Americans Must Embrace Hope, Not FearRoundup
tags: World War II, religion, diversity, coronavirus
Kevin M. Schultz teaches history at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). His books include "Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to its Protestant Promise."
As the coronavirus spreads, so does racism and xenophobia toward Chinese Americans. Recent reports detail the vast and growing amount of online hatred spewed at Asians and Asian Americans and reminds us that, in times of national stress, discrimination and hatred often bubble to the surface. With President Trump and Fox News calling covid-19 the “Chinese virus” or “KungFlu,” it is clear how scapegoating minorities seems to be a common response in times of crisis.
But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, the pandemic offers an opportunity for the country to come together to define and defend a more inclusive nation. During World War II, this is what happened when Protestants, Catholics and Jews chose unity and harmony over scapegoating and fear. Because of their hard work and constant reminders about who the real enemy was, they changed how Americans thought about their country. This might provide an example for today.
Before the war, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic sentiment were rife. In the 1920s, Congress passed harsh immigration laws, essentially limiting the number of Catholics and Jews allowed into the country after several decades of high immigration. The Ku Klux Klan marched on Washington, D.C., in the 1920s with its expanded mission espousing hatred not only for black Americans but also toward Catholics, Jews and foreigners. They, and many others, deemed Catholics as hopelessly subservient to the pope and therefore incapable of upholding their civic duties.
During the Great Depression, anti-Semitism peaked as Jews were denied access to certain neighborhoods and jobs, and they were widely accused of being the dangerous source of the economic crisis. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt said privately that the United States was “a Protestant country” and that “Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.”
But a small group of Americans fought to craft a different image of the country, one premised on inclusivity and tolerance. Their “Goodwill Movement,” as it became known, thought a commitment to American ideals should outweigh any commitment to ethnicity, race, blood or religion — and slowly their ideas started to spread.