Babbitt, 1922: race and immigration conversation still relevant

I’m reading Babbitt, a 1922 novel by Sinclair Lewis. Given what’s going on in America today, these lines from a conversation by four businessmen on a train from the midwest to New York City are highly relevant to the USA in 2016.

“I don’t know what’s come over these niggers, nowadays. They never give you a civil answer.”

“That’s a fact. They’re getting so they don’t have a single bit of respect for you. The old-fashioned coon was a fine old cuss–he knew his place–but these young dinges don’t want to be porters or cotton-pickers. Oh, no! They got to be lawyers and professors and Lord knows what all! I tell you, it’s becoming a pretty serious problem. We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place. Now, I haven’t got one particle of race-prejudice. I’m the first to be glad when a nigger succeeds–so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn’t try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man.”

“That’s the i.! And another thing we got to do,” said the man with the velour hat (whose name was Koplinsky), “is to keep these damn foreigners out of the country. Thank the Lord, we’re putting a limit on immigration. These Dagoes and Hunkies have got to learn that this is a white man’s country, and they ain’t wanted here. When we’ve assimilated the foreigners we got here now and learned ’em the principles of Americanism and turned ’em into regular folks, why then maybe we’ll let in a few more.”

The relevance should be self-evident, but it merits two notes. First, when someone says “I’m not a racist, but”, they are going to say something racist. Second, “Dagoes” was a slur for people of Spanish, Italian or Portuguese descent, and “Hunkies” was a slur for eastern European people—a reminder that the notion “white” is fluid and is about power, not about anything intrinsic to who is considered white. Read Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates for more discussion and a personal perspective.

Donald Trump certainly loves eastern Europeans. A hundred years ago, would he have been a champion of “hunkies”? Or would they have been “rapists, murderers, and some, I assume, are good people”?

This 1893 political cartoon by Keppler definitely comes to mind, as it often does.