Cover image for Making Americans : immigration, race, and the origins of the diverse democracy
Making Americans : immigration, race, and the origins of the diverse democracy
King, Desmond S.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
x, 388 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
JV6483 .K54 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



In the nineteenth century, virtually anyone could get into the United States. But by the 1920s, U.S. immigration policy had become a finely filtered regime of selection. Desmond King looks at this dramatic shift, and the debates behind it, for what they reveal about the construction of an "American" identity.

Specifically, the debates in the three decades leading up to 1929 were conceived in terms of desirable versus undesirable immigrants. This not only cemented judgments about specific European groups but reinforced prevailing biases against groups already present in the United States, particularly African Americans, whose inferior status and second-class citizenship--enshrined in Jim Crow laws and embedded in pseudo-scientific arguments about racial classifications--appear to have been consolidated in these decades. Although the values of different groups have always been recognized in the United States, King gives the most thorough account yet of how eugenic arguments were used to establish barriers and to favor an Anglo-Saxon conception of American identity, rejecting claims of other traditions. Thus the immigration controversy emerges here as a significant precursor to recent multicultural debates.

Making Americans shows how the choices made about immigration policy in the 1920s played a fundamental role in shaping democracy and ideas about group rights in America.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

America's reputation for welcoming all people and celebrating diversity is largely a myth: the great melting pot just never got hot enough to really simmer--or so claims King (professor of politics at Oxford) in this absorbing and persuasive study of U.S. immigration policy. From the earliest days of the Republic, he charts how concepts of race and "whiteness"--variously signifying intelligence, moral capacity and "assimilability"--helped shape both public attitudes and social policy as to who could and who could not become an American. Noting that "Americans' toleration of diversity has always been easier in principle than in practice," King delineates how immigrants seeking to become Americans became pawns in a broader, always shifting, project to define and promote an "American race." Asians, particularly the Chinese and Japanese, he says, were always seen as "fundamentally unassimilable," a sentiment that was supported by a series of draconian "exclusion" acts beginning in 1882. King draws heavily on the new discipline of "whiteness studies"--particularly the groundbreaking work of Michael Rogin and Noel Ignatiev--to examine how the identity of "being white" has changed over the last two centuries. While he analyzes specific immigration policies, some of his most potent arguments are found in the examination of how the "sciences" of eugenics and intelligence testing were used to exclude various ethnic and racial groups from entering the country or becoming citizens. Citing writers such as Toni Morrison and Patricia Williams, and works of popular culture including Gone With the Wind and Snow Falling on Cedars, King's arguments are vivid and engaging. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

King (politics, St. John's Coll., Oxford) has written a subtle analysis of the construction of American identity in the 20th century. He focuses on the restriction of immigration in the 1920s, which he regards as a defining moment in the institutionalization of the "ideal" American character as white and northern European. This model of assimilation through an anglicized melting pot has been challenged in the post-World War II era, especially by "new multiculturalist voices and the resurgence of ethnic loyalties." Yet King concludes optimistically that America can solve the problem of integrating "autonomous worlds and cultures." Highly recommended for all larger libraries.--Anthony O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Americans have long been conditioned to believe themselves "a nation of immigrants." The reality, as King's insightful analysis makes clear, is that cherished images of "open doors" and "melting pots" fly in the face of US immigration and naturalization laws. From the 1880s through the mid-1960s, the US government used racial quotas, eugenic categories, and national origins to exclude, restrict, and stigmatize. Though covering familiar ground--"old stock" versus "new stock" immigrants, the Dillingham Commission's recommendations, Woodrow Wilson's fervent support of Americanization, and the congruence of racism and anti-Communism during the interwar years--King brings an interesting British perspective to current American debates. Building on the work of earlier scholars, he successfully links early 20th-century battles between assimilationists and cultural pluralists to contemporary struggles over civil rights and multiculturalism. In each instance, readers are reminded that immigration policy remains a powerful political tool. Metaphors such as "salad bowls" and "glorious mosaics" are not abstract literary exercises; rather, they represent the aspirations of nonwhite Americans and other nationalities who insist on full economic inclusion and political acceptance in contemporary American political culture. General and academic collections at all levels. E. M. Tobin; Hamilton College

Table of Contents

I Immigrant America Immigration and American Political Development
A Less Intelligent Class?
The Dillingham Commission and the New Immigrants
II Defining Americans
The Fire of Patriotism"": Americanization and U.S. Identity
Frequent Skimmings of the Dross"": Building an American Race?
A Very Serious National Menace"": Eugenics and Immigration
III Legislating Americans
Enacting National Origins: The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act (1924)
A Slur on Our Citizenry"": Dismantling National Or