Racism in America: Part 1 — The Myth of “White”

Anti-Integration Protesters in the American South

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that racism, as it is understood and practiced in American society, is in a sense as distinctly American as apple pie. The definition of racism is as follows:

“Racism — prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.”

- Oxford

Seems simple enough, right? So how has such a clear-cut concept, a universal human condition, become “Americanized”?

In short, it is due mainly to the American invention of “white people.”

Yes, “white people” is an invented concept, straight from the mouth of Uncle Sam.

To be clear, in the modern social and racial divisions of America, “white” has become a very real identification and section of the population. I am “white” by the current standards of American society. And due to the systems currently at play in America, being “white” is a beneficial identification for one to have for a myriad of reasons, but that is another topic entirely.

But the concept of “white” itself, as well as its evolution over time, is wholly an invention of America’s ruling classes that has served as an incredibly powerful tool for their interests.

So, where to begin?

Anti-Integration protesters in the American South, many holding the Confederate flag, a symbol of white supremacy

The colonial history of North America was a violent and destructive one. The genocide of Native Americans, the introduction of African chattel slavery, and the foundations of the American class system are all direct results of European colonial practices. Post-revolution, the United States of America found itself in a peculiar position. It had just defeated the most powerful empire in world history, its population was incredibly diverse in comparison to many “Old World” nations, and its very birth was fermented in the revolutionary beliefs of the Enlightenment.

Yet, there was one group of individuals who maintained a true monopoly on power. Today, we would define this group as “straight, white, property-owning, christian men.” At the time, “white” would not be understood as we understand it today. To illustrate, here is a quote from one of our nation’s most celebrated Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin:

“…in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.”

— Benjamin Franklin

So, to clarify, Europeans from Spain, Italy, France, Russia, Sweden, and Germany would not meet the standard of “white people” in Benjamin Franklin’s eyes. Perhaps you are thinking this was just Benjamin Franklin’s opinion alone, and that the rest of the new nation’s leaders felt otherwise?

This is simply not the case. The Anglo-Saxons, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), maintained the prejudices that defined racism and xenophobia in Europe, even as they took the “New World” under their auspices. Differing groups of Europeans viewed each other through racial and ethnic lenses, often based on historical conflicts or religious divisions. European Jews, for instance, were viewed both as a separate, inferior race, as well as the practitioners of a repugnant religion that was subject to its own specific prejudices and oppression. These prejudices, omnipresent in European history, culminated in the form of the Holocaust which occurred during the rule of the Nazi Party in Germany.

In post-revolution America, the pecking order was simple: those of English blood who owned property were seated comfortably at the top of the American caste system. The lowest caste was that of the enslaved Africans. Between these two castes sat the laborers, the various non-English European minorities, Native Americans (some of whom even owned slaves), and anyone else in between.

This relatively simple hierarchy maintained itself until the waves of immigration from the “swarthy” races of Europe, namely the Irish, and the abolition of chattel slavery. The Irish were themselves the victims of British colonialism, with Ireland often bearing the title of Britain’s “first colony.” Upon their arrival to America, specifically north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Irish often found themselves integrating (and, on occasion, intermarrying) with free Black Americans. This would not last, and soon both groups would be at each others throats.

Why the sudden change in temperament? Simple — competition.

A social hierarchy such as the one that defines our nation does not arise naturally, it is constructed with one purpose in mind — to keep the bottom portion of the hierarchy fighting each other so they don’t fight the top.

The ruling class, capitalists, pitted Black and Irish Americans against each other in the labor market.

“Say, Paddy, I’d hire you in a second, but the Negros are willing to work for a few bucks less.”

“Say, Jim, I’d be glad to have you on board, but the Micks don’t take kindly to working with Negros.”

So, Black and Irish Americans raced each other to the bottom, fought to keep each other out of unions, carved up neighborhoods in the cities, refused to mingle, despised each other. And the bosses laughed all the way to the bank.

Ironically, the general hatred the ruling WASPs felt towards both of these groups, and codified in American society, was at one point viewed as one in the same, as illustrated by images such as this:

Stereotypical depictions of a Black man and an Irish man are shown as being equal on a scale.
Stereotypical depictions of a Black man and an Irish man are shown as being equal on a scale

Here we see an offensive stereotypical depiction of a Black American and an Irish American, seated on a scale and under the banner of “South” and “North” respectively. The cartoons message is simple — the Irish are the “Negros” of the northern part of the nation. Often during this period, the Irish were referred to as “white n*****s,” and similar slurs. The same was true for Black Americans, who were often associated with the Irish through negative association and monikers.

A quick note: white supremacists often try to use this fact to conflate a false equivalency between the treatment of European minority groups and Black Americans in the United States. This is unequivocally false. Even at the height of anti-Irish prejudice, or any other prejudice against non-WASP European minorities in American society, the Black American experience in America is its own horrific beast, a beast that must be viewed through an entirely different lens due to the institutionalized racism directly targeted against Black Americans that persists to this day and is a direct result of African chattel slavery.

In short, to quote the Dead Kennedy’s, “Nazi punks fuck off.”

These drawings aim to contrast Irish and Black people against the “superior” Anglo-Saxon, an example of scientific racism that, alongside eugenic thought, provided many justification for racist thought and practices

This shared contempt that both groups experienced did not breed solidarity. Many Irish immigrants were quick to take up the cause of “assimilation,” or “Americanization.” Irish Americans soon dominated police forces, labor unions, government offices, and skilled labor positions in America’s metropolises. Their relatively early arrival as a major immigrant population allowed them to quickly assume the role of the “model minority.” Black Americans were not as fortunate, due in no small part to the fact that customs and other societal practices can be adopted and changed on a whim— skin color cannot.

The same issue would soon apply to immigrants from Latin America, especially those from the nation’s neighbor directly to the south, Mexico. The tragedy of it all is that the American hierarchical system did not act alone, it simply utilized the existing prejudices and hierarchies that were already practiced by the minority populations.

For the Irish, the difference arose mainly from those who arrived in America following the Irish Famine (1845–1852) and those who emigrated during the period of the Civil War and afterward. Those who arrived earlier were already well-established and on their way to being accepted, or at least tolerated, by the WASP majority. The second wave was criticized for their strict adherence to the “alien” faith of Catholicism and Irish cultural practices. And, of course, their relative poverty. Wealth, if it isn’t obvious at this point, is the key to understanding the hierarchy of American society.

Anti-Papist (Anti-Catholic) sentiments, specifically accusations of “dual loyalty” to the Pope, would serve as another justification for hatred directed at European minority groups that were majority Catholic. Another topic worthy of a separate article.

A cartoon depicting a “Papal Octopus” corrupting America’s proudly Protestant society
A cartoon depicting a “Papal Octopus” corrupting America’s proudly Protestant society

For Black and Latin Americans, colorism served as a major point of contention. Mixed race individuals (“mulattoes,” “mestizo,” etc.) faced discrimination from both their minority and majority communities, often finding no acceptance in either. In Latin America, a preference for “whiteness” was derived from the colonial rule of Spain and Portugal and continued after the revolutionary overthrow of colonial administrations.

American society, as structured by the ruling classes, exacerbated these conflicts by establishing the concept of the ideal immigrant — one wholly assimilated and obedient to WASP culture. That is white culture.

Now, what did the ruling class come to define white as, and why was the categorization created?

At this period in time, “American” referred exclusively to our modern concept of white. Immigrants were encouraged to abandon the cultures, beliefs, customs, philosophies, and politics of their homelands and to instead adopt a “clean slate” mentality. To be “American” meant to submit willingly to the structure of capitalism, patriarchal society, and the concept of “American Exceptionalism.”

The “Great Melting Pot,” as was explained to us as children. But what about those who had trouble melting?

To many Americans, the Irish immigrants were considered too “uncivilized” to assimilate to American culture and society

Now, the reason for this invention has already been touched on above. I have often stated my belief that American racism, and its hierarchy in general, is heavily based on economic thought.

Simply put — a working class divided by race prejudice allows the ruling class to dominate our society and steal the nation’s collective wealth with little to no resistance.

That wealth was created by the working class, mind you. A working class made up of people categorized by endless qualifiers, not limited solely to race. We are being hoodwinked with one of the most primitive beliefs that still plagues our species, and it only seems to be getting worse as time goes on.

In totally unrelated news, the current levels of wealth inequality in the nation are the highest in its history. Surely these two things aren’t related, right?

Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States, signer of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and frequent user of the “N-word,” summed it up like this:

“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

— Lyndon B. Johnson

Read that quote twice.

Lyndon B. Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This mentality is why working-class, “white,” Americans are currently trying to ban books that dare to challenge the manufactured reality that allowed them to claim the title of “white” in the first place.

“Hey, Paddy, I know your life is awful, and I know I treat you awful, and I know you’re living in poverty because of the wages I pay you, but at least you ain’t Black.”

America’s hierarchy is portrayed to the working class as a ladder, but it’s not a very wide ladder. And you have to be careful, there’s some people, who don’t look a lot like you, who are trying to get to the top as well. You have to make sure they don’t get above you. And how do you do that?

You keep them down.

This is why working people, in post-slavery America, fought each other at a vicious rate instead of organizing and fighting the class that kept them at the bottom of the system in the first place.

This is why Fred Hampton was killed, he was able to communicate that fact with all working-class people, regardless of race.

“We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity.”

— Fred Hampton

Fred Hampton, leader in the Black Panthers and founder of the Rainbow Coalition, a multi-racial group dedicated to assisting working people in Chicago. He was assassinated by the FBI in 1969, he was 21 years old

Today, “white people” include all of those “swarthy” races that Benjamin Franklin so detested. The Italians, the Irish, the Polish. All united under the prestigious banner of “white.” And, unfortunately, many of those who are the ancestors of these once marginalized and oppressed people now willingly support the system that once subjugated them. Their admission to the club was a begrudging concession from the original ruling class, the WASPs. The only reason the gates were opened to these “swarthy” people was because “white people” were becoming outnumbered — they needed to swell their ranks.

Now, the ruling class is much more diverse than it was at the nation’s founding. Anyone from any background can now partake in the exploitation of workers, hooray for diversity!

But the racial realities of this engineered hierarchy continue to reserve the heights of power and privilege for “white people” as currently defined by our society. And even though a very large majority of these “white people” remain at the bottom of society, in the economic sense, they still cling to the safety blanket that is their identity as “white.”

A consolation prize for the “economically anxious” white-American.

They will stand shoulder to shoulder in defense of the concept of “white” with the very same people who once excluded them from that club.

But this admittance might not be permanent, rather just one of temporary necessity. An admittance that can be revoked, depending on who gets to define what “white” is in the country’s future.

More to come, this is a topic that needs to be examined at length and through multiple angles. Let me know what you think.

No Irish need comment.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Dylan Rice

Dylan Rice

Agitator, banned-book list hopeful, failed-politician, suit-wearer, soul music-fanatic.