Becoming white in the United States, racism and building a racial pyramid

Since his election as US President in the 2016 elections, Donald Trump has made his sympathies for white nationalism plainly evident. He has used his office to provide a platform for white supremacist ideas, recycled white racist conspiratorial xenophobia, and has attacked anti-racist groups and political figures. Being white in the United States may seem like an obvious racial category, and membership of this group appears easy to determine.

But who exactly is white? Whiteness as a racial classification has undergone a long and unending period of social construction. In fact, social psychologists will tell you that the notion of race is a socially constructed category, influenced by political and cultural considerations. But is not whiteness obvious? After all, we can see who is white, black, Asian, Hispanic – can’t we?

Since the 1790 Naturalization Act, the United States has defined itself as a nation for ‘free white persons’. Only those fitting this latter category could apply for and achieve citizenship – with all the benefits and privileges that citizenship entailed. Better jobs, education, access to financial resources, social mobility, the opportunities for economic advancement, the chance to run for political office – being a citizen meant that you had a platform from which to make it.

The indigenous Americans, black slaves, and coloured persons were all excluded. But what about immigrants from Europe? Italians, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians – the ‘new’ immigrants wanted their opportunity to achieve the ‘American dream’. They did so by overcoming prejudice – and becoming accepted as white. They did their utmost to prove their worthiness by conforming to the standard of whiteness. Achieving that status meant being included as citizens in the melting pot.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants from Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe and so on occupied an in-between place – not black, but not white either. In a book by Professor Matthew Frye Jacobson called Whiteness of a Different Color, the author examines the various ways in which the new immigrant groups battled for acceptance into the racial order – not on the basis of cross-racial and multiethnic solidarity, but by being classified as white.

The United States ruling class was already promoting national hysteria regarding the influx of ‘lesser breeds’ from Eastern and Southern Europe diluting the racial purity of white stock. Italian Americans, for instance, occupied a perilous position – not black, but still swarthy, darker-complexioned foreign-types. While Northern Italians were considered lighter-skinned and therefore more socially acceptable, the curly-haired compatriots from Southern Italy endured the hostility of the white American establishment.

Racist stereotypes about Italian Americans abounded in the media, portraying them as congenital criminals, dangerous elements and deceitful opportunists – in an eerily similar way in which stereotypes about Hispanic immigrants are recycled today. While Italians were employed in Louisiana and other southern US states as labourers – replacing the newly emancipated black slaves after the civil war – they were considered an inferior breed, and were the targets of racist lynch mobs.

After Italian Americans were lynched by racist killers in 1891 in New Orleans – killed by a mob whipped into a frenzy by official media denouncing Italians as ‘criminal and cowardly Sicilians’ – the US government faced political consequences. The Italian government, backed by its expatriates in the US launched formal measures to push the American authorities for swift resolution.

President Harrison declared – as a concession to the Italians – that 1892 would see the first nationwide celebration of Columbus Day. The 400th anniversary of the Columbus voyage was intended to be a one-off celebration. It became the portal through which Italian Americans would be accepted as white – abandoning their black American neighbours to the lynch mobs and racism of white America.

No longer would Italians be confused with blacks or other coloured ethnicities – the device they needed to acquire white respectability was at hand. Anti-lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells, newspaper editor in Memphis – desired a cross-ethnic anti-racism focus to confront the problems of lynching, and the broader racism in American society. Italian Americans were advancing upwards in the racial pyramid of the capitalist United States.

The fight for inclusion into whiteness demonstrates the fluid nature of racial identity. Inclusion conferred economic advantages, but also meant distancing yourselves from the black outsider. The new immigrants – Greeks, Serbians, Polish, among others – began to imbibe the prejudices and underlying bigotry of their white neighbours.

Polish Americans, derided as an internal menace by white America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gradually found acceptance by becoming white. Initially the target of racist violence, Polish communities found that be practicing the same discrimination against the African Americans as did the majority white community, they could find their position in the racial pyramid improved – though they would still be ‘ethnic whites’.

None of this is to suggest that multiracial solidarity does not exist in the United States. Black Americans have been at the forefront of building multiethnic cooperation, and have shown tremendous courage and foresight in confronting racism. Confronting black immiseration requires a multiracial struggle. However, whiteness as we understand it today has always been a malleable concept, invested with historical and political influences.

There is one group that has been regarded as white – technically – but continually targeted as the menacing outsiders. Denounced as either bankers or beggars, this group has faced the conspiratorial paranoid fantasies of the white ruling establishment in the United States. US President Trump, in his numerous Twittering rants, has rehashed malignant stereotypes and promoted phantasmagoric conspiracies about this group.

The Jewish people, while legally considered white from the early days of the emergent United States, have faced vicious anti-Semitism in all its forms. Judaism is obviously a religion, not a race; but we cannot sidestep the reality of racism faced by the Jewish community in the United States. Jews have had their place in the whiteness category, but have also found themselves on the receiving end of the racist bludgeon.

That will be the subject of the next article. Stay tuned.

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