How immigrants like Melania Trump became white


A few weeks ago, a New York Times article described Melania Trump’s upbringing in Slovenia in truly bootstrapping terms. Leading with a young Melania—then Melanija Knavs—dreaming of the boys she would someday date, it described a Knavs family of go-getters with a “determination to seize openings and avoid getting stuck.” Such is the narrative of certain kinds of immigrants, who by virtue of assimilation (and, in this case, something resembling political clout) are exempt from the narrative of Making America Worse.

The Times article has a good bit of punchy Slovenian scenery: cathedrals, salami festivals, vespa trips to local discotheques. But on the national stage, Melania Trump’s European heritage comes across as distinctively white. With POLITICO’s report yesterday on her nebulous immigration status, it’s worth asking how that designation came to be. Because, of course, it wasn’t always this way. In the the early years of their mass immigration to the states, people of Slavic and Slovenian origin were viewed much like, well, a number of the immigrants Trump has endeavored to deport.

Slovenian immigrants—early on, largely ethnic Slovenians with Austrian citizenship—started coming to America in the late 1880s, though they were often lumped in with other groups, anecdotally and in official government counts. By 1910, the census reported under 200,000 people speaking the Slovenian language living in the United States—the only marker, at the time, used to count them as a distinct ethnic group. In the indexes that regularly counted numbers of immigrants of national newspapers, they were sometimes lumped in with Slavs or Austrians.

Throughout the early part of the 20th century, Slovenian immigrants, according to similar census estimates, initially tended to cluster in Ohio and Pennsylvania; a number worked in copper and anthracite mines in the latter state. Tramming jobs—the lowest mining occupation, in which workers pushed two-ton carts through narrow mine shafts—were common for Slovenians after 1900, largely because Slavic people were considered the lowest social class, even among immigrants. (As one historian points out, there were nearly no people of color working in the copper mines.)

One Michigan paper, close to the turn of the century, provides a blunt assessment of such weird racial classifications among the immigrant classes doing this work. In an article disputing the “unity of Slavs” as an “ethnographic abstraction,” it praises the literature of “the Poles” and derides Croatians as “the very poorest specimens of the race.”

“Yet the Slovenians,” it reads, would enjoy comparison to Croatians. “Probably because their very backward state of civilization would lead them to regard it as a compliment.”

Minute classifications like these aren’t entirely regurgitated by Trump, of course, but his language—”the Mexicans”; “the Muslims”; “the blacks”—have long been noted for lumping people into vast and unreasonable identity groups. The candidate has also famously characterized Mexicans as “criminals” and “rapists,” and favored policies that equate the Muslim faith with terrorism.

A Scranton paper reported in 1900 a “99 per cent” increase of Slovenians and Croatian immigrating to the country. As unionized workers went on strike for better working conditions and often left the state for better opportunities out west, more immigrants arrived to work, leading bosses and foremen to complain “the best men have of course gone.”

Or, in the words of the presidential candidate: “They’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our manufacturing, and they’re taking our money.”

In 1912, the Scranton paper further delineated such separations, bemoaning the “colon[ies] of aloof that resisted Americanization. “The immigrant from northwestern Europe,” it reads, “usually goes after his citizenship papers as soon as the time limit has expired. But not so with the immigrant from southern and easter Europe … He wants to make money and then go back home to live in comparative affluence.”

The basic plot points here—economically harsh conditions; overcrowded, booming cities visited by an influx of immigrants, complaints that the jobs and the good workers have been displaced by migrants, bizarre prescriptions dictating and entire culture’s habits—are familiar to this election season’s talking points and, really, to the history of immigration at large.

In their fantastic book Racecraft, Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. fields describe the construction of race as, at its most basic, the magical thinking that turns the act of racism into something with concrete boundaries and characteristics. To wit: It was only 50-odd years after these newspaper clips that An American Romance, the story of a Slovakian immigrant making it in the steel industry through his own force of will, hit U.S. theaters. And half a century after that we get Melania Trump, a white woman, who stands by a man calling for mass deportations and building a wall.

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