Are “White” Americans All “Passing as White”?
The Alchemy of “Race”
By A.D. Powell
Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson. Harvard University Press, 1998.
Hardly two [scientists] agree as to the number and composition of the races. Thus one scholar makes an elaborate classification of twenty-nine races; another tells us there are six; Huxley gives us four; Kroeber three; Goldenweiser, five; and Boas inclines to two, while his colleague, Linton, says there are twelve or fifteen. Even my dullest students sometimes note this apparent contradiction.
—- Brewton Berry, “A Southerner Learns about Race,” Common Ground (1942)
Matthew Frye Jacobson ‘s Whiteness of a Different Color tells us all how we got in this mess. The book is subtitled European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. “Alchemy” is correct. It means that the “base metal” of Nordic, Alpine, Mediterranean and even Western Asian “races” were turned into the “gold” of unadulterated white status. Jacobson explains how “whiteness” was created by colonial elites for the purpose of defending the state from Indian invasions and slave insurrections, and continued by the American republic in order to create a sense of unity in its polyglot European immigrant population. In 1790, United States naturalization law granted citizenship to “free white persons” — which meant, mostly, those of Anglo-Saxon descent. As the U.S. population became more culturally mixed beginning in the 1840s, with an increase in immigration from non-Anglo Europe, the nation experienced “a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races.”
In other words, people who came from Ireland, Poland, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Jews from Russia and other Slavic nations all became, by virtue of the “melting pot” ethic, “Caucasian” whites. But, the creation of whiteness was – and still is – by no means an easy, continuous process. The Celtic, Nordic, Alpine and Mediterranean “races” were abolished in favor of the myth of one homogenous “white” race (with the adoption of the “scientific” term “Caucasian” providing a new legitimacy to the honorific “racial” term “white.”
Jacobson contends that traditional historians have deliberately dismissed the “racial” distinctions of the 19th century and before as “misuses” of the word “race.” Of course they didn’t mean that Irish, Germans, Bohemians, Nordics, etc. were separate races; they just didn’t know what they were saying. This is a courtesy not given to mulattoes. Jacobson, however, shows that there was no “misuse.” “Patterns in literary, legal, political and graphic evidence” show that the perception of race was very different from the standard rhetoric promoted in today’s U.S. I have a sense of deja vu here. As I stated in a review of Lawrence R. Tenzer’s The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War, mainstream historians’ inability to acknowledge the fact that 19th century Northern “whites” saw predominately European slaves as “white,” makes them deliberately blind to the role “white slavery” played as a cause of the Civil War. Few historians wish to deal with the fact that, while “white” privilege in various forms has been a constant in American political culture since colonial times, whiteness itself has been subject to all kinds of contests and has gone through a series of historical vicissitudes.
Jacobson divides the history of whiteness in the United States into three great epochs:
- The nation’s first naturalization law in 1790 (limited naturalized citizenship to “free white persons”) demonstrates the republican convergence of race and “fitness for self-government”; the law’s wording denotes an unconflicted view of the presumed character and unambiguous boundaries of whiteness.
- Fifty years later, however, beginning with the massive influx of highly undesirable but nonetheless “white” persons from Ireland, whiteness was subject to new interpretations. The period of mass European immigration, from the 1840s to the restrictive legislation of 1924, witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races. Vigorous debate ensued over which of these was truly “fit for self-government” in the old Anglo- Saxon sense.
- Finally, in the 1920s and after, partly because the crisis of over-inclusive whiteness had been solved by restrictive legislation and partly in response to a new racial alchemy generated by African-American migrations to the North and West, whiteness was reconsolidated: the late nineteenth century’s probationary white groups were now remade and granted the scientific stamp of authenticity as the unitary Caucasian race – an earlier era’s Celts, Slavs, Hebrews, Iberics, and Saracens, among others, had become Caucasians so familiar to our own visual economy and racial lexicon.
Before we learn how Europeans became “whites” and “whites” became “Caucasians,” we should know the origin of “Caucasian.”
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL “RACE” IN THE WORLD?
A GEORGIAN SKULL, AND THE ORIGIN OF THE “CAUCASIAN RACE”
Caucasian Variety. I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially the southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; …That stock displays…the most beautiful form of the skull, from which, as from a mean and primeval type, the others diverge…Besides, it is white in color, which we may fairly assume to be the primitive color of mankind, since…it is very easy to degenerate into brown, but very much more difficult for dark to become white.
–Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, “On the Natural Varieties of Mankind” (1775)
Of all the odd myths that have arisen in the scientific world, the “Caucasian mystery” invented quite innocently by Blumenbach is the oddest. A Georgian woman’s skull was the handsomest in his collection. Hence it became his model exemplar of human skulls, from which all others might be regarded as deviations; and out of this, by some strange intellectual hocus-pocus, grew up the notion that the Caucasian man is the prototypic “Adamic” man.
—-Thomas Henry Huxley, “Methods and Results of Ethnology” (1868)
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), one of the founders of modern anthropology, ranked “races” on the basis of aesthetic judgment. He thought that the Georgians, a people who are native to the Caucasus mountain region, were the most “beautiful” people in the world. The “beauty” of each “race” was ranked by how close each one came to an “ideal” skull that Blumenbach found in Georgia. He therefore assumed that “whites” in general originated in the Caucasus because “white” features were closest to Blumenbach’s aesthetic ideal. Because of Blumenbach’s obsession with Georgian “beauty,” the word “Caucasian” became a “scientific” synonym for “white.” However, Blumenbach’s ranking was based more on facial features as opposed to skin color. This is why anthropology texts have usually claimed that “Caucasian” skin color can range from the fairest Swede to nearly “black” natives of India – as long as the features are sharp, the eyes “round,” and the hair is straight, wavy or curly.
This idea that “Caucasians” are the “beautiful race” beside whom all others fall short has never gone away. We see it on TV and the movies, where obviously multiracial women of “tan Caucasian” phenotypes are chosen as sex symbols for “black” males. Marriage advertisements placed by Hindus and Muslims from the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East are not shy about demanding “fair” brides (not as necessary for bridegrooms). Mexican and other Latin American television and film industries use “white” faces in front of the camera because darker ones are considered lacking in attractiveness.
UNDERSTANDING PROBATIONARY AND CONTESTED WHITENESS
Who is “white” and are there degrees of “whiteness”? Jacobson provides the following case as a major example of the ambiguity of this question:
In Rollins v. Alabama (1922), an Alabama Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction of one Jim Rollins, a black man convicted of the crime of miscegenation, on the grounds that the state had produced “no competent evidence to show that the woman in question, Edith Labue was a white woman.” Labue was a Sicilian immigrant, a fact that, this court held, “can in no sense be taken as conclusive that she was therefore a white woman, or that she was not a negro or a descendant of a negro.” Although it is important to underscore that this court did not find that a Sicilian was necessarily nonwhite, its finding that a Sicilian was inconclusively white does speak volumes about whiteness in 1920s Alabama. If the court left room for the possibility that Edith Labue may have been white, the ruling also made clear that she was not the sort of white woman whose purity was to be “protected” by that bulwark of white supremacism, the miscegenation statute.
This ruling is not an oddity of the Alabama courts, but part of a much broader pattern of racial thinking throughout the United States between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth. …In his 1908 study Race or Mongrel? Alfred Schultz lamented in unambiguously biological language:
The opinion is advanced that the public schools change the children of all races into Americans. Put a Scandinavian, a German, and a Magyar boy in at one end, and they will come out Americans at the other end. Which is like saying, let a pointer, a setter, and a pug enter one end of a tunnel and they will come out three greyhounds at the other end. Jacobson points out that in her 1910 study of Homestead, Pennsylvania, the sociologist Margaret Byington broke the community down along the “racial” lines of “Slav, English-speaking European,” native, white, and colored.” H.L. Mencken later casually alluded to the volume of literature crossing his desk by “Negro and other non-Nordic writers.” …When Porgy and Bess appeared (1935) critics broadly attributed George Gershwin’s talent for “American-Negroid music” to the “common Oriental ancestry in both Negro and Jew.” In other words, not all Americans saw the social divisions of the nation as simply “white” versus “black.”
We must cease to think of contested whiteness as something from Imitation of Life and other works obsessed with “Negro blood” in otherwise “white” persons. Most of the officially “pure white” population is descended from people who were, at one time, not considered truly “white.” They were on “probation,” eventually graduating to full whiteness in a long and untidy process. As Jacobson explains it:
The boundary over whiteness – its definition, its internal hierarchies, its proper boundaries, and its rightful claimants has been critical to American culture throughout the nation’s history, and it has been a fairly untidy affair. Conflicting or overlapping racial designations such as ‘white,” “Caucasian,” and “Celt” may operate in popular perception and discussion simultaneously, despite their contradictions – the Irish simians of the Thomas Nast cartoon, for example, were “white” according to naturalization law; they proclaimed themselves “Caucasians” in various political organizations using that term; and they were degraded “Celts” in the patrician lexicon of proud Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, this is the nature of ideological contest. Such usages have had regional valences as well: it is one of the compelling circumstances of American cultural history that an Irish immigrant in 1877 could be a despised Celt in Boston – a threat to the republic – and yet a solid member of The Order of Caucasians for the Extermination of the Chinaman in San Francisco, gallantly defending U.S. shores from an invasion of “Mongolians.” How did the honorific “racial” term “white” originate? Would you believe it was related to the need for a militia?
“FREE WHITE PERSONS” IN THE REPUBLIC, 1790-1840
WE NEED SOMEBODY TO FIGHT OFF THOSE SLAVES AND INDIANS.
The Third Charter of Virginia (1611-1612) dedicates the colony to “the propagation of the Christian Religion, and Reclaiming of People barbarous, to Civility and Humanity.” The Declaration of Proposals of the Lord Proprietor of Carolina (1663), the Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1663) all defined the mission of their colonies as the taking of land from “barbarous” natives and their conversion to Christianity and a European (specifically English) way of life.
These colonial documents do not use the word “white,” Jacobson says, but between the charters of the early seventeenth century and the naturalization law of the late eighteenth, the word “white” did attain wide usage in New World political discourse, and it was written into an immense body of statutory law. In the colonies the designation “white” appeared in laws governing who could marry whom, who could participate in the militia; who could vote or hold office; and in laws governing contracts, indenture and enslavement. The term “white” was used to confer rights and freedoms (except limiting one’s right to marry). Citizenship became inseparable from the idea of whiteness and maleness because a citizen’s primary duty was to help put down slave rebellions and participate in wars against the Indians. In other words, colonial British elites first created “white people” as a social and political category to create a sense of European solidarity against slaves and Indian nations. The colonial European population, divided by class, religion and national origin, had to be united. People who had little land and no slaves themselves had to be made to feel a certain brotherhood with large landowners and slave holders. It is no accident that Congress established a Uniform Militia (1792) defined as “each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective states.” In return for this military obligation, “white” men received the franchise (with property qualifications), the right to hold office and other rights superior to women and non-white males.
Another important component of political whiteness was Republican ideology. If the Crown of England was no longer the ruler, and the Revolution had been fought in the name of self-rule or rule by “the people” – the majority – then who were these citizens and what determined their fitness to rule? Furthermore, the Revolution’s ideals meant different things to different classes. A planter aristocrat like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson did not necessarily want the kind of political equality favored by a New England farmer or a small merchant or artisan. The new American ruling class was thus presented with a dilemma – how to rule without overtly appearing to do so. In the Enlightenment’s model of race and politics, the ideal republic was ruled by men who were logical, balanced and not given to irrational passions. Non-white “races” were, by definition, the opposite of this ideal, and most European “races” were judged inferior to the English – the standard by which all other “races” would be judged. The polity should be “a homogenous body” whose interests were, when thoughtfully considered, one and the same. The ideal American citizen’s concept of “the public good” should be, essentially, the good of wealthy planters and merchants.
MASSIVE IMMIGRATION, 1840-1924
AND A CRISIS OF WHITENESS
The Irish Famine Migration of the 1840s produced the first true crisis of whiteness in the American republic, according to Jacobson. Whereas the salient feature of whiteness before the 1840s had been its powerful political and cultural contrast to nonwhites, especially Indians and Africans and mixed- race Americans, this period is characterized by:
- A spectacular rate of American industrialization, whose voracious appetite for cheap labor encouraged hordes of non-English Europeans to come to the United States.
- A growing nativist perception of these laborers as a political threat to the smooth functioning of the republic.
- Consequently, a fracturing of monolithic whiteness by the popular marriage of scientific doctrines of race with political concerns over the newcomers’ “fitness for self-government.”
Why a threat? The demographics of the republic began to change dramatically in the 1840s. Consider these figures:
- 1820 – 8,385 immigrants from all sending countries combined
- 1847 (worst year of the Irish Famine) – 234,968 immigrants, of whom nearly half were from Ireland
- From 1846 to 1855 – a total of 3,031,339 immigrants, including 1,288,307 from Ireland and 976,711 from Germany, the two leading sources of immigration in this period.
- Combined with Italians, Russian Jews and other Europeans, the “white” foreign-born population of the U.S. reached 13.5 million by 1920.
We have to understand the tremendous changes and fear created by this massive immigration and why these “white” immigrants were in a state of probationary or contested “whiteness.”
ARE THE IRISH WHITE?
In The Inequality of Human Races (1855) Arthur Comte de Gobineau predicted the decline of the Anglo-Saxons in America, now overwhelmed by the most degenerate races of olden day Europe. They are the flotsam of all ages: Irish, cross-bred German and French, and Italians of even more doubtful stock.
Negative assessments of the Irish character are rooted in the history of English conquest and hostility toward Catholicism. (An outlawed religion for much of English history). They were “savages” to be tamed, similar to Indians. They had fine land that they supposedly didn’t deserve or know how to use properly.
Jacobson even shows us that 19th century Americans had perceptions of distinctive Celtic physical characteristics. Harper’s Weekly (1851) described “the Celtic physiognomy” as, among other things, “the small and somewhat upturned nose [and] the black tint of the skin.” While this opinion sounds incredible to us, we must remember that a “racial” label often causes people to “see” differences that are not there. Many people, both Irish and non-Irish, thought they saw distinctive Celtic physical types. Here’s an opinion of Irish morals and intelligence:
Atlantic Monthly (1896): ” A Celt lacks the solidity, the balance, the judgement, the moral staying power of the Anglo-Saxon.” The Celt “imbibes with avidity the theory of equality, and with true Celtic ardor pushes it to excess; there are many Irish-Americans, young men growing up in our cities, who are too vain or too lazy to work, self-indulgent, impudent, and dissipated.” Irish were often compared unfavorably to “Negroes”: The Atlantic Monthly (1864): “The emancipated Negro is at least as industrious and thrifty as the Celt, takes more pride in self-support, is far more eager for education, and has fewer vices.” A famous political cartoon of 1876 shows the “Celt” and the “Negro” on the scales of civic virtue and finds them weighing in identically – an argument that seems to favor stripping the Celt of official “white” status rather than raising the “Negro” up.
It is ironic that the predominately Celtic and racially mixed Healy Family, — which produced Alaskan hero Captain Michael Healy as well as James Healy, Bishop of Portland, Maine and Patrick Healy, President of Georgetown University — is today denounced by “blacks” and “white” liberals as “passing for white” social climbers for embracing their Irish ancestry and identity instead of submitting to a “black” stigma. If you were social climbing in 19th century America, you would not want to be either Irish or Catholic and certainly not both.
ARE ITALIANS WHITE?
In Rollins v. Alabama (1922), as we have seen, a Sicilian woman was not deemed “white” enough by an Alabama court to legally prevent a “black” man from mating with her. Italians in Louisiana were also deemed unworthy of full “whiteness” and its privileges.
Many Italians are quite swarthy, olive or even brown-skinned. This is not surprising, given Italy’s geographical closeness to Africa. In 1891 a “white” Louisiana mob lynched 11 Italians, What made Italians non-white in their eyes despite their immigration to the U.S. as “free white persons”? Jacobson says that Italians did not “act white” by Southern standards. They socialized freely with “blacks” and worked at “black” jobs. They also supported Republican and Populist political candidates. I would like to inquire as to whether many of these “blacks” were in fact mixed-race Creoles. Physically, Italians and Creoles are very similar. Culturally, they are both Roman Catholic and “Latin.” Since Jacobson says that Italians intermarried with “blacks,” I have to suggest that these mates were probably not “black” at all but Creole.
ARE JEWS WHITE?
Anyone who believes that Jewish people have always been considered “white” is ignorant of Jewish history – both medieval and modern. The Holocaust was a genocide directed against Jews and others that the Third Reich deemed “inferior races” who threatened the “purity” of “superior” German or “Aryan” blood? Sound familiar? Jacobson devotes an entire chapter, “Looking Jewish, Seeing Jews,” to the ambiguous “racial” position of Jews in the United States. It was quite common, until the mid-twentieth century, for the media to refer to Jews in “racial” terms: In Types of Mankind (1855) Josiah Nott remarked that the “well-marked Israelitish features are never beheld out of that race”; the complexion may be bleached or tanned…but the Jewish features stand unalterably through all climates.” The most dramatic example of Jews’ racial ambiguity was the infamous Leo Frank case (1915), in which a “white” Jewish man in Georgia was convicted of murdering a working-class white girl – all on the testimony of a “Negro” janitor named Jim Conley. In the South at that time, if was considered culturally impossible for a “white” man to be convicted of anything on the word of a “Negro.” Frank was sentenced to death on the word of a “Negro” of poor reputation and who was, logically, the most likely murder suspect. Reporters, both “white” and “Negro,” questioned Frank’s “racial” classification. He was officially, on paper, a “white” man, yet he was being treated more like a “Negro.” Jacobson maintains that Frank’s conviction was a sign of his contested whiteness. Frank was inconclusively white and therefore, by Southern standards, did not deserve the “respect” normally due “white” men. When the governor of Georgia commuted Frank’s death sentence, he was lynched by a “white” mob – a stereotypical “Negro” fate.
Moving up into the later 20th century, American Jewish writer Philip Roth shows that the possibility of losing “whiteness” is still in the mind of American Jews. Jacobson gives us this extensive quote from Roth’s Counterlife (1988), in which a Gentile woman chances to comment that she seldom repays the attention of Jewish men “because there are enough politics in sex without racial politics coming into it.” “We’re not a race,” objects her Jewish listener. The ensuing exchange cuts to the very heart of “difference” and the epistemology of race.
“It is a racial matter,” she insisted.
“No, we’re the same race. You’re thinking of Eskimos.”
“We are not the same race. Not according to anthropologists, or whoever measures these things. There’s Caucasian, Semitic – there are about five different groups. Don’t look at me like that.”
“I can’t help it. Some nasty superstitions always tend to crop up when people talk about a Jewish ‘race.'”
“…All I can tell you is that you are a different race. We’re supposed to be closer to Indians than to Jews, actually; – I’m talking about Caucasians.”
“But I am a Caucasian, kiddo. In the U.S. census I am, for good or bad, counted as Caucasian.”
“Are you? Am I wrong?”
This conversation should not be surprising given the history of Jewish persecution by Europeans. Even today, Jews are at the heart of right-wing racial ideology, defined as racially mixed or plotting the “mongrelization” of the “white race.”
Jacobson summarizes the American Jewish “racial” situation very well:
Across the latter half of the nineteenth century Jews, by common consensus, did represent a distinct race; but by the mid-twentieth such certainties had evaporated….the racial odyssey of American Jews from “white persons” to “Hebrews” to “Caucasians” illustrate how historical circumstance, politically driven categorization, and the eye of the beholder all conspire to create distinctions of race that are nonetheless experienced as natural phenomena, above history and beyond question.
EUGENICS AND THE “PASSING OF THE GREAT RACE”
The Immigration Act of 1924 gave precedence to immigrants from Northern Europe and was designed to make sure that the U.S. would never again be deluged with “undesirable” immigrants, especially those from Southern and Eastern Europe. Jews, especially, were targets of the new immigration law. It is no accident that the 1924 Immigration Act occurs in the same year as Virginia’s “Racial Integrity” Act of 1924 – which banned non-Caucasian blood from the “white race.” The eugenics movement was the ideological midwife of both laws. (For an example of how this era affected Americans of racially-mixed descent, see the Melungeon Homepage.) Jacobson places great emphasis on Madison Grant’s, “The Passing of the Great Race” as the “Mein Kampf” of the eugenics movement:
Among the most important and popular expressions of the rising eugenic view of immigration was Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race, an extended diatribe against the “pathetic and fatuous belief in the efficacy of American institutions” to absorb and transform diverse populations. The book first appeared in 1916, but achieved its peak popularity only in the early 1920s; the old-stock liberal immigration policies, in Grant’s view, were tantamount to “suicidal ethics which are exterminating his own race.” He took issue with Franz Boas and others who emphasized the influence of environment and the potential for changes; what the melting pot (a biological, not a cultural, contrivance) really accomplishes, Grant argued, is best exemplified by “the racial mixture which we call Mexican, and which is now engaged in demonstrating its incapacity for self-government.”
Multiracial ancestry that is now presented to Americans as a variety of “white,” was once held up as examples of the need for forced hypodescent to protect white racial “purity.” As Grant states:
Whether we like to admit it or not, the result of the mixture of two races, in the long run, gives us a race reverting to the more ancient, generalized and lower type. The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a negro is a negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew. I would say that the great difference between most “black” and “white liberal” thinking today and Grant’s overt racism, is that the former “whitens” all the crosses mentioned above except those between “Negro” and “white.”
Jacobson reminds us that so salient are the differences among Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans, that when Grant lumps them together at all, he does so only by the self-undermining phrase “so-called Caucasians.” The term “Caucasian race” has ceased to have any meaning, he argued, except where it is used to contrast white populations with “Negroes,” “Indians,” or “Mongols.”
The advocates of the new eugenics movement, such as Madison Grant and prominent eugenicist Harry Laughlin, worked hard to eliminate the old immigration law which opened America’s doors to all “free white persons.” Most of these so-called “whites” were not all that “white,” – that is, they were not of the ideal “Nordic” stock that Grant, Laughlin and their ideological confederates considered the truly “superior race” and the genetic base of the American republic. Jacobson summarizes the successful political activism that Grant, Laughlin and their comrades in the eugenics movement engaged in to protect the U.S. from “inferior races”:
Their activism finally achieved success in 1924’s Johnson Act – a quota system based on 2 percent of each group’s population according to the 1890 census. This formula was originally part of the Report of the Eugenics Committee of the United States Committee on Selective Immigration. That committee, chaired by none other than Madison Grant and including Congressman Albert Johnson of Washington (the president of the Eugenic Research Association, 1923-1924), argued that a formula based on the 1890 census rather than a more recent one “would change the character of immigration of the stock which originally settled this country.” North and Western Europeans, read the report, were of “higher intelligence” and hence provided “the best material for American citizenship.” Although the authors of the report alleged that this was not a question of “superior” and “inferior” races, but merely a matter of admitting an “adaptable, helpful and homogeneous element in our American national life,” they did venture that their formula would “greatly reduce the number of immigrants of the lower grades of intelligence, and of immigrants who are making excessive contributions to our feeble- minded, insane, criminal, and other socially inadequate classes.” Citing data from Yerkes’s Army Intelligence Tests, the authors now poured very old wine into the new bottle of eugenics: “Had mental tests been in operation, and had the “inferior” and “very inferior” immigrants been refused admission to the United States, over six million aliens now living in this country, free to vote, and to become the fathers and mothers of future Americans, would never have been admitted.”
The words “six million” have special significance, since this racist immigration law would cost countless European Jews their lives during the 1930s and 1940s. They could not be admitted, because, although officially “white” under America law, they were among the “inferior races” the eugenics activists intended to exclude.
The Johnson Act did not invent the hierarchy of white races. While the view of Madison Grant, Albert Johnson, Harry Laughlin and their ilk seem extreme to us today, Jacobson reminds us that it is critical to recognize that figures far more central to American political and intellectual life shared many of their basic assumptions – Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Edward A. Ross, Frederick Jackson Turner, W.E.B. Du Bois and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are among them. Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Social Trends could enthusiastically laud the immigration act as selecting “a physical type which closely resembles the prevailing stock in our country.” Authors such as Jack London, Frank Norris, Charles Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, John R. Dos Passos and many others accepted the idea of a hierarchy of “white” races.
FINDING ALLIES AGAINST “THE RISING TIDE OF COLOR”
Between the 1920s and the 1960s concerns of “the major divisions” would so overwhelm the national consciousness that the “minor divisions,” which had so preoccupied Americans during the period of massive European immigration, would lose their salience in American culture and disappear altogether as racially based differences. Indeed, between the mid-1920s and the end of World War II, “Caucasian” as a “natural” division of humanity became part of a popular national catechism. Scientists “apply” the term “race” only to the broadest subdivisions of mankind, Negro, Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, and Australian,” explained a 1939 handbook for high school teachers. “ALL THESE SCIENTISTS AGREE THAT NO NATION CAN BE CALLED A RACE,” the text emphasized, self-consciously undoing the notions of “Aryan” and “Semitic” integrity.
Jacobson believes that the massive migrations of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West between the 1910s and the 1940s produced an entirely new racial alchemy in those sections. Mid-century civil rights agitation on the part of African Americans – and particularly the protests against segregation in the military and discrimination in the defense industries around World War II – nationalized Jim Crow as the racial issue of American political discourse. Both the progressive and the regressive coalitions that formed around questions of segregation and desegregation solidified whiteness as a monolith of privilege; racial differences within the white community lost their salience as they lost their reference to important power arrangements of the day. And, finally, events in Nazi Germany, too, exerted a powerful influence on public opinion.
Jim Crow whitened people who would not otherwise have been “white.” When four dusky Armenians petitioned in court for “white” status after a lower Massachusetts court found them to be “Asiatic” and thus ineligible for citizenship, the Circuit Court judge In Re Halladjian (1909) ruled in their favor by citing Southern segregation statutes that placed Armenians on the “white” side of the line. They were suspiciously dark, but claimed no relationship to the despised “Negro.”
Increased uprisings and demands for independence in Europe’s African, Caribbean and Asian colonies, as well as the rise of non-white nations such as Japan and China, impressed upon many “white” elites the need for a reconstruction of the “white race.” In other words, there were not enough “superior” Nordics to fight off all these “colored” peoples. More “white races” had to be invited into the “white” club with full membership. Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy (1920) and Reforging America (1927) sounded the call to “white” solidarity. There had to be some sense of shared destiny among Nordics, Alpines and even Mediterraneans if the “white race” was to survive the “white civil war” of World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution’s challenge to European capitalism and civilization, and the insistent demands of colonized “colored” peoples for independence and equality. Note the similarity between this reasoning and colonial America’s need to create a sense of European solidarity against slaves and Indians.
The treatment of race in the sciences underwent fundamental changes in the years between the eugenic triumph of 1924 and the post-World War II period. Social scientists such as Ashley Montagu, Ruth Benedict and Julian Huxley proclaimed “race” and “racial purity” to be myths. However, there was a double standard that is still inherent in American “racial” liberalism that Jacobson could have given more emphasis. Concepts such as the “Aryan race” or the idea that Jews, Mediterraneans, Germans, etc. constituted different races was denounced in forceful, moral terms. Students were told to NOT see those groups as “races.” If they did, then their own moral blindness and intellectual stupidity were at fault. At the same time, they were told that the “purity” of the “white race” was false and that it was nonsensical to describe someone with a small amount of “black” ancestry as “Negro.” However, scholars would simply blame “society” for those beliefs and encouraged their students to use those myths as if they were true. We still see their handiwork. If you accuse a “liberal” scholar of putting the “African American” label on any person he suspects of “black blood,” regardless of how they saw themselves or how they were accepted within their own communities, he will smile condescendingly and say some version of, “Of course, I know better, but society…” However, if a student uses “Aryan” as a racial term or refers to Germans, Jews, Italians, etc. as “races,” he will go to great pains to correct the student as an individual. If the student persists, social and academic censure will follow. In other words, academia takes responsibility for making sure that the “hierarchy of white races” does not resurface. In the case of forced hypodescent, however, they blame “society” and pretend to be helpless.
Jacobson shows that the most liberal scholars of “race relations” de-legitimized the old hierarchy of “white” races in order to replace it with the equally unscientific myth of “three great races” or “divisions of mankind” – the Caucasian, Negroid and Mongoloid” (sometimes adding the Australoid, or Australian aboriginal). They took pains to take their “knowledge” to elementary and high schools, instructing teachers throughout the nation to emphasize the idea of one unified “Caucasian” race when before there were Irish, Jewish, Slavic, etc. “races.” Imagine what could happen if they took the same pains to denounce forced hypodescent and “white racial purity” with the same fervor they used to intellectually destroy the “Aryan race.”
The intellectual reworking of “race” reached its zenith in The Race Concept (1950, 1952), a series of statements hammered out by the world scientific community under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Again, it promoted contradictions. The human race is characterized by an “essential and undeniable unity,” yet there are “three great races” (Caucasian, Negroid, and Mongoloid). Much of this work is devoted to attacking the doctrine of the “Aryan” race, especially the traditional belief that Jews are a “race.” The method for doing this was to emphasis the “whiteness” of Jews and free them from the implied stigma of Asiatic or other non-white descent. The genocide suffered by European Jews was the moral foundation upon which the denunciation of the concept of Jews as “non-Aryan” or “non-white” was promoted as the moral responsibility of both institutions and individuals. Notice that, if you use the terms, “Jewish race,” or “Aryan race,” most people (especially if they’re educated) will take individual responsibility for correcting you. They rarely feel such responsibility for correcting those who espouse the “one drop” myth – probably because the people who are the official arbiters of what is and is not “racist” (“black” and “white liberal” elites) support it.
Among the self-conscious popularizations of this new, post-Nazi racial economy of “difference” was a public exhibit entitled “Races of Mankind” based on Ruth Benedict’s pamphlet of the same name. It was developed by the Cranbrook Institute of Science in 1943 and purchased by the American Missionary Association as a traveling show for use by any group “seeking o promote interracial understanding and goodwill through the medium of education.” The main points of the exhibit were: 1) Nationalities are not races; (2) Jews are not a race; (3) There is no “Aryan” race; (4) the “Negro” is racially mixed (as opposed to that former “mongrel” the Mexican or other Hispanics); (5) There are three great “races” of mankind – white, black and yellow; (6) the “Caucasian” race has darker (West Asiatic) and lighter (European) branches. This was a conscious effort to expand the “white race” even further – to include Turks, Central Asians, Middle Eastern and North African peoples under the “Caucasian” umbrella. We still see this today in affirmative action forms that define “white” for us. The stigmatization of racial mixture as “Negro” is still with us. When many “white” mainstream newspapers editorialized against the “multiracial” census category, the repeated refrain was that all “blacks” are racially mixed (implying that “whites” are “pure” with Hispanics and their thoroughly mixed racial ancestry conveniently disappearing).
THE DAWNING CIVIL RIGHTS ERA
THE ROLE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY IN CREATING THE WHITE/BLACK DYAD
The American Communist Party, throughout the 20th century, was heavily involved in civil rights work. Indeed, only people on the far Left felt really free to openly advocate complete racial equality. However, the CP, true to its Stalinist heritage, often undermined its own work by trying to make reality fit ideology.
The Sixth World Congress of the Comintern in 1928 adopted a “Black Belt Thesis” on “Negro national rights” that portrayed the problem of a despised caste as one of a “nation” with its own stable language, homeland and economic life similar to the national homelands that made up the Soviet Union. This was nonsense, of course, but the American Community Party (CP) used the fact that “Negroes” outnumbered “whites” within a “black belt” area of the South to invent the notion of a “Negro nation” with territorial rights and cultural consistency. The CP did not concern itself with minor details such as the “ethnic cleansing” that would be involved in creating this “black nation” and the fact that many people claimed against their will by “Negroes” did not want to be part of any separate nation. This notion has also been embraced in various forms by Trotskyists, Maoists, etc. I would also add that, if you believe a people to be a “nation,” then you are conceding authority to them over individuals within that “nation.” The CP legacy in American liberalism does seem to encourage the idea that a stigma (the “one drop” myth, for example) is really a valid or “national” identity. During the 1970s, this idea of a national “homeland” was extended to Chicanos in order to please the more militant activists.
As the CP pushed the fight against racial discrimination to the top of its political agenda, it also bullied its European-origin members to think of themselves simply as “white workers” – people with no separate “national” rights who suffered no discrimination except that common to the working class. There would be no Jews, Finns, Slavs, etc. but only a monolithic band of “white” workers “united” in struggle with their “Negro” counterparts. The CP was the major influence on the Left in legitimizing the binary system of “race” in the U.S. Its definition of “nations” and “minorities” set “Negroes” on a plane of society far removed from any other group in American society.
Part of the CP doctrine of a “Negro nation” was its insistence that other groups did not qualify as “nations” or “minorities” because they “are gradually being amalgamated with American people into the melting pot from which has emerged the American nation.” I wish to add here that it is no wonder the CP supported the “one drop” myth. To admit that the mixed-race or even “white” descendants of “Negroes” were NOT “Negro,” would be a denial of its absurd definition of a “nation.”
THE WHITE/BLACK DYAD BECOMES THE CENTRAL TENET OF “LIBERAL” THOUGHT
Jacobson’s view that the white/black dyad makes all peoples defined as neither “black” nor “white” invisible mirrors my own research, only I would have added multiracial to the groups he cites: While bigots like Senator John Rankin were railing against the “Kikes” who were trying to “mongrelize the nation,” the weight of American culture was steadily and inexorably reducing the polity to a simple dyad of black and white – a scheme in which the former white races vanished into whiteness, and in which, so far as public discussion went, American Indians, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, and Mexican and Asian immigrants and their children vanished altogether. By the civil rights era library shelves were filling up with books bearing titles like:
White and Black: Test of a Nation; Crisis in Black and White; Confrontation: Black and White; Black Families in White America; Race Riots in Black and White; Black and White: A Study of U.S. Racial Attitudes Today; Black Children, White Dreams; Beyond Black and White; Assertive Black, Puzzled White; Black and White Self Esteem; and White Justice, Black Experience.
I would say that this deluge of books with black/white themes was sending a clear message: that Americans come in only two “races” – “white” and “black.” Who are those people who don’t look white or black? Must be foreigners. It’s no wonder that Hispanics and Asian-Americans constantly complain about being assaulted with questions such as “What country are you from?” or “Do you speak English?” Native Anglo multiracials are puzzled as to why they are often assumed to be “foreign.” The answer is clear. Pick up any newspaper and see articles with phrases such as “all Americans, both white and black,” or “Americans of both races.” If you’re sick of being a “foreigner,” end the black/white dichotomy!
Jacobson gives credit to Carey McWilliams, an architect of the “nation of nations” tradition in American social thought, for his refusal to lose sight of the overall complexity of the American mosaic and for his refusal to make “race” identical with “the Negro” in American political life. Unlike Gunnar Myrdal and other social scientists, who would effectively expel from consideration those pegged neither as “white” nor as “black,” McWilliams wrote about the plight of American Indians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Japanese and Chinese in Brothers under the Skin (1942). However, even McWilliams could not overcome the doctrine that “color” was the central division of American life:
But even so, “color” and the “Color line” had become for McWilliams the primary organizer in thinking about American diversity. Indeed, if he carefully eschewed the simplicity of black-and-white, he did depict the political landscape in a binary of color/not color that consolidated whiteness itself.
After the Civil Rights movement opened up much of “white” society by securing laws against “racial” discrimination, some of the “forgotten” neither “white” nor “black” ethnic groups began to make themselves heard and couldn’t be ignored – the various Latino and Asian groups as well as American Indians. The Left was therefore forced to change its cherish dyad of “white” versus “black” for one of “whites” versus “people of color.” These terms all make about as much sense as “Aryan” and “non-Aryan.”
Unfortunately the Left is still wedded to the white/black dichotomy. A new example is Noel Ignatiev’s “New Abolitionist” movement and its journal Race Traitor. He dismisses the importance of “other races” and views “whites” as a monolithic army against “blacks,” from whose ranks some “whites” will gallantly defect and turn “traitor.” His views are similar to those of the far Right in that he believes that “race treason” is possible. Like too many leftists, he tries to put a “positive” spin on a racist concept.
When you read Jacobson’s history, you can see why liberals and leftists tended to oppose the Multiracial Movement. Without monolithic “blackness,” there can be no monolithic “whiteness.” If the movement succeeds, “white” liberals and leftists become less “white.” Ethnic “minorities” such as Latinos, Arabs, etc. also stand to lose some of the “whiteness” they have claimed via their unacknowledged interracial ancestry.
We must be aware of the history of this “racial alchemy” and not hesitate to use it to fight the liberal and left-wing devotion to “white purity” and hypodescent. Even more so, we must be cognizant of the fact that “racial” categories have never arisen from some common will of the people, but from the machinations of elites who seek to divide the population in ways that serve their own political and economic needs. They have both created and eliminated “races” according to THEIR needs, not ours. We must also take advantage of what freedom is left in this country and remember that we are still citizens with the right to speak out, not helpless victims of hypodescent. The knowledge and research provided by scholars such as Matthew Frye Jacobson, Lawrence R. Tenzer and others are ideological weapons in our hands. Will we have the courage to use them?