The Black and Mexican Experiences Report

U.S. Immigrants

The Black and Mexican Experiences During and After World War I

The United States of America, and indeed the entire continent of North America, has been a place of racial and ethnic boundaries that create a sense of those that belong and those that do not — of people and of “others,” to put it in a more extreme manner — ever since Europeans first arrived on the shores of the continent. The indigenous peoples of the continent, the various tribes known as Indians and then as Native Americans, were the first to be displaced and made into “others,” but the African slaves and their descendants and other people that inhabited the land either through immigration or through historical existence would undergo similar experiences as the nation grew (Takaki 2008). This creation of outsiders was not limited to the decades and centuries of the populating of the continent by the European-descended immigrants, but persisted even after the borders and development of the United States was well-established, with various racial and ethnic identities having unique experiences at various points in this nation’s history.

The experience of blacks in this country has been studied and commented upon quite extensively; though brought here by force they were long treated as unwanted intruders (Takaki 2008). This began to change somewhat during the period of World War I and immediately following, when African-Americans both served in the military and were accepted into industrial jobs in major cities to fill the labor shortage created by massive shipping of troops to the European front (LOC 2008). This led to a renewed celebration and assertion of African-American culture in artistic and literary avenues immediately following the war in the period known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” a period which demonstrated the new pride and a certain level of integration into popular culture through the definition and dissemination of African-American culture itself (LOC 2008).

The experience of Mexican immigrants during this period was similar to that of African-Americans in some ways, but was drastically different in others. The same labor shortages in the United States that were caused by World War I and led to the movement of many African-Americans to cities for new employment opportunities also allowed Mexican nationals to immigrate over the border in order to fill these jobs, first in the fields and eventually in a variety of other industries (Vogel 2004; Takaki 2008). Even in the period immediately following the war, which was still a quite prosperous time for the United States, these workers were largely accepted as a necessary part of the labor industry and the economy, but never really integrated into society due to continuing language barriers and a sense of ethnic “difference” (Vogel 2004). When the Great Depression hit at the end of the 1920s, suddenly these “foreign” workers that had been in the country for a decade (and that had rightfully occupied much of the Southwestern and Western United States less than a century before) were no longer welcome, and a massive expulsion of ethnic Mexicans — whether they were recent immigrants or not — typified the 1930s (Vogel 2004).

In contrast to the African-Americans, who found new pride and new opportunities for staking a permanent claim in the country through the labor opportunities provided by World War I, Mexican immigrants were welcome only as long as they were useful. Without the time to build up a true culture as Mexican-Americans, and with strong ties to family that loved so close and yet so politically and culturally different, there was no real integration for these individuals. Both groups would continue to experience discrimination in the ensuing decades, and their trajectories during this time largely defined those issues.


Library of Congress. (2008). “African-American odyssey.” Accessed 29 October 2010.

Takaki, R. (2008). A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Rev. ed.) Boston: Little Brown Company.

Vogel, R. (2004). “Stolen birthright: The U.S. conquest and exploitation of the Mexican people.” Accessed 29 October 2010.

The Impact of World War II on Various Ethnic Groups

World War II was a time and an event of major cultural change in the United States, with varying impacts on the many different ethnicities that formed the citizenry and the tapestry of immigrants in the nation. The advent of World War II saw and end of the period of economic turmoil and massive unemployment known as the Great Depression, and thus was a time of increased opportunity for many of the nation’s citizens and immigrants, but the experiences of some groups during and following the war were far less positive than others. Some of this was due to the different histories that different immigrant groups had in the country, as well as the different roles that various nations played in the war itself, but often the source for the treatment of different ethnic groups was all too similar and all too simple — racism and ethnocentrism that made the white Americans “true” citizens while others were labeled as outsiders, and those that didn’t belong.

The Japanese suffered the worst during World War II; even families that had been in the country for generations and many decades were viewed with a great deal of suspicion and mistrust, and this eventually coalesced into the creation of Japanese internment camps where families were forced to leave their homes and business (Takaki 2008). Many Japanese-Americans dies in these camps, as hygiene and healthcare was poor, living space was incredibly cramped, and access to food and clean water was severely limited (Takaki 2008). Chinese-Americans fared slightly better, though a general suspicion of all Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants was typical during this period, and employment opportunities outside of the ethnically Chinese pockets that existed in many major cities were severely limited due to overt racist practices, even after the immigration limits enacted in earlier decades had been largely rescinded (Takaki 2008).

Blacks, Mexicans, and Native Americans — groups that were more traditionally and more prevalently (if only due to their larger numbers and longer history in the country) labeled as “outsiders” to mainstream American culture and society — were also impacted significantly by World War II. Blacks actually achieved greater levels of equality, showing a great reluctance to take part in the war and being quite outspoken in their demands for desegregation remembering the dangers that segregation in the Army had posed to their numbers in World War I (in which they were often placed in more dangerous situations than were white units) (LOC 2008). The Mexican experience was highly similar to their experience during World War I, at least insofar as they were seen as an abundant source of cheap labor especially in the agricultural industry, and the bracero program that began during this period is evidence of this (Vogel 2004). Huge numbers of Native Americans enlisted in the United States’ military; the Iroquois Confederacy had declared war on Germany and never signed a treaty, making them especially eager to fight n World War II, and many other tribes also saw as much as a quarter or more of their men enlist to fight overseas (Morgan 1995). While Mexicans were again rejected after the war, however, Native Americans were seen as more fully integrated following their military service even though not all of them wanted this, and while they managed to straddle their Native and mainstream worlds Mexicans were relegated back to their lives as poor itinerant laborers or shipped back to their impoverished homes (Morgan 1995; Vogel 1994).

The different treatment of various ethnic groups in the United States during World War II occurred for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, however, it was the prevailing view of these individuals by mainstream society prior to the war that determined the trajectory of any change.


Library of Congress. (2008). “African-American odyssey.” Accessed 29 October 2010.

Morgan, T. (1995). “Native Americans in world war II.” Accessed 29 October 2010.

Takaki, R. (2008). A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Rev. ed.) Boston: Little Brown Company.

Vogel, R. (2004). “Stolen birthright: The U.S. conquest and exploitation of the Mexican people.” Accessed 29 October 2010.

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