The Second Generation from the Last Great Wave of Immigration: Setting the Record Straight
By Nancy Foner, Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Richard Alba, State University of New York at Albany
October 1, 2006
As a new second generation born to post-1965 immigrants comes of age and take
its place in today's America, inevitably comparisons are made with the
children of European immigrants in the last great wave. This is not surprising.
Beginning around 1880 and ending in the mid-1920s, the last wave brought more
than 23 million immigrants to the United States; by 1910 almost 15 percent
of the population was foreign born. These earlier immigrants, the majority
from southern, central, and eastern Europe, left a lasting imprint on the nation,
and the experiences of their children have shaped our understanding of the
processes of assimilation and becoming American.
Today, this earlier second generation is usually portrayed as making rapid
upward progress and achieving success with remarkable ease and speed. In
popular accounts, it is a tale of rags-to-riches, as the second generation
moved out of tenements and sweatshops to leafy middle-class suburbs and professional
The academic literature also mostly focuses on the positives. The children
of European immigrants, sociologists Alejandro Portes and Rubén Rumbaut
have recently written, "clawed their ways through schools and entrepreneurship
into economic affluence."
For many commentators, this account helps to distinguish the previous era
of incorporation of mainly European immigrants and their descendants from the
current one, in which immigrants to the United States come mostly from Asia, Latin
America, and the Caribbean. In contrast to the massive upward mobility
and assimilation of the second generation during the mid-20th century, some
researchers believe today's second generation faces far more uncertain
and contingent prospects.
Such exclusively upbeat portrayals of the past, however, fail to capture the
complexities of second-generation mobility paths then. To be sure, the
story of yesterday's second generation overall is one of progress and
Yet the climb up was often slow and gradual rather than a matter of giant
leaps forward, and some of the second generation suffered painful setbacks
and difficulties along the way. Much of the time, the second generation
of the new groups confronted prejudice and discrimination that bordered on
Exclusionary barriers — for example, in educational institutions and
in residential areas — were erected by more privileged Americans,
especially white Protestants. Starting in the 1920s, government immigration
policy was formulated to drastically limit the numbers of the new groups and
hence their influence on American society.
In depicting this complex record, the focus here is on eastern European Jews
and southern Italians, the two largest ethnic contingents in the turn-of-the-century
immigration who were also heavily concentrated in the Northeast, especially
New York. In 1910, more than half of the nation's foreign-born eastern European
Jews and a quarter of the Italian born lived in New York City.
Jews were an unusually successful group — something that needs to be
kept in mind in assessing the achievements of the second generation in the
last wave, since the "Jewish success story" so often stands out
in memories and accounts of the past.
Despite this unrepresentative record, Jews still need to be to be included,
if only because their parents were a significant proportion of turn-of-the-20th-century immigrants — about one of seven of the approximately 12 million
arrivals between 1899 and 1924 who did not return home — and because
they faced strong exclusionary forces in their drive to succeed.
The Italians, who came mainly from southern Italy, are more representative of the overall character of the southern and eastern European immigration,
and they were a large part of it, more than a third. They frequently entered
the American labor market on its lowest rungs, and the wages of the immigrants
fell well below those of their native-born American peers, thus representing
a very low starting point relative to societal norms.
A Question of Historical Time
Before exploring the experiences of second-generation Jews and Italians, it
must be noted that it is not correct to speak of a single second generation
that passed through the 20th century together. This view puts a too rosy
gloss on the second-generation experience.
American economic ascendancy, the expansion of higher education, suburbanization,
and government assistance to veterans are specific historical conditions in
the post-World War II years often mentioned as facilitating the prospects for mobility by members of the second generation.
What is generally overlooked is that a substantial part of this generation,
by some estimates around a quarter, was born too early — before 1910,
say — to benefit much from these forces. The influence of postwar
prosperity on the second generation depended on their age and life stage at
In fact, the earlier cohorts of the second generation matured during the Great
Depression of the 1930s and suffered diminished opportunities as a result. In
truth, the Great Depression affected all but the small number of the second
generation who were born after it ended, and for most it meant economic and
social dislocations and declines, even if these were temporary.
In other words, in the depths of the Depression, members of the second generation's
prospects for mobility depended on whether they were children still in school,
teenagers facing bleak job prospects, or adults in their prime working years,
struggling to keep (or get) a job and support a family.
The Move Upward: Often through Modest Improvements
Assimilation, as sociologists Richard Alba and Victor Nee write in Remaking
the American Mainstream, has been the master trend among the descendants
of immigrants from Europe. Indeed, the children of eastern and southern European
immigrants generally did better than their parents.
Furthermore, over time, there was a growing and impressive convergence with
the average socioeconomic life chances of the descendants of the various European
groups from still earlier immigrations. In particular, the disadvantages that
were once evident for groups like the Italians, who had largely peasant origins
in Europe, eventually faded, and their socioeconomic attainments increasingly
resembled, and even surpassed, those of the average white American.
But if there was considerable second-generation progress, the ascent up the
socioeconomic ladder was often more difficult — and less rapid — than
is remembered. "My son the doctor" may have been a cherished phrase
of Jewish immigrant parents, but "my grandson the doctor" is more
accurate. Indeed, for turn-of-the-20th-century European immigrants, the leap
into the professions was generally a third- or fourth- generation phenomenon.
Second-generation Europeans usually made relatively modest moves up the socioeconomic
ladder when compared to their parents — as historian Joel Perlmann puts
it, typically they did appreciably, rather than vastly, better than their parents — and
some, of course, did not move up at all but stayed at the same level.
In 1950, in New York City, a quarter century after the massive influx from
southern and eastern Europe had ended, the majority of the Italian and Jewish
second generation were clerks, skilled workers, and small-business owners.
Only a small proportion of second-generation Jews — and an even smaller
proportion of second-generation Italians — were then in the professions
(see Table 1).
Occupational Distributions of First- and Second-Generation Italians and Jews, New York-New Jersey SMSA, 1950 (in percents)
|managers & proprietors
|clerical & sales workers
|private household workers
Source: Miriam Cohen, Workshop to Office (Cornell University Press, 1992)
Blue-collar work in New York and elsewhere continued to be the mainstay in
the Italian second generation among males and females alike; Jews were more
likely to be found in clerical and sales jobs and as managers and proprietors.
It was not until the 1950s that Jews really began a mass program of college
education; for Italians it would not be until a decade or two later.
It took almost 100 years from the time the Italians' mass immigration
began in the late 19th century before it became clear that as a group they
would make it, educationally and occupationally, into the American mainstream.
The Context of Reception
The "context of reception," a concept elaborated by Portes and
Rumbaut, calls attention to the complexity of the situation that immigrants
enter and the disadvantages that they and their children confront: Success
in the new society depends not only on what immigrants bring, such as skills
of use in the new labor market, but also on how they are received.
From the late-19th through the early-20th century, the barriers in the context
of reception can be identified in terms of the attitudes of native-born white
Americans towards the new groups, government policy towards them, and the institutional
policies intended to exclude them from critical societal arenas.
In terms of the comparison between past and present second-generation incorporation,
some of the indicators of what sociologists Portes and Min Zhou have described
as "downward assimilation," such as school failure and entry into
criminal careers, illuminate forgotten similarities.
Attitudes of Native-born Americans
Nonwhite race is frequently seen as a characteristic that distinguishes today's
immigrants and second generation from those of past eras, who could assimilate
more easily because they were "white." However, as the "whiteness" literature
makes clear, racial matters were not so simple at the turn of the 20th century,
when huge numbers of immigrants were arriving.
These southern and eastern European immigrants were legally white — that is, they were not prevented
from naturalizing as were Asians; and they were not subject to the antimiscegenation
laws that existed in many states. But they were, socially and ideologically
at least, of questionable whiteness — the "inbetween peoples," as
historians James Barrett and David Roediger label them, or inferior or "probationary" whites,
in historian Matthew Frye Jacobson's characterization.
In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, scientific racism
flourished, and it took the southern and eastern European groups into its scope.
They were believed to have distinct biological features, mental abilities,
and innate character traits that marked them as inferior to northern and western
Europeans, who were viewed as the genetic fundament of the American stock.
There is a considerable literature of the time that made these claims. One
of the most famous is Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race,
which expressed widely felt anxieties about the genetic debasement of this
stock by the addition of new groups, especially, for the socially patrician
Grant, the Jews.
A Congressional study, the Dillingham Commission, even documented the inferiority
of the new groups; the last portion of its 41-volume report was issued in 1911. One
of the earliest uses in the United States of the newly invented IQ test was
to demonstrate the mental deficiencies of the southern and eastern Europeans,
This racism crept into popular attitudes towards the new groups. Undoubtedly,
in light of descriptions of, say, Italians and Jews in terms of distinctive
visible physical features — "swarthy skin" in one case and
large noses in the other — many Americans believed them to be physically
identifiable (whether they were right in this belief is another matter). Cartoons
of the era often drew them in this way. The racist element in popular
attitudes is conveyed also by a common epithet for the Italians —"guinea." This
word refers to the African west coast and extends back into the history of
The ferocity of popular antipathy towards the new groups is exhibited also
in the violence to which they were sometimes subject. The 1913 lynching
of Leo Frank, a second-generation German Jew, is still well known. But
Italians were also the victims of lynchings, which took place in the North — in
Colorado and Pennsylvania, for example — as well as the South. The
lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891 is among the largest
mass lynchings in American history.
The immigrants and their children were also witnesses to symbolic violence
directed against them. During the 1920s, the anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic
Ku Klux Klan, then undergoing a "remarkable revival," according
to historian Thomas Guglielmo, staged numerous rallies in northern cities like
Chicago, where the new groups were denounced as "mongrel hordes" threatening "Anglo-Saxon
The lack of welcome towards the new immigrants and their children is revealed
by the degree to which federal immigration policy was formulated to keep their
numbers in check. The nativist agenda of limiting immigration and preserving
privileges for the native born, which had waxed and waned in popularity during
the 19th century without reaching a resolution, surged forward as the number
of southern and eastern European immigrants grew. The xenophobia sparked
by World War I also played a role.
The immigration-restriction legislation of the 1920s was a direct result of
nativism, buttressed by the scientific and journalistic portrayals of the inferiority
of immigrants from certain countries and parts of the world.
While these laws did not entirely bar immigration from southern and eastern
Europe, as they did from Asia, they drastically reduced it through the device
of the national-origins quota. These quotas were designed in a way that
was explicitly ethnic/racial. The immigration they allowed was intended to
reproduce the ethnic composition of the white portion of the American people
as of 1890, before the southern and eastern European immigration had really
Thus, practically overnight, the number of legal arrivals from Italy plummeted
from over 200,000 a year, its average during the first two decades of the 20th
century except for the wartime period, to 15,000 a year.
The laws of the 1920s, which introduced numerical limits on European immigration,
created for the first time a large-scale problem of illegality among the new
European immigrant groups. Lack of legal status was especially a problem
in the Italian community, and periodic immigration raids captured some of them,
including the mother of Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), as Americans learned during
immigration reform debates in April 2006.
The Italians were also subject to government surveillance during World War II,
at least until 1943, when Italy surrendered. At the outbreak of war,
there were 600,000 noncitizen Italian immigrants residing in the United States
whose loyalty was open to suspicion. While the number who were interned — no
more than a few thousand —was small compared to what Japanese Americans
experienced, many more suffered restrictions on their movements and activities. This
happened even to the father of baseball's Joe DiMaggio, at the
time a national hero.
Italian-American communities, increasingly composed of second-generation families
by the 1950s, came in for further surveillance when government policy singled
out southern Italians as the source of the nation's organized-crime problem. The
Kefauver hearings in the US Senate in 1951 claimed the existence of a national
crime group, the Mafia.
The link between Italian Americans and organized crime reached its apogee
in the 1968 Report of the President's Crime Commission, which identified
the "core" of the organized-crime problem as 24 Italian-American
crime families. Their structure, the report declared, "resembles that
of the Mafia groups that have operated for almost a century on the island of
As members of the second generation sought to advance, they often faced discrimination
and exclusionary policies by largely Protestant middle and upper classes who
attempted to preserve their privileges. Considerable struggle was involved
as the second generation sought to overcome barriers.
Jews were frequently the target of attempts at social closure, largely because
of their relatively early educational gains. During the 1920s, when second-generation
eastern European Jews acquired the educational credentials to gain entrance
to Ivy League schools in large numbers, efforts were made to keep them out;
Harvard imposed a quota on the number of Jewish students who could be admitted
and, in one form or another, many other elite colleges followed its lead.
From the 1920s onward, many Jews were denied admission to professional schools.
Elite law firms would not hire them, universities denied them faculty positions,
and elite social clubs systematically excluded them. During the Depression,
New York City's largest employers — including public utilities,
banks, insurance companies, and home offices of major corporations — rarely
Consequently, Jewish professionals fell back on a pattern of self-employment,
setting up their own practices and catering to largely Jewish clientele. In
New York City, many Jews entered the civil service after Mayor LaGuardia implemented
a merit system in the 1930s for hiring and promotion.
In the postwar decades the barriers began to fall, partly because of the robust
and expanding economy, which provided new opportunities, and because the legal
and social environment had changed both during and after the war.
But it was not just outside forces and altered circumstances that opened doors.
Jewish organizations, in which the second generation played an important role,
fought to overturn rules and regulations blocking advancement. Jewish organizations
campaigned against the use of religious and racial criteria in admissions;
they pressed the case for antidiscrimination legislation, especially in New
York State, where a good number of prestigious, exclusionary institutions,
such as Columbia and Cornell, were located.
An initial success was achieved in 1946, when the New York City Council adopted
legislation threatening the tax-exempt status of nonsectarian colleges and
universities that discriminated based on race or religion. Columbia was thereby
forced to revise its admissions procedures, and some other schools, seeing
the handwriting on the wall, did the same.
New York State followed with an antidiscrimination statute in 1948. By the
mid-to-late 1960s, Yale and Princeton finally had ended their unofficial quotas
that had severely limited the number of Jewish students.
Jews and Italians both faced impediments to living in the most desirable neighborhoods. Restrictive
covenants, which the US Supreme Court did not ban until 1948, frequently excluded
Jews from the purchase of homes in privileged neighborhoods.
Italians were also viewed as undesirable neighbors and, according to Guglielmo,
were listed just above African Americans and Mexican Americans on a ranking
of groups that realtors and the federal government commonly used to determine
neighborhood suitability for investment.
Signs of Second-Generation Distress
Though the extent of second-generation upward mobility was quite different
between eastern European Jews and southern Italians, both groups showed signs
These signs were much more varied among the Italians and very much in evidence
in their educational record, something that was not the case for the Jews. Second-generation-Italian
educational attainment was on average well below that of other US-born whites. Southern
Italian parents frequently took their children out of school as early as the
law allowed and sometimes earlier.
The historian Thomas Kessner has estimated that as many as 10 percent of
Italian children living in New York City during the first decade of the 20th
century did not attend school at all.
In Providence, Rhode Island, the low educational achievements of second-generation
Italians relative to other groups, as Perlmann notes, was glaring. In 1915,
only 17 percent of native-born Italian boys and nine percent of the girls entered
high school and only a third of them graduated.
In the early 1940s, the New York educator Leonard Covello found that Italian
youngsters had a much lower rate of high-school graduation than did the city's
other groups, as well as higher rates of truancy and delinquency.
For both second-generation Jews and Italians, the lure of crime often competed
quite successfully with mainstream opportunities. Remarkable as this
may seem from today's perspective, there was a Jewish "crime wave" in
early-20th-century New York. As described by sociologist Stephen Steinberg,
about a sixth of the city's felony arrests were Jews; his analysis does
not make clear whether these criminals belonged to the second generation or the 1.5 generation
(generally defined as children who immigrate before their early teens). In the eyes of Jewish community
leaders at the time, the arrests made clear that Jewish immigrant parents had
lost control of their children.
Many young Jewish criminals gravitated toward the "rackets," where
they met up with the children of Irish, Italian, and other immigrants. During
Prohibition and afterwards, the more successful of these gangsters formed organized-crime
groups that monopolized trade in the various realms of vice, such as gambling.
For several decades after World War II, the dominant figures in organized
crime were second-generation Jews and Italians, often working in concert. The
notorious Murder, Inc. was led by Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who
came to the United States at the age of 10, and Louis "Lepke" Buchalter,
born on New York's Lower East Side.
The identity dilemmas the second generation confronted were depicted by psychologist
Irvin Child in Italian or American? Studying second-generation Italian
Americans in New Haven, Connecticut, during the late 1930s, when American hostility
toward Fascist Italy was rising, Child found both loyalty to the Italian identity
and assimilation to the American one to entail a high degree of risk and anticipated
loss. The American identity, in particular, required Italians to relinquish
their ties to the group without any guarantee of acceptance by native white
Americans. Many Italian Americans lapsed into what Child deemed an "apathetic" identity
If there is one lesson to be learned from the experiences of the earlier second
generation, it is to be wary about romanticizing the past. A common tendency
is to emphasize only the positives in looking back to the European second generation's
mobility paths. As shown, the ascent up the socioeconomic ladder was not problem-free
for the children of southern, central, and eastern Europeans whose parents
arrived on America's shores a century ago.
Views of the past matter partly because they inform our understandings of
the present. When the story of the earlier second generation portrays
only the positives, it suggests that the contemporary second generation and
its incorporation difficulties are altogether unique.
An awareness of the complexities involved in the path to mobility in the past — and
the stumbling blocks along the way — provides a realistic basis for comparison.
An historical perspective also makes clear that the second generation's
ascent up the socioeconomic ladder was not inevitable, but, rather, the outcome
of specific historical forces.
Recognizing the possibility of similarities and continuities between the second
generation of southern and eastern Europeans and today's second generation
opens up the possibility for learning lessons from the past that have significance
for the present and future.
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