Racial Tension During & After World War I

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  • 00:00 Racial Views Before WWI
  • 1:58 During the War and…
  • 3:20 Rise of Post-War Racism
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While the Civil War may have introduced the United States to a new type of racial tension, it was World War I in which these tensions became fully exposed. This lesson tells how a country that fought for freedom ended up giving birth, again, to the KKK.

Racial Views Before World War I

Racial views before the start of World War I largely depended on what part of the country you were looking at. In the North, racism most often manifested against immigrant communities, namely the flood of non-Anglo-Saxon Europeans who were arriving in places like New York and Philadelphia with increasing frequency. These communities, starting with the Irish in the 1840s, were fiercely proud of their beliefs and resistant to each new wave of newcomers.

In the far West, in places like San Francisco, racial discrimination took aim at the newly arrived communities of Asians, especially Chinese laborers on the railroads. Chinese communities were stereotypes as hives of villainy, complete with multiple opium dens with loose connections to Chinese crime syndicates and more certain connections to merchant ships looking to 'shanghai', or kidnap, potential new crewmen. Of course, these all ridiculed the true spirit of American immigration, in that all these people had arrived in the United States to find a better life and were the backs upon which the new country had been built.

However, nowhere was hatred more pronounced than in the American South. Here, immigrants were not as heavily discriminated, and the multi-ethnic fabric included French New Orleans and Cuban Tampa. But it was the population of African Americans, the only group to arrive in the country without their consent, that was the target of fierce discrimination. Segregated from white society and subject to constant fear of reprisals, many black Southerners were forced to live in fear.

During the War and Americanization

Once the United States entered World War I in 1917, a number of programs would directly challenge the racial makeup of the country. Most notably, an extensive program of Americanization sought to remove the ethnic identities of immigrant communities, replacing them instead with only a love for America. Needless to say, this was most heavily pushed on German Americans, with more than 2,000 resisters forced into confinement for the duration of the war.

However, the greatest hypocrisies came from the South. Here, African-American troops were ordered to go fight for freedom and democracy, despite the fact that they enjoyed neither to full effect at home. Worse still was the mockery faced by black troops if trained near Southern cities. In Houston, after white mobs had harassed and assaulted the black troops to the point of no return, the soldiers opened fire. Rather than face the facts of whites bullying the troops, Texas politicians lobbied to disallow non-white soldiers from training in the South. Despite instances such as this, African-American units heavily distinguished themselves during the conflict.

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