “Frankie, If You Get Hurt, I’ll Kill You,” chronicles the changes in America as he grew up in an Italian-American enclave. His most recent fiction book about two American families – one white, one black – will appear this fall.