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Re-Categorizing Americans: Difference, Distinction, and Belonging in the Dillingham Commission (1907-1911)


This dissertation asks how American social scientists and federal bureaucrats generated knowledge about immigrants in the early twentieth century, and how such knowledge led to the re-invention of the boundaries within and around whiteness. To answer these questions, I analyze archival materials related to the Dillingham Commission (1907-1911), an investigative commission that conducted the most comprehensive study of immigrants ever undertaken by the federal government. With the rapid increase of immigration in the late nineteenth century, there was a growing sense that immigration was a problem, and both the public and elite policymakers deliberated over immigration control. The Dillingham Commission was tasked with providing a scientific foundation for immigration policy-making by sorting out “desirable” immigrants from “undesirable” ones based on a massive amount of statistical and ethnographic data.

The importance of the Dillingham Commission, however, lay in the fact that it captured the ways in which immigration was transforming racial boundaries – those within and around the the whiteness. Southern and eastern European immigrants, whose numbers had risen dramatically at the end of the nineteenth century, were different from those who had come before: they were white and certainly not black, but did share the same social standing as the Anglo-Saxon Protestants who occupied most elite positions in the country. By exploring the margins of whiteness which these “new immigrants” occupied, the Dillingham Commission reformulated whiteness to encompass different kinds of difference, and articulated different kinds of boundaries applicable to different groups: whereas non-European immigrants were distinguished through a bright boundary around whiteness, the differences among Europeans were marked by blurred boundaries within whiteness, and thus could be overcome, although only through a properly controlled process of assimilation. Through this process, the architecture of the American national belonging went through a renovation: while the white/non-white bright boundary marked the outer limits of the national belonging, the blurred boundaries among Europeans mapped the topography within the imagined community.

Drawing on more than 27,000 pages of the Dillingham Commission Reports as well as other archival sources, I trace the process through which such architecture emerged. Although the existing literature on the Commission characterize its inquiry as “racist,” highlighting the ideology of nativism among its elite members, my analysis of original archival sources presents a more complicated picture. During this period, investigative commissions often revealed the limits of state power over knowledge by producing an outcome that government officials did not intend. In the Dillingham Commission’s case, the data from the field often showed that the boundary separating undesirable “new immigrants” and desirable “old immigrants” were not as clear as the nativists had hoped, and these findings challenged the nativist ideology based on the WASP cultural identity. Faced with a contradiction, the nativist executive members would reconsider parts of their racial ideology, and in the process, inadvertently paved a way for the idea of new whiteness. In other words, located at no man’s land between the state, civil society, and empirical evidence, the Dillingham Commission was a laboratory in which new associations of racial ideology, theory, and evidence would emerge; and the distinction between bright and blurred boundary was an unintended consequence that came out of such space.

The first and second chapters of the dissertation document the larger intellectual, political, and legislative context leading up to the Dillingham Commission by chronicling the history of race thinking in the nineteenth century (Chapter 1) and the congressional debate around immigration in the early twentieth century (Chapter 2).

In the first chapter, I survey race-thinking in the nineteenth century with a particular focus on how European ideas about race travelled to the United States and informed immigration policy at the federal level; in the process, I pay particular attention to how the executive committee members of the Commission were influenced by European race-thinking, first by way of slavery apologists in the South and later through nativists in elite universities of New England. This chapter presents the intellectual foundation of the Commission’s work and serves as a prehistory of its theories about race and national identity.

In the second chapter, I document the legislative history leading up to the Dillingham Commission and provide information on the larger organizational context in which the Commission was embedded. I discuss the global context involving Japan and Japanese immigrants in San Francisco as well as the history of struggle between the nativists and pro-immigrant politicians. I also present brief biographical accounts of executive committee members and experts, highlighting how their personal trajectories informed their ideas about race, national identity, and social science knowledge. This chapter serves as the immediate background for Chapters 3, 4, and 5.

I then turn to three key moments in the Commission’s work as examples of how the tenuous connection between nativist ideology, state power, and knowledge production led to different kinds of difference. In each of these substantive chapters, I focus on the moments of mismatch between theory and data, unexpected implications of data analysis, and debates around interpretation of collected data. Following the interactions between executive committee members, experts, field agents, and intellectuals outside the Commission, I show how ideas around different kinds of difference emerged as those involved in the Commission haphazardly responded to the gap between the ideology of whiteness and empirical data.

Chapter 3 demonstrates how the Commission inadvertently undermined the rigidity of racial categories through its focus on European immigrants. Many classical theories of racial difference, which presupposed a unified “European” or “Caucasian” category, proved not useful for the Commission because they failed to differentiate Southern and Eastern European immigrants from Northern and Western ones. Thus the Commission adopted a new scheme, “races or peoples,” which emphasized differences in language and geography within Europe. Although the elite members of the Commission had no intention of undermining the rigidity of the biological conception of race, this move away from physiology to culture provided flexibility to the conception of whiteness and had the unexpected consequence of blurring boundaries among Europeans. Furthermore, when applied to data collection activities, the “races or peoples” classification scheme failed to provide a clear-cut division between “desirable” Northern and Western European immigrants and “undesirable” Southern and Eastern European immigrants.

Chapter 4 traces how the Commission inadvertently provided support for the development of assimilation theory, which further undermined the rigid biological conception of race. With funding from the Commission, anthropologist Franz Boas collected data on head shapes – supposedly the most stable indicator of “racial type” – of the children of European immigrants in New York City. The data showed that bodily traits could change rapidly under environmental influences. Boas used the finding to criticize the rigid racial assumptions underlying the contemporary caricature of “new immigrants,” and envisioned the possibility of their eventual assimilation. This chapter shows that even before the political mobilization around ethnicity emerged in the 1930s and 1940, the Commission’s findings inadvertently paved a way for the criticism of scientific racism, thereby further discrediting the WASP-centered perspective on the relationship between race and national identity.

Chapter 5 turns attention away from the interior structure of national belonging to its margins, and shows how the bright boundary between whites and non-whites was rigidly maintained in the face of the contradictions endemic to the Commission’s project. The Commission’s study of Japanese immigrants on the West Coast revealed that they were in many respects more “desirable” than European immigrants: The Japanese were educated, hard-working, law-abiding, family-oriented farmers who were willing to speak English and follow American customs. In order to address the decoupling of desirability and whiteness, the Commission had to argue that although the Japanese were not necessarily inferior to whites, they were too different to assimilate, and therefore should be prevented from natrualization. It was at this moment the full circle of different kinds of difference was completed: Europeans were a potentially assimilable kind of different people, whereas Japanese immigrants, and non-whites in general, were a non-assimilable kind.

In the conclusion, I discuss how the concept of different kinds of difference inspired law and immigration policy in the decades following the Dillingham Commission. The closing pages feature my reflections on why the Dillingham Commission matters and what it means for the study of immigration and American national identity in the twenty-first century.

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