Life in the Roaring Twenties

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Discuss the cultural conflicts of immigration and prohibition during the 1920s.

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The two conflicts were closely linked. Nativists regarded immigrants as bringing all kinds of alien cultural practices with them into America of which they strongly disapproved. One of them was the consumption of alcohol. Most Americans drank alcohol, of course, but a large number of them still paid lip service...

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to the idea that there was something inherently wicked about it. They felt that, at the very least, drinking should be discouraged, if not prohibited outright.

In any case, the mass immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into the United States made growing numbers of Americans uneasy, so much so that they sought to find security in notions of so-called 100% pure Americanism, which revolved around white nationalism and Protestantism. In due course, prohibition was added to the mix, marking a clear cultural boundary between the citizens of white Protestant America and the immigrant newcomers.

Though prohibition has long since been repealed, the white nationalism of 1920s Nativists remains a growing threat in American public life. In recent years, a strong anti-immigration sentiment has developed, which has now found expression in the policies of the Trump Administration. President Trump has stated time and again his desire to build a huge border wall with Mexico to keep out immigrants.

The language emanating from the White House concerning immigration has often been hostile, to say the least. In turn, one could argue that this officially negative attitude toward immigrants has created a hostile environment in which white nationalism has flourished. There is a perception among white nationalists that immigration from Latin America and the Middle East represents an existential threat to their ideal of what America should look like. This is virtually identical with the Nativist worldview that dominated American public life in the 1920s.

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Immigration to the US reached its peak between 1880 and 1920. Most of the immigrants were from Europe and brought their own traditions with them, including alcohol production and consumption. Prohibition brought an end to drinking in the US, at least legally. This led to an array of underground and illegal speakeasies.

Immigrants often occupy the lower rungs of society when they first arrive and tend to occupy ethnic enclaves. Within these enclaves a number of informal businesses cropped up at the time that catered to immigrant needs, including alcohol production. Speakeasies during prohibition sometimes could be found within ethnic enclaves because of the difficulty the police had in acquiring information from the inhabitants. When this was the case, stereotypes could easily develop such as the assumption that immigrants are participating in illegal activities. During the 1920s, that meant speakeasies. Yes, some were involved, but then again, many Americans participated in these operations. But immigrants tend to stand out because of their already existing cultural differences.

If we look at immigration today, we can see some informal business occurring that, although may not involve criminal activity, may fall outside of the ability by local authorities to police it, leading to mistrust. Mistrust, lack of language abilities, and lack of cultural sameness can all contribute to stereotypes developing between native inhabitants and immigrants. Immigrants bring cultural traditions that may or may not be legal in the US, which can further the divide between the two. But these are issues that happen throughout the world—not just in the US—whenever disparate cultural groups come together.

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