Plunging Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Jacobson’s book, noted from its title, is the story of how a racial consciousness carrying firm divisions between Jews, Poles, Germans, Scandinavians, and other “whites,” rose to prominancy in the American consciousness, and then fell into the single category of Caucasian. As with his book Special Sorrows, Jacobson is not shy in using multiple methods and sources to explore racial consciousness, through state laws, scientific papers, popular discourse on sexuality and race, immigrant literature and even the curriculum of public schools—from Mark Twain to the New York draft riots and New Orleans lynchings.

Making Jacobson’s obvious are scholars of race who too often conflate race with color, which is Jacobson seeks to historicize as a “late-twentieth-century understanding of ‘difference’” (6). To Jacobson, “by looking at racial categories and their fluidity over time, we glimpse the competing theories of history which inform the society and define its internal struggles.” This refies a monolithic whiteness to Jacobson, and underestimates the power of racial categories to shift depending upon historical circumstance, and that there is some genuine truth to the current racial categories that have emerged as more truthful than racial categories in the past.

To put race in historical perspective, Jacobson names three epochs, the first emerging in the nation’s first naturalization law that names citizenship to “Free white persons” in 1790, the second in the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924, where whiteness was put into a hierarchy of difference and scientifically defined white races mapped around both capital and their “fitness for self government,” and finally, after the 1920s, where the caucasion race counterbalanced the African-American migrations into the urban centers. As one might immediately tell after reading this list, Jacobson may implicitly be dealing only with a certain America, that of the Northeast, as the impact of heavy Asian immigration is missing from this analysis, as is the African American racialization before urban migration began.

What is perhaps the most enlightening running theme of this book is introduced in the first part, which is that economic forces and capital had one hand in the racializations of immigrants, yet, there was another force just as powerful and determining a factor of how different kinds of whiteness was valued. What defines whiteness in the first place, is the naturalization law of 1970, where:

Deeply embedded racial assumptions of republican ideology, then, in combination with the practical “necessities of a slaveholding, settler democracy on a “savage” continent, led to an unquestioned acceptance of whiteness as a prerequisite for naturalized citizenship.  (30)

Due to this assumption of whiteness, Republicanism in this period “would favor or exclude certain peoples on the basis of their ‘fitness for self-government,’ as the phrase went, and some questionable peoples would win inclusion based upon an alchemic reaction attending Euro-American contact with peoples of color” (17). Because whiteness was the defining factor of citizenship, and America itself was a democracy that heavily relied on the education and participation of its members, republicanism was embedded within the racial ideology of the period. As Jacobson says:

the political history of whiteness and its vicissitudes between the 1840s and the 1920s represents a shift from one brand of bedrock racism to another—from the unquestioned hegemony of a unified race of white persons to a contest over political “fitness” among a now fragmented, hierarchically arranged series of distinct “white races. (43)

The illogics of racism become paramount in eras of racial riots and heavy European immigration, where “nativism” becomes redefined to fit certain white races and not others, to include those who might bring better stock into citizenship. As Jacobson says, “at issue now was simply which ‘white persons’ truly shared what an earlier generation had indiscriminately conceived of as…the ‘white man’s gifts’” (69). The naturalization law would continually redefine racial consciousness with court cases where racial minorities lay claim to whiteness, beginning with Ah Yup(1878, Chinese, “scientific evidence,”) culminating in Halladjian(1909, Armenians are white),Yamashita(1902) Ozawa(1922, Japanese not white)¸and Thind(1920, Indians are not white) in the 1910s and 1920s (75).

What helped define whiteness in law as Caucasian rather than a hierarchy, was first eugenics, where “the full authority of modern science [was brought] to bear on white identity [and] did so in a way that challenged the scheme of hierarchically ordered white races” and popular belief, led primarily by naturalist writers such as Frank Norris, Jack London, and Owen Wister (94). To Jacobson, “literary naturalism was defined by the very notions of race that drove the immigration debate,”  and naturalist writers “imbibed and popularized the racial truth of indivisible whiteness” (89). Finally, the third factor in culminating white races into a single category, “caucasion,” was the racial imagination of barbarian others that took hold of American consciousness from travel literature and the Spanish-American war. Jacobson explains:

Discourses of nationhood, savagery, and civilization throughout [the early twentieth century] also gathered European immigrants—however grudgingly—into the community of European conquerors. The manufacture and maintenance of “Caucasion” whiteness depended in part, as Humphrey Desmond had it in 1898, upon national encounters with “barbarian dominions” even more problematic than the immigrants themselves—from constant (and constantly narrated) contact with “black morsels” like the nations of the plains, Mexico, Hawaii, Samoa, Cuba, Puerto Rico, or the Philippines. (222)

At stake in Jacobson’s writing is the notion, handed down by Robert Parks, that racial consciousness is generated by “an awareness of otherwise unnotable physical markers,” and that color is the primary marker that distinguishes race. For Jacobson, the primary markers of difference are fluid, and are at times color, but are always directed towards particular groups when they are “socially or politically important for one reason or another” (105). The Celts, for instance, were grouped as “monkey-like” and often pictured with large jaws, and tilted noses—like a monkey. The marker of racial difference, in other words, depends not merely on the physiognomic differences between peoples, but on the need to recognize difference in political or social interests.


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