What Can Be Done to Americanize America?, May 31, 1920



The topic is Americanizing America. I would like to say that years ago when the first settlements were established in the United States, we looked upon the whole situation of Americanizing the foreign born as a great cultural task rather than merely a nationalistic undertaking. We believed that we had to take a sort of running jump, as it were; had to get back into something of their institutions and something of that history before we could expect them to be enormously interested in our interests and undertakings. And this has been carried out, as you know, in many of the newer theories of Americanization.

I remember many years ago in Chicago we had a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb, who, as you know, are experts in the whole line of labor legislation. They could not understand for a long time why we had so little protective legislation in the United States. Many states had no legislation regarding the building of tenement houses, and there was nothing to prevent a landlord erecting any sort of a house that he chose.

They could not understand why at that time there was not in many of the states any legislation to prevent the labor of children, and very little in regard to many things which had been acted on in England many years. They finally came to the conclusion -- whether right or wrong I do not pretend to say -- they finally came to the conclusion it was because the tenement houses were largely lived in by foreigners, as we called them then; that it was the children of the foreigners who were being exploited in the factories; it was the foreign-born women who were working in the sweat shops and had no legislation to protect them, and that the troubles of the foreign people did not come to us with the same poignancy as it would have come if they had spoken our language, if they had been of our own nationality. A wrong done to tenement houses filled with English people is perforce a part of the situation in England. A wrong done to a tenement house full of people in Chicago may be a wrong done to Italians or to Russians or to some other nationality, and some way or another it doesn't reach us in the same way. The Webbs many have been quite mistaken in this analysis, but it was given as their deliberate opinion, and I believe it was used in illustration after they returned home.

I imagine that is true in regard to many questions. If we despise a person with whom we are dealing, we literally do not see what is happening to him. It is the whole thing, is it not, of calling your brother a thief? If you call him a thief you can't understand him, you can't do anything for him; you simply know him in hardness of heart and blindness of mind. I suppose that has been true more and more as we have allowed ourselves to feel that the foreign-born are quite different from what we are.

Things are happening to these aliens which seem to them, rightly or wrongly, absolutely foreign to the treatment they received in the old country, and to the treatment they expected to receive in this country. Cannot we as the newly enfranchised voters, who have so recently suffered misapprehension and misunderstanding -- cannot we ask that these people should have a fair understanding of what is being done to them, and a rendition of the law which shall be consistent month after month and year after year, and not go up and down with these tremendous fluctuations, according to public opinion or hysteria? That, it seems to me, is a challenge to the woman voter and is something we will be proud to have done after the clouds have rolled away.

At any rate I should like to give this to you merely as something which has come to many of us who have been living in the foreign quarters for many years, and who are distressed when we are called upon to defend certain actions which are for the moment so difficult to understand and so difficult to defend. If they could only feel that back of them there were people asking for fairness for them, they might in the end agree with everything being done. After all there is something to be said that an injustice done to the meanest man in our midst is an injustice to all of us.

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