“Matthew Fry Jacobson Traces Racial Constructs in Whiteness of a Different Color


As the white race is somewhat new to scholarly examination, it provides a useful tool in determining how race is assigned and used to regulate the body politic throughout history. Rather than studying oppressed minorities and the effects they have suffered, the white majority holds far more control having dictated who deserves white privilege and why. In Matthew Fry Jacobson’s historical survey, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, he effectively argues that race is a social construct rather than biological fact, particularly as he traces the shifting white privilege assigned or denied to the Irish as well as the interpretive operation of race upon Jews, and although he does little to address gender bias within racial categories or include immigrant source material and their own views of where they fit in, these shortcomings offer little dissuasion from his matter of point.


To summarize, Jacobson’s central argument in Whiteness of a Different Color is that race is not a biological fact but a socially constructed and shifting device used to both include and exclude certain people from white privilege. To prove this, he follows three dimensions of race as they appear throughout a richly documented history of American culture:


race as an organizer of power whose vicissitudes track power relationships through time; race as a mode of perception contingent upon the circumstances of the moment; and race as the product of specific struggles for power at specific cultural sites (Jacobson, 11).


Essentially, the perceptions and employment of racial ?whiteness? shifts according to the social and political needs of the time and/or place with no concrete set of rules to define it.


To demonstrate race as an organizer of power, Jacobson cites the Immigration Law of 1790. Its phrase “free white persons” is directly connected to citizenship and the ability to self-govern within the republic. The term “white” operates exclusively to keep Asians and Africans out of America, and yet inclusively allows for mass migration of non-Anglo-Saxon Europeans like the Irish. Probationary white privilege is initially bestowed upon these immigrants, particularly in contrast to blacks, but by the 1830s science attempts to define and rank the races. From 1840-1920 native citizens use these differences to protect their privilege from new immigrants. Racial divisions are reinforced by limitations on entry to America via the Johnson Law of 1924 while probationary whites in America embrace the biology of race as prideful unification among themselves. Eugenicists of the 1920s decide upon three major divisions of race, Caucasian, Mongoloid or Negroid, subsuming the smaller racial divisions but replacing them with ethnicity through to the 1960s. Nazi Germany fallout of the 50s causes the reification of these larger racial divisions in order to assimilate Jews into “white” America. The civil rights movement simultaneously puts internal pressure on the country and the dividing line becomes black and white. These fluid boundaries of “whiteness” are evidence of conscious choices made by those in power to include or deny privilege based on the ever changing social, economic and political needs.


This perception of race, as Jacobson says, is “not only asserted or discussed but ‘seen'” (Jacobson, 137). Anti-Semitism, for example, is often centered on the visual. “The circuit is ineluctable. Race is social value become perception; Jewishness seen is social value naturalized and so enforced” (Jacobson, 174). At the same time, these visual features are embraced positively to unify a prideful Jewish population. Through this embrace of the Jewish physical difference, Jews are at once white and other. Science embraces this as well until WWII, the Cold War, and postwar prosperity shifts Jews toward Hebrew and then Caucasian categories.


Race becomes the product of power struggles at various political sites. In the 1840s, the Anglo-Saxon supremacy simultaneously separates pure Americans from savages at the borders while situating the self-governing far above the lowly Celtic immigrants. Problematic at best, imperialism paves the way toward a pan-whiteness as best suited for a unified national identity and expansion. American cultural collisions with Native Americans and Mexicans, are narrated as a citizen training of sorts that defines America as contrasted by the racialized and “uncivilized other” again and again. In 1870-1920 Naturalization cases, race is problematic particularly because there is no set standard for determining a Caucasian, whiteness, and ability to assimilate. Every legal determination threatens the delicate basis for racial differentiation. Beginning in the 1930s, the civil rights movement solidified the black and white color line to the benefit of probationary whites who thus became Caucasian. As both blacks and whites embraced the color line as a point of contention, including Roosevelt with his support of the New Deal, they slowly reified the difference between only two races where there had once been many. Jacobson concludes with an epilogue explaining that, as of the 70s, there has been a new trend of ethnic and/or racial embrace, as Caucasians care to shed the responsibility of oppression and claim their personal merit as hard earned rather than a privileged advantage.


Jacobson is exceedingly convincing as he traces the Irish immigrants’ various permissions into, and denials of, white privilege. By consulting the law, representational fiction, cartoons, magazines, news papers and scientific writing, all applicable to the times, the dots are connected along a cohesive journey as quite probably experienced by the Irish. Oppressed by Europeans as non-Anglo-Saxon, uncivilized savages, the Irish are admitted into America as “free white persons” thanks to the phrasing of the Immigration Law of 1790. Analyzing Breckenridge’s timely fiction, Modern Chivalry, an Irish character becomes the hero after battling the Indians. This heightened white recognition is something that the character originally did not have. Jacobson attributes this redefinition to:


republicanism [which] would favor or exclude certain peoples on the basis of their “fitness for self government” and some questionable peoples would win inclusion based on an alchemic reaction attending Euro-American contact with peoples of color” (Jacobson, 17).


Peoples of color include Native Americans and African Americans. For the Irish, to enjoy white privilege one must prove an ability to govern as whites do, in direct contrast with the “other.”


In the 1830s, Irish privilege is denied as science works to debate monogenesis versus polygenesis. Racializing the fragmentation within a single white race as based on physical and moral traits, these studies emerge to ?enumerate, describe, and ultimately rank the world?s peoples? (Jacobson, 33). While science offers whites a newly defined terminology of difference, the Irish and other variegated whites are demoted once again to “wild” or “savage” due to additional forces at work: the influx of immigrants drawn to the increased industrialization of America from 1840-1920, the nativist need to protect the republic from those who were deemed unable to govern themselves, and the forces of capitalism requiring an underclass to function.


The status of the Irish undeniably changes here. Perhaps the most telling account of this new, wild Irishman can be observed in the first three picture plates beginning on page 200. Irish skin is colored black to indicate their savage nature, equating them with blacks and Indians. Jacobson also examines literature produced just after the Irish New York City draft riots of 1863. In Harper’s Magazine (1867), Eleanor Leonard recalls “a howling as of thousands of wild Indians let loose at once” (Jacobson, 52). Public opinion in cartoons, newspapers and magazines reflect this wild notion widely, questioning who the Irish are.


From the 1920s through the 1960s, eugenicists decide upon three major divisions of race, Caucasian, Mongolian and Negroid. These larger categories subsume the minute differences previously defined within each category, and the Irish are once more restored to a privileged state of Caucasian. This move has since been solidified by the subtle reification by the civil rights movement in the 1930s drawing a line between black and white while erasing any other that existed between different whites.


Following this lengthy, historical paper trail is just one track used to prove that no racial definition is fixed. As the Irish slip in and out of favor on more than several occasions throughout history, this is not simply an odd occurrence. It also becomes evident that when the Irish are accepted as part of a white American front against a common enemy, they can simultaneously be out of favor as compared with the Anglo-Saxons as social and political needs change and thus complicated relationships exist.


Also not fixed are the physical or facial characteristics of race. Jacobson offers a strong argument for the ways in which visual attributes become inscribed upon the body and used to define Jews by non-Jews and Jews alike. Jacobson suggests that there is a “relationship between race as a conceptual category and race as a perceptual category” (Jacobson, 173). In other words, racial resemblance is first assigned and then recognized between two disparate objects of perception.


Arthur Miller’s Focus (1945) provides the perfect example of how this works, particularly in the aftermath of World War II when “Jewish” is being redefined. The main character, Newman, after hiring a Jew to the dismay of his boss, gets new glasses to better identify and prescreen interviewing Jews. His new glasses not only improve his vision, but he and others think they make him look more Jewish. As Jacobson describes:


The social category “Jew” becomes aligned with the visual category “Jew.” Layered atop this foundation of political exploitation is a superstructure of Jew-hatred deriving in large part from a psychology of self hatred. (Jacobson, 191)


The visual perception changes Newman’s identity, causes him to lose his job, affects his love life in various twists and turns, and all outcomes are based on unverifiable assumptions. When he looks for Jewish signs, he sees them and yet he can’t be absolutely sure how factual they are.


According to Jacobson, Miller’s removal of any verifiable connection between race and Jews allows anyone to pass as Jewish. Miller “locates the phenomenon of race in the eye of the beholder in disparate acts of perception engendered by the political economies and power relations” (Jacobson, 198). Looking and being seen, once done in a racially charged way, can shift perception allowing the viewer to see something that does not exist.


There are two points where this book may fall a bit short. First off, as noted in Donna Gabaccia’s generally positive review:


In his discussion of American imperialism, Jacobson presents convincing evidence that some European immigrants actively embraced America’s manifest destiny to vanquish lesser peoples in pursuit of democracy and that this represented, for them, a claim on whiteness as a form of property and of privilege? One hopes that the next studies of whiteness will draw on an equally broad range of sources from within immigrant communities to examine these other dimensions of “becoming Caucasian.” (Gabaccia 986)


Literature granting insight to this unique perspective would certainly be an interesting enhancement. Still, the continually changing operation of race in America via even just the historical legal documentation is enough to support the argument that race is a social construction.


Gabaccia also hopes that future “studies will show greater sensitivity than Jacobson’s to the fact that Americans have ?seen? race in deeply gendered ways” (Gabaccia 985-986). Again, I agree that gender plays a role in furthering different kinds of oppression within same racialized or ethnic boundaries and that those implications are important. Still, Jacobson’s thesis deals strictly with the operations of race without further division and his argument convincingly remains within bounds of that thesis. I don’t see the addition strengthening the argument as much as nuancing it.


Jacobson’s argument for the social construct of race ultimately succeeds because he convincingly interrogates the changes in racial meaning as related to historical events and needs of the time. As the Irish swing both in and out of racial fashion, these changes are directly related to Anglo-Saxon needs to distinguish themselves as superior, self-governing bodies and to consolidate national citizenship for the empire in the face of international “others.” This reveals the organization and re-organization of power via race as it morphs to into the social, political and economical needs of the time. Race thus becomes the product of specific struggles for power at national and international sites. Jacobson also proves that race is a fallacy of perception, demonstrating how Jewishness in particular, but also other racial manifestations, is imaginatively mapped and then actively recalled in an attempt to identify race. Without embellishing the book with gender issues or alternate perspectives that could have added, the argument stands firm.


Works Cited


Gabacca, Donna. Rev. of Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson. International Migration Review 34. 3. (2000): 985-986.


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