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Whiteness Studies II

An update on the new history of race in America
Peter Kolchin
p. 144-163


Études sur les Blancs. Au cours des deux dernières décennies, les études sur les Blancs se sont multipliées en sciences sociales et humaines et apparaissent comme une nouvelle voie d’accès à la question des races et du racisme aux États-Unis. Les deux textes présentés ici font un bilan de la façon dont les historiens ont traité le sujet. Le premier d’entre eux, publié initialement dans le Journal of American History en 2002, concerne le développement des études sur les Blancs dans les années 1990 ; le second, inédit, est une mise à jour sur les tendances les plus récentes. Tous deux montrent que les études sur les Blancs ont un potentiel analytique important, mais ils attirent également l’attention sur les difficultés conceptuelles et méthodologiques du domaine.

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Anthropologie, Histoire
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1In 2002, I published a preliminary evaluation of « whiteness studies », a new genre of scholarly analysis that had emerged in a number of humanistic and social scientific disciplines in the 1990s (see preceding article, reprint from the Journal of American History). Focusing on historians’ use of whiteness and paying particular attention to two influential historical studies, I found much to praise but also much to criticize in the new field. On the one hand, whiteness studies represented an innovative new way to emphasize the social construction of race in America and to attack the absurdity of white racism; on the other, they typically suffered from lack of precision in defining « whiteness », an exaggeration of whiteness’s universal salience, and an inattention to both historical and historiographical context. I concluded by offering some tentative suggestions for where the field might go in the future and expressing the hope that « ten years from now, we will be able to conclude that it was in their second decade that whiteness studies really came of age » (Kolchin 2002, p. 173).

  • 34  Representative titles outside of history include Sullivan (2006 – philosophy), Berger (2005 – art) (...)

2Since the completion of this article, studies on whiteness have continued to proliferate. Indeed, a keyword search reveals their accelerating rate of publication: whereas twenty-two books with « whiteness » in their titles appeared during the five years 1997-2001, twenty-eight such volumes were published during the period 2002-2006. As before, these volumes cover a broad range of disciplines from philosophy and art to education and literature, and works of history have more than held their own34.

  • 35  In this collection’s first essay, literary scholar Louise DeSalvo (2003, p. 28) focuses on her gra (...)
  • 36  Similarly, Matt Wray’s categorization of antebellum southern poor whites as « not quite white » de (...)

3In many ways, these new works resemble their whiteness studies forebears – and display the same weaknesses as well. Aiming to combat unconscious as well as conscious white racism, they typically employ personal anecdotes, raise present-minded concerns, and show a heavy dose of didacticism; as Jennifer Guglielmo observes in her introduction to a co-edited volume entitled Are Italians white?, « this collection teaches us about the power we have as individuals to take action against oppression in all its forms » (Guglielmo 2003, p. 5)35. As before, « whiteness » appears everywhere and nowhere, a concept reified and frequently poorly-defined: one author declares that « whiteness is not, yet we continue for many reasons to act as though it is », while another sees in Princess Diana « not just an elevated feminine whiteness, but a reinscribed one, a representation of the cultural and affective power of the West » (López 2005, p. 1; Roberts 2005, p. 32). Too often, in their efforts to combat the evil of white racism, whiteness authors continue to offer strained and exaggerated arguments on the salience of whiteness, seeing it as underlying virtually all oppression and discrimination. Insisting that « Americanness has always undeniably meant whiteness », Linda Frost suggests that to the Confederate rebels during the Civil War, « to be non-American or Yankee meant occupying the space of the racialized, othered alien »; correctly noting Confederate portrayals of Yankees as « liars, beasts, and demons », she provides no evidence at all linking this view to a perception of their being non-white (Frost 2005, pp. xii, xiv, 115)36.

  • 37  See « Scholarly controversy: whiteness and the historians’ imagination », International labor and (...)

4Perhaps most striking is the extent to which recent « whiteness » scholarship appears to exist in a vacuum. My Journal of American History essay was hardly alone in raising serious conceptual questions about the whiteness studies of the 1990s. In the fall of 2001, historian Eric Arnesen published a far more slashing critique of the existing whiteness literature, attacking its imprecision, lack of empirical evidence, and strained reasoning and concluding that « the category of whiteness has to date proven to be an inadequate tool of historical analysis »; Arnesen’s critique was accompanied by comments from six prominent historians, most of whom also expressed considerable discomfort with the current state of whiteness studies. Two years later, sociologist Margaret L. Andersen published a more restrained essay that subjected the sociological whiteness literature to criticisms that were in some ways remarkably similar to those I raised about the work of David R. Roediger and Matthew Frye Jacobson, especially deploring the reification of whiteness and the tendency of its authors to ignore material reality. And many book reviewers raised similar questions, although in necessarily abbreviated format37. For the most part, however, whiteness studies authors have continued to write as if their previous works had gone unchallenged, largely ignoring criticisms and even questions from without. Rarely has a scholarly discipline seeking to broaden horizons appeared quite so insular as whiteness studies.

5Nevertheless, there are signs of hope. New works on whiteness are starting to appear that demonstrate a more sophisticated approach, both methodologically and interpretively, while existing whiteness scholars are partially retreating from exaggerated claims and grappling with new ways of exploring the subject. The recent evolution of « whiteness studies » – at least as practiced by historians – can be highlighted by examining three new books: Thomas A. Guglielmo, White on arrival: Italians, race, color, and power in Chicago, 1890-1945, David R. Roediger, Working toward whiteness: how America’s immigrants became white, and Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots too: white ethnic revival in post-civil rights America. The first of these, a remarkable book by a young scholar, represents the most impressive work to date on whiteness, and suggests that in the right hands the field has a bright future. The second and third – by « founding fathers » of the discipline – show both the continued weight of past approaches and serious but only partially-successful efforts to overcome them (Guglielmo Thomas A. 2003; Roediger 2005; Jacobson 2006).

  • 38  Most Italian immigrants to the United States came from the South, where regional and local identit (...)

6Focusing on Italian immigrants in Chicago from 1890 to 1945, White on arrival displays meticulous research and innovative analysis, in the process calling into question the standard narrative of an immigrant group « becoming » white. As the number of Italian immigrants in Chicago surged from 552 in 1870 to 59,215 in 1920, writes Guglielmo, they suffered from « extensive racial discrimination and prejudice », but primarily as Italians (or southern Italians), not as non-whites. Viewed by native-born Americans as inferior, « they were still generally accepted as White »; despite sporadic efforts in the early twentieth century to question their whiteness, « color challenges were never sustained or systematic ». Meanwhile, in terms of self-identification, regional and local loyalties at first remained paramount: while Italian-American newspapers such as L’Italia spoke of « la razza italiana » (not bianca), most Italian immigrants « clung instead to family and town loyalties » and « many newcomers seem to have treated “colored” and “white” groups similarly ». Rather than see themselves as white, non-white, or even Italian, they were more likely to identify as southern Italians (meridionali) or Sicilians. If Americans generally accepted them as white « on arrival », to the immigrants themselves color seemed of little significance (Guglielmo Thomas A. 2003, pp. 7, 27, 28, 37)38.

7Gradually, in the 1920s and 1930s, in the face of growing anti-immigrant sentiment (and restrictive legislation), the immigrants developed a growing sense of their Italianness – Italianitá – but whiteness itself still meant little to them; « When Italians looked down on African Americans, it was… because they thought Italians – not Whites – were “the best”… », Guglielmo explains. « Italianitá and not whiteness was becoming most Italians’ identity of choice ». Other Americans, meanwhile, while looking down on the Italians as « horrifyingly violent, lawless, treacherous, depraved, and immoral », continued to regard them as white; indeed, Italian-American gangsters such as Al Capone were seen as « white mobsters », not as black or non-white. Significantly, even as many of the immigrant-Italians revealed their sense of Italianitá by expressing admiration for fascism in the 1930s, African-American spokesmen condemned the Italian invasion of Ethiopia as an example of white colonization of black Africa; in short, « African Americans insisted more on Italian whiteness than did Italians themselves » (Guglielmo 2003, pp. 57, 88, 77, 125).

8Only in the 1940s did Italian-Americans increasingly identify as white, in part as they strove during World War II to stress their patriotic Americanness and play down their Italianitá, and in part as they sought to take advantage of homeowning opportunities and preserve property values. As this happened, there finally occurred both « a melding of race and color » and « an unmistakable declining significance of European race and a rising salience of Americanness ». For Italian-Americans, as for other Americans in the post-World War II era, « race » came to signify color, and distinctions that had once seemed racial came to be understood as « ethnic » (ibid., 2003, p. 162).

  • 39  Politically-active Latinos in the United States have referred to themselves, similarly, as members (...)

9White on arrival represents an advance on several levels. Far more than previous whiteness studies, it is based on careful documentary research rather than clever supposition; rather than asserting the way Italians saw themselves, Guglielmo shows it. Carefully distinguishing between « race » and color, he also shows that although race could be color-based, it often was not: both native-born Americans and Italian immigrants themselves saw the existence of a distinctive Italian race (or nation), but in neither case was it based on their non-whiteness. While sharing with other whiteness authors an unfortunate tendency to blur precise attribution of behavior through use of the passive voice (« Were Italian immigrants and their children readily accepted as Whites? ») (ibid., 2003, p. 4), he goes much further than most in disentangling self-perception from the views of others, thereby complicating the question of what it meant to « be » or « become » white. If most Americans saw Italian immigrants as white from the start, whiteness meant little in Italy, and most of the immigrants identified first by village or region and then by race or nation (as Italians), only much later coming to consider themselves whites (or Americans). In separating « race » from color, Guglielmo both acknowledges existing criticism of mainstream whiteness scholars and comes closer than others to raising an important question implicit but strangely ignored in the work of other whiteness scholars: Italians in America saw themselves as part of « la razza italiana », which could variously be translated as the Italian race, nation, or people, but what exactly do these terms mean, and what is the relationship among race, nation, ethnicity, and people?39

10Although David Roediger does not accept Guglielmo’s distinction between race and color, in a number of ways he edges away from at least some of the positions put forth in The wages of whiteness, toward a more refined understanding of whiteness itself. Introducing a collection of essays that stresses the continued salience of « race » and ubiquity of white racism, for example, he warns against « so defensively insisting on the continuing relevance of race as to miss tremendous changes » that have occurred. Because « the props have been kicked from under much old-style racism » (including formal segregation, disfranchisement, and color-based immigration-restriction), he continues, the point is « not that struggles for racial justice must continue on the same terrain, but only that they must continue ». In short, racism – and presumably therefore whiteness as well – has changed (Roediger 2002, p. 15).

11Even more important are hints of new thinking in Working toward whiteness. In many ways, this book is vintage Roediger. Displaying the same strong interest in language – although much less in class – as in The wages of whiteness, he also addresses the same basic problem: « becoming » white. This time, however, borrowing a leaf from Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a different color, Roediger focuses on the whitening not of the native-born working-class or the Irish immigrants of antebellum years, but of the « new » European immigrants who came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At first, he argues, in an account partially reminiscent of Guglielmo’s, the immigrants did not consider themselves « white », but quickly – « so quickly… as to be virtually W[hite]O[n]A[rrival] » – they came to appreciate « the clear advantages of being white ». As the new immigrants « learned » whiteness (i.e., became racists), they gradually came to seem white to other Americans. Immigration restriction in the 1920s made them appear less threatening, as did the increasing flow to northern cities of Mexican immigrants and southern blacks. Home ownership played an important role in this process of whitening, as upwardly-mobile immigrants turned to restrictive covenants to keep African-Americans out of their neighborhoods and thereby protect property values. « New immigrant identification with whiteness », writes Roediger, « would eventually turn on the defense of home and neighborhood ». By the end of World War II, « the ghetto had unequivocally become black, and eastern and southern Europeans far more securely a part of the master race » (Roediger 2005, pp. 119, 169, 244).

  • 40  « At the level of legal and academic expertise… », Roediger (p. 50) observes « there was broad agr (...)

12Lacking the excitement that novelty afforded The wages of whiteness, Working toward whiteness is in some ways a more sophisticated book than its predecessor. Roediger makes a greater effort than previously to distinguish between the self-perception of his subjects and their categorization by others (although the concept of « becoming » white continues to invite conflation of the two). Partially retreating from the idea that the immigrants were not (quite) white, Roediger now terms them « inbetween nationalities », a formulation that represents a modest improvement over « not white » but still suffers from the ambiguity of in between what? (Recognizing the problem, Roediger muses that « “in-among” may be a more apt, if cumbersome, term than inbetween ».) In fact, much of his evidence – although not his argument – indicates that rather than viewing new immigrants as in between white and black, many Americans saw them as inferior whites (a point that Jacobson established in Whiteness of a different color). « Yes, they’re white but they’re not our kind of white », commented a Texas planter in objecting to the intermarriage of « Bohunks » (a term variously applied to Bohemians, Hungarians, and other central Europeans) and native white Americans. Roediger’s solution to this problem is to suggest a differentiation between official and everyday categorization of new immigrants: whereas « in common speech » (and presumably, common thought) the new immigrants were less than white, academic experts and government officials accepted their whiteness. « The courts, Roediger concedes […], consistently allowed new immigrants, whose racial status was ambiguous in the larger culture, to be naturalized as white citizens and almost as consistently turned down non-European applicants as nonwhite » (ibid., 2005, pp. 45, 50-51, 43, 59, 60)40.

13Although this formulation represents an improvement over its predecessor, because it does not totally ignore evidence that Americans – at least officially – accepted the immigrants’ whiteness, Roediger continues to see discrimination against or hostility to particular categories of people (in this case, new immigrants) largely as a reflection of color prejudice, even when the evidence supporting such a position is scanty. Occasionally he is able to cite racial epithets that may in fact have implied color judgments – it is plausible if not self-evident that the term « Guinea » (applied to Italians) suggested an African connection –but more often he assumes or asserts such an implication rather than showing it; he provides no evidence, for example, that « Greaser » (for Mexicans, and later Italians and Greeks) or « Hunky » (for Hungarians) indicated darkness or non-whiteness. As before, Roediger continues to see virtually all discrimination through the lens of whiteness and non-whiteness, and thereby to reify race by insisting on its true meaning (ibid., 2005, esp. pp. 37-45).

14Indeed, Roediger seems curiously uncomfortable with what he terms the « messiness » or « lack of clarity » of racial categorizations, which (as Jacobson showed so well) were sometimes based on biological and sometimes on cultural assumptions and which have changed dramatically over time; some « experts », Roediger notes, saw the world divided into three or four major races, whereas others listed dozens, including Jews, Irish, and English-speaking peoples. Although at times he seems to recognize this messiness as a function of the arbitrary and subjective character of race – a fundamental insight of whiteness studies – too often he steps away from this insight by insisting that race is (or should be) really about whiteness, as if race could have a real meaning aside from the social relations that engender it. In approaching the messiness of race, Roediger flirts with but ultimately misses an opportunity to probe a subject lurking in the background of all whiteness studies – the relationship among « race », « nation », and « ethnicity » as overlapping, constructed systems of categorization. If the original whiteness books by Roediger and Jacobson (The wages of whiteness and Whiteness of a different color) had never appeared, Working toward whiteness would no doubt seem a pathbreaking contribution, but it contains too little that is new and comes too close to embracing an « essentialist » understanding of race to fulfill its potential (ibid., 2005, esp. pp. 33-55, pp. 35, 51).

15Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Roots too represents more of a new departure than Working toward whiteness. Focusing on white Americans’ recent (re-)discovery – and celebration – of their ethnic roots, Jacobson turns from how the Irish, Jews, and Italians « became » white to how whites became (and are becoming) Irish, Jewish, and Italian. As this shift suggests, in contrast to his previous attention to how others saw and categorized immigrants, Jacobson’s focus in this volume is on white ethnics’ self-identification, a self-identification with strong political implications since it enables whites to deny their white racism by saying, « I’m not white; I’m Italian »… or Irish, or Jewish. But « however appealingly draped in a celebratory rhetoric of diversity and inclusion », Jacobson asserts, the new American ethnic nationalism « is founded in large part on white primacy » (Jacobson 2006, pp. 1, 9).

16In a series of often compelling chapters, Jacobson describes a growing ethnic identification, beginning in the 1960s with « the group-based mobilization of the Civil Rights movement », accelerating in the 1970s with academic celebration of « diversity » and « multiculturalism », spreading to mass society in the 1970s and 1980s with the emergence of the « new ethnicity » on television and an ethnic revival (from Portnoy’s complaint to The godfather) in American literature, and culminating in a pervasive celebration of « hyphenated » Americanism in the 1990s. The new interest in national heritage was embraced by – and served the purposes of – both Right and Left: if conservatives could rebut charges of anti-black racism by promoting a model whereby immigrants were able, through hard work and faith in America, to overcome prejudice and gain popular acceptance, radicals and feminists welcomed multiculturalism as a way to subvert a traditional order that they saw as run by and for rich white males. Suggesting that a sense of malaise and « national decline » underlies the new ethnic revival, Jacobson emphasizes the extent to which an apparently tolerant and accepting celebration of diversity in fact has reflected a continued – if muted – form of white racism: in the new celebration of hyphenated Americanism, he explains, « it must be the right kind of hyphen ». In short, the search for roots represents not the retreat from whiteness that it appears but rather a shift from « Plymouth Rock whiteness to Ellis Island whiteness » (Jacobson 2006, pp. 20, 314, 396, 7).

17This determination to place the ethnic revival within the context of a commitment to whiteness represents not only the most salient theme but also the most problematical feature of an interesting book that grapples intelligently with an important subject. Of course, Jacobson is correct in asserting that white ethnic identification left plenty of room for hostility to blacks, and could enable conservatives to establish their own non-racist credentials by pointing to immigrants as role models for dissatisfied blacks. But his argument obscures the extent to which the new ethnicity represents a step away from whiteness. After all, the search for ethnic roots was by no means limited to white Americans: black Americans, too, embraced hyphenated Americanism (evident in the terms « Afro-American » and then « African-American »), sought to trace their African origins (an effort popularized in the wildly popular novel-turned-television-miniseries Roots), and displayed a new ethnic/racial pride (expressed in the idea that « black is beautiful » and the movement for « Black Power ») (Haley 1976; Carmichael and Hamilton 1967). Equally important, in its broadest sense the new ethnic pride implied a retreat from whiteness (if also from common humanity): rather than identifying as Whites, in implicit opposition to blacks or « non-whites », Americans were choosing to see themselves as Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Jewish-Americans… and African-Americans, setting themselves off from everyone else, white or black.

  • 41  For two somewhat differing versions of the invention (or construction) of ethnicity, see Sollors ( (...)
  • 42  The changing policies of the Census Bureau can be traced in a series of articles in the New York T (...)

18Curiously, Jacobson ignores the critical question of how people determine – or choose – their ethnicity; in the process, like Roediger in Working toward whiteness, he comes close to reifying categories that are subjective and arbitrary. Large numbers of Americans – probably a majority – have multiple origins; in choosing to call themselves « Irish-American », « Italian-American », or « African-American », they are creating an ethnic identification for themselves rather than recognizing something real: ethnicity is invented, not discovered41. Many Americans see themselves as « multi-ethnic » and/or « multi-racial », and – in an implicit recognition of the subjective nature of any system of classification – the Census Bureau now allows Americans to list more than one racial and ethnic category to describe their identity, which millions of them choose to do42.

19The essentializing and reification of « race » and « ethnicity » by both Roediger and Jacobson represent an unfortunate form of backsliding by scholars whose focus on « whiteness » originally aimed to subvert established categories and show their arbitrary character. Jacobson comes closer than Roediger to coming to grips with the complex, constructed nature of identity, and the relationship among race, ethnicity, and nation(ality) in shaping it, but ultimately he too shies away from the task of confronting how groups choose to define themselves – i.e., what makes a « people ». How whiteness studies can break out of their current limitations is a subject worthy of debate, but (as I will suggest below) I believe that one solution lies in placing both whiteness and the search for roots in a broader, multinational context. American whiteness, ethnicity, and identification are best understood not in isolation, but as part of a world-wide process.

20Although both Roediger and Jacobson seem stuck between their old versions of whiteness and the demands of a new, more historically-based approach, other authors are likely to adopt at least some of Guglielmo’s understanding. Indeed, this is already occurring. In a just-published article, for example, Carlos K. Blanton specifically notes criticisms of the dominant whiteness scholarship and examines the career of Mexican-American civil rights leader George I. Sánchez in order to test whether in fact Mexican-Americans consciously chose to « become » white – i.e., whether they used white racism as a tactic to distinguish themselves from African-Americans and thereby raise their own status. Blanton concludes that in fact « Sánchez’s civil rights career rebuts claims that Mexican Americans could not and did not cooperate with African Americans because the Mexican Americans had internalized whiteness » (Blanton 2006, p. 603).

21But perhaps the most interesting revision of the traditional whiteness narrative, next to Guglielmo’s, is to be found in Eric L. Goldstein’s new book on the evolution of American Jewish identity. Although reluctant to repudiate the general concept of immigrants « becoming » white – he accepts at face value the validity of this process for Irish and Italians – Goldstein finds that it does not apply to Eastern European Jews, who from the beginning « were overwhelmingly seen as white ». Crucial here is the difference that Guglielmo stressed between race and color: although it was common in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century America to consider Jews a distinctive race, most Americans did not see Jews as non-white. (Praising the « noble civilization » of Jews, the virulent anti-black racist Thomas Dixon criticized what he considered misguided efforts to equate the lynching of Blacks with Russian anti-Jewish pogroms.) The concept of a « Jewish race » was also evident in Jews’ self-perception: although Jewish identification evolved over time, before the mid-twentieth century – when « ethnic » and religious identification increasingly supplanted racial – Jews as well as gentiles typically accepted the notion of « Jewish distinctiveness » as « rooted not in cultural particularity but in biology, shared ancestry, and blood ». In short, the narrative of Jews’ « becoming » white does not work, and Goldstein sees his story as « one that explores how Jews negotiated their place in a complex racial world » in which whiteness was not the only salient characteristic. Goldstein does not always fully appreciate the significance of his own evidence: he undervalues the importance of the distinction between race and color and – in a reaction reminiscent of Roediger’s to the « messiness » of race – he seems bothered by the indeterminate and changing meaning of « Jew » (to both Jews and gentiles) rather than seeing such variation as inherent in the subjective nature of « race ». Still, The price of whiteness represents a major improvement over Karen Brodkin’s ahistorical approach to Jewish identity, and indicates – together with Guglielmo’s work – a new maturity in whiteness studies (Goldstein 2006, pp. 17, 46, 11, 5; Brodkin 1998).

22Indeed, there is reason to hope that the basis is being laid for whiteness studies to move toward their potential of advancing our understanding of how Americans – and other people – see both themselves and others, what circumstances shape these perceptions, and how « race » and « whiteness » relate to other ingredients in this process. Although this is not the place for a full analysis of « what is to be done », the following comments, queries, and speculations are designed to suggest some possible avenues for further exploration as the field matures. They should be regarded not as fully-developed arguments so much as tentative thoughts for discussion.

  • 43  On the link between egalitarian modernity and racism, see Fredrickson (2002, passim, esp. pp. 11-1 (...)

23I would begin by reiterating the importance of placing American whiteness – and « race » in general – in broad international context. Although whiteness authors have usually written about developments in the United States as if they occurred in a vacuum, it should be evident that many of the central questions of concern to these authors – « racial » prejudice, the self-identification of immigrants, the relationship between color and race, the tension between integrating into mainstream society and maintaining one’s own identity (however defined) – are problems besetting other countries as well as the United States. What is more, they do not represent an entirely new phenomenon. Although whiteness studies have focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it has become part of the accepted orthodoxy that racism is a recent curse that has reached its full fruition only in modern egalitarian societies, Benjamin Isaac’s detailed exploration of « proto-racism » in the Ancient world raises important questions about the roots of racial thought, and whether prejudice against « non-whites » constitutes simply one stage and one form of a pervasive chauvinism that has been endemic to human history (Isaac 2004)43.

  • 44  There is, if course, a long history to such southern identification: see Kolchin (2003, pp. 7-38).
  • 45  In her comment on the earlier version of this article, delivered at the conference on « “Race”, “e (...)

24An essential question that whiteness authors have largely ignored is why we are now witnessing growing racial, ethnic, and national identification in both the United States and much of the world, and what the relationship is between this new trend and apparently similar developments in the past. Among the wide variety of overlapping ways that people have categorized both others and themselves – religion, class, occupation, geography, intellect, gender, race, color – some have seemed particularly salient in certain eras, only to fade into obscurity, while others have proved surprisingly enduring after appearing for a time to be of diminishing concern. Because Jacobson pays little attention to the relationship between ethnic and other forms of identification, he cannot establish whether ethnic pride has, in fact, eclipsed those other forms as fully as he believes. What, one might ask, of the almost-ethnic consciousness of white southerners, forged in regional hostility to both « Yankees » and a strong central government, a consciousness recently explored by journalist Tony Horwitz in his fascinating book Confederates in the attic (Horwitz 1998)44. The immigrant-ethnic identification that Jacobson emphasizes, while important, can be seen as part of a larger process of growing particularism, whether based on national origin, region, or religion45. Millions of Americans, for example, no matter what their « roots », now identify more strongly as evangelical Christians than anything else, while for others a commitment to Islam is primary, cutting across any ethnic or racial identity. Here, once again, placing the American developments in broader international context would be useful.

25There are no doubt many reasons for the recent rise in ethnic tensions and national consciousness, including the unprecedented scope of international migration that has brought together diverse nationalities in numbers unprecedented as well. I believe, however, that just as a profound sense of political disillusionment helps explain the emergence of whiteness studies as a discipline (Kolchin 2002, p. 167), so too a declining belief in the possibility of progressive social change (resulting in part from the collapse of a world socialist movement and the virtually-unquestioned hegemony of market capitalism) underlies a major reordering of human aspirations, one element of which is an accentuation of ethnic/national identification. For more than two centuries – since at least the last quarter of the eighteenth century – « enlightened » thought has accepted the notion of human progress, and people have struggled to remake the world (or their worlds) on behalf of a social vision informed by belief first in republicanism, and then in varying versions of democracy, socialism, and feminism. Now, in an era when for the first time in modern history there appears to be little potential for such progressive change, people who at one time would have put their hope in the struggle for social justice are turning to a renewed emphasis on ethnicity, nationalism, local or regional attachments, and religion (others, yielding to the logic of the market, see their salvation in acquisition of material goods). I would propose that the American search for roots can best be understood in this context as well.

  • 46  For major works emphasizing the constructed nature of « nations », see Benedict Anderson (1991); H (...)
  • 47  The term « racism » is of relatively recent origin, emerging in the first half of the twentieth ce (...)

26As whiteness scholars strive to make sense of the evolving ways in which Americans (and non-Americans) have categorized themselves and others, more sustained attention to the relationship among race, ethnicity, and nation – all of which are concepts that have been described as « constructed », « invented », and « imagined » – would seem to be in order46. Roediger’s emphasis on the « messiness » of race is surely pertinent here: Americans’ understanding of race has not only evolved over time, but has often overlapped with or even approximated what in other times was seen not as race but as ethnicity or nationality. Because even as they argue for its constructed nature Roediger and to a lesser extent Jacobson essentialize race by insisting that its true essence is related to color and that whiteness lurks behind all other prejudice, the works of Guglielmo, Goldstein, and Isaac are important as correctives; they reveal what should have been self-evident all along, that there have been many ways to oppress or discriminate against humans, and that – despite the virulence of white racial prejudice – whiteness has not always been at the center of such oppression and discrimination47.

  • 48  For a similar observation on the frequent conflation in English of nation and state, see Weeks (19 (...)

27Helpful in unraveling some of the complexity of racial terminology in the United States is a recent essay by Donna Gabaccia, who points out the unusual way that Americans have conceptualized « nation ». Whereas Americans have generally developed a « civic » concept of nationhood, using the term « nation » to mean « nation-state » or « country » composed of voluntary citizens (« the United States is a great nation »), in Italy, Germany, and much of central and eastern Europe « nationalists helped to make race and nation loosely interchangeable terms »; both signified a people or « descent group » rooted in biology. Largely unaware that « for speakers of other languages, nations themselves are ethnic groups (and sometimes are still called races)… or that nationalism itself can be suspect as a form of racism », Americans frequently find it puzzling that « [o]utsiders commenting on the hyphenated identities so common in the English-speaking world are often explicit in labeling them racial expressions » (Gabaccia 2003, pp. 46, 59, 58)48.

  • 49  « Jews often defined themselves publicly as a religious group », writes Goldstein (ignoring the si (...)

28In fact, some of these overlapping meanings of race and nation are also evident in the United States, despite the supposedly clear distinctions among race, ethnicity, and nation. When Italian-Americans spoke of « la razza italiana » they were expressing this widespread, « un-American » view of peoplehood: Italians – wherever they lived – were part of the Italian race or nation. Similar « racial » identification has been evident among other immigrants groups, from Latinos to Chinese (as has « national » identification among African-Americans, who supposedly constituted a « race »). But the « messiness » of both American categorization and self-identification is perhaps most clearly evident among Jews, who as Goldstein shows once appeared (to themselves and others) to constitute a race but now are almost never so described. If most Americans think they see Jewishness defined by either religion or (cultural) ethnicity – it would be unacceptable, « racist », to describe Jews as a race – they belie this perception by continuing to categorize as Jews those who lack religious or cultural manifestations of Jewishness; the concept of a non-religious Jew is incompatible with a religious definition of being Jewish, just as the concept of a totally « assimilated » Jew (who does not « act » Jewish) is incompatible with an ethnic (i.e., cultural) definition. Most Americans (and most American Jews) continue unconsciously to apply a racial understanding to Jewishness, seeing anyone with Jewish parents (or, for followers of official Jewish doctrine, mother) as Jewish (Goldstein 2006)49.

  • 50  On the continuing controversy over who qualifies to be considered a Cherokee, the role of « blood  (...)

29The thin line separating American understandings of race and ethnicity received graphic illustration recently in the New York Times Magazine. Writing in the weekly advice column, « The Ethicist », Randy Cohen responded to a reader’s question concerning whether the reader’s brother, who had just learned that he was not – as he had previously believed – « part Indian », was morally obligated to repay an education grant earmarked specifically for Native Americans. Taking the rejection of racial categorization to its logical extreme, Cohen replied that being Indian was (like being white for Roediger) a matter of choice, not genetics: « When invoking ethnicity, universities are – or should be – concerned not with genetics but with culture, with life as it’s actually lived. If a DNA test had shown your brother to be 20 percent Cherokee, so what? He did not live as a Cherokee. His Cherokee forebears did not affect his behavior. And so he ought not check the Cherokee box on any application ». My guess is, however, that most Americans would not agree with this judgment. They may have advanced to the stage where they would allow people to choose their ethnicity from among valid options (i.e., someone with German, Italian, and African ancestry can legitimately choose whether to « be » German-American, Italian-American, African-American, mixed race, or simply American) but not from an open-ended list; someone with German, Italian, or African ancestry cannot claim to be « French-American » just because he or she has a keen appreciation of French culture (Cohen 2006)50.

  • 51  A « ProQuest » database search reveals that the first New York Times reference to « Sunni Arab » o (...)

30The question of the relationship between a racial/ethnic/national understanding of identity and one provided by religion is both important and largely ignored by Roediger and Jacobson. Here, countervailing trends are in evidence. On the one hand, religion has frequently fostered national or ethnic identification. In the nineteenth-century, most Americans saw themselves as a Protestant people – and indeed, saw the United States as a Protestant nation. Throughout the world, religion has sometimes served as a unifying national force, providing political cohesion in struggles for national independence (as in Poland or Ireland) but then (at least sometimes) becoming less salient once that independence is achieved. Where countries have been based on super-national federations, confederations, or empires – the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Iraq –religion has often served as a dividing force, fomenting secessionist movements and nationalist divisions. In such cases, religion comes close to constituting a basis for ethnicity. Recently, the New York Times has started referring to those whom it used to call « Sunni Muslims » as « Sunni Arabs », suggesting that in fact they form a separate ethnic group (nation? race?) rather than just a religion, and referring as well to « secular Sunni Arabs » (the counterpart of non-observant Jews)51. But on the other hand, religion can clearly cut across racial, ethnic, or national identification, as is evident in those Americans for whom evangelical Christianity provides a stronger basis of identification than national origin, color, or occupation, or people elsewhere for whom being a Muslim (or the right kind of Muslim) is more important than anything else. Should one regard this kind of religious identification as itself essentially ethnic, or even racial, in nature? It is common now for evangelical Christians to speak of anti-evangelical « bigotry » as the last socially-acceptable (« politically-correct ») form of prejudice in the United States, just as Muslims sometimes speak of anti-Muslim « racism » – a concept that implies the existence of a Muslim « race ». Once again, we are back to the subjective character of race itself.

  • 52  For early enunciation of the argument that slavery led to racism in the American colonies, see Han (...)

31Finally, even as we move away from an exclusive emphasis on whiteness and non-whiteness in the making of « race », it is important to acknowledge and address the distinctiveness of both the African-American experience and of anti-black racism. Unlike most other Americans, the great majority of African-Americans are descended from people brought to the New World against their will and held as slaves, and there has been a particular intensity to the racism directed at African-Americans, an intensity that goes far toward explaining why some scholars see whiteness lurking behind almost all American racism. There is, of course, a lengthy historiography to anti-black racism and the chicken-or-egg question of its relationship to slavery, and it is impossible to revisit that issue here, except to note that it remains contested52. The slave experience of African-Americans was distinctive, but at particular points in time other groups – most obviously Native Americans – suffered treatment that was equally barbarous, and elsewhere in the world the hostility meted out to Jews defies an easy situational explanation of racism as rationalization of self-interest. As whiteness authors continue their effort to explain the evolving nature of race and racism in America, they must continue to confront in anti-black prejudice a particular manifestation of racism that is simultaneously unique and part of a broader phenomenon, and to work toward clarifying the relationship between the two.

32The field of whiteness studies appears to be at a turning point, on the verge of producing major new contributions to our understanding of how Americans have related to one another, but only if its practitioners are prepared to move beyond some of its original limitations. These include, among others, a lack of empirical research, an exaggeration of the universal salience of color in human categorization and self- identification, a concomitant tendency to reify whiteness (and race itself), and an insularity manifested both in a lack of attention to criticism and in a lack of attention to broad international context. Still, signs of growing sophistication among whiteness scholars provide grounds for cautious optimism. There is no guarantee that whiteness studies will fulfill the hope that I expressed at the end of my Journal of American History article, but it remains a real possibility.*

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* Manuscrit reçu en septembre 2007 et accepté pour publication en janvier 2008.

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34  Representative titles outside of history include Sullivan (2006 – philosophy), Berger (2005 – art), Wray (2006 – sociology), Taylor (2005), Frost (2005) and Traber (2007 – literature). See also the « revised and expanded » edition of the 1998 book by American studies scholar George Lipsitz (2006). Before 1997, there were very few « whiteness » titles: 1992-1996: 6; 1987-1991: 2; 1982-1986: 1; and 1977-1981: 0.

35  In this collection’s first essay, literary scholar Louise DeSalvo (2003, p. 28) focuses on her grandmother’s naturalization, beginning with a detailed account of her own interaction with her father, who did not properly appreciate the value of family documents that shed light on how in America her grandmother became « someone not truly white ». See, also, the introductory chapter to a new set of essays by David R. Roediger (2002, p. 16), in which he notes his « emphasis… on identifying not a “usable past” but a “usable present” ».

36  Similarly, Matt Wray’s categorization of antebellum southern poor whites as « not quite white » depends on his redefinition of « white as a social category, not a racial category » (Wray 2006, p. 139). For an essay that subsumes anti-Gypsy prejudice under the whiteness banner, see Imre (2005).

37  See « Scholarly controversy: whiteness and the historians’ imagination », International labor and working-class history, 60, 2001, pp. 1-92, including Eric Arnesen, « Whiteness and the historians’ imagination », pp. 3-32, with comments by James R. Barrett (pp. 33-42), David Brody (pp. 43-47), Barbara J. Fields (pp. 48-56), Eric Foner (pp. 57-60), Victoria C. Hattam (pp. 61-68), and Adolph Reed, Jr. (pp. 69-80), and a final response by Eric Arnesen (pp. 81-92). See Andersen (2003) and Gerber (1999). See, also, Eric Arnesen’s essay-review (2002) of David R. Roediger’s Colored white, Wickberg (2005), and book reviews cited in Kolchin, « Whiteness Studies I ».

38  Most Italian immigrants to the United States came from the South, where regional and local identities were strong, a sense of Italianitá was weak, and only the educated or landowning elite was likely to speak Italian. On the persistence in Italy of negative stereotypes about the « backward » South, see Gribaudi (1997) and Dickie (1997). For recent comparative investigations, see Dal Lago and Halpern (2002) and Doyle (2002).

39  Politically-active Latinos in the United States have referred to themselves, similarly, as members of « la raza ». See Garcia (1999).

40  « At the level of legal and academic expertise… », Roediger (p. 50) observes « there was broad agreement that eastern and southern Europeans were white ».

41  For two somewhat differing versions of the invention (or construction) of ethnicity, see Sollors (1989) and Conzen et al. (1992).

42  The changing policies of the Census Bureau can be traced in a series of articles in the New York Times. Noting that « the Government has found a new way to classify its people virtually every decade », reporter Felicity Barringer (1993) observed that « in 1990, about 28 percent of those answering an open-ended “ancestry” question listed two or more ethnic groups, like “Irish and Ukrainian”. But some children of white-black or white-Asian parents identify simply as “mixed”, and they want the census to let them do this officially ». The 2000 census expanded the number of « races » from four to five (white, black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian /Pacific Islander), categorized « Hispanic » as an ethnic group rather than a race, and allowed respondents to choose any combination they wanted, « resulting in 63 racial classifications for non-Hispanics and 63 for Hispanics »; as the director of the Office of Management and Budget put it, « we’re allowing people to express that multiracial heritage in whatever way they view themselves ». At the same time, the Census Bureau decided that those who chose to call themselves both « white » and members of a minority group should be counted in the latter category (Holmes 1997; 2000). For earlier census policy, see Anderson (1988).

43  On the link between egalitarian modernity and racism, see Fredrickson (2002, passim, esp. pp. 11-12).

44  There is, if course, a long history to such southern identification: see Kolchin (2003, pp. 7-38).

45  In her comment on the earlier version of this article, delivered at the conference on « “Race”, “ethnie” et “communauté” aux Amériques » (EHESS, Paris, 15 December 2006), Stefania Capone noted the effort to form a « Yoruba-American identity » described in her book (2005); « Blackness », she observed, « is thus but one step towards the acquisition of an “ethnic” identification via a religious identification ».

46  For major works emphasizing the constructed nature of « nations », see Benedict Anderson (1991); Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983); Hobsbawm (1990); and Geary (2002).

47  The term « racism » is of relatively recent origin, emerging in the first half of the twentieth century to describe belief in the superiority of « Nordic » races; it was at first applied far more often to Nazi anti-semitic ideology than to anti-black thought or action. Only in the 1960s, George Fredrickson explains, did racism « come into general use to describe attitudes toward African Americans » (Fredrickson 2002, p. 167).

48  For a similar observation on the frequent conflation in English of nation and state, see Weeks (1996, pp. 4-8). On the tension between civic versus racial versions of American nationalism, see Gerstle (2001). For studies that place American nationalism – and understandings of « nation » – in broad international context, see Parish (1995); and Doyle and Pamplona (2006).

49  « Jews often defined themselves publicly as a religious group », writes Goldstein (ignoring the sizable number of non-observant American Jews), « while privately pursuing Jewishness as a tribal phenomenon » (Goldstein 2006, p. 206). For a recent historical work exploring – and stressing – African-Americans’ sense of nationality or peoplehood, see Hahn (2003).

50  On the continuing controversy over who qualifies to be considered a Cherokee, the role of « blood » in this determination, and a recent effort to exclude black and « mixed race » descendants of those long accepted as members of the Cherokee Nation, see Nieves (2007).

51  A « ProQuest » database search reveals that the first New York Times reference to « Sunni Arab » occurred on 7 January 1980 (p. A3), but the term rarely appeared until recently: during the 21 years 1980-2001, the Times used « Sunni Arab » 21 times, for an average of once a year, but in the two years 2002 and 2003 the paper used the term 37 times, averaging 18.5 times per year. The shift to more frequent usage began on 19 May 2002. Although the ProQuest database does not cover years later than 2003, an impressionistic survey suggests that during the past year – following a period during which both terms were used – « Sunni Arab » has completely or almost completely replaced « Sunni Muslim » in the Times. Recently the paper has taken this practice one step further, referring to « each ethno-religious group – Kurd, Sunni Arab, and Shiite Arab »; « Shiite » and « Sunni » have gone from being religious to being « ethno-religious » designations, on a par with « Kurd » (which bears no religious connotation). See Cooper (2007).

52  For early enunciation of the argument that slavery led to racism in the American colonies, see Handlin Oscar and Mary F. (1950). Others countered that racial prejudice against blacks preceded – and made possible – the enslavement of Africans; see Degler (1959); and Jordan (1968). Much of the debate is covered in Vaughan (1989). In the most recent contribution to this question, Davis (2006, esp. pp. 48-102) puts forth a largely cultural explanation of racism, and places the American South in broad international perspective.

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Peter Kolchin, « Whiteness Studies II », Journal de la société des américanistes [En ligne], 95-1 | 2009, mis en ligne le 10 juin 2014, consulté le 18 juillet 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/jsa.12782

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Peter Kolchin

Henry Clay Reed Professor of History at the University of Delaware, Department of History, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716 []

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