I answer:

Race has no biological basis as a concept; it is entirely a social and political construct. It is defined by a constantly shifting and morphing set of subjective parameters. Therefore, why does it persist as a method of classification?

The answer is in the question. The pseudoscience of race developed around a need to maintain class structures and divisions in either in lieu of or in support of legal means. In an age where democracy was beginning to flower, and notions of the innate social equality of human beings was being codified in Western societies, justification had to be found for the horrible, institutionalized brutality that was the hallmark of the Western imperial sins of colonialism and chattel slavery.

Why wring your hands over the torture and degradation you visit upon your fellow man, when it is easier to convince yourself that he’s less than human and has it coming? This dynamic was allowed to trump the higher ideals of our nation’s founding, as slavery was encoded (though not by name) into our original constitution. It came in handy as justification for the genocide of ‘conquered’ aboriginals, as well.

A catch-all apology that I always hear in discussions about our nation’s legacy of slavery and apartheid is that most ‘white’ people didn’t own slaves, and that much of our nation’s current population descends from post-slavery immigration. I submit that these undisputed facts prove the strength of racism in our society rather than refute it.

Why would hundreds of thousands of white non-slave owners risk their lives to support a feudal Confederacy that would continue to see many of them (and their offspring) living at various levels of serfdom? Why did so many post-Reconstruction whites fight so tenaciously (often to the point of brutal violence) to maintain a social structure that did its best to mimic that regressive antebellum society?

Anyone who studies the development of indentured servitude, slavery, and slave codes in pre- and post-colonial North America will begin to understand that the imported (and subsequently bred) African slave class held a value far greater than its labor potential. In a nation that had founded itself on the premise of the innate social equality of all human beings, legally codified class strictures were anathema (or at least inadvisable). With the establishment of an easily segregated and readily identifiable static underclass (i.e. black people), the upper classes came to rely on poorer whites focusing their fears and frustrations on that despised and vulnerable class instead of on the sociopolitical system that generated their insecurities. In other words, the self-regulating caste system served to provide wealthy whites with a relatively docile (from their perspective) labor force that comprised both the free (poorer white) and the enslaved (black).

Why did racism develop in the antebellum Northern states, however, if slavery was not as much a direct factor? It is important to remember that the entirety of colonial North America was slaveholding territory until near the end of the 18th century. Thus the social foundations of racism were entrenched decades before the Civil War, and the Union states– slavery or no– were never havens of equality and peaceful integration for blacks. Even though the Civil War was fought over the institution of slavery, white Northerners did not prove to be any more welcoming to emancipated blacks than did the former slave owners and slave-culture upholders of the South. (See James Loewen’s Sundown Towns for more on this.)

What is more, the massive surge in European immigration (primarily to the industrialized North) after the Civil War greatly complicated and lengthened the racial/ethnic totem pole. Eastern European, Southern European, and Irish immigrants were regarded as Untermenschen in the Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominated U.S., but even they (abused and segregated as they were) could take solace in their lack of African-ness. To put it crudely, it was better to be Italian, Polish, Russian, or Irish– at any given time– than it was to be a nigger.

In time, as the U.S. grew and developed into an industrial world power, the stigmas attached to various European ethnicities declined in potency. Some of this was due to the ability of some these immigrants (or their children) to assimilate (often with the assistance of the odd shortening or anglicization of a surname and the dampening of an accent) into the WASP-dominated culture, thereby paving the way for large segments of their communities. But the expansion of ‘white’ identity primarily relied on the existence of those who could never assimilate and would always be the visible ‘other.’ While other non-white ethnic groups attempted to emigrate to the U.S. (with varying degrees of limited success) over the decades, the bottom rung was already occupied by the group for whom hatred and fear was built into the collective U.S. psyche.

It follows, then, that “white culture” is less effectively described by what it is than by what it is not. Attempting to define “white culture” is a futile exercise, much as is attempting to define “black culture” in the U.S. context. There is also a danger in putting too much stock in the validity of ‘whiteness’ or ‘blackness’ as cultural constants. This dances too close to one of the foundational fallacies of racism, namely that social differences are genetically encoded.

All that said, I still believe Aunt B.’s question is a good one, primarily because it is so loaded.

3 comments on “

  1. Aunt B says:

    I was hoping it’d be a good and loaded question. I’m convinced that it is a question with an answer like an almond, that starts from a position of not having given it much thought and with one line of thought giving great consideration to how our culture views “white” and “white experience” as the norm and things that deviate from the norm as “exotic” and “strange,’ and with the other line going off on the problem of even defining what white is, being that race is, at best, a problematic way of organizing people, and that we would then come back together with some interesting conclusions.

  2. I’d say you hit the ball out of the park, then, Aunt B.

  3. Jeff says:

    Of course, at work you’ll hear the good Catholics whine whenever the subject of illegal immigration comes up, “hey, the Irish had it bad, too, ya know”–to which I told a kitchen full of them once, “As much as you motherfuckers hate the British, at least they made you learn English–otherwise, you’d still be talking that Gaelic gibberish and would be picking strawberries alongside Mexicans today”. THAT went over well, especially after I recommended this book.

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