___________Who is "White"?

"White" is one of the most commonly used racial categories to describe some Americans. Skin color is equated with racial identity although numerous other terms that have been used such as

Anglo Saxon

These terms are not identical, emphasizing other characteristics such as language, descent, geography, etc The differences are revealing showing how Americans chose to define their racial identity at different times in American history. Like Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos, White Americans have continually redefined their racial identity for both political and cultural reasons.

For example the term White Anglo Saxon Protestant (W.A.S.P.) was frequently used through the 1950s. As an identity, it rejected demands for inclusion by Jewish Americans and Catholics regardless of skin color. "Anglo Saxon" as a term implied that Irish (presumably Celts) and Latin (French, Spanish, Italian, etc) were also not members of the racial community.

Race was enshrined as science during the Enlightenment by European scientists committed to categorizing human beings into types. These scientists had only crude methods of categorizing human beings, no knowledge of Darwinian Evolution or Heredity, little firsthand knowledge of the people they were judging, and little academic scholarship available to them on the histories or cultures of these "races." Racial terminology varied but some of their terms are still used today.

A German physiologist named Johann Blumenbach is sometimes called the father of physical anthropology. He proposed one of the earliest classifications of the races of mankind. Blumenbach created the term CAUCASIAN to describe members of the white race, basing the choice of his term upon the race residing in Georgia on the southern slope of the Caucasus Mountains, who at the time enjoyed a remarkable reputation for beauty. To Blumenbach, Caucasian was coined for aesthetic not biological reasons because the Caucasus region of Asia Minor he said produced "the most beautiful race of men" While Americans like to think of racial labels as having to do with descent, no one believes that the origins of White Americans is from the Caucus mountains. [Bendyshe T, ed. The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. London: Anthropological Society; 1865:99;269]

Joseph-Arthur, comte de Gobineau (b. July 14, 1816, Ville-d'Avray, Fr.--d. Oct. 13, 1882, Turin, Italy) was a writer and ethnologist who created a theory of racial determinism that had lasting impact on European and American racial beliefs. Between 1853 and 1855, Gobineau published a 4 volume work entitled Essay on the Inequality of Human Races in which he argued that the Aryan race were superior to all others. The term Aryan was derived from Sanskrit word arya meaning noble and represented a people who lived in northern India. 19th century linguists traced all European languagues to an Indo-European origin. Immodestly declaring Aryans the pinnacle of civilization, the race Gobineau explained was responsible for everything and anything valuable ever created. Therefore they had to preserve their special racial character by preventing intermixture with inferior races.Gobineau's admirers included his student Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler, among others.

Aryan served as a rally cry for German unity in Europe, defining Jews, Gypsies and others as inferior non-Aryans.As Adolph Hitler explained: "In the final analysis, the Jew is actually an Asiatic, not a European." On the other hand, because it argued for a Northern Indian origin of all European culture, it could technically define Europeans as Asian descendents or vice versa. In the US, this ambiguity allowed a handful of Punjabi immigrants to be declared Caucasian around WWI.

Between 1880 and WWI, the United States experienced large waves of European immigration. These "new immigrants" however did not come from northern Europe and represented a frightening diversity to many. The difference perceived in these immigrants was frequently described as a racial difference in which Europeans were represented as, not one, but many races identified by region (Alpine, Mediterranean, Slavic and Nordic) or by alleged headshape (roundheads, slopeheads).

Madison Grant, a biologist and curator for the American Museum of Natural History in New York explained in his book The Passing of the Great Race that White Americans, the great race, were losing out to hordes of inferior European immigrants. Grant's book was so popular it experienced 7 reprints before WWII. According to Grant, "These new immigrants were no longer exclusively members of the Nordic race as were the earlier ones...The transportation lines advertised America as a land flowing with milk and honey and the European governments took the opportunity to unload upon careless, wealthy and hospitable America the sweepings of their jails and asylums...Our jails, insane asylums and almshouses are filled with this human flotsam and the whole tone of american life, social, moral and political has been lowered and vulgarized by them."

Another thread of the debate over whiteness is the so-called Anglo Saxon descent.This identification traces Whiteness to the invasion of England by Germanic Tribes at the end of the Roman Empire. By the end of the 17th century, 90% in British North America were of English Descent.Founding fathers during the Enlightenment and fans of Sir Walter Raleigh novels such as Ivanhoe imagined a warrior race of constitutional democrats. Citing Tacitus, the emergence of American Democracy and British Parliamentary Government are said to have its origins among these germanic tribes.

Unfortunately, this is a selective reading of Tacitus emphasizing only what are believed to be the positive traits of the German tribes. Here is an excerpt from Tacitus:

"Habits in Time of Peace. Whenever they are not fighting, they pass much of their time in the chase, and still more in idleness, giving themselves up to sleep and to feasting, the bravest and the most warlike doing nothing, and surrendering the management of the household, of the home, and of the land, to the women, the old men, and all the weakest members of the family. They themselves lie buried in sloth, a strange combination in their nature that the same men should be so fond of idleness, so averse to peace. It is the custom of the states to bestow by voluntary and individual contribution on the chiefs a present of cattle or of grain, which, while accepted as a compliment, supplies their wants. They are particularly delighted by gifts from neighbouring tribes, which are sent not only by individuals but also by the state, such as choice steeds, heavy armour, trappings, and neck-chains. We have now taught them to acccept money also."

Tacitus views the Germans less as proto-parliamentarians than as a simple, crude people with an admirable love of freedom. But they also despised work, hated peace, gambled, drank and fought too much. He also did not think they were particularly attractive. (See Tacitus; Roger Daneils, Coming to America, p. 102; Audrey Smedly, Race in North America, p. 190)

Of course, Anglo Saxon as a label ignores Celtic, Roman, and Norman/French influences on English culture, race and language as well.

Who is not White?

While White was frequently used as a racial label in the United States, enshrined in federal law with the 1790 Naturalization Act., it has always been a contested label. Many European ethnic groups have at various times been excluded from the label: Here are some examples of these "Non-White" Europeans:

Nathan S. Shaler, Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard on central and southern Europeans:

"The 'non-Aryans' were wholly different from early immigrants and innately impossible to Americanize." [John Higham, Strangers in the Land, p. 141.

Dr. George P. Clemens, Secretary of Agricultura for the Los Angeles Chamberof Commerce, 1935: "There are only three races in the world whom civilization has not touched--the Scotch, the Indian (and the Mexican is an Indian), and the Irish" (Balderrama and Rodriguez, Decade of Betrayal, p. 83)

Jewish Americans

Italians: Pennsylvanian miners declared that Italian laborers were brought to the US "to degrade native labor by the introduction of a class who, in following the customs of their ancestors, live more like brutes than human beings." (1880s, John Higham, Strangers in the Land, p. 47)

A West Coast construction boss asked: "You don't call...an Italian a white man?" The worker responded: "No sir...an Italian is a Dago." (Higham, p. 66)


Irish: A New Yorker writing in his diary "Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese." (Dinnerstein, et. al, Native and Strangers, p. 116)

Germans: The label Hun used during WWI implied Asian descent and was used to explain German barbarity.

Slavs: Eastern Europeans, "Tartars", Russians. Often said they were "oriental" or "Asian" in culture and descent.

Mediterraneans: Based on dark skin color, implied they were racially impure. Greeks, etc.

The idea of an inclusive whiteness is arguably a 20th century concept, perhaps not gaining wide acceptance until the 1930s-1940s.