embrace immigrants, don’t divide and conquer

Robert Putnam and Jeb Bush have an editorial in the Washington Post today arguing for more coherent — and embracing — approach to immigration.  They draw on a theme I also touch on in my book.

A century ago, religious, civic and business groups and government provided classes in English and citizenship. Historian Thomas P. Vadasz found that in Bethlehem, Pa., a thriving town of about 20,000, roughly two-thirds of whom were immigrants, the biggest employer, Bethlehem Steel, and the local YMCA offered free English instruction to thousands of immigrants in the early 20th century, even paying them to take classes. Today, immigrants face long waiting lists for English classes, even ones they pay for.

I figure if Fabio can plug his book, then I can too.  In Chapter 4 of Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, I talk about the differences between how immigrant workers were treated in Bethlehem and Youngstown.  In both places, local elites saw the arrival of new immigrants as a threat.  But they defined the threat differently.  In Bethlehem, the threat was seen as the break down of community.  And so business and civic leaders took action to create bridges to immigrant groups (largely through religious outreach: that is, through organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association).  This had the effect of forging ties both between the elites and the working classes and among the various ethnic immigrant communities that made up the working class.

Elites in Youngstown interpreted the threat, not in terms of community, but in terms of elite’s interests.  And so their approach took a different form as well:

The connections among founding families forged through their economic, civic and neighborhood ties led elites in Youngstown to circle the wagons against the new arrivals.  The strategy that emerged to deal with the threat was essentially divide and conquer.  By controlling settlement patterns through their control over real estate, [Youngstown’s] founding families fragmented the city’s new immigrant working class into separate ethnic enclaves, a strategy later reinforced by the law-and-order and obviously racially and ethnically divisive approach favored by the Ku Klux Klan.  Ethnic differences among early northern European settlers subsided as salient sources of identity; class interests were forefront in the minds and actions of various groups in [Youngstown region].

It seems to me that we continue to face this choice and Bush and Putnam are (explicitly) advocating for the approach that prevailed in Bethlehem.  History is on their side, as the differences between these two communities turned out to be very important in the long term.  The cross-cutting ties that Vadasz discussed laid the ground work for far more cooperative relationships with labor unions and, indeed, much more control on the part of business owners over Bethlehem’s unions.  The divide and conquer approach in Youngstown sewed mistrust both among workers and, certainly, between workers and company managers.  In the short term, the differences were stark: the Little Steel Strike of 1937 turned violent in Youngstown with dozens of pickets killed.  The strike largely missed Bethlehem and, in general, labor relations and social order were far calmer there.  More importantly, in the long run, the integrative approach that prevailed in Bethlehem made that community far better prepared for the demands of a global economy than Youngstown has proven to be.

(P.S., the BBC has been doing a series on the revival of the US Rust Belt, including a segment on Youngstown).

Written by seansafford

July 6, 2010 at 6:22 pm

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