- In the opening pages of British author Martin Amis’ latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, two friends, Keith and Whittaker, are discussing their surroundings in Italy where they are spending the summer of 1970.
‘It was incredible, that. These- these fucking Italians.’
‘Italians? Come on, you’re a Brit. You can do better than Italians.’
‘Ok, these wags- I mean wops. These fucking beaners.”
‘Beaners are Mexicans. This is pathetic. Italians, Keith- spicks, greaseballs, dagos.’
‘Ah, but I was raised not to make distinctions based on race and culture.’
The interest in this dialogue goes beyond its considerable humor. Writing as an American, an Italian-American at that who grew up in an diverse American city, it is striking to see the word ‘spicks’ (along with the customary greaseballs and dagos) used in reference to Italians since in the U.S., especially in this day and age, spicks is derogatory slang used to describe Hispanic/Latino Americans, which Italians aren’t considered to be (again that’s in this day and age- more on that point later).
Living long enough guarantees one will come across more than a fair share of such instances. When chatting with his Portuguese teacher, a native Brazilian living in New York City (Brazil being a country, like most in the Western Hemisphere and increasing the world, that is full of people that are considered ‘White’, ‘Black’, ‘Asian’, and ‘Native American’ and also like in all such countries it is the white people who historically have most of the wealth and power), this writer commented that here in New York she would probably be considered Hispanic rather than White like in Brazil. She responded with an emphatic and defensive ‘No! No, I like being white.”
These small examples give some insight into the slippery nature of what perhaps has been humanity’s gravest and silliest blunder. The interesting thing about the word race is that it seems everybody would declare without hesitation that they know exactly what races are, as well as figure that everyone else would be on the same page about it (usually without speaking too overtly on the subject in good company), yet it’s a safe bet that very few people would be able to come up with an adequate, working definition of the word.
The online Free Dictionary (with what seems like a reprint from the American Heritage Dictionary) attempts to give five such definitions, all worth quoting in full:
1) A local geographical or global human family distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically physical characteristics.
2) A group of people united by or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographical distribution.
3) A geological line; a lineage
4) Humans considered as a group
a) An interbreeding, usually geographically isolated population of organisms differing from other populations of the same spaces in the frequency of hereditary traits.
Clearly there is an obvious amount of overlap and vagueness in all these definitions. For one thing each one could be applied to everything from a single family to abstract notions that apply to billions of people. Of the first it could be asked what genetically physical characteristics are involved. Hair color? Eyes? Height? Skin tone? The same question applies to the different elements of the second definition: which geographical distribution? A country? A continent? What common history and of what time period? It also most clearly applies to the third which can mean almost anything. The fourth seems to possibly express what is probably the safest, grandest, and, this essay will hope to argue, smartest position that in reality there is only one race and that is the human race. From a scientific standpoint the fifth is the only accurate definition of race and from that standpoint it does indeed show that humans fit the bill only once.
What all this boils down to is the question of what criteria is there for a person or group belonging to or making up a race? Contrary to the implied essence of the term and the imagery of things like ‘the eternal nation’ or ‘ancient peoples’, race (and ‘nation’ for that matter) is actually a relatively modern concept. The ancients had no real idea of it Even Aristotle’s famous dichotomy of ‘Greek’ verses ‘Barbarian’ isn’t a suitable parallel since what we would classify as race wasn’t particularly involved in his reasoning. He seemed to suggest that barbarians can at least adopt Greek ways. Ancient thinkers in general often posited the idea that some were born to rule and others to be slaves and speculated climate and geography impacted human appearance and character but it wasn’t at all a common idea that one ‘race’ was inherently superior to another.
While it is entirely possible today, though not as easily as one would like, to acknowledge and accept a division of humanity into races without being at all racist, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, with the acceleration of European imperialism in Africa and Asia along with a distorted view of Darwinism (not to mention the increased numbers of chattel slaves in the American South), that Western notions of race and racial hierarchy became solidified, based loosely, as it seems all subsequent racial classifications are, on Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s late 18th century model (though Blumenbach did not buy into inherent racial superiority). Such schools of ‘scientific’ thought and practice during the Victorian epoch included polygency, social-Darwinism, and eugenics, all based on the notion that some groups of people were scientifically superior to others, though given the sheer number of different racial classifications that were in the air at the turn of the century, ranging from some that posited a few different races to those that included dozens, the science was obviously tainted by ideology and limited in its knowledge.
After those deliberately awful false starts and after advances in genetics and related molecular technology science now proves that there is no such thing as biologically distinct human races. In fact we now know that there is more genetic variation within one tribe of wild chimpanzees than has been observed within all existing humans (see Joseph L Graves Jr.’s outstanding The Emperor’s New Clothes). All the physical diversity, the traits such as skin color and hair texture with which we categorize racial difference amounts to only a handful of our genes, not nearly enough to classify a separate species or any subspecies. All people alive today are Homo sapiens, the only member of the Homo genus not extinct (as opposed to others not as fortunate such as Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Homo neanderthalensis just to name a few) . It’s simple and beautiful, if from an evolutionary standpoint a bit dull: Biologically we are one species.
Of course no amount of scientific proof will persuade a Klansman to regard all other people as racial equals. Even good natured people could possibly point to cultural or environmental differences. However what is clear, even or actually especially in the case of that Klansman, is that the boundaries of race and racial thinking have been very fluid and right up to the present moment are in flux. This fact on its alone goes some way towards proving that race is a social construction rather than a scientific one. There is perhaps no greater illustration of this than the history of what can be called whiteness in America.
In 1790 Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1790 which stated that
that any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof, on application to any common law court of record, in any one of the States wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such court, that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law, to support the Constitution of the United States.
It was the first of a series of such Acts (including the more famous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798) that were passed in the ensuing decade. Each mainly modified the amount of time an alien would have to live in the country before being naturalized. The basic designation and eligibility of ‘a free white person’ wasn’t altered.
Yet by the mid-1920s it was the Ku Klux Klan that was the largest volunteer organization in the U.S. Unlike its first incarnation in the 1860s as a terror group out to sabotage black emancipation and federal Reconstruction, the 20th century version of the Klan had more on its agenda than the Great Migration of African-Americans to the manufacturing centers in the north. Now there was another menace to be reckoned with, the stakes for racial degeneration and decline being nearly as high as the earlier one.
Between the years 1886 and 1925 abut 13 million new immigrants arrived on American shores, 70 percent of that number arrived between 1901 and 1915. Unlike previous waves of Irish and German immigrants in the mid 19th century, whom by the 20th century were largely accepted in the American mainstream, these so-called ‘new’ immigrants were seen as a different animal, mainly coming from southern and eastern Europe- Italy, Greece, Poland, Hungry, in other words mostly Catholic (like their Irish forebears), Jewish, and clearly not in any way Anglo-Saxon. While not at the level that approached that of African-Americans down south or Chinese migrants on the West Coast, the new immigrants faced a good amount of violence and discrimination.
Some of the more notable instances of this discrimination include the lynching of eleven Italians in Louisiana in 1891, followed a few years later by a legislative attempt in the same state to disenfranchise Italians from voting. Greeks were victimized in the ‘race’ riot in Omaha, Nebraska in 1909, and Jim-Crowed in Pacatello, Idaho at about the same time. For a time Italian immigrants were assigned to black schools in Southern educational systems. Many Jewish immigrants had fled the worse violence of the pogroms in Eastern Europe but still encountered a high level of discrimination here (in fact in the minds of white supremacists today Jews still haven’t come close to achieving the status of being white). On the Iron Range in Minnesota, towns were disqualified from being white if they contained too many immigrants from Europe (all these examples are listed in David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White).
This all led up to the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 which capped the annual number of immigrants from any country to 3% of the number of people of that nationality living in the U.S. according to the census of 1910. This was followed soon thereafter by the even more severe Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act) that limited the annual amount to 2% of the number of people of a given nationality according to the census of 1890. Needless to say, the math greatly favored older immigrant groups from northern and central Europe (i.e. Irish and German), not the newer immigrants from the south or eastern ends (the Act also included the Asian Exclusion Act which barred legal immigration from East Asia entirely. This part of the legislation wasn’t repealed until 1943).
The logic that motivated the legislation was summed up by then Senator Ellison DuRant of South Carolina when he stated in a Congressional session:
Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power, and yet the youngest of all the nations… Without offense, but with regard to the salvation of our own, let us shut the door and assimilate what we have, and let us breed pure American citizens and develop our own American resources.
While a majority of senators may not have shared DuRant’s overt racism, the Johnson-Reed bill was passed with only six dissenting votes.
Of course looking back to the original waves of immigration in the mid 19th century reveals a lot of the same dynamics. If Irish and Germans were at least largely accepted as ‘white’ enough to be granted relatively favorable immigration quotas in the 1920s, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there was a time when they faced comparable hostility. Before the KKK emerged out of Tennessee there was the ‘Know Nothings’ and the Native American Party in east coast cities, and other similar parties, whose nativism targeted mainly Irish and Catholic immigrants (those fleeing from oppressive famine in Ireland; before the Great Famine most of the nearly one million Irish immigrants were from Ulster, mainly Anglican and Presbyterian). There were examples of Irish laborers in the South assigned jobs that were deemed too dangerous for slaves (i.e. owned property therefore at least worth something) to perform. An anti-Catholic riot in Philedelphia in 1844 saw the buring of St Michael’s and St Augustine’s churches along with many Irish homes. Thirteen people were killed. A similar riot occurred in Louisville in 1855.
It was during and after the famine years when the newly arrived Irish masses crowded the rapidly expanding slums along the American east coast, the same areas where the north’s African American population often resided. Noel Ignatiev begins his book How the Irish Became White with an apt summation of the dynamics between the new neighbors:
As they came to the cities, they were crowded into districts that became centers of crime, vice, and disease. There they commonly found themselves thrown together with free Negros. Irish and Afro-Americans fought each other and the police, socialized and occasionally intermarried, and developed a common culture of the lowly. They also both suffered the scorn of those better suited. Along with Jim Crow and Jim Dandy, the drunken, belligerent and foolish Pat and Bridget were stock characters on the early stage.
Ignatiev goes on to make the all important point that for the Irish (and the same could be said for later groups) ‘to enter the white race was a strategy to secure advantage in a competitive society.’
Exactly what did it mean to be white at the time? A salient fact is that in the late 18th century the definition of Negro in an encyclopedia in the U.S. included concepts such as idleness, intemperance, debauchery, and treachery (as pointed out in Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race). Would that make whiteness in that context the noble opposite of all those things?
That is the main thrust of David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. Roediger actually contrasts working class attitudes towards race from preindustrial to industrial times. Prior to 1800 biracial festivals weren’t uncommon in American cities. The New York City slave revolts of 1712 and 1741 were also biracial affairs. However with the onset of industrialization and the rise of wage labor (‘white slavery’), the decline of the independent artisan economy and culture that went with it, along with the new inherent workplace discipline and mechanization, black people came to be seen as exotic, undisciplined and, crucially in Jacksonian American, anti-Republican. When the insecurity and loss of independence of wage labor needed to be strongly contrasted with slavery in order for workers to have some sort of peace with the industrial system, both slaves and black freemen became convenient targets, while at the same time also perversely serving as attractions in popular street theater such as minstrelsy (in which white performers would often don black make-up and act in stereotypical ‘black’ ways). It’s possible that this kind of conflicted attraction and revulsion can account for the neighborliness between Irish and African-American peoples in places like New York’s infamous Five Points neighborhood and the largely Irish led (and very anti-black) Draft Riot of 1863.
As far as the status of the new immigrants regarding their whiteness there are two main schools of analysis. One takes the position that the new immigrants were actually ‘white on arrival’ (the title of Thomas Guglielmo’s book on Italian immigrants in Chicago) and that whatever racial middle ground or otherness they occupied the new immigrants did have color on their side. According to this view being Italian-American in the early 20th century would mean being racially distinct (a member of the ‘Italian race’ or the ‘Southern Italian race’) and being open to discrimination and hostility, even persecution, but still generally being white at the same time.
The other view, represented by David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness, posits that the new immigrants did hold an ‘inbetween’ position of not being securely white or nonwhite, arguing that the strict separation of race and color of the ‘white on arrival’ thesis is too difficult to sustain. For instance he points out that judicial opinions regarded the color of southern Europeans as open to question, but their white racial status secure. Plus given how treatment and the attitude toward the new immigrants varied from place to place this position has a point.
Yet, whatever the subtleties within these two categories, in a major way it can be said that their main difference is without much meaning given their broad agreement; any analysis will recognize the critical fact that whatever the views of the KKK, newspaper editorials, or individual and/or groups lawmakers (and these views at times would have to be described as sensationally racist), the new immigrants’ whiteness was largely protected by the naturalization laws, the Supreme Court, and the U.S. Census. This meant that despite the efforts of many they were able to become citizens, vote and therefore acquire some degree of political power, apply for certain jobs, and eventually live in certain neighborhoods with no real legal obstacles.
A general timeline of experience, particularly for the immigrant groups who arrived around the dawn of the 20th century and its first decades, would include, after a good deal of hardship, a general acceptance of being white in American society (both popular culture and high society), as well as a collective awakening on the part of the communities themselves to the reality of whiteness and the advantages that it presented to them (Guglielmo’s White on Arrival convincingly argues that in the case of Italians it wasn’t until the 1930s that this awakening even began to take place on a large scale). There is broad agreement that World War II, with its military draft and calls for national unity, was a watershed in this awakening.
However perhaps equally as important ironically was the impact first that the immigration regulations that targeted the new immigrants themselves had on their assimilation, and second the way New Deal programs were administrated through a racist bureaucracy and local governments displayed just how important whiteness was to things like homeownership (including property values) and economic advancement. Once the process began it proved largely unstoppable. So much so that the by then burned out KKK eventually opened its membership to Catholics and most of those groups it had previously organized against. Meanwhile right up to the present day the votes for the ‘white’ working class are vigorously fought over in every national election, and usually with the so called liberal party of the system trying to prove just how conservative it can be.
A side effect that arises when bringing to light the history of the new European immigrants is the narrative that one hears from time to time, usually from their descendants, about how those immigrants overcame displacement, poverty, and
discrimination to build better lives for themselves and their children without a helping hand from anyone, particularly the government. The obvious, and racist, implication
being that others (blacks, maybe newer immigrants) haven’t been able to do the same and so always have their hands out for government support, i.e. welfare, food stamps, etc, that taxpayers (honest, hardworking white people like themselves) are forced to dole out. While that rags to riches mythology correctly acknowledges the hardship and struggle of the immigrants, as well as their hard work, it is faulty to say the least. The main historical lesson to be learned is that it was their somewhat belated assimilation into whiteness, and their acceptance of it, that opened the door of advancement through access to New Deal programs and career opportunities that were denied to other people deemed nonwhite.
What American history shows is that racial thinking varies a good deal by time and place. Given that race also has no real scientific meaning it can be concluded that it is just a product of the human mind (perhaps a leftover remnant from earlier tribal times). At the same time it may also be argued that to deny the existence of races may lead to a denial of the existence of racism itself. After all, even if race is a relatively modern concept is it realistic to expect a collective realization that it isn’t real, especially since believing that different races exist doesn’t automatically lead to a person being racist? Even if one feels forced to concede, if only reluctantly, that some of that is probably true, there is no reason to concede total defeat and no denying the genuine progress that has been made. Numbers of ‘inter-racial’ marriages continue to rise and while the latest version of the census continues to divide people by race it can’t be overlooked that Americans have for the first time elected a president who did not check off ‘white’ on his census form. So even if some form of racism is destined to exist somewhere the fact that history clearly demonstrates its parameters can change and weaken is enough to hope and expect that racist thinking can be marginalized further and further. History and science also show that any attempt to find or build racial ‘purity’ in either individuals or societies is both reactionary as well as futile. We may even be able to envision a world where other related, artificial concepts such as borders, nations, and Diasporas are also marginalized. Such is a form of globalization that can be embraced.