In the late nineteenth century, the number of immigrants arriving in the United States increased tremendously. Most of those who arrived on the East Coast came by ship across the Atlantic Ocean. In contrast, immigrants reached the West Coast across the Pacific from Asia, especially China.
Race was one factor that distinguished European and Asian immigrants. The heightened division of people into racial categories was a characteristic of late nineteenth-century social theory. The supposedly natural hierarchy of whites over all other peoples was used to legally exclude Asians or to justify discrimination against Asian newcomers. In addition, not all Europeans were classified as white, especially Jews and southern Europeans. Two elements that contributed to the formation of imagined community among groups of newcomers were religion and language. Italian and Irish immigrants were more likely to be Catholic and formed churches in their communities. Racial and national segregation as well as intentional community formation created ethnic and national enclaves, such as New York’s Little Italy or San Francisco’s Chinatown.
In the nineteenth century, segregation worked against assimilation in most regards. Rather than multiculturalism, which tends to be a democratic leveling mechanism, a hierarchical system remained in place. To the extent assimilation was allowed, it was seen as a ladder to economic success. Intermarriage with people of other ethnic groups, including those with longer histories in the United States, contributed to assimilation through the children’s generation. The groups that remained more internally cohesive, including many Californian Chinese communities, tended to emphasize success within the group. Situational negotiation was very much in play as the dominant groups enacted new laws and those affected learned how to resist them or bend the rules. In the workplace, labor organizations and fraternal groups encouraged social change.