Wednesday, April 25, 2018

White (European) American

A Message to White America

Heather Gray

 A Message to White America: "It's Time We Woke Up"
Producer "Just Peace" WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM
(404) 523-3471/This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I am of European descent and, while I prefer to be called European American, given the American practice of classifying people by their race, I need to state unequivocally that I am "white". And it is of this "whiteness", it's repercussions and responsibilities that I write.

All of my adult life I have been a political activist. For more than 30 years I have participated in virtually all the major movements for justice in this country encompassing civil rights, anti-war, anti-apartheid, anti-nuclear, anti-corporate, anti-death penalty, on and on. Throughout this vast experience invariably racism and class oppression raise their ugly heads. For me, however, the most compelling and disturbing of these is racism and its companion white supremacy. The brilliant and profound scholar W.E.B Dubois warned us that the issue of race would define the 20th century which indeed it has. And because America has been so lax in adequately addressing this disease of racism and all it's augmented problems, race will likely define the 21st century as well.

Racism in America is of epidemic proportions and whoever denies this must be a fool or blind. It surrounds us in our economic strata, in our prison system, in our schools, in our political infrastructures, in our foreign policy, in our health system, in our housing, in our banking to name only a few! It is not a problem only in white conservative circles where most activists would expect it to be lodged, but in the so-called liberal and progressive circles as well. All will attempt to state otherwise. Conservatives might claim some of their best friends are Black. Liberals might state that they are working for changes of some policies which will "make life better for Blacks". Progressives in various organizations might say that they are working under the leadership of Blacks so they must be doing something right. None of this is ever enough and it is literally and figuratively "white wash". It is true that historically there have always been whites who have taken a stand against racism but the numbers have been far too limited given the enormity of the problem. This has frustrated me to the point that a few years ago I wrote a lengthy poem entitled "Being White and Angry" in which I delineated what some have described as an epistle of "white" ancestral and present day immoral, disgraceful and tragic exploits from slavery to the Gulf War.

The dreadful realities of racism and white supremacy have always teetered on the walls of decay because the foundation is built on lies and deception. No one has gained from racism despite claims to the contrary. If anything, we as whites have diminished our souls through racist practices and any economic gains are tainted - I refer to such gains as blood money.

We as whites will rarely claim responsibility for our creation of racism and white supremacy (they are ours after all) in spite of the fact that we demand recognition for virtually all other inventions - when it suits us and when we can benefit from it we'll claim it! It has been said that often the most important things in life are not discussed or written about and whites are definitely selective on not speaking out on the above issues. Could this suggest the importance of the issue to whites? I think so because it requires us to look deep into our souls and admit we are and always have been wrong about our entrenched present and past racism. This is seemingly an impossible task for most whites. Most of us have a shell that's almost impenetrable. While everyone else rails against us whites for our racist attitudes and policies we are largely and despicably silent on the issue. Why are we like this? Do many of us who are white want to maintain the present racist system? Yes, beyond doubt! While rarely are we now wearing sheets over our heads, we are instead sitting in board rooms where we implement racist policies. But in today's climate it is not appropriate to state without reserve that we are racist. Instead everyone skirts around the issue. This false impression by other whites drives me nuts. Are some of us nervous about reactions from other whites if we take up the call against racism? For some, this is likely true. Are we ignorant of racism? No, but nevertheless it seems the majority of whites claim ignorance. Are we apathetic? Yes. Do some of us feel guilt? Probably. Would we prefer to pass the buck? Always. Strangely, we prefer to blame those who are the victims of our prevailing racism as if they were architects of their own victimization and not us. The insanity and hypocrisy of this is mind boggling.

Throughout the years, whenever I've attended panels or conferences on racism organized by whites, invariably Blacks will be invited to participate. This is important because we as whites always need to be educated about the devastating impact of our actions and attitudes. But where, I've always asked, are the masses of whites who need to take up the mantle with other whites on this issue. Why are we, in vast numbers, not also on those panels and in the streets demanding change. Indeed, it is this lack of attention to racism on the part of whites with other whites that, in my opinion, has always been the missing equation in addressing the morass of the tragic effects of racism and white supremacy. The problem of racism rests with those of us who are white - we are the racists, we are the architects of this dreadful disease, we are the supremacists, and, guided by our Black sisters and brothers, we need to begin being accountable, speaking out and taking action. We need to plant the seed and let it grow deliberately and exponentially....individual to individual, community to community, city to city, nation to nation.

A few weeks ago while having dinner with a Black friend the discussion veered toward an update of racism in America. Citing the diminishing of affirmative action programs across the country and other telling signs, he said "I think white America is getting tired of everything being blamed on racism." I said "So what! White America needs to be badgered every minute of every day about our racist attitudes and actions." In fact, I still rankle over the "angry white male" contention in the early 90's stating that because of policies to reverse the preeminent white access to virtually all privileges in this country at the expense of everyone else, they felt they were being discriminated against. The gall of white males expressing anger over anything after hundreds of years of ancestral privilege astounds me...leaves me breathless. To be perfectly frank, I remain an "angry white female" expressing indignation at "angry white males" for this insult.

Upon reflection, I realized that my friend's comment was but an ancient response from Blacks who try to appease whites to prevent repercussions - a tragic defensive legacy of America's racist paternalistic society. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that whites react similarly with other whites. Invariably whites will attempt to make other whites feel comforwith their racism or will be deplorably apathetic. We as whites need to stop this nonsense.

It is my hope that in the 21st century, America's white community will finally come to its senses. Bill Clinton thankfully began this dialogue with his Commission on Race. But this was just a start and we know not to expect anything of integrity along this line from the Bush administration. But in communities throughout the country we white Americans can take a stand now, this very minute, and always should have been acting on or own and with other whites and Blacks. We can first educate ourselves about racism and address our own racist attitudes which should start with the basic premise that if you are white and born in America you are a racist. Don't think otherwise because it will not be true. We can learn from Blacks and other whites how to get beyond our racist background, how to be watchful of our own actions and attitudes and change them. Secondly, never let other whites get away with their racist attitudes and actions. Stop them immediately. Don't excuse them or attempt to make them feel comfortable. Thirdly, study the history of white and Black resistance to racism and injustice. This is not something you will learn in public schools, which would view white resistance, in particular, as traitorous to the racist American system. After all, it is traitoress to the system as well it should be. Fourthly, and most importantly, seek advice from Blacks on what we as whites should do to adequately and aggressively address racist problems in our communities, in the nation, in the world. Don't ever think for one minute that we as whites have the answers because we don't.

Finally, after centuries of "white" deceit, be mindful that pathetically we as whites still want to control everything and usually think we know everything. We need to recognize that we should never pursue any struggle against racism or for justice alone - or any other struggle for that matter. With whites leading the way we have experienced untold disasters for centuries. Forbid we should revisit such devastating consequences and pain. Actually this is rather a non-issue. Our deceit and lies are now out there for everyone to see, we could never get away with leading the way even if we tried. Let's admit our ignorance and false vacuous, hopeless pride. It's time we started to learn and do something worthwhile. We are centuries too late, but now is as good a time as any to start!







You are visitor number
Since  January 1, 2008


Constructing Whiteness

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 profiinitially, 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:

T o 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 smembers 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.

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 suifor

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 muracial lines in terms of relatively immuboundaries.

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 inequidistribution of power, defined as the ability to influence outcome. The distribution is inequiin 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 equidistribution 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.

U.S. Bureau of the Census (2001a). Median Income of Households by Selected Characteristics,Race, and Hispanic Origin of Householder: 2000, 1999, and 1998. Retrieved November 10, 2001, from:

U.S. Bureau of the Census (2001b). Percent of People in Poverty, by Definition of Income and Selected Characteristics: 2000 . Retrieved November 10, 2001, from:

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. 0In 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.


Critical Characteristics of Whiteness as Property

Cheryl I. Harris
Whiteness as Property,
106 Harv. L. Rev. 1709-1791, 1724-1737 (1993)
(cites omitted) (Permission Requested).  


The legal legacy of slavery and of the seizure of land from Native American peoples is not merely a regime of property law that is (mis)informed by racist and ethnocentric themes. Rather, the law has established and protected an actual property interest in whiteness itself, which shares the critical characteristics of property and accords with the many and varied theoretical descriptions of property.

Although by popular usage property describes "things" owned by persons, or the rights of persons with respect to a thing, the concept of property prevalent among most theorists, even prior to the twentieth century, is that property may "consist[] of rights in 'things' that are intangible, or whose existence is a matter of legal definition." Property is thus said to be a right, not a thing, characterized as metaphysical, not physical. The theoretical bases and conceptual descriptions of property rights are varied, ranging from first possessor rules, to creation of value, to Lockean labor theory, to personality theory, to utilitarian theory. However disparate, these formulations of property clearly illustrate the extent to which property rights and interests embrace much more than land and personalty. Thus, the fact that whiteness is not a "physical" entity does not remove it from the realm of property.

Whiteness is not simply and solely a legally recognized property interest. It is simultaneously an aspect of self-identity and of personhood, and its relation to the law of property is complex. Whiteness has functioned as self- identity in the domain of the intrinsic, personal, and psychological; as reputation in the interstices between internal and external identity; and, as property in the extrinsic, public, and legal realms. According whiteness actual legal status converted an aspect of identity into an external object of property, moving whiteness from privileged identity to a vested interest. The law's construction of whiteness defined and affirmed critical aspects of identity (who is white); of privilege (what benefits accrue to that status); and, of property (what legal entitlements arise from that status). Whiteness at various times signifies and is deployed as identity, status, and property, sometimes singularly, sometimes in tandem.

1. Whiteness as a Traditional Form of Property. - Whiteness fits the broad historical concept of property described by classical theorists. In James Madison's view, for example, property "embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right," referring to all of a person's legal rights. Property as conceived in the founding era included not only external objects and people's relationships to them, but also all of those human rights, liberties, powers, and immunities that are important for human well-being, including: freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom from bodily harm, and free and equal opportunities to use personal faculties.

Whiteness defined the legal status of a person as slave or free. White identity conferred tangible and economically valuable benefits and was jealously guarded as a valued possession, allowed only to those who met a strict standard of proof. Whiteness - the right to white identity as embraced by the law - is property if by property one means all of a person's legal rights. . . .

The law's interpretation of those encounters between whites and Native Americans not only inflicted vastly different results on them, but also established a pattern - a custom - of valorizing whiteness. As the forms of racialized property were perfected, the value and protection extended to whiteness increased. Regardless of which theory of property one adopts, the concept of whiteness - established by centuries of custom (illegitimate custom, but custom nonetheless) and codified by law - may be understood as a property interest.

2. Modern Views of Property as Defining Social Relations. - Although property in the classical sense refers to everything that is valued and to which a person has a right, the modern concept of property focuses on its function and the social relations reflected therein. In this sense, modern property doctrine emphasizes the more contingent nature of property and has been the basis for the argument that property rights should be expanded.

Modern theories of property reject the assumption that property is "objectively definable or identifiable, apart from social context.". . . Property in this broader sense encompassed jobs, entitlements, occupational licenses, contracts, subsidies, and indeed a whole host of intangibles that are the product of labor, time, and creativity, such as intellectual property, business goodwill, and enhanced earning potential from graduate degrees. Notwithstanding the dilution of new property since Goldberg v. Kelly and its progeny as well as continued attacks on the concept, the legacy of new property infuses the concept of property with questions of power, selection, and allocation. Reich's argument that property is not a natural right but a construction by society resonates in current theories of property that describe the allocation of property rights as a series of choices. This construction directs attention toward issues of relative power and social relations inherent in any definition of property.

3. Property and Expectations. - "Property is nothing but the basis of expectation," according to Bentham, "consist[ing] in an established expectation, in the persuasion of being able to draw such and such advantage from the thing possessed." The relationship between expectations and property remains highly significant, as the law "has recognized and protected even the expectation of rights as actual legal property." This theory does not suggest that all value or all expectations give rise to property, but those expectations in tangible or intangible things that are valued and protected by the law are property.. . .

In a society structured on racial subordination, white privilege became an expectation and, to apply Margaret Radin's concept, whiteness became the quintessential property for personhood. The law constructed "whiteness" as an objective fact, although in reality it is an ideological proposition imposed through subordination. This move is the central feature of "reification": "Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a 'phantom objectivity,' an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people." Whiteness was an "object" over which continued control was - and is - expected. The protection of these expectations is central because, as Radin notes: "If an object you now control is bound up in your future plans or in your anticipation of your future self, and it is partly these plans for your own continuity that make you a person, then your personhood depends on the realization of these expectations."

Because the law recognized and protected expectations grounded in white privilege (albeit not explicitly in all instances), these expectations became tantamount to property that could not permissibly be intruded upon without consent. As the law explicitly ratified those expectations in continued privilege or extended ongoing protection to those illegitimate expectations by failing to expose or to radically disturb them, the dominant and subordinate positions within the racial hierarchy were reified in law. When the law recognizes, either implicitly or explicitly, the settled expectations of whites built on the privileges and benefits produced by white supremacy, it acknowledges and reinforces a property interest in whiteness that reproduces Black subordination.

4. The Property Functions of Whiteness. - In addition to the theoretical descriptions of property, whiteness also meets the functional criteria of property. Specifically, the law has accorded "holders" of whiteness the same privileges and benefits accorded holders of other types of property. The liberal view of property is that it includes the exclusive rights of possession, use, and disposition. Its attributes are the right to transfer or alienability, the right to use and enjoyment, and the right to exclude others. Even when examined against this limited view, whiteness conforms to the general contours of property. It may be a "bad" form of property, but it is property nonetheless.

(a) Rights of Disposition. - Property rights are traditionally described as fully alienable. Because fundamental personal rights are commonly understood to be inalienable, it is problematic to view them as property interests. However, as Margaret Radin notes, "inalienability" is not a transparent term; it has multiple meanings that refer to interests that are non-salable, non-transferable, or non-market-alienable. The common core of inalienability is the negation of the possibility of separation of an entitlement, right, or attribute from its holder.

Classical theories of property identified alienability as a requisite aspect of property; thus, that which is inalienable cannot be property. As the major exponent of this view, Mill argued that public offices, monopoly privileges, and human beings - all of which were or should have been inalienable - should not be considered property at all. Under this account, if inalienability inheres in the concept of property, then whiteness, incapable of being transferred or alienated either inside or outside the market, would fail to meet a criterion of property.

As Radin notes, however, even under the classical view, alienability of certain property was limited. Mill also advocated certain restraints on alienation in connection with property rights in land and probably other natural resources. In fact, the law has recognized various kinds of inalienable property. For example, entitlements of the regulatory and welfare states, such as transfer payments and government licenses, are inalienable; yet they have been conceptualized and treated as property by law. Although this "new property" has been criticized as being improper - that is, not appropriately cast as property - the principal objection has been based on its alleged lack of productive capacity, not its inalienability.

The law has also acknowledged forms of inalienable property derived from nongovernmental sources. In the context of divorce, courts have held that professional degrees or licenses held by one party and financed by the labor of the other is marital property whose value is subject to allocation by the court. A medical or law degree is not alienable either in the market or by voluntary transfer. Nevertheless, it is included as property when dissolving a legal relationship.

Indeed, Radin argues that, as a deterrent to the dehumanization of universal commodification, market-inalienability may be justified to protect property important to the person and to safeguard human flourishing. She suggests that non-commodification or market-inalienability of personal property or those things essential to human flourishing is necessary to guard against the objectification of human beings. To avoid that danger, "we must cease thinking that market alienability is inherent in the concept of property." Following this logic, then, the inalienability of whiteness should not preclude the consideration of whiteness as property. Paradoxically, its inalienability may be more indicative of its perceived enhanced value, rather than its disqualification as property.

(b) Right to Use and Enjoyment. - Possession of property includes the rights of use and enjoyment. If these rights are essential aspects of property, it is because "the problem of property in political philosophy dissolves into ... questions of the will and the way in which we use the things of this world." As whiteness is simultaneously an aspect of identity and a property interest, it is something that can both be experienced and deployed as a resource. Whiteness can move from being a passive characteristic as an aspect of identity to an active entity that - like other types of property - is used to fulfill the will and to exercise power. The state's official recognition of a racial identity that subordinated Blacks and of privileged rights in property based on race elevated whiteness from a passive attribute to an object of law and a resource deployable at the social, political, and institutional level to maintain control. Thus, a white person "used and enjoyed" whiteness whenever she took advantage of the privileges accorded white people simply by virtue of their whiteness - when she exercised any number of rights reserved for the holders of whiteness. Whiteness as the embodiment of white privilege transcended mere belief or preference; it became usable property, the subject of the law's regard and protection. In this respect whiteness, as an active property, has been used and enjoyed.

(c) Reputation and Status Property. - In constructing whiteness as property, the ideological move was to conceptualize white racial identity as an external thing in a constitutive sense - an "object[] or resource[] necessary to be a person." This move was accomplished in large measure by recognizing the reputational interest in being regarded as white as a thing of significant value, which like other reputational interests, was intrinsically bound up with identity and personhood. The reputation of being white was treated as a species of property, or something in which a property interest could be asserted. In this context, whiteness was a form of status property.

The conception of reputation as property found its origins in early concepts of property that encompassed things (such as land and personalty), income (such as revenues from leases, mortgages, and patent monopolies), and one's life, liberty, and labor. Thus, Locke's famous pronouncement, "every man has a 'property' in his own 'person,"' undergirded the assertion that one's physical self was one's property. From this premise, one's labor, "the work of his hands," combined with those things found in the common to form property over which one could exercise ownership, control, and dominion. The idea of self-ownership, then, was particularly fertile ground for the idea that reputation, as an aspect of identity earned through effort, was similarly property. Moreover, the loss of reputation was capable of being valued in the market.

The direct manifestation of the law's legitimation of whiteness as reputation is revealed in the well-established doctrine that to call a white person "Black" is to defame her. Although many of the cases were decided in an era when the social and legal stratification of whites and Blacks was more absolute, as late as 1957 the principle was reaffirmed, notwithstanding significant changes in the legal and political status of Blacks. As one court noted, "there is still to be considered the social distinction existing between the races," and the allegation was likely to cause injury. A Black person, however, could not sue for defamation if she was called "white." Because the law expressed and reinforced the social hierarchy as it existed, it was presumed that no harm could flow from such a reversal.

Private identity based on racial hierarchy was legitimated as public identity in law, even after the end of slavery and the formal end of legal race segregation. Whiteness as interpersonal hierarchy was recognized externally as race reputation. Thus, whiteness as public reputation and personal property was affirmed.

(d) The Absolute Right to Exclude. - Many theorists have traditionally conceptualized property to include the exclusive rights of use, disposition, and possession, with possession embracing the absolute right to exclude. The right to exclude was the central principle, too, of whiteness as identity, for mainly whiteness has been characterized, not by an inherent unifying characteristic, but by the exclusion of others deemed to be "not white." The possessors of whiteness were granted the legal right to exclude others from the privileges inhering in whiteness; whiteness became an exclusive club whose membership was closely and grudgingly guarded. The courts played an active role in enforcing this right to exclude - determining who was or was not white enough to enjoy the privileges accompanying whiteness. In that sense, the courts protected whiteness as any other form of property.

Moreover, as it emerged, the concept of whiteness was premised on white supremacy rather than mere difference. "White" was defined and constructed in ways that increased its value by reinforcing its exclusivity. Indeed, just as whiteness as property embraced the right to exclude, whiteness as a theoretical construct evolved for the very purpose of racial exclusion. Thus, the concept of whiteness is built on both exclusion and racial subjugation. This fact was particularly evident during the period of the most rigid racial exclusion, as whiteness signified racial privilege and took the form of status property.

At the individual level, recognizing oneself as "white" necessarily assumes premises based on white supremacy: It assumes that Black ancestry in any degree, extending to generations far removed, automatically disqualifies claims to white identity, thereby privileging "white" as unadulterated, exclusive, and rare. Inherent in the concept of "being white" was the right to own or hold whiteness to the exclusion and subordination of Blacks. Because "[i]dentity is ... continuously being constituted through social interactions," the assigned political, economic, and social inferiority of Blacks necessarily shaped white identity. In the commonly held popular view, the presence of Black "blood" - including the infamous "one-drop" - consigned a person to being "Black" and evoked the "metaphor ... of purity and contamination" in which Black blood is a contaminant and white racial identity is pure. Recognizing or identifying oneself as white is thus a claim of racial purity, an assertion that one is free of any taint of Black blood. The law has played a critical role in legitimating this claim.







You are visitor number
Since  January 1, 2008


How the Irish Became White

A sermon by Art MacDonald, Ph.D.

  Several weeks ago I participated in a three day anti-racism training workshop which was conducted here in Pittsburgh. The facilitators were Rev. Joe Brandt, Executive Director of Crossroads Ministry, and Ms. Barbara Jordan, a community organizer and educator from the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, a New Orleans' based sister organization to Crossroads. Besides providing a very excellent and intense experience of just how systemic racism is in our society, on a more personal level it was a very rich reunion with these two highly skilled and committed trainers. I had spent a day with Barbara down in New Orleans during the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Urban Church weekend this past January and she had a very good feeling about UUs. She was delighted to meet someone from Pittsburgh who "had eaten her food, in her community." Just as delightfully, Joe and I realized that we had shared a ministerial experience some years back in the South Bronx. We learned and talked about all of our mutual friends. What a treat for me. Crossroads Ministry is the group which Mel Hoover has collaborated with in developing our UU anti-racist training experiences, so there were nice personal connections all around. Early on in the workshop there was an exercise which focused on "cultural racism and white cultural identity." Whites in the workshop were asked to talk about white culture. Most couldn't or wouldn't. The expression meant nothing to me. Nevertheless, we all struggled with it. As time went on we discovered that, in a sense, it was a trick question. The facilitators wanted the whites to struggle and to discover that the expression did have little or no content. Racial designations, white and black, are totally social constructs. "What then," they asked, "would you say about your culture? How would you define your culture and your relationship to it?" Though most of the whites had a difficult time talking about her/his culture - some resisted pretty strenuously - the trainers took a clear stand: if whites are to come to the multi-cultural table, they - we - must reclaim our individual cultural backgrounds. In many ways, we were reminded, African Americans are way ahead of European Americans in retaining their cultural identities. In a sense, the exercise wasn't as tough for me as for some others. I immediately thought of Boston, Irish and Catholic. It was clear to me that's where this UU had to start; the music, the humor, the food - as limited as the menu is - the faith, the working class, it was all there. I was having a good time; it felt very good on many levels. In a conversation later in the workshop, Joe mentioned a recently published book entitled "How the Irish Became White." It's a book about Irish emigration, race, class and U.S. labor history. I knew immediately I had to get a copy and find out just what it was about. It was a tough read. It was a story of primarily Irish Catholic emigration before and after the potato famine - roughly 1840 to the Civil War - and that people's struggle to survive in this white, Protestant world. It's a sympathetic yet tragic story of how race has been a defining characteristic in U.S. culture and how the race question has also plagued the white working class in this country. One might say that it is a story of how the Irish exchanged their greenness for whiteness, and collaborated with the dominant white culture to continue the oppression of African Americans. Ironically, Irish Catholics came to this country as an oppressed race yet quickly learned that to succeed they had to in turn oppress their closest social class competitors, free Northern blacks. Back home these "native Irish or papists" suffered something very similar to American slavery under English Penal Laws. Yet, despite their revolutionary roots as an oppressed group fighting for freedom and rights, and despite consistent pleas from the great Catholic emancipator, Daniel O'Connell, to support the abolitionists, the newly arrived Irish-Americans judged that the best way of gaining acceptance as good citizens and to counter the Nativist movement was to cooperate in the continued oppression of African Americans. Ironically, at the same time they were collaborating with the dominant culture to block abolition, they were garnering support from among Southern, slaveholding democrats for Repeal of the oppressive English Act of the Union back home. Some even convinced themselves that abolition was an English plot to weaken this country. Upon hearing of this position on the part of so many of his fellow countrymen now residing in the United States, in 1843 O'Connell wrote: "Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice, saying, come out of such a land, you Irishmen; or, if you remain, and dare countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer." It's a tragic story. In a letter published in the Liberator in 1854, it was stated that "passage to the United States seems to produce the same effect upon the exile of Erin as the eating of the forbidden fruit did upon Adam and Eve. In the morning, they were pure, loving, and innocent; in the evening, guilty." Irish and Africans Americans had lots in common and lots of contact during this period; they lived side by side and shared work spaces. In the early years of immigration the poor Irish and blacks were thrown together, very much part of the same class competing for the same jobs. In the census of 1850, the term mulatto appears for the first time due primarily to inter-marriage between Irish and African Americans. The Irish were often referred to as "Negroes turned inside out and Negroes as smoked Irish." A famous quip of the time attributed to a black man went something like this: "My master is a great tyrant, he treats me like a common Irishman." Free blacks and Irish were viewed by the Nativists as related, somehow similar, performing the same tasks in society. It was felt that if amalgamation between the races was to happen, it would happen between Irish and blacks. But, ultimately, the Irish made the decision to embrace whiteness, thus becoming part of the system which dominated and oppressed blacks. Although it contradicted their experience back home, it meant freedom here since blackness meant slavery. An article by a black writer in an 1860 edition of the Liberator explained how the Irish ultimately attained their objectives: "Fifteen or twenty years ago, a Catholic priest in Philadelphia said to the Irish people in that city, 'You are all poor, and chiefly laborers, the blacks are poor laborers; many of the native whites are laborers; now, if you wish to succeed, you must do everything that they do, no matter how degrading, and do it for less than they can afford to do it for.' The Irish adopted this plan; they lived on less than the Americans could live upon, and worked for less, and the result is, that nearly all the menial employments are monopolized by the Irish, who now get as good prices as anybody. There were other avenues open to American white men, and though they have suffered much, the chief support of the Irish has come from the places from which we have been crowded." Once the Irish secured themselves in those jobs, they made sure blacks were kept out. They realized that as long as they continued to work alongside blacks, they would be considered no different. Later, as Irish became prominent in the labor movement, African Americans were excluded from participation. In fact, one of the primary themes of How the Irish Became White is the way in which left labor historians, such as the highly acclaimed Herbert Gutman, have not paid sufficient attention to the problem of race in the development of the labor movement. nd so, we have the tragic story of how one oppressed "race," Irish Catholics, learned how to collaborate in the oppression of another "race," Africans in America, in order to secure their place in the white republic. Becoming white meant losing their greenness, i.e., their Irish cultural heritage and the legacy of oppression and discrimination back home. Imagine if the Irish had remained green after their arrival and formed an alliance with their fellow oppressed co-workers, the free blacks of the North. Imagine if they had chosen to include their black brothers and sisters in the union movement to wage a class battle against the dominant white culture which ruthlessly pitted them against one another. Oh that there had been other Irish Americans such as the soldiers from St. Patrick's Battalion who fought on the side of Mexico in the War of 1848, who did remain green and fought against oppression. So perhaps we Irish in America must reclaim our greenness and, perhaps, our anti-racism trainers are right that we all must reclaim our cultural heritage and bring it to the multicultural table. The only stipulation is that we do it in a decidedly anti-racist manner and in solidarity with oppressed classes of people. Maybe we can all share in the sentiment proclaimed in the 1991 movie about Dublin, "The Commitments," when it was stated that "The Irish are the blacks of Europe, so say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud."   Art McDonald is the Minister and Director of Social Advocacy at Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church.  

The site is available without logging in. However, if you want to post a comment you must login. Your email address will only be use to provide updates on race, racism and the law.