In the 1920s, nativist sentiment was infused with racism that judged Italians, Poles and Jews as lesser races than Anglo-Saxon Protestant stock that had been the majority of voluntary migrants to America. Yet in the decades that followed, the children of all of these groups largely became absorbed into white America, even held up as exemplars. So by the mid-1960s, when Lyndon B. Johnson began the Great Society Reforms that mandated civil rights for disenfranchised African Americans, nearly 85 percent of Americans were identified as white. It is unfortunate that many of their grandparents’ siblings and neighbors had been shut out of the United States because of their inferior and potentially contaminating status.
This is the America that Donald Trump problematically evokes in his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” He harks back to a period of unprecedented whiteness in American life, achieved through punishing restrictions against populations perceived to be threatening—populations that within one or two generations were accepted. Once accepted, they benefited from structural racism to leapfrog over African Americans and many Mexican and Central American immigrants in social economic standing.