Monday, January 24, 2011

Comic Revelation

"It's a Big Club... and You Ain't In It!" 
US Capitalism Laid Bare by the Late George Carlin

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Racist Incarceration of Our Youth 
is as Old as Jim Crow

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Constructing Whiteness
by Judy Helfand

If I say "I am white," most people in the U.S. would think, "That's obvious, of course you are." But the obviousness of my being white has been shaped by a history of cultural beliefs and practices and social, legal, and economic policies.

My Jewish immigrant ancestors of 100 years ago were seen as white by the immigration and naturalization service in the U.S., enabling them to come here and become citizens. But my Pennsylvania Dutch and English ancestors, who were already here, probably saw my Russian Jewish ancestors as Jews, not white.

As did my Jewish grandparents themselves, who lived and struggled in Jewish ghettos, not in "white" neighborhoods. I am using this simple example to show that how and when we place someone in the category "white" and the consequences of being in that category --or being excluded from it--is a complex historical story, one I refer to as the history of the social construction of whiteness.

In this paper, I hope to show that whiteness consists of a body of knowledge, ideologies, norms, and particular practices that have been constructed over the history of the American colonies and the U.S. with roots in European history as well. The knowledge, ideologies, norms, and practices of whiteness affect how we think about race, what we see when we look at certain physical features, how we build our own racial identities, how we operate in the world, and what we "know" about our place in it. Whiteness is shaped and maintained by the full array of social institutions--legal, economic, political, educational, religious, and cultural.

As individuals and in groups, affected by whiteness, we in turn influence and shape these institutions. Thus, whiteness is constantly evolving in response to social forces and the constellation of people who are seen as white may change over time.

According to Theodore Allen, the knowledge, ideologies, norms, and practices of whiteness and the accompanying "white race" were invented in the U.S. as part of a system of racial oppression designed to solve a particular problem in colonial Virginia. Prior to that time, although Europeans recognized differences in the color of human skin, they did not categorize themselves as white. I will provide more detail later. For now, the important element of his theory is that whiteness serves to preserve the position of a ruling white elite who benefit economically from the labor of other white people and people of color. Whiteness, as knowledge, ideology, norms, and practices, determines who qualifies as "white" and maintains a race and class hierarchy in which the group of people who qualify as white disproportionately control power and resources, and within that group of white people, a small minority of elite control most of the group's power and resources.

Not all studies of whiteness describe it as a system designed to economically benefit a small elite, but most agree that racial oppression is a key element in whiteness and that, as a group, white people do benefit disproportionally from the race and class hierarchy maintained by whiteness.

As individuals in the U.S., we are generally assigned a racial identity at birth based on our appearance or on the race assigned to our parents. Growing up, regardless of our assigned race, we are shaped by the knowledge, ideologies, norms, and practices of whiteness, which affect our self identity. In most cases, a casual observation is sufficient for an observer to see us as members of our assigned racial group. Those of us with light colored skin and certain European features, are seen as white.

But some of us who are seen as white, through reflection on the nature of whiteness, may have decided that, given the current meaning ascribed to the racial category "white" and the unfair benefits we receive as members of the white group, we don't want to identify as white. This may take many forms, including both the desire to structure a new positive identity as white and the desire to eliminate racial categories altogether. In any case, there is a tension between (1) our self identity and our way of operating in the world and the ways in which we are seen by others and (2) the ways in which they expect us to operate.

Much recent writing on this topic attests to and explores this tension, and throughout the history of the U.S. there have been white people who have engaged in similar resistence to accepting their racial category, although perhaps within different conceptual frameworks.

Well documented is the resistence of many of those categorized as people of color to accepting the meaning ascribed to their assigned racial categories. These tensions, this cumulative resistence to whiteness, has an impact on the ideological, institutional, and social interactional construct of whiteness at any moment in history.

However, within the confines of this paper, the focus will be on dominant forces working to construct whiteness, with scant attention to oppositional or divergent forces. This is, certainly, a failing in the approach which, without fully examining the complex interaction of ideas and practices in play at any moment in history, provides only an outcome-oriented picture of the social construction of whiteness.

Also, this paper does not provide a complete history of the social construction of whiteness, even on this one dimensional level. Instead, the paper examines some historical events to provide examples of whiteness being constructed. The early history of Virginia Colony provides the foundational example, illustrating through laws passed by the colonial assemblies how the knowledge, ideology, norms, and practices that comprise whiteness evolved in response to the social, economic, and political situation in that colony and ultimately resulted in the creation of a white race.

The history of immigration and naturalization policy illustrate how the white race created in Virginia Colony was maintained despite the entrance of people previously unclassified as to their status as white.

A look at who became land owners in the conquered territories to the west after the Civil War provides an example of how institutional and cultural forces reflecting the knowledge, ideology, norms, and practices of whiteness contributed to a system in which white people profited over people of color; postwar suburbanization provides another.

Labor history has provided numerous examples of the construction of whiteness and this paper uses the example of the Irish entering the workforce during the 1800s. Also in the field of labor history, the Social Security Act, the Labor Relations Act, and the GI Bill reveal how whiteness is constructed and maintained, and white people benefit, through apparently neutral government policies and institutions.

European Historical Basis for Whiteness

Prior to the establishment of colonial Virginia, Europeans already had a history of viewing non-European people as different and inferior, even questioning their humanity. The institution of slavery for African captives was established in the Caribbean, and Spain purchased African bond laborers to work alongside or replace the Indians they enslaved in South and Central America with conquest.

The slave trade was an increasingly lucrative business for European nations during the seventeenth century and became a booming business for England in the eighteenth. Some researchers argue that European culture produced people who needed an Other, a class of people who were inferior and incorporated qualities rejected or even demonized by European culture, in which case, Europeans would be predisposed to the development and acceptance of a system of white racial privilege.

These are all interesting and important issues.

Most likely, European cultural themes, European thought patterns and psychological needs, and historical models of slavery all contributed to the construction of whiteness, a system designed for the specific conditions of colonial Virginia, and easily adapted by other colonies in the U.S.

In fact, the system was so well digested that by the time of the U.S. Constitution, most of those engaged in drafting and enacting it saw no internal conflict in adapting a document based on liberty, equality, and the rights of men that excluded African American lifetime bond laborers from those inalienable rights. Liberty was, within whiteness, reserved for white people.

Virginia Colony and the Foundation for Whiteness

It is possible to trace the opening moves in the construction of whiteness by reviewing laws passed in colonial Virginia against the background of the corresponding economic climate. Virginia colony was established as an English business venture. The investors planned to profit through exploitation of the resources of the new world, which were expected to be such items as furs, wood, and metal ore.

The first colonists were light-skinned people from England and consisted of some investors and a larger number of laborers. Many of the laborers arrived as limited-term bond laborers who were under contract to work for a specified number of years for a master. They were fed and housed by the master, but received no pay until their term was over, at which time they expected to be rewarded for their labors through grants of land and a small settlement of money and material goods. After a miserable beginning, in which starvation and war with the native inhabitants figured prominently (and the investors received none of the profits they had hoped for), the colonists began to grow tobacco to export to England.

Tobacco proved profitable initially, the market seemed unlimited, and everyone in Virginia turned to growing as much tobacco as possible. Tobacco is a labor intensive crop and as the demand for workers increased, more and more bond laborers were sent over from England. The early survival rates were low. Few workers survived even10 years, which added to the need for labor.

By the 1620s, dark-skinned African bond laborers from the Caribbean colonies were also arriving in Virginia. These workers were not necessarily lifetime bond laborers and early historical documents seem to indicate that little distinction was made between African descent (dark skinned) and European descent (light skinned) bond laborers.

As more bond laborers survived their tenure, the number of freemen increased. However, through a combination of factors, starting in the 1660s, land ownership evolved into increasingly large plantations for a smaller number of rich men. Many freemen lost their small holdings, or never received any, and were reduced to being tenant farmers or unemployed wanderers. They became increasingly discontent with the distribution of land and wealth in Virginia and resistence surfaced, most notably in the famous Bacon's Rebellion of 1673. Bond laborers both joined in and initiated their own resistence, protesting their current situation and their future prospects.

So by the late 1660s, around the time when Virginia began to enact laws distinguishing between European and African bond laborers, the large landowners had become an elite group faced with an increasingly unruly populace of mostly European small land holders and artisans, freemen without land, again mostly European, and bond laborers, of whom one quarter were African descent. These large landowners required a large workforce to grow, harvest, and cure the tobacco which remained the basis of the Virginia economy.

Faced with the problem of how to maintain social control, the small ruling elite searched for a way to defuse the potential for rebellion insofar as possible and to create a class that would support the elite and help suppress rebellion should it occur. To accomplish this they began to create a system of racial oppression that would divide the laborers into Black and white, with special privileges for the white. Further, "[b]y a system of acts, the [Virginia] assembly did what it would to foster the contempt of white for blacks and Indians."

One approach to dividing the bond laborers was to set different terms for servitude. During the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the plantation owners continued to import bond labor. Around 24,000 European bond laborers and 6,000 African bond laborers entered Virginia during that period, but they entered under different conditions. In 1660 customary terms were shorter for bond laborers from "Christian nations."

Since no African nations were Christian, this meant that African bond laborers served longer terms than most European bond laborers. In 1670 non-Christian bond laborers brought by sea were to serve their lifetime and by 1680 laws essentially ruled that all bond laborers of African descent were to serve as lifetime bond laborers.

No Christians could be enslaved in this way. The laws were later adjusted to ensure that no African American bond laborers would escape lifetime servitude through converting to Christianity.

By the end of the seventeenth century, England had entered the slave trade and few Europeans were entering Virginia as bond laborers, while Africans arrived as lifetime bond laborers in increasing numbers.

Another approach to dividing the laboring classes was to prevent the ties of marriage and family in specific instances. At first the laws distinguished between bond and free status and appeared to be enacted in the interests of securing for the owner the labor of children who were born to bond laborers, which became increasingly important as lifetime bonds became more common and bondedness became hereditary. For example, a 1662 law stated that the free or bond status of a child would be figured according to the status of the mother, in complete contradiction of English common law.
A 1664 law from Maryland that decreed that a free woman had to take the status of her bond husband, must have served as a strong deterrent to mixed marriages where the woman was free. But apparently mixed marriages persisted, among both free and bond women and men of all ethnicities. Later laws set out to specifically prevent relationships between those of European descent and those of African descent or Indians.

In 1691 a law was enacted for the "prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue" due to intermarriage of Black, mulatto, or Indian men with "English or other white women." A white who married a Black, mulatto, or Indian would be banished, while the child of a free white woman and a Black man of any status would have to spend 30 years in servitude.

A system of racial oppression was emerging, one which depended on a distinction between white and black (or Indian) and was designed to prevent freemen working as tenant farmers and bond laborers from making common cause against the ruling elite, as had happened in Bacon's rebellion. Ties of family or the existence of children with indeterminate status as to whether they were white or black would have impeded the workings of the system of racial oppression. Note the use of "white" in these laws. Increasingly, "white" replaced "Christian" or "free" in laws regulating both bond and free men and women. This also indicates the emerging system of racial oppression, in which an unchanging quality determines ones social position, unlike a system in which, at least among the poor and working classes, one might pass from free to bond labor and back to free or might convert to Christianity.

Other laws aimed at dividing whites and Blacks by specifying special privileges to whites or denying Blacks rights they had previously held. For example, in 1670 a law forbid free Blacks from importing bond labor, a severe restriction for a small land holder needing labor to work the land. A 1705 law decreed that the livestock of African American bond laborers was to be confiscated and given to poor white freemen, while white bond laborers could continue to raise livestock. In 1723 the Virginia Assembly passed a law denying the right to vote to free African-Americans with property. Earlier laws had already prohibited free African Americans from holding public office or witnessing against a white person. Free African Americans were prohibited from lifting a hand against a "Christian, not being a negro, mulatto or Indian.

This and similar laws legislated different social status for whites and Blacks of the same economic status. Thus, over the course of fifty years, in colonial Virginia, the system of white privilege emerged that has lasted to this day. Allen summarizes:

The exclusion of free African-Americans from the intermediate stratum was a corollary of the establishment of "white" identity as a mark of social status. If the mere presumption of liberty was to serve as a mark of social status for masses of European-Americans without real prospects of upward social mobility, and yet induce them to abandon their opposition to the plantocracy and enlist them actively, or at least passively, in keeping down the Negro bond-laborers with whom they had made common cause in the course of Bacon's Rebellion, the presumption of liberty had to be denied to free African-Americans.

As the numbers of African American lifetime bond laborers increased and the percentage of free European American laborers rose, the white small land holders and tenant farmers were drafted into white militia, organized to prevent African American insurrections. Systems of rewards encouraged whites to turn in any runaways. Although whites remained impoverished in large numbers, most felt no affinity with the African Americans who suffered under the same system--a system that continued to enrich the ruling elite at the expense of those in the middle and lower classes. By the middle of the eighteenth century, poor European Americans identified as white.

Defining Whiteness Through Immigration Policy
Immigration policy has determined who may enter the U.S. and whether those who enter can become citizens, affecting demographics, influencing who is seen as white, and indirectly providing economic benefits for white people. From the beginning, a major determining factor in who was allowed to become a naturalized citizen has been race. In 1790, the Federal government ruled that the right to become a naturalized citizen was reserved to "free white persons." In 1870, in response to the granting of citizenship to freed Black lifetime bond laborers within the U.S., a new category for those eligible for naturalized citizenship was created--immigrants from Africa or those of African descent.

This category was clearly defined through geography, unlike the ambiguity of the category defined by the phrase "free white persons," a phrase that provided no geographic guidelines regarding a person's place of origin.

Over the years, until racial restrictions were removed in 1952, the court was repeatedly called on to determine who was white as applicants of various ethnic and racial background requested citizenship as "free white persons."

Immigration and naturalization policies were, and continue to be, a significant factor in determining who "looks" white. As Haney Lopez points out, such policies determined who was in the U.S., which in turn determined what genetic stock was available to make up an "American." Laws and social pressures also influenced marriage. Most people are familiar with the anti-miscegenation laws, but there were others that affected marriage as well. For example, until 1931 a woman lost her citizenship if she married a man ineligible for citizenship.

Taken together, segregation, laws restricting and regulating marriages between white people and people of color, and immigration and naturalization policies worked together to determine which physical characteristics went into the mix we see as white. And the original immigration restrictions are reflected in today's assumptions regarding who is an American and who is a "foreigner," a flash decision many of us make on the basis of appearance (Blacks and whites are seen as citizens, others are often not).
Many immigrants, admitted as white, were not initially seen by the general populace as white, for example, Italians. During the mass immigrations of the late 1800s and early 1900s, within the U.S. there was contentious, at times violent, response to the Federal government policies that permitted people from European ethnic groups not typically found in the U.S. to enter.

Many of those already safely within the boundaries of whiteness were not eager to accept newcomers often seen as threatening economically and culturally. Researchers such as Jacobson and Ignatiev provide a fascinating story of the construction of whiteness among competing European ethnic groups during that period, a topic which will be discussed later. This struggle was enacted amidst the turmoil of industrialization and the dissolution of slavery with the ensuing structuring of a new methods for maintaining racial oppression.

The point here is that once those who were judged white for immigration purposes were here, they became citizens and despite possible hostile reception, had the opportunity to gradually adopt the ideologies, norms, and practices of whiteness, to be accepted as white, and to become entitled to the accompanying systemic advantages. Those who applied as white but were judged to be non-white, East Indians, for example, were refused the right to become naturalized citizens, denied the privileges awarded white citizens (voting, for example), and were not given the same chances to be assimilated as white.

Immigration policy is further reflected in ideology that holds white people capable of becoming good citizens who are full participants in a democratic system, and constructs all others as less qualified, as lacking the essential qualities that are required for responsible citizenship. In writing of the import of the court cases which decided who could qualify as white, Haney Lopez writes:

To be [non-white] meant one was unfit for naturalization, while to be [white] defined one as suited for citizenship. This stark division necessarily also carried important connotations regarding, for example, agency, moral authority, intelligence, and belonging. To be unfit for naturalization--that is, to be non-White--implied a certain degeneracy of intellect, morals, self-restraint, and political values; to be suited for citizenship--to be White--suggested moral maturity, self assurance, personal independence, and political sophistication.

Immigration policies also helped construct the economic dimensions of whiteness. Some states, notably California, restricted land ownership to citizens. This meant that Armenian immigrants, for instance, who had been ruled white in 1909, could purchase land, begin farming, and establish themselves as stable members of the local farming community. Japanese immigrants, as non-citizens, were denied the right to purchase land, which meant they worked as farm laborers or tenant farmers, postponing the possibility of farm ownership until the next generation, by which time they were already seen as poor migrants or marginal members of the community.
In the 19th Century US, Chinese workers were often massacred by white workers in their mad rush for land and gold prospects

The history of the Chinese in the western U.S. also provides examples of how whiteness works to economically advantage white people. Chinese workers, mostly men, were admitted to the U.S. during the mid and late1800s to perform the hard manual labor required in setting up the infrastructure needed for the U.S. expansion. Chinese built railways, controlled and damned rivers, drained marshes, and cleared land. Some Chinese workers desired to stay in the U.S. and become U.S. citizens. However, Federal courts ruled, in two separate cases, that Chinese were not white. Later, as the need for workers decreased, barred from citizenship and buying land, many still attempted to remain, settling down as merchants or service providers with plans for bringing their wives from China and building family and community in the U.S. But an economic recession interceded.

Lawmakers warned "that the presence of an 'industrial army of Asiatic laborers' was exacerbating class conflict between labor and capital within white society." Faced with social unrest, the ruling elite moved to assure white workers that they would retain the privileges associated with being white. With the Chinese laborers no longer needed for capitalist expansion, the government rewrote immigration policy to exclude Chinese people entirely. Without the possibility of a next generation of native born citizens and denied the right of naturalized citizenship, the Chinese community was excluded from political participation and restricted in their economic and social participation in the U.S. Again, the boundaries of whiteness were constructed by exclusion.

Mexican farm workers and service workers have been similarly exploited. Shifting from one side to the other of the whiteness boundary, Mexican Americans have never been fully accepted as white. Today, immigration policy only allows a small number to enter the U.S., either as immigrants or resident aliens. However, because agribusiness, factories, and food and service industries desire and will employ Mexican (and Central and South American) workers, they enter illegally. Popular discourse then constructs these Mexican and Latino undocumented workers as criminal elements, "illegals" who do not belong here.

The strength of this discourse is such that Mexicans and Latinos who are citizens or legal immigrants, but do not "look" white, are often also seen as not belonging.

The current census, with its categories for Hispanic and non-Hispanic white, reveals the ambivalence surrounding Mexican and Latino assimilation as white.

Haney Lopez writes about how immigration laws have given a physical form to the U.S. citizenry.

… the categories of White and non-White became tangible when certain persons were granted citizenship and others were excluded. A "white" citizenry took on physical form, in part because of the demographics of migration, but also because of the laws and cases proscribing non-White naturalization and immigration. The idea of a White country, given ideological and physical effect by law, has provided the basis for contemporary claims regarding the European nature of the United State, where "European" serves as a not-so-subtle synonym for White. In turn, the notion of a White nation is used to justify arguments for restrictive immigration laws designed to preserve this supposed national identity.

The dualism inherent in whiteness is clearly illustrated in the foregoing discussion of immigration policy. There are only two categories that matter--white and non-white. Whiteness is defined by determining who is not white; it is defined as the superior opposite of non-white. Thinking back to colonial Virginia, this is a logical extension of a system which created value in whiteness by associating it with liberty and concurrently denying liberty to those defined as non-white. And, as Haney Lopez demonstrates at length, the court decisions illustrate that whiteness is a socially constructed concept.

Even as many in the scientific community during the nineteenth century struggled to create a scientific basis for a white supremacist system, the task proved impossible. The courts based their decisions on scientific opinion when it suited them and on "common sense" when it did not, determining who could be seen as white and would be allowed to benefit from that categorization.

Building Whiteness with Land and Real Estate
The availability of land, policies affecting the acquiring and retaining of homes, and segregation, whether imposed by law or through other institutions, are central to perpetuating white economic advantage, maintaining ideologies that devalue people of color, and constructing images of white people and how they live in the U.S. This section uses the examples of homesteading and suburbanization to illustrate the complex relationship between property ownership and whiteness. In the most basic way, owning one's home provides a sense of security, one that is reinforced if land suitable for growing crops and raising livestock surrounds it.

That this sense of security is illusionary has been illustrated abundantly throughout U.S. history as people have lost their homes and farms in times of economic hardship. But throughout this same history, even the opportunity to attempt that security has often been a privilege reserved to white people.

Western Expansion and White Land Ownership

The Homestead Act was enacted in 1862 to regulate how the lands taken from the Indian nations that had previously inhabited them would be distributed among the colonizers. Policies hammered out eight years earlier determined who would be eligible to homestead public lands. At that time, anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions fighting over the extension of slavery to new territories had settled on an act that limited the land to citizens or those who intended to become citizens and left the issue of slavery to be decided by the new citizens of the territories. Advocates for equal rights of women managed to have women included as those eligible to be homesteaders. Homesteading thus became a right granted to white people, until after the Civil War when African Americans became citizens. However, at that time, other factors largely prevented them from staking claims in the new territories.

When the Civil War ended, land was an issue of overriding concern to the newly freed African Americans. Promises of forty acres and a mule never materialized and the small amount of land that was distributed by Sherman was later taken back and restored to the plantation owners. Presented with the challenge of restoring a system of racial oppression from which they could benefit economically, defeated Southern planters eventually succeeded in ending and reversing Reconstruction and forcing African Americans back into a form of near slavery--tenant peonage, or sharecropping. Allen, viewing the events through his theory of racial oppression for social control, writes that freedom could no longer serve as a defining characteristic of whiteness, the carrot of the social control strategy.

Accordingly, the Southern bourgeoisie re-established the social control system of racial oppression "based on racial privileges for laboring class 'whites' with regard to 'free' land, immigration, and industrial employment." The privileges of free land and immigration are illustrated through the phenomenon known as the Negro Exodus.

Newly freed African Americans, denied any opportunities to own land in the South, turned to the new territories of Kansas, Indiana, and Illinois. Many thousand immigrated and found places for themselves, although most did not have the financial resources necessary to homestead. The immigration was organized into a movement. At its peak 98,000 African Americans were planning to immigrate. Faced with the loss of their workforce, the Southern planters moved to prevent the exodus. They used a combination of murder, threat, harassment, and denial of passage across the Mississippi.

On the other end, whites prevented the Black immigrants from landing or drove them out of town. Southern whites and other white immigrants moving into the territories were not bothered, demonstrating that it was not a lack of land that prompted the hostility to Black settlers but an aversion to living among Black settlers as equals.

The right of homesteading was to remain a white privilege, enforced through white violence. Northern commercial interests also wanted to retain black labor for the south.

For example, the New York Commercial Bulletin printed "Can the South or the North be benefited by encouraging the migration of that labor upon which our chief commercial crop [cotton] is dependent?" Thus Black Americans remained largely landless, at the mercy of white landlords, and unable to accumulate any economic assets after the end of slavery, as they had been prevented for the preceding 200 years.

As mentioned earlier, although Mexican Americans have at times been granted legally the status of white, this status has never been fully accepted by other white Americans. Thus, the history of Mexican land grants following the Mexican war provides another example of constructing the economic foundations and geographic boundaries of whiteness on exclusion. Even though according to the treaty that ended the war, Mexican land grant titles were to be recognized as valid, Congress never enacted the relevant provisions and white settlers, backed by legal, economic, and government institutions purposefully wrested these lands away from their previously Mexican, now American, owners.

The methods employed included disputing claims and tying things up in court for years, changing the system of taxation such that cattle ranchers with large spreads couldn't afford the taxes, squatting on land and destroying crops, and sometimes outright intimidation to force the owner to leave. Although at the time of the Mexican war, many well-established, even wealthy, Mexican families lived amid a rich culture in the Southwest, a large percentage were forced down into landless poverty by these tactics.

The terrain of whiteness now held "hard working" white European American ranchers assisted by "those with less initiative and suited only to manual labor," the not-white Mexican American ranch hands. Similarly, Mexican Americans who attempted to stake claims in the mining areas of California often found that their claims were not recognized by white miners, who drove them off. Prevented from staking their own claims, Mexican Americans were hired for the back breaking work of excavating white-owned mines in the Southwest.

These examples--the Homestead Act, virtual imprisonment of African Americans within the Southern states, and white monopoly on land ownership in the Southwest--show that many institutional and cultural forces worked together to reserve the right to own land to white people during the westward expansion.

During this period many European Americans and European immigrants were acquiring property in the Western territories and, eventually, the new states. Of course, not all whites homesteaded or bought property, but it could serve as a dream, a possibility. Today we think of "pioneers" as white folks, another part of the ideology of whiteness, which depicts whites as adventuresome, hard working risk-takers, central actors in the expansion of the U.S. The economic assets accrued by those who were able to hold onto their land (a large percentage succumbed to debt and were foreclosed on) must surely have benefited the white community materially as well.

The simplistic picture presented here leaves out many important actors in the construction of whiteness as it relates to landholding during this period. For example, economic policies and institutions such as banks, large industrialists such as the railroads, the promulgation of the Manifest Destiny doctrine, and more. But the broad brush strokes do reveal important features of the landscape.

Urban/Suburban Segregation

Today we inhabit a landscape in which urban and suburban areas figure more prominently than rural areas. Urban areas are commonly understood to contain ghettos where people of color struggle amid crime and poverty while in the suburbs white families raise children in a clean and pleasant setting. This situation is accepted as a reflection of the hard work and conscientious saving of European Americans over the years, enabling them to "make it to the suburbs" leaving behind those who hadn't been able to "get it together." However, as with the previous examples of how white ownership of mid-Western and Western lands was shaped by more than individual initiative, the whiteness of suburbia was no accident. Suburbanization began after W.W. II, partially in response to the post-war housing crisis.

I remember moving to our new home in the San Fernando Valley in 1950 as a five year old. Brand new homes, a brand new elementary school, and a brand new shopping center were surrounded on three sides by dairies, chicken farms, horse ranches, and small semi-rural residences. Everyone in my school was white and Christian. I was the only Jew I knew of in the neighborhood. Not far away was another neighborhood where everything was older, even shabby, and the people were Mexican American.

Of course, I never questioned this racial segregation, and if I had thought about it when I got a little older I probably would have guessed that only those who could "afford" it lived in my neighborhood. But in actuality the racial boundaries were shaped by Federal policies, agencies such as the FHA (Federal Housing Authority) and VA (Veterans Administration), banks, and real estate developers. The FHA and VA were key agencies after the war in making it possible for young, first time buyers to enter the housing market. The FHA also loaned money to builders, to enable them to build large tracts of low-cost housing. Many city dwellers who had previously been unable to buy were able to buy in the suburbs with a lower monthly housing expense than they had had as renters. The massive federal program for highway building provided the roads needed to link the suburbs to the urban centers.

Theoretically, VA loans were available to all GIs and the FHA was intended to assist all first time buyers, but African Americans were seldom able to obtain loans. And even if African Americans had been able to obtain a loan, most suburban developments had restrictive covenants, which meant owners were blocked from selling to people of color, and often Jews as well. As Brodkin describes it:

The FHA believed in racial segregation. Throughout its history, it publicly and actively promoted restrictive covenants. Before the war, these forbade sales to Jews and Catholics as well as to African Americans. . . . FHA underwriting manuals openly insisted on racially homogenous neighborhoods, and their loans were made only in white neighborhoods. . . . With the federal government behind them, virtually all developers refused to sell to African Americans.

Blocked from entering suburbia, why didn't African Americans and others use FHA and VA loans to purchase property in cities? These agencies, as well as most banks, followed a practice called redlining. Neighborhoods were rated according to the risk associated with investing in them. High ratings went to white areas, particularly suburbs or wealthy urban areas. The lowest ratings (red) went to mixed, non-white, or working class neighborhoods or neighborhoods in transition.

This meant that loans were not available for purchasing homes in ethnic, working class neighborhoods. So white middle class and working class people, many of them from ethnic groups not considered fully white before W.W. II, were able to become homeowners and began a process of asset building. Working-class and middle-class people of color were blocked from purchasing homes, either in suburbia or in urban centers. Those who did already own homes in the cities were unable to secure loans for home improvements.

As an additional blow, the Federal government began to implement urban renewal, which tore down entire neighborhoods or separated them with newly constructed freeways, leaving a blasted landscape where those who remained struggled to rebuild community. What had once been working class ethnic neighborhoods were now urban ruins. Brodkin comments "[those left behind] faced an ideological assault that labeled their neighborhoods slums and called them slumdwellers."

Segregation is usually associated with the Jim Crow South, but as the previous examples illustrate, segregation has been created throughout the U.S. as the outcome of a variety of factors--homestead acts, terrorism and violence, immigration policies, guidelines followed by mortgage institutions, and real estate development programs such as urban renewal, among others. Segregation constructs whiteness in numerous dimensions. On the level of social interactions, segregation makes it possible for many white people to lives their lives with few interactions of any kind with people of color and often no peer or friendship relationships. This isolation encourages the perpetuation of white supremacist ideologies and continues the invisibility of white cultural and behavioral norms.

Hale argues that segregation developed in the South as a means of removing visible signs of black success as the increasing numbers of educated, middle-class African Americans challenged white Southerners' belief that blacks were suited only to slavery. Not only did white people continue to inhabit the "better" parts of town, but forcing all black people to use inferior facilities meant even uneducated, poor whites could continue to feel superior to educated, well-spoken blacks.

Within whiteness, white people feel entitled to live in safe, clean, well-maintained neighborhoods and believe that such neighborhoods are a reflection of the quality people living in them--white people. (Of course, what white people felt entitled to they didn't necessarily receive.)

Northern segregation has a similar effect. Because of segregation, white people seldom enter middle-class neighborhoods of African-Americans or other people of color. Suburban middle-class and working-class whites may enter, or rather pass through, the urban working class and poor neighborhoods when work or entertainment brings them to the city. The poverty and homelessness they see on the streets can remain the only image they have of non-white neighborhoods, an image reinforced by the media. As adults, many white people attest to the enormous impact of their first views of people of color, as poverty stricken figures amidst urban blight, a view sometimes provided by parents who drove them to the slums in order to show them how "those people live." And much as immigration affected what white "looks like" by affecting who those already defined as white were able or likely to produce children with, so segregation clearly defines who is white and makes it less likely for borders to be crossed. Haney Lopez writes that the segregation laws increased the stability of racial categories by fixing mutable racial lines in terms of relatively immutable boundaries.

Those geographic boundaries drawn around various ethnic, racial, and economic classes as a result of economic and government policies also have an economic impact on the construction of whiteness. As discussed earlier in regard to the post-W.W. II era, whites had the benefit of policies which facilitated home ownership. They were assisted in buying a home in white suburbs and beginning the on-going process of accumulating assets. They also benefited from the superior services such as schools, recreation centers, and cultural facilities associated with stable, white suburban neighborhoods. People of color, especially African Americans, who managed to obtain property, had to buy in mixed neighborhoods or neighborhoods with largely people of color. Property in such neighborhoods is valued below property in all white neighborhoods; or, to put it another way, white neighborhoods are valued more by economic institutions, real estate agencies, and certainly by white homebuyers. 
So property of most people of color does not appreciate at the same rates as that purchased by white people in white neighborhoods and, if purchased in a changing neighborhood, may depreciate in value if more white people move out. In this way, whiteness is socially constructed to economically benefit white people. 
Today "white flight" and suburbanization continue, but gentrification is another factor in establishing neighborhood demographics. How are the economic, social, and political forces behind gentrification constructing whiteness in the twenty first century? This is a question that deserves to be studied.

Whiteness Enforced and Revealed in the Labor Arena

Beginning in colonial Virginia, the primary benefits to being white were found in the labor arena. The desire for economically rewarding work has often been the enticement held out to white people to forge their acceptance and support of a system of racial oppression. This section exposes these issues through the example of the Irish immigrants assimilation into the workforce and a consideration of prominent U.S. labor and welfare policies.

Defining a White Man Through His Work
Many researchers have studied labor history as a means of understanding both the construction of whiteness and how whiteness, in maintaining a system of racial oppression, shapes the struggles of working people. The privileges and economic benefits of whiteness are frequently offered in the labor arena, benefits which on closer inspection often reveal how a small wealthy elite uses whiteness to maintain its position.

Early in the eighteenth century, in the process of creating a system of racial oppression the Southern colonies began to pass laws securing certain job-related privileges to white workers simply for being white. Such laws, for example, required that plantations using Black lifetime bond laborers employ at least a minimum percentage of "white persons," barred Black workers from certain types of employment, and regulated apprenticeship such that, with some exceptions, only white workers learned skilled trades. By the middle of the eighteenth century, white workers were claiming these privileges for themselves. "The efforts of White artisans to keep free Negros and slaves from entering the skilled trades" radiated from Charleston "to every sizable town on the Atlantic coast." Within the system of racial oppression being established in the U.S. white workers were encouraged to blame enslaved and working class African Americans, not wealthy planters and merchants, for lack of employment or depressed wages, a pattern repeated throughout American history. In addition, within this system white workers understood certain trades to be reserved for them alone, and that they were entitled to the work.

The masses of immigrants from Europe who entered the U.S. in a wave beginning in the early 1800s and cresting at the end of the century entered a system in which being white entitled one to certain work-related benefits. The industrial revolution was transforming the U.S. during the nineteenth century, requiring manual labor to create the infrastructure of canals and railroads; load, unload, and move cargo, and perform a variety of unskilled tasks. This type of labor, typically seen by whites as work suited to Black lifetime bond laborers or Chinese wage laborers, was often undertaken by new immigrants. Immigrants also moved into the new factory positions, filling the textile mills of the Northeast. Many native white male workers looked down on this as waged labor and on the people who took the factory jobs. A high percentage of native white male workers left industrializing areas and moved on west, working in livestock, lumbering, or farming. Brodkin writes that the European immigrants who "took their places as the masses of 'unskilled' and residentially ghettoized industrial workers … found that they were being classified as members of specific and inferior European races, and for almost half a century, they were treated as racially not-quite-white."

In How the Irish Became White, Ignatiev details the construction of whiteness for one ethnic group from the early 1800s through the Civil War. Early immigrant Irish men entered the workforce as laborers, working on the canals and railroads and taking on dangerous work "white workers" wouldn't take. With the flood of immigration beginning with the Irish Famine (1845), the Irish began to move into work traditionally performed by free blacks--industrial and service occupation such as longshoring, coachmen, housemaids, waiters in restaurants. They got a start by undercutting the African American workers' wages. By the 1850s Irish had made major inroads into these occupations. The lower wages may have been a start but doesn't fully explain how, by the 1860s, Irish controlled, for example, drayage and longshore work in New York City. They also had a firm place in trade unions, for example, the boilermakers, masons, stone cutters, bricklayers, printers, coopers, and more. In Philadelphia they dominated construction trades. Ignatiev argues that the success of these Irish male workers was made possible, in part, through the U.S. system of racial privilege.

The political context for the Irishmen's climb into the skilled trades includes the increasing controversy over slavery. Having lost the support of many Northern merchants and industrialists, the Southern slaveholders recognized the need of obtaining Northern labor support. They enlisted this support through the Democratic party. It was anti-nativist, which attracted the Irish. But together with the party's plank for an open door to immigration came a pro-slavery plank. In support of slavery, the party stirred up fears that freed slaves would mobilize to take over white men's jobs. In 1844, Henry Clay of Virginia gave instructions for the writing of a pamphlet to be used in his campaign for President.

[T]he great aim . . . should be to arouse the [white] laboring classes in the free States against abolition. Depict the consequences to them of immediate abolition; they [emancipated African Americans] being freed would enter into competition with the free labor; with the American, the Irish, the German; reduce his wages; be confounded with him; reduce his moral and social standing. . ."

As the Democratic party began to gain political power, party members were rewarded through labor contracts and employment. Once the Irish had a foothold, gained through political patronage or undercutting wages, they utilized various tactics to drive remaining African American workers off the job and bring in more Irish. For example, continuing the practice begun in colonial times, Irish and other European American workers refused to work with black workers. This was particularly effective in driving skilled black artisans and mechanics out of the trades and during the period from 1830 to the Civil War the socioeconomic position of free blacks deteriorated, in part because of this practice. The Irish also used violence and threats of violence to force African Americans out of the workforce. Ignatiev documents numerous attacks by the Irish on free blacks in Philadelphia. These were orchestrated examples of terrorism in which homes of working and middle class black families were targeted and burned. White violence against African Americans backed up Irish claims to traditionally African American held jobs.

The history of the Irish men finding and fighting their way into the trades illustrates how whiteness creates a world where newcomers see two choices--become white and gain economic benefits or remain not-quite-white, with grim economic prospects and the same social position as degraded Blacks. In fact, the value attached to whiteness becomes reflected in the value attached to specific occupations. As in colonial Virginia, skilled trades were reserved for white workers, so in New York and Philadelphia and Boston in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Irish could increase the value of occupations such as longshoring or masonry by driving out black workers. Ignatiev argues that a white man gets part of his identity from doing "white men's work." White men's work is work that black men don't perform. Brodkin also explores the concept of "white" work in documenting which ethnicities performed various kinds of skilled and unskilled labor during the period from 1880 into the 1920s. "White" workers performed more skilled labor, while non-skilled, hard and dirty work was reserved for non-white workers, including "Hunkies" or "Italians" or other European groups not yet enfolded into whiteness as fully white. In a phenomenon similar to attaching increased value to real estate in all white neighborhoods, jobs held by white people are better paid and provide higher social standing than those performed by people of color or not-yet-white European immigrants. And once a job becomes white man's work, Black workers are driven out.

The construction of whiteness is revealed in studies of working class history because it is the working class, particularly the marginal workers or unskilled workers, who comprise the social control group that Allen theorizes as necessary to any system of racial oppression. This is the group near the bottom of the economic hierarchy that remains allied with the ruling elite through accepting the privileges and benefits they receive from them, privileges and benefits denied to those in the oppressed class--the bottom of the economic hierarchy that performs the most menial and devalued jobs. As the gatekeepers to upward mobility, the white working class is the group that adapts and responds to those demanding admittance. Within the knowledge, ideologies, norms, and practices of whiteness, the advantages to being seen as white are evident, thus providing impetus for immigrants who can to assimilate into the dominant culture and become white. This brief look at some areas of interest in nineteenth century labor history is meant to suggest ways in which whiteness is constructed through the economic forces of waged labor and how, in turn, waged labor is shaped by whiteness, a process which is, of course, far more complex than presented here.

Impact of Government Programs and Policies

Government economic and political policies affecting workers also construct whiteness. The Social Security Act of 1935 is an important example. The act was designed by corporate leaders and experts working in think tanks financed by Rockefeller money and grew out of a need for corporations to control the labor market and make it more efficient. Largely as a concession to Southern plantation capitalists, agricultural workers were excluded from the provisions of the act. This exclusion especially affected people of color, who worked disproportionately as agricultural workers. Brodkin discusses some ideologies invoked in the public arena during the debate surrounding the passage of the Social Security Act and revisions proposed a couple years later. First, wages sufficient to support a family were seen as belonging to men. Despite the fact that many women worked, their contributions necessary to the family, a "successful" man could support his family by himself. But, Brodkin states, "The idea that a man's wage should allow him to support children and a non-wage-earning wife was never meant to apply to nonwhite men." In fact, she sees the whiteness and maleness of white men's work as inseparable. Unskilled factory work or hard manual labor was not seen as manly work but as suited to women or "boys." White men working in the trades, skilled occupations, or in middle-class bureaucratic or management positions, felt entitled to a wage that could support their family, and public discourse and policy reflected this sense of entitlement.

Public programs designed to compensate for the loss of male breadwinners' jobs (and which tacitly acknowledged that the capitalist labor market does not always work as it should) were available in practice to white men only. Thus for much of its history, unemployment insurance excluded from coverage many of the industries, such as agriculture and domestic labor, in which men of color and women have been concentrated."

The National Labors Relations Act of 1935, which affirmed the right of workers to form unions, also exempted agricultural, seasonal, and domestic workers from its provisions. Other provisions of the law encouraged unions to form around trades, not across a given industry. This had the effect of separating the white men in the skilled trades from other workers in a plant or factory, keeping labor divided along race lines and less united in struggles with management. Protective labor laws, designed to prevent abuses of industrial workers, also excluded domestic and agricultural work. In all these cases, economic and political forces combined with dominant racial and gendered beliefs about work to privilege white male workers, reinforcing beliefs about the social importance and value of their jobs and their own entitlement as white men to a living wage. These invisible assets are woven into the stories of white success in which individual hard work pays off, and they remain unacknowledged as white workers blame people of color themselves for their poverty and lack of advancement.

The GI Bill of Rights is another example of an invisible asset of white male workers. Brodkin describes it as "the most massive affirmative action program in history" --one that helped European American men. The bill provided financial support during job searches, small loans for starting up businesses, home loans, and financial assistance for attending colleges and technical schools, including tuition and living expenses. It was enacted at the end of W.W. II when massive numbers of soldiers were returning to the workforce, war production was closing down, and the economic boom that would require increasing numbers of managerial, technical, and clerical workers was just beginning. The bill is particularly associated with college education. 
Eight million GIs, the vast majority of whom were white, took advantage of the educational benefits to attend college after the war. The benefits of the bill were theoretically available to all who served in the armed forces during the war, yet "[t]he military, the Veterans Administration, the U.S. Employment Services (USES), and the Federal Housing Administration effectively denied African American GIs access to their benefits and to the new educational, occupational, and residential opportunities." 
Examples of how these institutions denied educational and occupational benefits African American GIs include the disproportionately high dishonorable discharge rates of Black soldiers serving under white officers (those with a dishonorable discharge did not get any benefits); racism of agency officials who failed to perform their duties; white racist violence against Black servicemen; the overcrowding of Black colleges and the unwillingness of white colleges to accept African Americans; and failure of the USES to refer African Americans to other than unskilled jobs or their failure to pressure employers to hire them as skilled or professional workers. These were among the factors that kept black GIs from benefiting from the opportunities for economic and professional advancement white men benefited from. 
Women, who also served during the war in war industry and in the armed forces, similarly found themselves laid off from well-paid jobs to "make place for men who need work" or denied the benefits of the GI Bill. During the post-war period of prosperity in the 50s and 60s, many white men, including those, such as Jews, who had previously not been considered fully white, were constructed as members of the white middle class--the real-life counterparts to the dominant 50s image of whiteness given in the Dick and Jane readers the newly suburban white families' children grew up on.

Who Gets Blamed in Hard Times

The anti-affirmative action movement of today is an obvious outcome of the policies and ideologies historically shaping whiteness in the labor arena. These policies and ideologies have encouraged white men's belief in their entitlement to work, have constructed certain trades as white men's work, and have created a tendency for workers to see a threat to their employment in non-white people. Today as the policies of increasing globalization remove jobs from the American economy, white men forced out of work or working in lower paid positions, don't look to the corporations as the cause. 
Instead, as the job pool shrinks, the white working class argues that unqualified people of color are taking their jobs. With their privilege to earn a living wage being threatened, white men react by demanding that the privilege be reinforced, not by new government and economic policies that will lead to full employment, but by targeting immigrants and people of color. Without an understanding of how their favored economic standing is a result of a system of racial oppression designed to benefit the capitalist owners, white workers tend to see themselves as individual actors who worked hard to get where they are and to feel they deserve it.

There are many white people who live in poverty, either under employed or unemployed. Yet whiteness keeps them largely invisible to working class and middle class whites. I do not intend to imply that all white workers have benefited equally from the economic advantages whiteness provides in the labor market. However, within whiteness, even those who have received little benefit, often accept the knowledge, ideologies, norms, and practices of whiteness, and then find their failure to succeed a personal failure, accepting their status of white as an indication of their innate worth, which they have not lived up to. As with the previous sections, the examples given here are but a few of many and are presented somewhat one-dimensionally, without the full context of the many cultural, ideological, social, political, and economic forces in play.

Where to Go From Here
I wrote this paper to bring awareness to the complex array of forces that comprise whiteness and that have worked together to create "white" people and then distinguish them from non-white people throughout the course of American history and continuing today. The social construction of whiteness does not proceed along only one front, but is occurring constantly in the social, cultural, economic, political, legal, educational, and economic arena. I have touched on only a few arenas in which whiteness is constructed: land and home ownership and labor within the economic arena, creation of a racial system of social stratification in colonial Virginia and immigration to the U.S. within the legal arena, and all of these as affected by government policies and institutions within the political arena. 
Notably absent from this paper are examples of how whiteness is constructed and maintained within educational institutions, the judicial and penal system, electoral politics and voting, and health care. And even as I refer to these various arenas, using common vocabulary that breaks down our society as a whole into distinct parts, I am aware that nothing ever takes place in one arena only. Legal decisions on immigration that were decided in the courts were affected by what was happening, for example, in the economic, educational, and social spheres as well. Essentially, the few examples I did present were simplified, are intended as an introduction, an encouragement for the reader to continue reading and thinking.

There is certainly no one "right" interpretation of how whiteness is constructed.. What remains undeniable is the inequitable distribution of wealth and income, and the inequitable distribution of power, defined as the ability to influence outcome. The distribution is inequitable in regard to race, and also within the "white" category (and other racial categories as well). Those of us who choose to work for social justice, for a more equitable distribution of wealth, income, and power, can benefit from an understanding of how we have arrived at the current situation. We also need to understand how whiteness is constantly shifting, remaking itself as necessary to counter our efforts to undermine the system of racial oppression at its heart.

As a white, middle-class woman I'm finding that my study of white privilege and the social construction of whiteness is, contrary to what many white people assume, not at all guilt inducing. Rather, the more I learn, the better qualified I feel to engage with the dominant culture in an effort to rewrite the script that is laid out for me. Or rather, I am tearing up my script and looking to others on both sides of the white/non-white boundary to help create a new one for all of us. 
Globalizing corporate capitalism is spreading whiteness around the world, much as colonialism and imperialism did in previous centuries. 
Social justice, environmentalist, and peace activists are really all engaged in the same struggle. I'm suggesting, as one tool in our tool belt, we use a framework from within which we look for whiteness in any given social issue. Then we analyze the balances and tensions in the ongoing construction of whiteness represented by that instance. 
This understanding will aid us in strategizing, in figuring out where to bring our energy so as to shift those balances and tensions in the favor of harmony and justice among all people.


Allen, T. W. (1994). The Invention of the White Race (Vol. One: Racial Oppression and Social Control). London: Verso.

Allen, T. W. (1997). The Invention of the White Race (Vol. Two: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America). London: Verso.

Ani, M. (1994). Yurugu: an African-Centered Critique of European Thought and Cultural Behavior. Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc.

Appiah, K. A., & Gutmann, A. (1996). Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bailey, A. (2000). Despising an Identity They Taught Me to Claim. In C. J. Cuomo & K. Q. Hall (Eds.), Whiteness: Feminist philosophical reflections. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Berger, M. (1999). White Lies: Race and the Myth of Whiteness. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Brodkin, K. (1999). How Jews Became White Folks and what that Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Clark, C. & O'Donnell, J. (Eds.). (1999). Becoming and Unbecoming White: Owning and Disowning a Racial Identity. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Collins, C., & Yeskel, F. (2000). Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity. New York: The New Press.

Conley, D. (1999). Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cuomo, C. J., & Hall, K. Q. (Eds.). (2000). Whiteness: Feminist Philosophical Reflections. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

DeNavas-Walt, C., Cleveland, R. W. & Roemer, M. I. (2001). Money Income in the United States: 2000. U.S. Department of Commerce. Retrieved November 14, 2001, from:

Domhoff, G. W. (2002). Who Rules America? Power and Politics (Fourth Edition ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Draffan, G. (2000). The Corporate Consensus: A Guide to Institutions of Global Power. Fossil, OR: Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project.

Dyer, R. (1997). White. London: Routledge.

Feagin, J. R. (2000). Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge.

Frankenberg, R. (1993). The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gossett, T. F. (1963). Race: The History of an Idea in America. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press.

Hale, G. E. (1998). Making Whiteness: the Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1949. New York: Pantheon Books.

Haney Lopez, I. F. (1996). White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press.

Ignatiev, N. (1995). How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge.

Jacobson, M. F. (1998). Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kovel, J. (1970). White Racism: A Psychohistory. New York: Pantheon.

McLaren, P. (1999). Unthinking Whiteness, Rethinking Democracy: Critical Citizenship in Gringolandia, Becoming and Unbecoming White: Owning and Disowning a Racial Identity. Westport CN: Bergin & Garvey.

Morales, A. L. (1998). Medicine Stories: History, Culture, and the Politics of Integrity. Cambridge: South End Press.

Morgan, E. S. (1975). American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W.W. Norton @ Company, Inc.

Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (Second Edition ed.). New York: Routledge.

Rothenberg, P. (2000). Invisible Privilege: A Memoir About Race, Class, and Gender. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas.

See, L. (1995). On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Yeatr Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family. New York: St. Martins Press.

Skliar, L. (2001). The Transnational Capitalist Class. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Takaki, R. (1993). A Different Mirror. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Thandeka. (2000). Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God in America. New York: Continuum.

Thompson, B., & Tyagi, S. (Eds.). (1996). Names We Call Home: autbiography on Racial Identity. New York: Routledge.

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1. 0 For example, see Christine Clark & James O'Donnell, Becoming and Unbecoming White: Owning and Disowning a Racial Identity, Bergin & Garvey (1999); Dalton Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America, University of California Press (1999); Joe Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations, Routledge (2000); Ruth Frankenberg, The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters, University of Minnesota Press (1993); Michael Omi & Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, Routledge (1994); Paula Rothenberg, Invisible Privilege: A Memoir About Race, Class, and Gender, University of Kansas (2000); Thandeka, Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God in America, Continuum (2000).

2. 0 For example, K. Anthony Appiah & Amy Gutmann, Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, Princton University Press (1996); Maurice Berger, White Lies, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (1999); Chris J. Cuomo & Kim Q. Hall, Whiteness: Feminist Philosophical Reflections, Rowman & Littlefield (2000); Peter McLaren, Unthinking Whiteness, Rethinking Democracy: Critical Citizenship in Gringolandia, in Clark & O'Donnell, Id..; Aurura Levins Morales, Medicine Stories, South End (1998); Becky Thompson & Sangeeta Tyagi, Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity, Routledge (1996).

3. 0 For example, popular college texts such as Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror, Little, Brown and Company (1993).

4. 0 Marimba Ani, Yorugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Thought and Cultural Behavior, Africa World Press (1994); Thomas F. Gossett, Race: the History of an Idea in America, Southern Methodist University Press (1963).

5. 0 Ani, Id; Richard Dyer, White, Routledge (1997); Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory, Pantheon (1970).

6. 0 I use the terms limited-term bond laborer and lifetime bond laborer in preference over the terms indentured servant and slave in part because the former more clearly indicate the similarities and differences between the two forms of labor. I prefer lifetime bond labor over slave because "slave" dehumanizes the person enslaved, as if the only aspect of that person worthy of note is his or her condition of servitude.

7. 0 Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race Vol 2, Verso (1997), p. 38.

8. 0 Allen, 1997; Edmund S.Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, W.W. Norton @ Company (1975).

9. 0 Morgan, Id., p. 330.

10. 0 Allen, 1997, supra note 7., p. 218.

11. 0 Catholics were not considered Christian, including the Irish Catholics, many of whom who were sent as bond laborers to the Carribean and Virginia Colony.

12. 0 Morgan, supra note 8, p. 329.

13. 0 Allen, 1997, supra note 7, p. 179.

14. 0 Allen, 1997, Id., p. 197.

15. 0 Allen, 1997, Id. p. 134.

16. 0 Allen, 1997, Id.

17. 0 Allen, 1997, Id., p. 251.

18. 0 Morgan, supra note 8, p. 335.

19. 0 Allen, 1997, supra note 7, p. 198.

20. 0 Morgan, supra note 8, p. 333.

21. 0 Allen, 1997, supra note 7, p. 241

22. 0 Allen,1997, Id., p. 250.

23. 0 See Allen, 1997, supra note 7, and Morgan, supra note 8, for a thorough presentation on these and many other laws.

24. 0 Allen, 1997, Id., p. 249.

25. 0 Allen, 1997, Id., p. 252.

26. 0 Allen, 1997, Id..

27. 0 Morgan, supra note 8, p. 369..

28. 0 Ian F. Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race, New York University Press(1996), p. 1.

29. 0 Haney Lopez, Id.. p. 46.

30. 0 Haney Lopez, Id. This law was clearly an example of sexism as well as racism, since no similar law affected men who were U.S. citizens.

31. 0 Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, Harvard University Press, (1998), writes how Italians were described in the press as being of a different, savage, race. He cites a journalist from the 1890s responding to the question, "Is an Italian a white man?" with "No sir. An Italian is a Dago" (p. 56). Jacobson also describes how, particuarly in the South, Italians often found community with Blacks, and documents lynchings of Italians that were justified along racial grounds.

32. 0 Those who entered as Africans (after 1870), were also not assimilated as white, but became Black. So immigrants were essentially offerred two categories for citizenship, Black or white.

33. 0 Haney Lopez, supra note 28., p. 16.

34. 0 Haney Lopez, Id., p. 92.

35. 0 In re Hallaadjian, as cited in Haney Lopez, Id., p. 205

36. 0 Lisa See, On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Yeatr Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family, St. Martins (1995).

37. 0 Haney Lopez, supra note 28, p. 203.

38. 0 Takaki, supra note 3, p. 207.

39. 0 Takai, Id., p. 206.

40. 0 Mexicans were judged to be white In re Rodriguez,as cited in Haney Lopez, supra note 28, p. 204. This ruling was based on treaties made following the Mexican war. However, in other cases, such as in early California, Mexicans were judged to be Native American (Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race In America, Rutgers University Press (1999) p. 72).

41. 0 In another example, the U.S. Census changed Mexican from a non-white category to a white category in 1940 (Brodkin, Id., p. 193, n.56). This ambivalence is probably due to the mix of ethnicities and races in the countries south of our border, one that rivals the mix found in the U.S.

42. 0 Haney Lopez, supra note 28, p. 18.

43. 0 Haney Lopez, supra note 28 and Jacobson, supra note 31, explore this duality throughout their texts.

44. 0 Gossett, supra note 4; Haney Lopez, Id.; Jacobson, Id..

45. 0 Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race Vol 2, Verso (1994), p. 139.

46. 0 Allen, 1994, Id., p. 138.

47. 0 Takaki, supra note 3, p.133.

48. 0 Allen, 1994, Id., p. 144.

49. 0 I base my description of the Exodus on Allen, supra note 45, p. 145-147, who draws from many sources.

50. 0 Cited in Allen, 1994, Id., p. 147.

51. 0 Takaki, supra note 3, p. 180.

52. 0 Takaki, Id., p. 180-183.

53. 0 Takaki, Id., p. 178.

54. 0 Takaki, Id., p. 186-7.

55. 0 Brodkin, supra note 40, p. 45.

56. 0 Conley, supra note 1, p. 39.

57. 0 Brodkin, Id.

58. 0 Brodkin, Id., p. 47.

59. 0 Brodkin, Id., p. 49

60. 0 Brodkin, Id., p. 50.

61. 0 Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: the Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1949, Pantheon Books (1998).

62. 0 See the first person accounts in Clark & O'Donnell, supra note 1, and the analysis of similar stories in Thandeka, supra note 1.

63. 0 Haney Lopez, supra note 28, p. 121.

64. 0 Conley, supra note 1, p. 38.

65. 0 See Conley, supra note 1, for an in-depth comparison of white and African American home buying, home ownership retention, value of property , and the value of benefits associated with some neighborhood.

66. 0 See, for example, Allen, 1994, supra note 45; Brodkin, supra note 40; Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, Routledge (1995); David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, Verso (1991).

67. 0 Allen, 1997, supra note 7, p. 252-253.

68. 0 Richard B. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America, p. 182 as cited in Allen, Id., p. 253.

69. 0 Ignatiev, supra note 66.

70. 0 Brodkin, supra note 40, p. 56.

71. 0 Brodkin, Id.

72. 0 Allen, 1994, supra note 45, p. 195; Ignatiev, supra note 66.

73. 0 As cited in Allen, Id., 1994, p. 165.

74. 0 Ignatiev, supra note 66., p. 111. Allen, 1994, supra note 7, and Takaki, supra note 3, also discuss this highly effective tactic for driving off African American workers.

75. 0 Ignatiev, Id., p. 130.

76. 0 In a personal communication, Vernellia Randall gives the example of jockeys. Once a nearly all Black profession, white jockeys took over, driving out Black jockeys, as it became a lucrative job.

77. 0 G. W`illiam Domhoff,, Who Rules America? Power and Politics (Fourth Edition ed.), McGraw Hill (2002), p. 164.

78. 0 Brodkin, supra note 40., p. 93; Donhoff, Id., p. 166.

79. 0 Brodkin, Id., p. 90.

80. 0 Brodkin, Id., p. 91.

81. 0 Domhoff, supra note 77, p. 173.

82. 0 Brodkin, supra note 40., p. 38.

83. 0 Brodkin, Id., p. 38-42.

84. 0 Brodkin, Id., p. 39.

85. 0 Brodkin, Id., p. 43.

86. 0 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Percent of People in Poverty, by Definition of Income and Selected Characteristics (2000) .

87. 0 This theory is introduced and developed in Thandeka, Id..

88. 0 C. DeNavas-Walt., R. W. Cleveland & M. I. Roemer, Money Income in the United States: 2000. U.S. Department of Commerce (2001); Chuck Collins & Felice Yeskel, Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity, the New Press (2000).

89. 0 Domhoff, supra note 77; George Draffan, The Corporate Consensus: A Guide to Institutions of Global Powe, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project (2000); Leslie Skliar, the Transnational Capitalist Class, Blackwell (2001).

90. 0 Collins & Yeskel, supra note 88; U.S. Bureau of the Census, supra note 86.

91. 0 Thanks to Afia Walking Tree for introducing me to the notion of a toolbelt in the Spirit Drumz Institute on Transformative Leadership.

The End of White America?

The Election of Barack Obama is just the most startling manifestation of a larger trend: the gradual erosion of “whiteness” as the touchstone of what it means to be American. If the end of white America is a cultural and demographic inevitability, what will the new mainstream look like—and how will white Americans fit into it? What will it mean to be white when whiteness is no longer the norm? And will a post-white America be less racially divided—or more so?
By Hua Hsu

Illustrations By Felix Sockwell

"Civilization’s going to pieces,” he remarks. He is in polite company, gathered with friends around a bottle of wine in the late-afternoon sun, chatting and gossiping. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?” They hadn’t. “Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

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Hua Hsu and Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss Obama, football, hip-hop, and the elusive notion of a "post-racial" society. 
He is Tom Buchanan, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a book that nearly everyone who passes through the American education system is compelled to read at least once. Although Gatsby doesn’t gloss as a book on racial anxiety—it’s too busy exploring a different set of anxieties entirely—Buchanan was hardly alone in feeling besieged.

The book by “this man Goddard” had a real-world analogue: Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published in 1920, five years before Gatsby. Nine decades later, Stoddard’s polemic remains oddly engrossing. He refers to World War I as the “White Civil War” and laments the “cycle of ruin” that may result if the “white world” continues its infighting.

The book features a series of foldout maps depicting the distribution of “color” throughout the world and warns, “Colored migration is a universal peril, menacing every part of the white world.”

As briefs for racial supremacy go, The Rising Tide of Color is eerily serene. Its tone is scholarly and gentlemanly, its hatred rationalized and, in Buchanan’s term, “scientific.” And the book was hardly a fringe phenomenon. It was published by Scribner, also Fitzgerald’s publisher, and Stoddard, who received a doctorate in history from Harvard, was a member of many professional academic associations. It was precisely the kind of book that a 1920s man of Buchanan’s profile—wealthy, Ivy League–educated, at once pretentious and intellectually insecure—might have been expected to bring up in casual conversation.

As white men of comfort and privilege living in an age of limited social mobility, of course, Stoddard and the Buchanans in his audience had nothing literal to fear. Their sense of dread hovered somewhere above the concerns of everyday life. It was linked less to any immediate danger to their class’s political and cultural power than to the perceived fraying of the fixed, monolithic identity of whiteness that sewed together the fortunes of the fair-skinned.

From the hysteria over Eastern European immigration to the vibrant cultural miscegenation of the Harlem Renaissance, it is easy to see how this imagined worldwide white kinship might have seemed imperiled in the 1920s. There’s no better example of the era’s insecurities than the 1923 Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, in which an Indian American veteran of World War I sought to become a naturalized citizen by proving that he was Caucasian. The Court considered new anthropological studies that expanded the definition of the Caucasian race to include Indians, and the justices even agreed that traces of “Aryan blood” coursed through Thind’s body. But these technicalities availed him little. The Court determined that Thind was not white “in accordance with the understanding of the common man” and therefore could be excluded from the “statutory category” of whiteness.

Put another way: Thind was white, in that he was Caucasian and even Aryan. But he was not white in the way Stoddard or Buchanan were white.

The ’20s debate over the definition of whiteness—a legal category? a commonsense understanding? a worldwide civilization?—took place in a society gripped by an acute sense of racial paranoia, and it is easy to regard these episodes as evidence of how far we have come. But consider that these anxieties surfaced when whiteness was synonymous with the American mainstream, when threats to its status were largely imaginary. What happens once this is no longer the case—when the fears of Lothrop Stoddard and Tom Buchanan are realized, and white people actually become an American minority?

Whether you describe it as the dawning of a post-racial age or just the end of white America, we’re approaching a profound demographic tipping point. According to an August 2008 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, those groups currently categorized as racial minorities—blacks and Hispanics, East Asians and South Asians—will account for a majority of the U.S. population by the year 2042. Among Americans under the age of 18, this shift is projected to take place in 2023, which means that every child born in the United States from here on out will belong to the first post-white generation.

Obviously, steadily ascending rates of interracial marriage complicate this picture, pointing toward what Michael Lind has described as the “beiging” of America. And it’s possible that “beige Americans” will self-identify as “white” in sufficient numbers to push the tipping point further into the future than the Census Bureau projects. But even if they do, whiteness will be a label adopted out of convenience and even indifference, rather than aspiration and necessity. For an earlier generation of minorities and immigrants, to be recognized as a “white American,” whether you were an Italian or a Pole or a Hungarian, was to enter the mainstream of American life; to be recognized as something else, as the Thind case suggests, was to be permanently excluded.

As Bill Imada, head of the IW Group, a prominent Asian American communications and marketing company, puts it: “I think in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, [for] anyone who immigrated, the aspiration was to blend in and be as American as possible so that white America wouldn’t be intimidated by them. They wanted to imitate white America as much as possible: learn English, go to church, go to the same schools.”

Today, the picture is far more complex. To take the most obvious example, whiteness is no longer a precondition for entry into the highest levels of public office. The son of Indian immigrants doesn’t have to become “white” in order to be elected governor of Louisiana. A half-Kenyan, half-Kansan politician can self-identify as black and be elected president of the United States.

As a purely demographic matter, then, the “white America” that Lothrop Stoddard believed in so fervently may cease to exist in 2040, 2050, or 2060, or later still. But where the culture is concerned, it’s already all but finished. Instead of the long-standing model of assimilation toward a common center, the culture is being remade in the image of white America’s multiethnic, multicolored heirs.

For some, the disappearance of this centrifugal core heralds a future rich with promise. In 1998, President Bill Clinton, in a now-famous address to students at Portland State University, remarked:

Today, largely because of immigration, there is no majority race in Hawaii or Houston or New York City. Within five years, there will be no majority race in our largest state, California. In a little more than 50 years, there will be no majority race in the United States. No other nation in history has gone through demographic change of this magnitude in so short a time ... [These immigrants] are energizing our culture and broadening our vision of the world. They are renewing our most basic values and reminding us all of what it truly means to be American.
Not everyone was so enthused. Clinton’s remarks caught the attention of another anxious Buchanan—Pat Buchanan, the conservative thinker. Revisiting the president’s speech in his 2001 book, The Death of the West, Buchanan wrote: “Mr. Clinton assured us that it will be a better America when we are all minorities and realize true ‘diversity.’ Well, those students [at Portland State] are going to find out, for they will spend their golden years in a Third World America.”

Today, the arrival of what Buchanan derided as “Third World America” is all but inevitable. What will the new mainstream of America look like, and what ideas or values might it rally around? What will it mean to be white after “whiteness” no longer defines the mainstream? Will anyone mourn the end of white America? Will anyone try to preserve it?

Another moment from The Great Gatsby: as Fitzgerald’s narrator and Gatsby drive across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, a car passes them, and Nick Carraway notices that it is a limousine “driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl.” The novelty of this topsy-turvy arrangement inspires Carraway to laugh aloud and think to himself, “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge, anything at all …”

For a contemporary embodiment of the upheaval that this scene portended, consider Sean Combs, a hip-hop mogul and one of the most famous African Americans on the planet. Combs grew up during hip-hop’s late-1970s rise, and he belongs to the first generation that could safely make a living working in the industry—as a plucky young promoter and record-label intern in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as a fashion designer, artist, and music executive worth hundreds of millions of dollars a brief decade later.

In the late 1990s, Combs made a fascinating gesture toward New York’s high society. He announced his arrival into the circles of the rich and powerful not by crashing their parties, but by inviting them into his own spectacularly over-the-top world. Combs began to stage elaborate annual parties in the Hamptons, not far from where Fitzgerald’s novel takes place.

These “white parties”—attendees are required to wear white—quickly became legendary for their opulence (in 2004, Combs showcased a 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence) as well as for the cultures-colliding quality of Hamptons elites paying their respects to someone so comfortably nouveau riche. Prospective business partners angled to get close to him and praised him as a guru of the lucrative “urban” market, while grateful partygoers hailed him as a modern-day Gatsby.

“Have I read The Great Gatsby?” Combs said to a London newspaper in 2001. “I am the Great Gatsby.”

Yet whereas Gatsby felt pressure to hide his status as an arriviste, Combs celebrated his position as an outsider-insider—someone who appropriates elements of the culture he seeks to join without attempting to assimilate outright. In a sense, Combs was imitating the old WASP establishment; in another sense, he was subtly provoking it, by over-enunciating its formality and never letting his guests forget that there was something slightly off about his presence. There’s a silent power to throwing parties where the best-dressed man in the room is also the one whose public profile once consisted primarily of dancing in the background of Biggie Smalls videos. (“No one would ever expect a young black man to be coming to a party with the Declaration of Independence, but I got it, and it’s coming with me,” Combs joked at his 2004 party, as he made the rounds with the document, promising not to spill champagne on it.)

In this regard, Combs is both a product and a hero of the new cultural mainstream, which prizes diversity above all else, and whose ultimate goal is some vague notion of racial transcendence, rather than subversion or assimilation. Although Combs’s vision is far from representative—not many hip-hop stars vacation in St. Tropez with a parasol-toting manservant shading their every step—his industry lies at the heart of this new mainstream.

Over the past 30 years, few changes in American culture have been as significant as the rise of hip-hop. The genre has radically reshaped the way we listen to and consume music, first by opposing the pop mainstream and then by becoming it. From its constant sampling of past styles and eras—old records, fashions, slang, anything—to its mythologization of the self-made black antihero, hip-hop is more than a musical genre: it’s a philosophy, a political statement, a way of approaching and remaking culture. It’s a lingua franca not just among kids in America, but also among young people worldwide.

And its economic impact extends beyond the music industry, to fashion, advertising, and film. (Consider the producer Russell Simmons—the ur-Combs and a music, fashion, and television mogul—or the rapper 50 Cent, who has parlayed his rags-to-riches story line into extracurricular successes that include a clothing line; book, video-game, and film deals; and a startlingly lucrative partnership with the makers of Vitamin Water.)

But hip-hop’s deepest impact is symbolic. During popular music’s rise in the 20th century, white artists and producers consistently “mainstreamed” African American innovations.

Hip-hop’s ascension has been different. Eminem notwithstanding, hip-hop never suffered through anything like an Elvis Presley moment, in which a white artist made a musical form safe for white America. This is no dig at Elvis—the constrictive racial logic of the 1950s demanded the erasure of rock and roll’s black roots, and if it hadn’t been him, it would have been someone else. But hip-hop—the sound of the post- civil-rights, post-soul generation—found a global audience on its own terms.

Today, hip-hop’s colonization of the global imagination, from fashion runways in Europe to dance competitions in Asia, is Disney-esque. This transformation has bred an unprecedented cultural confidence in its black originators. Whiteness is no longer a threat, or an ideal: it’s kitsch to be appropriated, whether with gestures like Combs’s “white parties” or the trickle-down epidemic of collared shirts and cuff links currently afflicting rappers. And an expansive multiculturalism is replacing the us-against-the-world bunker mentality that lent a thrilling edge to hip-hop’s mid-1990s rise.

Peter Rosenberg, a self-proclaimed “nerdy Jewish kid” and radio personality on New York’s Hot 97 FM—and a living example of how hip-hop has created new identities for its listeners that don’t fall neatly along lines of black and white—shares another example: “I interviewed [the St. Louis rapper] Nelly this morning, and he said it’s now very cool and in to have multicultural friends. Like you’re not really considered hip or ‘you’ve made it’ if you’re rolling with all the same people.”

Just as Tiger Woods forever changed the country-club culture of golf, and Will Smith confounded stereotypes about the ideal Hollywood leading man, hip-hop’s rise is helping redefine the American mainstream, which no longer aspires toward a single iconic image of style or class. Successful network-television shows like Lost, Heroes, and Grey’s Anatomy feature wildly diverse casts, and an entire genre of half-hour comedy, from The Colbert Report to The Office, seems dedicated to having fun with the persona of the clueless white male.

The youth market is following the same pattern: consider the Cheetah Girls, a multicultural, multiplatinum, multiplatform trio of teenyboppers who recently starred in their third movie, or Dora the Explorer, the precocious bilingual 7-year-old Latina adventurer who is arguably the most successful animated character on children’s television today.

In a recent address to the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, Brown Johnson, the Nickelodeon executive who has overseen Dora’s rise, explained the importance of creating a character who does not conform to “the white, middle-class mold.” When Johnson pointed out that Dora’s wares were outselling Barbie’s in France, the crowd hooted in delight.

Pop culture today rallies around an ethic of multicultural inclusion that seems to value every identity—except whiteness. “It’s become harder for the blond-haired, blue-eyed commercial actor,” remarks Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, of the Hispanic marketing firm Enlace. “You read casting notices, and they like to cast people with brown hair because they could be Hispanic. The language of casting notices is pretty shocking because it’s so specific: ‘Brown hair, brown eyes, could look Hispanic.’ Or, as one notice put it: ‘Ethnically ambiguous.’”

“I think white people feel like they’re under siege right now—like it’s not okay to be white right now, especially if you’re a white male,” laughs Bill Imada, of the IW Group. Imada and Newman-Carrasco are part of a movement within advertising, marketing, and communications firms to reimagine the profile of the typical American consumer.

(Tellingly, every person I spoke with from these industries knew the Census Bureau’s projections by heart.)
“There’s a lot of fear and a lot of resentment,” Newman-Carrasco observes, describing the flak she caught after writing an article for a trade publication on the need for more-diverse hiring practices. “I got a response from a friend—he’s, like, a 60-something white male, and he’s been involved with multicultural recruiting,” she recalls. “And he said, ‘I really feel like the hunted. It’s a hard time to be a white man in America right now, because I feel like I’m being lumped in with all white males in America, and I’ve tried to do stuff, but it’s a tough time.’”

“I always tell the white men in the room, ‘We need you,’” Imada says. “We cannot talk about diversity and inclusion and engagement without you at the table. It’s okay to be white!

“But people are stressed out about it. ‘We used to be in control! We’re losing control!’”
If they’re right—if white America is indeed “losing control,” and if the future will belong to people who can successfully navigate a post-racial, multicultural landscape—then it’s no surprise that many white Americans are eager to divest themselves of their whiteness entirely.

For some, this renunciation can take a radical form. In 1994, a young graffiti artist and activist named William “Upski” Wimsatt, the son of a university professor, published Bomb the Suburbs, the spiritual heir to Norman Mailer’s celebratory 1957 essay, “The White Negro.” Wimsatt was deeply committed to hip-hop’s transformative powers, going so far as to embrace the status of the lowly “wigger,” a pejorative term popularized in the early 1990s to describe white kids who steep themselves in black culture. Wimsatt viewed the wigger’s immersion in two cultures as an engine for change. “If channeled in the right way,” he wrote, “the wigger can go a long way toward repairing the sickness of race in America.”

Wimsatt’s painfully earnest attempts to put his own relationship with whiteness under the microscope coincided with the emergence of an academic discipline known as “whiteness studies.” In colleges and universities across the country, scholars began examining the history of “whiteness” and unpacking its contradictions. Why, for example, had the Irish and the Italians fallen beyond the pale at different moments in our history? Were Jewish Americans white? And, as the historian Matthew Frye Jacobson asked, “Why is it that in the United States, a white woman can have black children but a black woman cannot have white children?”

Much like Wimsatt, the whiteness-studies academics—figures such as Jacobson, David Roediger, Eric Lott, and Noel Ignatiev—were attempting to come to terms with their own relationships with whiteness, in its past and present forms. In the early 1990s, Ignatiev, a former labor activist and the author of How the Irish Became White, set out to “abolish” the idea of the white race by starting the New Abolitionist Movement and founding a journal titled Race Traitor.

“There is nothing positive about white identity,” he wrote in 1998. “As James Baldwin said, ‘As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.’” 

Although most white Americans haven’t read Bomb the Suburbs or Race Traitor, this view of whiteness as something to be interrogated, if not shrugged off completely, has migrated to less academic spheres. The perspective of the whiteness-studies academics is commonplace now, even if the language used to express it is different.

“I get it: as a straight white male, I’m the worst thing on Earth,” Christian Lander says. Lander is a Canadian-born, Los Angeles–based satirist who in January 2008 started a blog called Stuff White People Like (, which pokes fun at the manners and mores of a specific species of young, hip, upwardly mobile whites. (He has written more than 100 entries about whites’ passion for things like bottled water, “the idea of soccer,” and “being the only white person around.”) At its best, Lander’s site—which formed the basis for a recently published book of the same name (reviewed in the October 2008 Atlantic)—is a cunningly precise distillation of the identity crisis plaguing well-meaning, well-off white kids in a post-white world.

“Like, I’m aware of all the horrible crimes that my demographic has done in the world,” Lander says. “And there’s a bunch of white people who are desperate—desperate—to say, ‘You know what? My skin’s white, but I’m not one of the white people who’s destroying the world.’”

For Lander, whiteness has become a vacuum. The “white identity” he limns on his blog is predicated on the quest for authenticity—usually other people’s authenticity. “As a white person, you’re just desperate to find something else to grab onto. You’re jealous! Pretty much every white person I grew up with wished they’d grown up in, you know, an ethnic home that gave them a second language. White culture is Family Ties and Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses—like, this is white culture. This is all we have.”

Lander’s “white people” are products of a very specific historical moment, raised by well-meaning Baby Boomers to reject the old ideal of white American gentility and to embrace diversity and fluidity instead. (“It’s strange that we are the kids of Baby Boomers, right? How the hell do you rebel against that? Like, your parents will march against the World Trade Organization next to you. They’ll have bigger white dreadlocks than you. What do you do?”) But his lighthearted anthropology suggests that the multicultural harmony they were raised to worship has bred a kind of self-denial.

Matt Wray, a sociologist at Temple University who is a fan of Lander’s humor, has observed that many of his white students are plagued by a racial-identity crisis: “They don’t care about socioeconomics; they care about culture. And to be white is to be culturally broke. The classic thing white students say when you ask them to talk about who they are is, ‘I don’t have a culture.’ They might be privileged, they might be loaded socioeconomically, but they feel bankrupt when it comes to culture … They feel disadvantaged, and they feel marginalized. They don’t have a culture that’s cool or oppositional.” Wray says that this feeling of being culturally bereft often prevents students from recognizing what it means to be a child of privilege—a strange irony that the first wave of whiteness-studies scholars, in the 1990s, failed to anticipate.

Of course, the obvious material advantages that come with being born white—lower infant-mortality rates and easier-to-acquire bank loans, for example—tend to undercut any sympathy that this sense of marginalization might generate. And in the right context, cultural-identity crises can turn well-meaning whites into instant punch lines.

Consider ego trip’s The (White) Rapper Show, a brilliant and critically acclaimed reality show that VH1 debuted in 2007. It depicted 10 (mostly hapless) white rappers living together in a dilapidated house—dubbed “Tha White House”—in the South Bronx. Despite the contestants’ best intentions, each one seemed like a profoundly confused caricature, whether it was the solemn graduate student committed to fighting racism or the ghetto-obsessed suburbanite who had, seemingly by accident, named himself after the abolitionist John Brown.

Similarly, Smirnoff struck marketing gold in 2006 with a viral music video titled “Tea Partay,” featuring a trio of strikingly bad, V-neck-sweater-clad white rappers called the Prep Unit. “Haters like to clown our Ivy League educations / But they’re just jealous ’cause our families run the nation,” the trio brayed, as a pair of bottle-blond women in spiffy tennis whites shimmied behind them. There was no nonironic way to enjoy the video; its entire appeal was in its self-aware lampooning of WASP culture: verdant country clubs, “old money,” croquet, popped collars, and the like.

“The best defense is to be constantly pulling the rug out from underneath yourself,” Wray remarks, describing the way self-aware whites contend with their complicated identity. “Beat people to the punch. You’re forced as a white person into a sense of ironic detachment. Irony is what fuels a lot of white subcultures. You also see things like Burning Man, when a lot of white people are going into the desert and trying to invent something that is entirely new and not a form of racial mimicry. That’s its own kind of flight from whiteness. We’re going through a period where whites are really trying to figure out: Who are we?”

The “flight from whiteness of urban, college-educated, liberal whites isn’t the only attempt to answer this question. You can flee into whiteness as well. This can mean pursuing the authenticity of an imagined past: think of the deliberately white-bread world of Mormon America, where the ’50s never ended, or the anachronistic WASP entitlement flaunted in books like last year’s A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style, a handsome coffee-table book compiled by Susanna Salk, depicting a world of seersucker blazers, whale pants, and deck shoes. (What the book celebrates is the “inability to be outdone,” and the “self-confidence and security that comes with it,” Salk tells me. “That’s why I call it ‘privilege.’ It’s this privilege of time, of heritage, of being in a place longer than anybody else.”) But these enclaves of preserved-in-amber whiteness are likely to be less important to the American future than the construction of whiteness as a somewhat pissed-off minority culture.

This notion of a self-consciously white expression of minority empowerment will be familiar to anyone who has come across the comedian Larry the Cable Guy—he of “Farting Jingle Bells”—or witnessed the transformation of Detroit-born-and-bred Kid Rock from teenage rapper into “American Bad Ass” southern-style rocker. The 1990s may have been a decade when multiculturalism advanced dramatically—when American culture became “colorized,” as the critic Jeff Chang put it—but it was also an era when a very different form of identity politics crystallized. Hip-hop may have provided the decade’s soundtrack, but the highest-selling artist of the ’90s was Garth Brooks. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods may have been the faces of athletic superstardom, but it was NASCAR that emerged as professional sports’ fastest-growing institution, with ratings second only to the NFL’s.

As with the unexpected success of the apocalyptic Left Behind novels, or the Jeff Foxworthy–organized Blue Collar Comedy Tour, the rise of country music and auto racing took place well off the American elite’s radar screen. (None of Christian Lander’s white people would be caught dead at a NASCAR race.) These phenomena reflected a growing sense of cultural solidarity among lower-middle-class whites—a solidarity defined by a yearning for American “authenticity,” a folksy realness that rejects the global, the urban, and the effete in favor of nostalgia for “the way things used to be.”

Like other forms of identity politics, white solidarity comes complete with its own folk heroes, conspiracy theories (Barack Obama is a secret Muslim! The U.S. is going to merge with Canada and Mexico!), and laundry lists of injustices. The targets and scapegoats vary—from multiculturalism and affirmative action to a loss of moral values, from immigration to an economy that no longer guarantees the American worker a fair chance—and so do the political programs they inspire. (Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan both tapped into this white identity politics in the 1990s; today, its tribunes run the ideological gamut, from Jim Webb to Ron Paul to Mike Huckabee to Sarah Palin.) But the core grievance, in each case, has to do with cultural and socioeconomic dislocation—the sense that the system that used to guarantee the white working class some stability has gone off-kilter.

Wray is one of the founders of what has been called “white-trash studies,” a field conceived as a response to the perceived elite-liberal marginalization of the white working class. He argues that the economic downturn of the 1970s was the precondition for the formation of an “oppositional” and “defiant” white-working-class sensibility—think of the rugged, anti-everything individualism of 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit. But those anxieties took their shape from the aftershocks of the identity-based movements of the 1960s. “I think that the political space that the civil-rights movement opens up in the mid-1950s and ’60s is the transformative thing,” Wray observes. “Following the black-power movement, all of the other minority groups that followed took up various forms of activism, including brown power and yellow power and red power. Of course the problem is, if you try and have a ‘white power’ movement, it doesn’t sound good.”

The result is a racial pride that dares not speak its name, and that defines itself through cultural cues instead—a suspicion of intellectual elites and city dwellers, a preference for folksiness and plainness of speech (whether real or feigned), and the association of a working-class white minority with “the real America.” (In the Scots-Irish belt that runs from Arkansas up through West Virginia, the most common ethnic label offered to census takers is “American.”) Arguably, this white identity politics helped swing the 2000 and 2004 elections, serving as the powerful counterpunch to urban white liberals, and the McCain-Palin campaign relied on it almost to the point of absurdity (as when a McCain surrogate dismissed Northern Virginia as somehow not part of “the real Virginia”) as a bulwark against the threatening multiculturalism of Barack Obama. Their strategy failed, of course, but it’s possible to imagine white identity politics growing more potent and more forthright in its racial identifications in the future, as “the real America” becomes an ever-smaller portion of, well, the real America, and as the soon-to-be white minority’s sense of being besieged and disdained by a multicultural majority grows apace.

This vision of the aggrieved white man lost in a world that no longer values him was given its most vivid expression in the 1993 film Falling Down. Michael Douglas plays Bill Foster, a downsized defense worker with a buzz cut and a pocket protector who rampages through a Los Angeles overrun by greedy Korean shop-owners and Hispanic gangsters, railing against the eclipse of the America he used to know. (The film came out just eight years before California became the nation’s first majority-minority state.) Falling Down ends with a soulful police officer apprehending Foster on the Santa Monica Pier, at which point the middle-class vigilante asks, almost innocently: “I’m the bad guy?”

But this is a nightmare vision. Of course most of America’s Bill Fosters aren’t the bad guys—just as civilization is not, in the words of Tom Buchanan, “going to pieces” and America is not, in the phrasing of Pat Buchanan, going “Third World.” The coming white minority does not mean that the racial hierarchy of American culture will suddenly become inverted, as in 1995’s White Man’s Burden, an awful thought experiment of a film, starring John Travolta, that envisions an upside-down world in which whites are subjugated to their high-class black oppressors. There will be dislocations and resentments along the way, but the demographic shifts of the next 40 years are likely to reduce the power of racial hierarchies over everyone’s lives, producing a culture that’s more likely than any before to treat its inhabitants as individuals, rather than members of a caste or identity group.

Consider the world of advertising and marketing, industries that set out to mold our desires at a subconscious level. Advertising strategy once assumed a “general market”—“a code word for ‘white people,’” jokes one ad executive—and smaller, mutually exclusive, satellite “ethnic markets.” In recent years, though, advertisers have begun revising their assumptions and strategies in anticipation of profound demographic shifts. Instead of herding consumers toward a discrete center, the goal today is to create versatile images and campaigns that can be adapted to highly individualized tastes. (Think of the dancing silhouettes in Apple’s iPod campaign, which emphasizes individuality and diversity without privileging—or even representing—any specific group.)

At the moment, we can call this the triumph of multiculturalism, or post-racialism. But just as whiteness has no inherent meaning—it is a vessel we fill with our hopes and anxieties—these terms may prove equally empty in the long run. Does being post-racial mean that we are past race completely, or merely that race is no longer essential to how we identify ourselves? Karl Carter, of Atlanta’s youth-oriented GTM Inc. (Guerrilla Tactics Media), suggests that marketers and advertisers would be better off focusing on matrices like “lifestyle” or “culture” rather than race or ethnicity. “You’ll have crazy in-depth studies of the white consumer or the Latino consumer,” he complains. “But how do skaters feel? How do hip-hoppers feel?”

The logic of online social networking points in a similar direction. The New York University sociologist Dalton Conley has written of a “network nation,” in which applications like Facebook and MySpace create “crosscutting social groups” and new, flexible identities that only vaguely overlap with racial identities. Perhaps this is where the future of identity after whiteness lies—in a dramatic departure from the racial logic that has defined American culture from the very beginning. What Conley, Carter, and others are describing isn’t merely the displacement of whiteness from our cultural center; they’re describing a social structure that treats race as just one of a seemingly infinite number of possible self-identifications.

The Freedmen's Bureau (March 1901)
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line..." By W.E.B. DuBois 
The problem of the 20th century, W. E. B. DuBois famously predicted, would be the problem of the color line. Will this continue to be the case in the 21st century, when a black president will govern a country whose social networks increasingly cut across every conceivable line of identification? The ruling of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind no longer holds weight, but its echoes have been inescapable: we aspire to be post-racial, but we still live within the structures of privilege, injustice, and racial categorization that we inherited from an older order. We can talk about defining ourselves by lifestyle rather than skin color, but our lifestyle choices are still racially coded. We know, more or less, that race is a fiction that often does more harm than good, and yet it is something we cling to without fully understanding why—as a social and legal fact, a vague sense of belonging and place that we make solid through culture and speech.

But maybe this is merely how it used to be—maybe this is already an outdated way of looking at things. “You have a lot of young adults going into a more diverse world,” Carter remarks. For the young Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s, culture is something to be taken apart and remade in their own image. “We came along in a generation that didn’t have to follow that path of race,” he goes on. “We saw something different.” This moment was not the end of white America; it was not the end of anything. It was a bridge, and we crossed it.

Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College.