Race is a social construct, and no race is more socially constructed than whites. The alt-right does have a point when they say that they feel like they are unable to fully celebrate their European heritage, but not because it’s widely disparaged as asserted by this basket of deplorables. All European heritage has essentially been coopted by the ever expanding umbrella of whiteness. My family is emblematic of this social construct. I have lived my entire life on the receiving end of white privilege, yet my grandparents did not enjoy the same societal advantages. This snippet from our 1930 family census will provide a window into how.
Under “color or race,” my family wrote in “Jew.” We are descendant from Poland, and my great grandfather interpreted that he was not the same kind of white as his other Polish brethren. When they arrived in the states, the government sorted them as “white” even if that is not how they were treated by society. Whiteness is incredibly nebulous and malleable. It simply serves to discriminate against those with brown or black skin and anyone else it deems to be nonwhite.
The United States has always been a country of immigrants fearing new immigrants. The newest wave is always victimized whether they be Irish, Italian, Polish, Mexican, or literally whatever. Most of us descended from Europe, and many have been unable to unhinge themselves from the tribalist instincts that wrought near eternal conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. America was founded by European settlers on the backs of slaves and on the graves of the natives – denying those facts to preserve a false image of whiteness makes you complicit in those crimes. The brutishness of an era a few generations removed directly informs our current racial/class structure.
A potato famine in Ireland during the mid-19th century sparked a mass migration to our east coast and suddenly, the Irish comprised 70% of servants in Boston. Americans considered them to be a menial race, referring to the Irish as “white negroes.” Proving yet again, that whenever whiteness needs a barometer to establish the inferiority of another group of people, it will inevitably use those of African descent, as this cartoon from an 1899 Harper’s Weekly demonstrates.
NINA (No Irish Need Apply) signs cropped up all around cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago – usually placed next to a “no dogs allowed” sign. A century of progress later, one of Boston’s most beloved teams is named the Celtics, and the Irish are considered to be “white,” as around 15% of Conan O’Brien’s routine proves. Yet they never seemed to gain the full respect that other “white” groups who arrived before and after them obtained. St. Patrick’s Day is the clearest evidence of this as we stage a global celebration by impersonating the most infamous and unflattering Irish stereotype.
Saint Patrick’s Day wasn’t even a public holiday in Ireland until 1904; historically it had been a religious event. The driving force behind this global phenomenon came from predominantly Irish cities in America. They initially were events celebrating both Irish and American culture, and parades served as a reminder to everyone that the Irish were not going anywhere. As more Americans joined the celebration, the message became distorted, as many assumed that the only goal is to ingest as much alcohol as possible. The police “paddy wagons” sitting around your local bar scene every March are short for Patrick. Saint Patrick’s Day is both about celebrating Irish culture and perpetuating stereotypes that would be considered racist if the Irish were still deemed a unique race outside of “white.”
Italians are another group who have had to travel this arduous journey to whiteness. During the late 19th century, they were the ones on receiving ends of rants like “they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Italians were viewed as a sub-human race and like the Irish, a servant class. They ventured across the Atlantic Ocean to pursue the American dream with vigor, working nearly any job for a relative pittance, and a bunch of white anger ensued. This all ringing any bells yet?
Italy itself struggles with the issue of whiteness, as those near the sunny Mediterranean beaches tend to have darker skin than people up north. Per usual, the southernmost Italians are deemed inferior because they allegedly are tainted by African blood, while the “Aryan” northerners are deemed pure of this white man’s boogeyman. These internal battles spilled over into America’s ongoing war with whiteness, and savagery ensued. 19th century New Orleans was notorious for the proliferation of mobs staging public executions of Italian immigrants.
A turning point for Italian Americans arrived during the prosecution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. They were convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during the armed robbery of Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in 1920. Their conviction and subsequent rejection of appeals flew in the face of ballistics evidence, recanted testimony, and a confession by an alleged participant in the robbery which all suggested they were innocent. Many historians attribute at least part of their conviction to the strong anti-Italian sentiment in New England at the time. Protests erupted around the world supporting Sacco and Vanzetti. Even though the levers of power were controlled by racists, popular opinion was shifting.
Around that same time, Rudolph Valentino introduced the suave “Latin lover” image to Hollywood, and Italians began to turn into a group to be admired. Joe DiMaggio’s success in the middle of the 20th century for the highest profile team in America served as the nail in the coffin, and Italians finally earned their whiteness. In “Sangu du Sangu Meu: Growing up Black and Italian in a Time of White Flight,” Kym Ragusa touches on her relationship with this ever-shifting target:
For my family, as for many Italian Americans, white flight was the culmination of an escape from the desperate poverty of southern Italy. It was the last leg in a series of migrations—from Italy to America, from immigrant slum to ethnic neighborhood—and these migrations themselves were inextricably linked to provisional class ascension and the ascension of whiteness. The move from the ethnic neighborhood to the outlying suburbs was the completion of these migrations. It held the promise of assimilation into the dominant white culture, in exchange for a final displacement of the “Old Country” as both home and ideal. The suburbs became a place of forgetting, of leaving history behind.
In Europe, the Polish were treated as a lesser version of their German and Russian relatives. The Russian word for pickpocket, Mazurik, literally means someone from Masuria – an area in northern Poland. The Poles faced a litany of injustices in Europe, ranging from simple discrimination, to being forbidden to build homes, all the way to genocide even before the Holocaust was a word. This widespread discrimination led to three waves of immigration to the United States; the largest coming when my ancestors arrived from Poland right around the turn of the 20th century.
Each wave impacted how Americans viewed the Polish in different ways. The first was referred to as za chlebem (for bread), as most immigrants were peasants fleeing starvation in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war. Like all immigrants before and after them, and forever and ever and ever and ever – these people took low skilled, low paying jobs and were quickly resented for it. Polish immigrants essentially monopolized unskilled labor in the meatpacking plants of the Midwest, and held a plurality of workers in undesirable industrial jobs. By 1920, 33.1% of all U.S. coal-mine operatives and 25.2% of all blast furnace laborers were Polish. The average annual income for Polish workers in Brooklyn was $595, almost half that of their Norwegian and English counterparts.
Poles were seen as unmotivated grunts due to the jobs they held, despite the fact that they were one of the few immigrant communities willing to work seven days a week doing unskilled labor. This thuggish image was exacerbated when Leon Czolgosz, a natural born American citizen, assassinated President William Mckinley. Czolgosz was supposedly an anarchist, but that did not stop a wave of anti-Polish and anti-immigrant rage from enveloping the country, and the Immigration Act of 1903 was passed. For the first time since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the United States enacted an ideological test for incoming immigrants. If Donald Trump wins the Presidency, this will officially become a once per century American tradition.
The Polish were heavily discriminated against towards the end of World War I, as the Ku Klux Klan made a lot of their initial “progress” by terrorizing Polish immigrants. The Klan famously infiltrated the Illinois police in the 1920’s, and in one instance wrecked a Polish wedding in Pittsburgh, Illinois by violently dispersing the guests, stealing alcohol and money, and making a public display by stomping on the wedding cake. Poles were still vilified in popular culture, like in West Side Story, where Chino famously said “if it’s the last thing I do, I’m gonna kill that Pollack!” (Pollack is the N word for the Polish)
The second flock of Polish immigrants arrived after World War II. This group differed from the first in the number of white collar professionals it brought. Political tumult in that region was the obvious rationale behind this migration, and Americans were much more familiar with their plight after going toe to toe with Hitler (and while a shot at Stalin was being lined up). These groups began to insert themselves into American culture, and thus began the process of becoming “white.”
Part of this assimilation entailed discriminating against black laborers who were escaping the Jim Crow south and were simply trying to integrate into northern communities. Many Polish opposed Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to integrate these American refugees into their inner cities, and violent riots erupted in Detroit and Chicago in the mid to late sixties.
Once the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Poland gained its independence, a new wave of immigrants arrived and they were met with cheers. By serving as a pawn (more like a knight or a rook) in America’s larger battle against communism, the Polish finally validated their whiteness in this country. That is, unless they also happened to be Jewish.
Jews are perhaps history’s most persecuted minority, as nearly every single Western society has at least one period in time defined by rampant anti-Semitism. Europe has been ground zero for this discrimination, and this resulted in America becoming the second capital of the Jewish people. Unlike the rest of Europe, Jews are not defined by a singular tribal history.
Our strife began in Egypt which led to Europe, driving us to the United States and back to Israel. Along the way, many roots have been put down. The predominant Jewish stereotype centers around greed and control of the economy, and it is based on a nugget of truth: the banking sector played a big role in helping Jews work their way up from the slums in parts of Europe. Over the years, this story of a persecuted people utilizing the tools at hand to make a better life for themselves descended into dark corners. Polls taken throughout the early 20th century in America demonstrated that roughly half the country classified the Jewish population as greedy, untrustworthy, and guilty of subverting the economy despite the fact that 0.6% of the 93,000 commercial bankers in 1939 were Jewish.
Henry Ford viciously attacked Jews during World War I, as he claimed “I know who caused the war: German-Jewish bankers.” Ford had a strong desire for world peace, and he cited the Jews as the chief obstacle to that goal. He believed that “International financiers are behind all war. They are what is called the international Jew: German Jews, French Jews, English Jews, American Jews. I believe that in all those countries except our own the Jewish financier is supreme … here the Jew is a threat.”
Americans took his words to heart, as we turned away countless boats filled with Jewish women and children fleeing Nazi Germany before the true horrors began. Unlike most other nonwhites, Jews are not seen as a drag at the bottom of the economy, but as nefarious puppet masters operating at the top. Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose weekly radio addresses attracted as much as 12 million listeners in the late 1930’s was especially paranoid. Two weeks after Kristallnacht – where German citizens looted and destroyed businesses, homes, and synagogues while murdering 91 others as police stood and watched, Coughlin claimed this happened only after Christians were first persecuted. Coughlin would go on to support an organization called the Christian Front, which planned to murder Jews, communists, Congressmen, and according to J. Edgar Hoover, attempted to establish “a dictatorship, similar to the Hitler dictatorship in Germany.”
The supposed purity of whiteness is integral to groups like the Christian Front. They fight on behalf of a majority posing as a minority who feels under attack by “others.” The “other” takes various forms throughout history, but Jews have always had a special place in this world of otherness. We are deemed to be both a religion and a race, which doubles the number of fronts to defend. While every European nationality has obtained the elusive mantle of whiteness, Jews struggle to fully clear the hurdle. According to the FBI, Jews are the overwhelming targets of anti-religious hate crimes. In 2012, 62.4% of all anti-religious hate crimes were perpetrated against Jews. Muslims were second on the list, as they were the victim of 11.6% of these kinds of atrocities. Luckily I nor anyone I know has ever been on the receiving end of one, likely due to my “white” upbringing in the suburbs.
The alt-right is the newest would-be Jewish oppressor to take the main stage in America, as an army of Twitter accounts backing Donald Trump have adopted Nazi imagery – like using the number 88 in their names (H is the 8th letter in the alphabet, so 88 stands for Heil Hitler). Trump has elevated the most hateful corners of the internet to the mainstream, and the inherently racist Pepe the Frog meme has become Donald Trump’s unofficial logo.
The alt-right has even recruited Jews in their ever widening goal of the whiteification of America. Joshua Seidel, one of the four or five people in this insurgency with the courage to put his name behind his words, explained why he didn’t see any conflict being a member of the alt-right while also being a Jew:
I sometimes wonder what Jews who enthusiastically go on about “white privilege” think the endgame is. They seem to think this concept will serve to shut the mouths of middle and working class whites in flyover country, while liberal Jews hold the clipboards and direct victorious POC (people of color) in a dismantling of “whiteness.” Privileges will be checked, and all will be well in the world. I don’t see it.
This attitude stems from the “Jews control the world” conspiracy borne out of the depths of Europe’s anguish. Jews are viewed as a minority group imposing its will on society from above, but instead of banking like Henry Ford believed, Seidel argues that liberal Jews direct other non-whites in America to “check privilege” (implying the other side of the Jewish coin of eternal sin: manipulation of the media). Seidel’s whiteness supersedes his Judaism: liberal Jews supporting minority causes are bad, and Jews supporting the goal of whiteness are good. This is how he’s able to insert himself into the alt-right, as they are seen as mutually exclusive identities.
Richard Spencer, a prominent figure in the basket of deplorables, wants to establish a white nation-state that expels all nonwhites. And he means all, as he told the Daily Beast: “Jews are Jews.” We are neither white nor dark skinned, and our entire classification is based upon a perceived level of unchecked power. Whiteness is not seen as an advantage of lived experiences, but of birth, and all alleged injustices are reverse engineered to right perceived wrongs. Jews have injured whites in that they supposedly achieved a power in this world that is not in concert with their destiny at birth, but what our destiny is has never been explained. Some simply want to eradicate us, while others patronize us with token roles in society.
Class is inextricably linked with race, as race serves as a reinforcement mechanism to ensure that class is sorted the white way. White supremacists believe they are genetically superior, and when their class does not match their expectations, they heap the blame on marginalized groups. These groups have no choice in the matter of whether they are white or not, and the one commonality across all this hatred is the lack of whiteness in the supposed offender.
“America’s first black President” will go at the top of Barack Obama’s obituary despite the fact that he is half white. Colin Kaepernick is also half white but he is depicted as a black quarterback not just because his skin is darker, but because his skillset of a running quarterback fits the narrative of the athletic black athlete better than that of the cerebral, “scrappy” white athlete. If race really was about what you were born with, neither Obama nor Kaepernick would deal with the staggering amount of bullshit they face on a daily basis.
Race is a social construct largely because whiteness is a social construct, and all races are judged against the expectations of whiteness. Whether you are deemed to be white depends entirely on your time and place in history. Ann Coulter is the most prominent anti-immigrant voice in America despite coming from a family of fairly recent immigrants. She demonstrated her delusion on The View when she said that she is a “settler. I’m descended from settlers, not from immigrants.”
Ann…come on…six of your eight great great grandparents fled the Irish famine of the 19th century. They 100% were not regarded as “settlers.” They were lucky if they were considered people. White privilege is so powerful that Coulter can use it to rewrite her moments of nonwhite ancestry.
Those of us with European backgrounds do face an awkward situation where our heritage seems to be less publicly accessible than that of someone derived from any other continent. The alt-right claims that this is because we live in a country that discriminates against European descent, which is true, just not in the sense that they mean it. Older European generations suffered through the bigotry of their non-whiteness before finally attaining this amorphous and steadily shifting status, which has now enveloped most of the northern hemisphere. Maybe if we took a step back and celebrated our distinct cultures rather than our genetic discrepancies, perhaps the issue of whiteness would not be one at all.