Are Caucasians made or born?

Whiteness of a Different Color

November 26, 1999

Matthew Frye Jacobson is a professor of American studies at Yale. His analysis of the European immigrant experience, American racial classifications and "their fluidity over time" is a valuable addition to the flourishing genre of "whiteness studies" in the fields of labour and working-class history, represented by such books as Theodore Allen's Invention of the White Race and David Roediger's Wages of Whiteness .

Jacobson's central contentions are that "economics alone" fails to explain why "native elites again and again tried to deny peoples like Celts (and Jews and Armenians and Italians and Slavs) a full share in whiteness itself"; that "Caucasians are made and not born"; and that "white privilege in various forms has been a constant in American political culture since colonial times". Moreover, "whiteness itself has been subject to all kinds of contests and has gone through a series of historical vicissitudes". Racial categories and perceptions, Jacobson argues, are cultural and political fabrications, reflections of power relationships in a society that has periodically needed to construct (and reconstruct) an "American" and a "white" identity out of an increasingly polyglot European immigrant population.

His sources are impressive in their variety - court records of naturalisation and miscegenation cases, novels and travel literature, political speeches and pamphlets, cartoons and engravings, press coverage of such episodes as the New York City draft riots of 1963 and the Leo Frank lynching in Atlanta in 1915, films and TV series. Together they illustrate and support the contention that "race is a palimpsest, a tablet... whose inscriptions can never be regarded as final". Thus Al Jolson's blackface performance in The Jazz Singer (19) appropriated "blackness to constitute Jews' whiteness", George Schuyler's novel Black No More (1931) satirised "established notions of immutable races", while Laura Z. Hobson's novel Gentleman's Agreement (1947) - better known as a Hollywood movie starring Gregory Peck - "revised racial Jewishness by demonstrating the interchangeability of Jews and non-Jews, but... surrendered to its own rejected notions of stable, immutable, Jewish racial identity".

Jacobson's thesis concerning the fluidity of racial categories is supported by the historical record. The first (and surprisingly inclusive) United States naturalisation law of 1790 "limited" naturalised citizenship to all "free white persons" who were deemed fit for "self-government". But this definition was to become "increasingly untenable" with the arrival of vast numbers of Irish and Italian immigrant labourers in the 1840s who were perceived as being decidedly unfit for self-government. The colonial conception/perception of a monolithic whiteness now began to fracture "into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically white races" with "Caucasian" pitted against such "white Other" designations as "Alpine", "Anglo-Saxon," "Celt", "Hebrew", "Mediterranean" and "Slav". During the civil war, The New York Tribune characterised the Irish who were resisting induction into the Union forces as a "pack of savages". Public opinion endorsed the lynching of 11 Italian prisoners in New Orleans in 1891, and the lynching of the Jewish "outsider" Leo Frank by a mob in Atlanta in 1915. Again, such political events as Mexican annexation, the Emancipation Proclamation, Indian wars, Asian immigration (and exclusion), and the panoply of Jim Crow laws and customs in the post-civil war South "kept whiteness in the American consciousness".

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the "Negro question" came to dominate American political discourse and contributed to the reconfiguration of racial perceptions. In 1938, the Slovenian writer Louis Adamic opined that his fellow countrymen "don't think much of the Croatians and vice versa. Many of the Czechs do not like the Slovaks. Few Germans think anything of the Slavs. Most of the non-Jewish groups are more or less anti-Semitic. The Jews scorn the Hunkies, but have this in common with them: they both stick up their noses at the Negro." Yet as Jacobson observes, largely as a consequence of the race issue, Jews - along with other European immigrant groups - "gradually became Caucasians" during the 20th century.

The great migration(s) of African-Americans from the South during the two world wars, protests against segregation and discrimination in the US armed forces, and the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s contributed "to the reforging of an undifferentiated racial whiteness" and the reconfiguration of race "along a strict binary line of white and black". Amplifying this crucial observation, Jacobson asserts that the civil rights struggle "quietly but decisively ratified the racial logic of white-over-colour, helping so many immigrant Hebrews, Letts, Celts, and Mediterraneans to become the Caucasians of our modern-day visual and conceptual lexicon". In 1968 the Kerner Commission on "civil disorders" (a euphemism for the successive summers of race riots in America's inner cities) reported soberly that the country consisted of "two societies - one white, one black, separate and unequal". Jacobson says that "this understanding of the nation's racial make-up had long become part of popular consciousness".

He also notes the contemporary "revival and denial of white privilege" in the US, and concludes with the hope that "in recognising the historical fabrication, the changeability, and the contingencies of whiteness, we might begin to look in a new way upon race, the power relations it generates, and the social havoc it wreaks".

Whiteness of a Different Color is a subtle and sensitive exegesis and deconstruction of the immigrant experience in American culture. Its most insightful chapter, "Looking Jewish, seeing Jews", includes a critique of Arthur Miller's second novel, Focus (1945), aptly described as "perhaps the most thoroughgoing meditation ever produced on the questions of American justice and Jewish racial difference". Unfortunately, much of Jacobson's writing is less than concise, frequently convoluted and sometimes repetitious, making an already complex topic even more difficult to penetrate. Fortunately, a carefully chosen selection of illustrations - illuminating and grotesque in their stereotypical representations of Celts,Jews, Italians and African-Americans - conveys the lunacies and "contingencies of whiteness" more graphically than some of the overblown prose in this difficult and disturbing, but ultimately rewarding study.

John White is reader in American history, University of Hull.

Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race

Author - Matthew Frye Jacobson
ISBN - 0 674 06371 6
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 338

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