CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of racial, immigrant and gendered violence, slurs and epithets, outdated language, addiction, violence
When you think of Prohibition, the most common stories told today revolve around women and suffrage. Women who were subjected to the brutality of the working-class man, who stopped by a rowdy saloon before coming home and at best, neglecting his family and at worse, completing acts of domestic violence.
These stories are true. Alcohol was the scapegoat to the toxic masculinity and sexism that women faced — and these stories were usually told by white women. 1800’s society barely cared about white women and certainly didn’t care about any other women. While alcohol caused an array of problems, the actuality was the issue was far more insidious than any substance. Laws at the time gave women virtually no rights. Once she was married, she was her husband's property. At the time, women had almost no rights to divorce, no custodial rights over children, and no rights to own property. The 19th amendment hadn’t passed yet, until 1919, so women couldn’t vote in most states.
This is why Prohibition and Suffrage is often linked. When told in this context, it makes Prohibition almost a glamorize feminist movement, a win for an oppressed underling, hated, and disrespected by society.
But Prohibition, like all movements, is far more complex than that.
And like all movements in the United States, one of the most successful driving forces for the cause was xenophobia (hate of immigrants) and racism. These two famous causes tied together Prohibitionists of all political affiliations. Prohibitions who opposed suffrage supported it because of xenophobia and racism. White suffragettes were willing to use xenophobia and racism to further push their agenda, almost seamlessly.
Throughout the 1880s, the United States started to see massive changes. Black Americans were theoretically removed from servitude due to the 13th Amendment in 1865. Reconstruction had ignited the racial fears of Americans, mainly in the South but across the country (the “good” North was not in any stretch of the imagination absent racism — and many abolitionists ardently opposed slavery but still supported racism.)
In addition to this, the 1880s saw an influx of Southern European immigrants. These immigrants were very different from the Anglo-Saxon normative colonizers the country was designed to support. And now, 100 years after the independence of the United States, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants felt their country that they knowingly and intentionally built just for them was at risk. This is the crux of American xenophobia.
Today, white immigrants are welcomed with open arms, whether Northern or Southern European. Black and brown immigrants from Africa, the Islands, the Middle East, Central America, and Latin America are not so well received. Many factors drive these prejudices. Socialism or communism is used as a reason to oppose these immigrants. Sharia Law is used, with a fear of the Muslim religion and “terrorism”. Drugs are used, with a fear of cartels and criminals.
This wasn’t true in the 1800s. Southern Europeans, such as Ashkenazi Jews, Italians, etc. were not welcomed. At the time, Catholicism was the religion of fear — with the Protestant nation claiming it was an assault on the American way of life. Mediterranean culture, Latin languages, non-Protestant beliefs were all non-desirable at the time.
“Their form of Catholicism was also seen as different. All Catholics faced prejudice in America, but in the Mediterranean, faith was blended with other kinds of beliefs, some of them pre-Christian, such as belief in the evil eye, and in good and evil spirits. The Italian Festas — annual public celebrations and parades of the saints — were also glaring novelties at the time.”
Irish, also heavily Catholic, were at one time largely discriminated against (but were never slaves — white Americans today try to use anti-Irish sentiments of the past to “justify” why Black Americans need to get over it — and that is never okay.) Nonetheless, 19th Century Irish immigrants faced their own brand of discrimination, mainly due to their Catholic roots.
In the 1890s, New Orleans saw a case of Anti-Italianism involving the death of Police Chief David Hennessy. As he died, he allegedly put the blame on the Dagoes, an Anti-Italian slur. Suddenly, the Italian population found themselves at the hands of an angry mob, wanting justice. The population there, specifically Sicilian, was of about 300,000 Italian immigrants. Based on growing animosity towards these Sicilian immigrants, and a widely known feud between two immigrant families, newspapers freely reported that Italians were to blame for this chief’s sudden death. Suddenly, hundreds of Italian immigrants were rounded up, even though there was no clear evidence they had anything to do with it, and taken into the jails. Protests began forming around the jail from Anglo Americans, demanding immediate justice. Several were eventually tried for the crime, all of which were not adjudicated guilty.
“The message was clear: If the New Orleans justice system couldn’t punish Italians, the people of New Orleans would have to do so instead. In response, thousands of angry residents gathered near the jail. Impassioned speakers whipped the mob into a frenzy, painting Italian immigrants as criminals who needed to be driven out of the city. Finally, the mob broke into the city’s arsenal, grabbing guns and ammunition. As they ran toward the prison, they shouted, “We want the Dagoes!” “
Known today as the 1891 New Orleans lynching, the eleven defendants were killed extrajudicially by an Anglo mob — and many Sicilian immigrants deflected, abandoning New Orleans. (Some of which came to Tampa, Florida’s own Ybor City.)
So wait — what does all this have to do with Prohibition? Well, everything.
Today, we have an understanding of the very racist intentions of the War on Drugs and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Prohibition was not without anti-Blackness, and although there were Black prohibitionists, there were also white supremacist prohibitions (it was a very complex movement…)
White women and purity was an often discussed intention behind racist and xenophobic laws, especially after the abolition of slavery. Long before abolition, any white woman who was part of the abolition societies was accused of having sexual desires toward Black men — which was considered abhorrent. As such, many anti-abolition minds used the anti-miscegenation mindset as a reason to oppose abolition, for it would surely weaken the pure Anglo bloodline.
When the 13th amendment passed, reconstruction began…and when the federal troops were withdrawn, an uptick in extralegislative and extrajudicial lynchings increased to restore an Anglo white America, or “American values”. Popular theories began to emerge, including eugenics. Prohibition was another popular value. The Ku Klux Klan propagandized Black men as “brutes” and insisted that alcohol brought out the beast within him, making him an ardent threat to white women. Racist white women and men, even those who weren’t concerned about the women’s rights angle, began to support Prohibition for their “safety.”
“The Ku Klux Klan’s support of Prohibition gave the organization a way to promote its views and a way to perpetrate state-sanctioned violence against people of color, Catholics and Jews. “The war on alcohol united Progressives and Protestants, federal agents and Klansmen,” writes Kelefa Sanneh for The New Yorker.
The American government created an entire Prohibition Bureau intended to enforce alcohol-free living. However, this bureau selectively targeted groups that were perceived as inherently corrupt, like poor people, immigrants, and African Americans. Remember, the Jazz Age unfolded during Prohibition–plenty of people were drinking plenty of liquor.”
Sound like the War on Drugs — because it is very similar.
In previous work, I have criticized the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony for their willingness to team up and expel racism and xenophobia in their work. Although both died before the beginning of National Prohibition, their work speaks volumes to the anti-Blackness and anti-immigrant notions that built Prohibition. Through the effort of Prohibition, progressives, suffragettes, xenophobes and racists all teamed up — and if you team up with xenophobes and racists, well, then you are one.
These beliefs were deeply built into temperance, which is the parent movement of the Prohibition movement. James Cannon Jr., a Bishop with the Methodist Church, was also a leader in the temperance movement. In 1909, he took on a leadership role in the Virginia State Anti-Saloon League, the most notable and successful lobby group for Prohibition. And this is what he had to say: “the Italians, the Sicilians, the Poles, and Russian Jews. That kind has given us a stomach ache. We have been unable to assimilate such people in our national life, so we shut the door on them. But Smith says ‘give me that kind of people.’ He wants the kind of dirty people you find today on the sidewalks of New York.”
Mary Hunt, a leader in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, similarly said: “ “the enormous increase of immigrant population flooding us from the old world, men and women who have brought to our shores and into our politics old-world habits and ideas [favorable to alcohol].’ Her writings made frequent references to this “undesirable immigration” and “these immigrant hordes.”
Alabama Congressman, Richard Hobson, in 1914, had this to say: “Liquor will actually make a brute out of a [black person], causing him to commit unnatural crimes. The effect is the same on the white man, though the white man being further evolved, it takes longer time to reduce him to the same level.”
Racism and xenophobia has not come close to ending. While the immigrant we are trained to hate has changed and the way we communicate and codify anti-Blackness looks different and supposedly more discreet, these two tools exist in every movement we have that intends to preserve “American values”, the largest example being the War on Drugs.