Sunday, June 1, 2014
On Historicizing Whiteness in American Society
On Historicizing Whiteness in American Society: Perhaps a punkish sociologist might say to you that "races" do not exist. That Americans are living in a "raceless" society, primarily because different ethnic groups obtained their racial labels at different times (i.e., the Irish did not become "white" until the 1880s or the Ethiopians did not become "black" until the 1930s). So, how can anybody determine what it means to be white or black (or brown or yellow or red)? While these are intriguing assertions, they fail to account for the historical impact of racial thinking on politics and culture. Indeed, scientific constructions of race have been on the wane ever since the days of Hitler and Tojo. But social constructions of race are on the rise, as Americans increasingly seem to entrench themselves in the dueling abysses of "identity politics" and "political correctness." Maybe historian Matthew Jacobson stated it best when he claimed the "history of whiteness and its fluidity are very much a history of power." For the European immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before 1924 (when immigration quotas first went into effect), their whiteness went far beyond the so-called "eye-ball test." It was attributable to religion (Judeo-Christian tradition), ethnicity, language, and most importantly, social class. Thus, the 1924 Immigration Act not only helped codify whiteness in American society, it also gave preference to whiteness over every other ethnoracial category.