When more than twenty million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1920, the government attempted to classify them according to prevailing ideas about race and nationality. But this proved hard to do. Ideas about racial or national difference were slippery, contested, and yet consequential—were “Hebrews” a “race,” a “religion,” or a “people”? As Joel Perlmann shows, a self-appointed pair of officials created the government’s 1897 List of Races and Peoples, which shaped exclusionary immigration laws, the wording of the U.S. Census, and federal studies that informed social policy. Its categories served to maintain old divisions and establish new ones.
Across the five decades ending in the 1920s, American immigration policy built increasingly upon the belief that some groups of immigrants were desirable, others not. Perlmann traces how the debates over this policy institutionalized race distinctions—between whites and nonwhites, but also among whites—in immigration laws that lasted four decades.
Despite a gradual shift among social scientists from “race” to “ethnic group” after the 1920s, the diffusion of this key concept among government officials and the public remained limited until the end of the 1960s. Taking up dramatic changes to racial and ethnic classification since then, America Classifies the Immigrants concentrates on three crucial reforms to the American Census: the introduction of Hispanic origin and ancestry (1980), the recognition of mixed racial origins (2000), and a rethinking of the connections between race and ethnic group (proposed for 2020).
A work of exacting scholarship and exemplary good sense. Perlmann illuminates as no other scholar has the process by which Americans decided how to classify immigrants. His account offers a much richer and more complex picture of the story than is found in any other work of historical writing.
Perlmann transforms our understanding of the history of government efforts to racially classify immigrants to the United States. He unearths a number of fascinating discoveries about a history that many thought was already well-known. His book will be essential reading for all serious scholars of immigration.
We cannot understand America unless we understand race and immigration. To truly comprehend how these two histories overlap and intertwine, we need look no further than the United States government’s struggle to define, categorize, and count immigrants and members of racial and ethnic groups. It is Perlmann’s brilliant achievement to take what has too often been written as separate stories and tell it as one still unfinished story.
A readable and sophisticated discussion of the context of social science thinking about race, ethnicity, and national origins for official statistics on immigrant origins…A panoramic survey. It is a deeply researched and captivating book…Provides rich insights into the ways in which immigrants have been classified in America.
We can learn a lot from [this] book about how conflicting agendas, behemoth ambitions, and unwarranted optimism produced classification schemes that negatively affected the lives of millions of Americans and would-be immigrants. We might do well to pair that knowledge with a stronger sense of humility than our forbearers held as we move forward in our own research.
A cogent and compelling analysis of the muddle of meanings embedded in the terms race, peoples, national origins, and mother tongue as used by scholars, politicians, and administrators in the Bureau of Immigration and the U.S. Census Bureau.
An insightful examination of how the US adopted and revised categories of immigrants over almost 150 years…Well researched and lucidly presented.
Perlmann provides us with a brilliant historical account of how Southern and Eastern Europeans, particularly Jews, were thought about, classified, and rendered legible by the state.
A work of deep erudition, impressive for its temporal scope but no less because breadth does not come at the expense of a fine-grained account of governmental classificatory practices. The key episodes selected by the author allow us to probe what it means that immigration policy was propelled by official acts of discrimination…Meticulously written, clear, and provocative—a book not to be missed.
A well-written, compelling analysis of how the U.S. statistical system grappled with the increasing heterogeneity of the origins of immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants from the turn of the 20th century to the present. It is a story that tells us as much (or more) about America—including its political decisions, the federal bureaucracy, attitudes toward race, and the social sciences over this period—as it does about the immigrants themselves.
- 464 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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