This is a guest post (begun as a set of hasty scribbles on Facebook in the wake of Charlottesville) by Sean Parson, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Politics and International Affairs and the MA program in Sustainable Communities at Northern Arizona University. He is the author of Cooking up a Revolution: Food Not Bombs, Anarchist Homeless Activism and the Politics of Space (forthcoming).
So the modern racial system is a result of early colonial American history. In the mid to late 1600s (see Abolition of White Democracy or The Invention of the White Race) early southern colonies, in the middle of riots and work slow downs and a growing coalition between indentured servants and slaves “freed” white people from bondage and defined that black=slave, white= free labor. This approach spread throughout all the slave colonies because, well it worked, at quelling revolt and led to an interesting fact: poor, newly defined, whites began policing the race line.
That equation of black=slave and white = free was the guiding logic of the US democracy (nation wide due to laws about slave catching even in the north, see 12 Years a Slave) and the American political conceptions of citizenship were defined in this equation.* Every new group that entered the US were put into this spectrum: were they white or non-white? And every new “ethnicity” was original positioned as “not white,” because whiteness meant benefits and you do not just give away benefits to new immigrants if you are in power.
So the Irish came and were originally “non-white” after a few decades of intentionally devised actions to make them more white via being the most racist immigrants around, they were given access to the space of whiteness (see How the Irish Became White). This became the model of expanding whiteness from then on and the German, the Italian, the Greek, the Northern Europeans, and lastly the Jews (in the 1960s) were granted legal and social status of whiteness (see both Working Towards Whiteness and Black Face, White Noise. With that they gain, what is called “the wages of whiteness” which are small (but meaningful) social, economic, and political benefits that subsidize the working class or middle class wages (see Wages of Whiteness).
From 1776 to 1964, these wages were directly paid for via the state. So the New Deal, for instance, exempted from Social Security jobs that were primarily non-white and funded jobs that were white. This meant that only white folks, for the most part, got the first generation (and second) of social security benefits. Similarly the US government would redline neighborhoods and that allowed them to not provide the support for home ownership to non-white people (until 1964) and even the first round of the GI bill there were ways to remove the benefits for black soldiers (See When Affirmative Action Was White). In effect this led to a cascading wave of problems. I can look at many but here is just one -“the racial wealth gap” – which is slowly decreasing but at this rate they expect it would take over 300 years for that to balance out.
So now back to contemporary race. What is race? Race is a political filtering of people within certain categories for social, political, and economic reasons. What does that mean for the “white race”? Continue reading