Thinking about an Anti-confederate Whiteness in the 21st Century

by Matthew Frye Jacobson

Paper presented at the webinar “Between Race and Ethnicity: Greek America in the Times of Black Lives Matter” (March 22, 2021).

Thank you for the invitation to be here.

I’m going to give a very brief presentation that’s going to cover a lot of ground, but it’s in three parts. The first part is about European immigrants in American political culture, and it’s mainly a story about race. The second part is a story about their descendants, and it’s mainly a story about ethnicity. And then I’m going to reflect a little bit, this last part isn’t so much a story, it’s just a reflection and an invitation to think together about where we are now, but it’s basically, it’s about race again. Greeks and Greek Americans will appear within this broader frame of European and Euro American peoplehood in the United States. And I’m going to miss some of the particularities, but I think the Greek experience maps pretty well onto the scheme that I’m going to present here.

So the first, the race story, European immigrants. The most important law in my view in American history was the 1790 Naturalization Law. It was the first time Congress sat down to ask the question, “Who’s eligible to participate in the fledgling democracy that is this new nation?” And the formulation they came up with was free white persons. That was the crucial phrase that framed Naturalization Law. I say it’s the most important law for a couple of reasons. One is for the legacies that it created. It was the 1790 law that allowed for the tens of millions of European immigrants who arrived over the course of the 19th century and on into the first part of the 20th. It was the 1790 Naturalization Law that allowed for the Chinese Exclusion Act as it left the Chinese uniquely vulnerable. It was the 1790 law even in the mid-20th century that allowed for Japanese American internment, and that the migrating generation was also ineligible for citizenship under this law, and was also like for the Chinese before them, uniquely vulnerable. And the Japanese and Japanese Americans, as you know, were subject to a kind of treatment during World War II that their German American and Italian American compatriots were not. And it’s all because of the 1790 law. It’s also important for what it tells us about the way that race works in American political culture. And I’ll return to that, but I’ll just say it at the outset, one of the things, when you look closely at the reasoning of 1790, one of the things that you realize is that while we have come to think of racism and democracy as being contradictions, or racism as a contradiction to democracy, for the framers, racism was actually the guarantor of democracy. That 1790 law was exclusionary in a way that was meant to protect the fledgling experiment in democracy. Now, the use of white and free White persons, it derived from practical experience in the colonial period, the word white shows up in colonial statutory law in a lot of different ways. And it has to do with the very practical circumstances of not democracy, pure and simple, but this settler democracy, the establishment of this European democracy within the Atlantic slave world and within North America with its myriad of Native nations already inhabiting. So one of the expected emergencies of citizenship in this setting was the citizens’ duty could well be to fight Indians on the margins of settlement, and to put down slavery’s revolts. And so the whiteness of the citizen was presumed pretty deeply and pretty flexibly. And European and Euro-American thought, their enlightenment thought there was also a philosophical streak to this, that democracy was considered a fragile and dangerous experiment. And enlightenment notions of the virtues that would be required to pull this off, virtue, forbearance, rationality, public-mindedness, all of these things that were going to be required of the citizen under self-government and not monarchical government, those were already raced as White in enlightenment thought. And so for these reasons, when the framers penned that law, free White persons could become citizens, they debated a thousand different things about citizenship, but race was not one of them. They talked about religion, could Catholics become citizens. They talked about aristocracy, could aristocrats or even landholders in the old world become citizens. They turned this over every which way. But the White of white persons was never questioned, and these are the reasons why. Now that is disrupted pretty radically in the mid-19th century, in the 1840s as a beginning, when the Irish arrive as the first undesired and unanticipated group of free White persons. And as you know, over the course of the 19th century, they’re followed up the next two generations by Russian Jews, by Italians, by Poles, Greeks, Slovenians, Bohemians, and a host of other European peoples, but who were undesired by the kind of Anglo-Saxon patricians and who were also unanticipated even though the language of that 1790 Naturalization Law was pretty capacious in what it might mean. It’s absolutely critical that all of these groups entered the American polity as free White persons, and they entered on that basis, and they entered because of that with fairly immediate and easy access to the rights of citizenship. And we can’t forget that. But it is also true that they were perceived as inferior to Anglo-Saxons by Anglo-Saxons. They were perceived as a problem for the republic when it came to their fitness for self-government. And that’s a phrase that you see all the time in the 19th century and up through the early 20th, fitness for self-government. And the problem that they posed was expressed in racial terms, these groups were thought of in terms of heredity, biology, blood, genes, their distinct physiognomy as an indicator of their characterological traits. So what you see in American political culture is the shift from a kind of consolidated notion of free White persons to this formulation that really reigns in American political discussion through the latter half of the 19th century and on into the 20th of the races of Europe. And the races of Europe are always conceived in hierarchical terms, no matter how many races there are supposed to be. So in some schemes, there are three races of Europe, the Nordic, the Alpine, the Mediterranean. In some schemes, there are as many as 30 or 37 races of Europe, Celts, Slavs, Hebrews, Letts, Finns, Teutons, Balkans. But in all of these schemes, the thing that they held in common was that it was a hierarchy from light to dark. So Anglo-Saxons or Nordics at the top, through the Southern and Eastern Europeans, shading towards Asians and the peoples of the Americas and then Africans always at the bottom of the hierarchy. Greeks fared fairly well in these schemes. And the Dictionary of Races or Peoples, which was this huge study undertaken by the Immigration Commission between 1907 and 1910, the Greeks are described in racial terms with a particular physiognomy and head shape and racial character. But they’re also described as in complexion, perhaps as light as the ancients. And in this context to be described as complexion light as the ancients is about as well as you’re going to do. But they were racialized nonetheless; they were racialized as inferior, nonetheless, like their cohort from East and South Europe. And the 1924 Immigration Act, which was a severely restrictive law, and was meant to exclude exactly these peoples, it was the law based on these racial types in this racial hierarchy. And if I’m not mistaken, Greece was only awarded 100 immigrants per year under this scheme. And that was by design, it was engineered that way. And it was for these racial reasons. The third era in this race story begins with the kind of reconsolidation of the races of Europe into what is a much more familiar scheme for us, the later 20th century and on into the 21st century, the notion of just either whiteness pure and simple, or Caucasian whiteness. This consolidation was very uneven. It takes place at different rates in different regions; it affects different groups in different ways. But in a general way it begins in the 1920s and after. And it begins in part because that restrictive law of 1924, I’m putting this in scare quotes, “solves” the problem of these problem European groups. And as long as they aren’t seen as a menace or threat to democracy, their salience recedes and they aren’t thought about it as much, they aren’t obsessed over it as much, their difference doesn’t register as much. So that’s a piece of it. It’s also important that their fate in America was altered by the great migration of African Americans from north to south. African Americans by the thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, and ultimately by the millions settled in exactly the northern cities where these White races of Europe had settled before them, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Boston. And so that really changes the alchemy of race as it’s understood on the ground. And you get a White-Black binary starts to supersede that notion of the 37 White races of Europe. So in Chicago in 1919, Irish and Polish gangs who had emerged to take on the Ku Klux Klan in the cities now mobilized against African Americans during the great race riot of 1919. And you might think of this consolidation of unified whiteness as being marked as complete with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. His Catholicism might have been a problem for many, but his racial character never was. He was never tarred as a Celt in this context. So that’s the racial odyssey of Europeanness in American political culture.

The next story is about the descendants of those immigrants, and it’s the ethnicity story. It’s the story of what Michael Novak famously called The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, the roots who sprung up out of the melting pot. This is most pronounced between the 1960s and the 1980s, but it continues on into the 21st century. And every time a new film comes out about an Irish boxer in Boston, my wife jokes that I have to write a sequel to my book. This kind of emergence, this embrace of particularistic ethnic identity, this jumping out of the melting pot, we might also date to the Kennedy years, even though these are cultural and social processes that are very uneven and unstable, and it’s hard to draw a linear line. But 1963 we might mark as the beginning of the White ethnic revival. This is the year that Kennedy goes to Ireland. It’s dubbed as the return to Ireland, meaning not that he had been there, but that that’s where his family came from. That’s what return meant. And it was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. This was a couple of days after his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech at the Berlin Wall. He goes to Ireland, he visits the Irish parliament, and he gives this amazing speech in which his Americanism and his Cold War commitments are articulated through his Irishness in a way that was completely a new thing, especially for a head of state in the American scene. Now that same year, Elia Kazan produces America America, Hollywood’s really first epic story of the European immigration, and Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan published Beyond the Melting Pot, which actually kind of begins the argument that the melting pot had never really melted everyone down. Now, this re-embrace of ethnic particularism after a generation or so of enforced and coerced and embraced assimilationism can be seen as a result of a couple of things. One is anti-modernism. The first [inaudible] (at 20.37) of modernity was anti-modernism. And I don’t think it’s an accident that well, sociologists, like Riesman, who’s writing about The Lonely Crowd, and William White who was talking about The Organization Man, they’re writing about antiseptic suburbs and kind of soulless bureaucratic life. It’s in this setting that people are embracing these kinds of blood coursing depictions of ethnicity, Zorba the Greek, Fiddler on the Roof, Harry Mark Petrakis’s novel A Dream of Kings is a great example of this, where the mightiness of ancient Greece and the Greek tradition is seen as a kind of salve to the discontents of American decline. So that anti-modernism is a piece of it. More importantly, it’s the civil rights movement, civil rights movement as a positive model of group rights discourse. Now, the U.S. history is shot through with group rights over individual rights, slavery and emancipation, Indian removal, Chinese exclusion, that 1924 Immigration Act, Japanese American internment. There are all kinds of ways in which group identity have superseded individual rights and in many different settings. But in the civil rights years, there’s a positive public discourse of group identity and group political destiny that’s inspired by the re-embrace of particularistic ethnic identity on the part of white ethnics kind of modeled by the Racial Movement for Justice that is the Civil Rights Movement. So in this context, and there are a lot of different layers to this, in academics, you get Theodore Saloutos, Rudy Vecoli, Irving Howe, and Michael Novak writing a new brand of immigration history as a way of re-narrating what the American narrative is. In literature you get Harry Mark Petrakis, Philip Roth, Mario Puzo, Helen Papanikolas. In popular culture, you get Zorba the Greek, Fiddler on the Roof, Arnie Nuvo, maybe some of you remember a show called Arnie, about a Greek American worker at a flange factory. Bridget Loves Bernie, Kojak, Rhoda, Moonstruck for which Olympia Dukakis wins an Oscar by playing Italian, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding in which normative Americanness is marked as ethnic particularity. In politics, you get Olympia's brother Michael Dukakis running exactly on the Ellis Island romance, but he’s just building on Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ballyporeen in the 1980s, who in turn is building on John F. Kennedy’s visit to Dublin in 1963. In local culture, you get Greek and Polish festivals, in public land marking, you get the overhaul of Ellis Island and the establishment of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. And even up into the 21st century, on the first anniversary of 9/11, when George W. Bush wants to make his appeal to the peoples of the world, and he’s trying to put together that coalition of the willing, he goes to Ellis Island as the symbol, not only of American greatness, but American openness and who America is. Now, the ethnic revival could have rightward or leftward political valences. It could pose as a disavowal of whiteness at the moment that White supremacy has been put front and center in U.S. politics by the Black Power Movement. So the ethnic revival can be this kind of fresh off the boat innocence, like, I got nothing to do with it. And on the right, neoconservatives like Michael Novak, Nathan Glazer, Spiro Agnew used the Ellis Island romance as a cudgel to critique modern day minorities. But on the left, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Todd Gitlin, Archbishop Iakovos, the Berrigan brothers, Father James Groppi, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, and Christina Giardina, and about three quarters of the Northern White students who joined the freedom rights and Freedom Summer articulated their pro-civil rights sympathies from a position of their own ethnic particularism. And almost any White feminist you can name from the second wave, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett, Debbie D’Amico, Ellen Willis, Helen Barolini, [inaudible] (at 25:01), Valerie Solanas. Their feminist politics is steeped in a kind of world of our mothers’ ethnic narrative as the basis of an emerging gender politics. Now again, so this embrace of ethnic particularity is ascendant in the 1960s. It perhaps [inaudible] (see at 25:22) in the bicentennial year of 1976 and the Roots craze of 1977, but it lasts well into the 1990s when the Ellis Island Museum opened. And again, it’s not just an interiorized romantic Roots trip multiplied by a few million, although it is that, but it’s institutionalized in Hollywood and publishing in network TV and by the state.

Which brings us to the third piece where we are now, and it’s a new racial story. So in everything I’ve said so far, you might know that, let’s take it as a given that most White people in the United States have always thought, at some level, of the United States being a White country. That’s articulated in different ways and with different range of ferocities, let it say. But it’s a pretty deep assumption, and it’s rooted in the logic of 1790, that 1790 law that only free White persons can truly be Americans. And that’s at the core of our political culture in some ways that’s been very hard to kick. Within that, you’ll know that what I’ve said so far in that first story, Plymouth Rock is kind of the touchstone of who White people are and where they come from and how they think of themselves. In that second story, Ellis Island becomes the touchstone of not just for, you know, the White population, but for the nation as a whole. Ellis Island is the touchstone of who we tell ourselves we are. And what I want to argue, and again, argue is probably too strong, I just want to suggest and turn this over in our heads and then talk about it a little, is that what we’re seeing really beginning in about 2010 or so with what began as the White backlash against Obama and a kind of politics of White displacement and White grievance that then becomes, it comes over the horizon as White grievance and it crystallizes as Trumpism. And then we see it created in the streets of Charlottesville, there’s Nazi-ism, and we see it as White insurrectionism on January 6th. But one way of thinking about that is that it’s a new bid for a touchstone of White identity, it is from Plymouth Rock to Ellis Island to the Confederacy. The Confederacy, I’m not saying that this is the dominant position, but clearly there’s a significant number of White people in the United States who want to embrace the Confederacy as their touchstone of White identity. That’s frightening, and it’s challenging, and there’s a lot that’s problematic. And that is just going to be a challenge for the next generation, or more, I think.

But I want to tell another kind of “glass half full” kind of story about that. Because I think it’s possible to ask, you know, does the loud articulation of whiteness as confederate open a space for White progressivism as anti-confederate in a way that gives white people more room to be progressive than some of the earlier formulations did. You know, is it possible to articulate a kind of anti-confederate whiteness, and to mobilize it in important ways for progressive causes? That might take the form of ethnic revival language or particularity, because Jews, Greeks, Irish and Polish Catholics never fared very well when facing the Ku Klux Klan. So maybe that’s a newly usable language on the progressive side, or maybe it’s something more akin to abolitionism, but in either case, I think that the idea of a kind of overt and thought for anti-confederate whiteness is something that might be something usable from our usable past. And maybe that’s a way to think about what the Biden presidency means and what some of his calls for unity mean beyond just red America and blue America but thinking about whiteness and peoples of color in this very multivocal, multiracial complicated polity of ours.

I’ll just close by saying that in a public humanities event a week or two ago, where I was in conversation with a really wonderful and talented Navajo artist named Emma Robbins, and she was talking about the difference between allies on the one hand and accomplices on the other. She said, “we don't need allies,” like that idea has almost been vacated by White people in the United States of all of its meaning. But accomplices, accomplices in this justice struggle we could use. And I guess I’m just asking a question, is there a way that in thinking about an anti-confederate whiteness in the 21st century, that that might be a way to build that kind of accomplice status and to enact it in important ways? I’ll stop there. I’m really eager for the conversation and thanks again for the invitation to speak today.

Matthew Frye Jacobson is Sterling Professor of American Studies and History. He is the author of seven books on race, politics, and culture in the United States: Odetta’s One Grain of Sand (2019); The Historian’s Eye: Photography, History, and the American Present (2019); What Have they Built You to Do?: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America (with Gaspar Gonzalez, 2006); Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post–Civil Rights America (2005); Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876–1917 (2000); Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (1998); and Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States (1995). He also served as creator, writer, and lead researcher for A Long Way from Home: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Desegregation (Hammer & Nail Productions, 2019). The film garnered a Golden Telly Award in the category of General Television Documentary (2019). Ongoing projects include Dancing Down the Barricades: Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Long Civil Rights Era and Dick Gregory and the Idea of Political Comedy. Along with Patty Limerick, he also hosts Historians Imagine, a monthly webinar devoted to creativity in the historian’s craft. His teaching and research focus on race in U.S. political culture 1790–present, including U.S. imperialism, immigration and migration, popular culture, Civil Rights, and the juridical structures of U.S. citizenship, in addition to Documentary Studies and Public Humanities.

Listen to the talk here (7:10-30:30).

Editor’s Note I: Read the presentations of the co-panelists, Yiorgos Anagnostou’s “Racialization and the Rewriting of Greek America” and Despina Lalaki’s “American Liberalism and Greek America in the Times of Black Lives Matter.”

Editor’s Note II: We thank the Modern Greek Program at the Ohio State University for financing the transcription of this talk.

Cover Image Credit: Artist unknown. #ArtUnitesCbus, a Black Lives Matter public art initiative, Columbus, Ohio.