The Weakness of the "Whiteness" Literature

A 1922 case often cited as showing Italians may not have been considered "white" doesn't really support that inference

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

One of my most enduringly controversial VC posts has been Sorry, but the Irish were always 'white' (and so were Italians, Jews and so on, in which I took on the popular notion, now mainstream in historical circles, that various European ethnic groups were historically considered to be nonwhite in the U.S. until they assimilated sufficiently to have sufficient "whiteness" to be considered white. I wrote,

But what the relevant authors mean by white is ahistorical. They are referring to a stylized, sociological or anthropological understanding of "whiteness," which means either "fully socially accepted as the equals of Americans of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic stock," or, in the more politicized version, "an accepted part of the dominant ruling class in the United States." Those may be interesting sociological and anthropological angles to pursue, but it has nothing to do with whether the relevant groups were considered to be white.

I still get the occasional outraged email telling me what an idiot I am for not recognizing that my correspondent's Irish/Italian/Polish/Jewish/etc. ancestors were not considered white.

In any event, as a result of my post I interacted with several historians who referred me to what they considered the best, most nuanced work in the "whiteness" genre, Matthew Frye Jacobson's "Whiteness of a Different Color." I am unimpressed and unpersuaded.

For example, right in the beginning of the book, on page 4, Jacobson discusses the case of Rollins v. Alabama (1922). Here's what he writes:

An Alabama circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction of one Jim Rollins, a black man convicted of the crime of miscegenation, on the grounds that the state had produced "no competent evidence to show the woman in question, Edith Labue, was a white woman." Labue was a Sicilian immigrant, a fact that, this court held, "can in no sense be taken as conclusive that she was therefore a white woman, or that she was not a Negro or a descendent of the Negro." Although it is important to underscore this court did not find that Sicilian was necessarily nonwhite, its finding that Sicilian was inconclusively white does speak volumes about whiteness in 1920s Alabama. If the court left room for the possibility that Labue may have been white, the ruling also made clear that she was not the sort of white woman who security was to be "protected" by that bulwark of white to supremacism, the miscegenation statute.

What the court actually said was that to convict someone of miscegenation, the prosecutor has to prove all elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, including that one of the parties was white. The court stated that the prosecutor failed to present any competent evidence that Labue was white, beyond that she was from Sicily, which was not sufficient to prove that she wasn't a "negro" or of discernable "negro" ancestry. After all, Sicily is a place, not a racial category. In other words, the court wasn't suggesting that Sicilians in general may not be white, but that merely being from Sicily cannot be deemed evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that someone has no discernable African ancestry.

Here is the court's exact language:

There was no competent evidence to show that the woman in question, Edith Labue, was a white woman, or that she did not have negro blood in her veins and was not the descendant of a negro. This fact was essential to a conviction in this case, and, like any other material ingredient of the offense must be proven by the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty. The mere fact that the testimony showed this woman came from Sicily can in no sense be taken as conclusive that she was therefore a white woman, or that she was not a negro or a descendant of a negro.

To read into that language the meaning that Jacobson attributes to it is at best highly aggressive, but it may also suggests a certain tendentiousness, or perhaps a lack of understanding of how aggressively courts sometimes strictly require the black-letter elements of the statute to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The latter factor was especially likely to play a role in this case. Rollins didn't marry Labue, but allegedly 'lived in sin' with her in a state of marriage. The primary evidence was Rollins' confession, a confession that likely explains why no additional evidence of Labue's race was adduced. But the judge who wrote the opinion noted that the defendant, an "aged negro man," provided "a confession at the point of a pistol, and is clearly evident it was given through fear and constraint superinduced by this means and no other." So the court's seeming reluctance to enforce the miscegenation statute in this case seems to have less to do with the fact that Labue was from Sicily, and more with the fact that defendant Rollins had been coerced into a confession of "miscegenation" at the point of a gun.

Thanks to Jacobson, the Rollins case seems to have become an important example of Italians or at least Sicilians having only "provisional" whiteness in the United States. I don't think anything remotely approaching that dramatic conclusion can be discerned from this case.

UPDATE: Commenter TwelveInchPianist sums it up succinctly:

But of course the case actually proves the opposite of what Jacobson says. Alabama claimed that Labue's status as a Sicilian immigrant was proof that she was indeed entitled to be "protected" [as white person] by the miscegenation statute. The court simply pointed out that the fact that she was from Sicily didn't prove [beyond a reasonable doubt] that she wasn't black [i.e., of African or partial African descent].

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  1. that various European ethnic groups were historically considered to be nonwhite in the U.S. until they assimilated sufficiently to have sufficient “whiteness” to be considered white

    They may (in most cases) considered “white” in the law and regulations but that doesn’t mean they weren’t heavily discriminated against. The very same arguments where used against my Irish great-grandfather are being used today. Discrimination is discrimination. Legal or not.

    1. From my original post: “Note that this does not mean that the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Arabs, and so on didn’t face discrimination, hostility, assertions of inferiority and occasionally even violence. They did. But historically, they were also considered white.”

      1. What exactly do you mean by “White” however?

        1. Pretty simple. When laws, norms, or rules divided people into whites and non-whites, you were grouped in with the whites. Law saws non-whites can’t marry whites. Were you allowed to marry whites? Union says it only accepts white men. You’re a man, were you eligible for acceptance? Public won’t accept white actors kissing non-white actors. Would you be eligible to be cast in a role where you had to kiss a white actor?

    2. Your argument may or may not be any more correct than observing that peanuts are not actually nuts.

      But the relevance, man, where’s the relevance? Dr Bernstein said nothing about discrimination.

  2. My older Neapolitan relatives always referred to Sicilians as “strong African swimmers.” Take that as you will.

    1. Indeed many in northern Italy still refer to Sicily as Italian North Africa. But historically the invaders of the island of Sicily were from northeast Africa

      1. There was also a substantial Greek influence and a Carthaginian colony on the island as well. Everyone in the classical world seems to have met in Sicily.

  3. My ancestors were Italian and Jewish. Neither of them had any of the benefits historically attributed to “whites”. we were considered non-white eastern europeans who suffered terrible discrimination in housing, employment and even athletics, etc.

    I remember in 7th grade how i was treated differently when my classmates learned I was not raised Jewish. They then felt free to say things to me that they wouldnt dare say in the presence of their Jewish classmates. On the sports teams, jewish and italian atheletes were assumed not to be as talented and had a much higher bar to achieve to make our varsity teams.

    Even those of us who eventually went to college and obtained professional degrees suffered from employment discrimination. “White shoe” law firms wouldnt hire “ethnic whites.”

    male ethnic whites who had none of the legacy benefits of the traditional white and whose families struggled to attain middle class status found themselves on the wrong end of affirmative action. we were treated like all white males and watched as women whose families dated back to the Mayflower or the civil war were given preference in college admissions and employment.

    You may not want to acknowledge how ethics whites have been historically treated but that does not mean it did not and does not continue to occur.
    Larry Schnapf

    1. “Neither of them had any of the benefits historically attributed to “whites'”.
      Yes they did. They were allowed into the U.S., which Asians were not for many decades. They were granted citizenship, which Native Americans could not get for most of American history, and Asian immigrants could not get until well into the 20th century. They were not segregated in schools, as blacks were in the South and as Mexicans sometimes were. They were allowed to marry whites, unlike blacks, asians, and Native Americans in various states. They weren’t subject to the FHA’s redlining the way blacks were. If they were here before the Civil War, there was no risk they would be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Their children couldn’t be taken away and sent to boarding schools run by the government, the way Native American children were. They weren’t restricted from owning land, as Asian immigrants in the West were. And so forth and so on.

      1. Oh, and here’s a big one I left out: if they wanted to join a labor union that only admitted whites, they could.

      2. You are purposefully thick.
        These immigrants faced the same level of discrimination in their daily affairs as present day Latin immigrants, who also did not suffer the particularities of injustice faced by Native Americans or by the first Chinese who entered the US.
        To deny that skin color was involved is a gross error and neglect of evidence.

        1. His article was not about discrimination, it was whether Italians et al were considered white.

    2. not your speaking from lack of knowledge or familiairty. Italians had quotas. Half of my family had to go to Canada because they were not allowed into the US. those that were in NYC, lived in what was basically Italian or Jewish ghettos. Grandfather was denied many jobs and had to go into business for himself. My best friend’s grandmother when applying for a job was greeted with “Nice to meet you, Italian bitch”. You are making broad strokes using wide brushes. you really need to more fully understand the challenges that “ethnic whites” endured. They were not considered white. Even Joe DiMaggio had to face taunts of being a grease monkey….

      1. Which part of your comment addresses whiteness and which part is about discrimination?

  4. Bernstein, you may or may not be an idiot, but your assertion about “whiteness” is certainly not the whole truth. Having grown up in an Italian immigrant community, I can testify that Italians were deliberately kept out of the circles of power by the Yankee elite. ANd they were also treated with the same level of disrespect that those of Latin origin are treated today. While we did not use the phrase people of color 50 to 80 years ago, people did receive discriminatory treatment based on the shade of their complexion.
    You may or may not have heard the slur, “wop” that was applied to Italians. “WOP” = WithOut Papers. Sound a lot like undocumented?
    The congregation of the church we attended was ~100% Italian when I was a boy. Now it is 75% Latin and 25% Italian. By looking at parishoners, one cannot determine their ethnicity.
    Regarding Sicialians your defense of a racist court determination is laughable. Perhaps at the level of Warren’s Indian ancestry, some Sicialians may have african blood. Afterall the ancient Phoenicians had sizable colonies in western Sicily. The kind of certainty that you refer to could only be gotten by DNA testing which was unknown at the time. The Court’s claim is merely the application of a racist stereo type.
    Your denying what many immigrants experienced first hand is either gross insensitivity of ideology driven racism.

    1. Maybe you are unfamiliar with legal proceedings, but a prosecutor has to actual present evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. The court was 100% correct that merely stating that someone is from Sicily, without any further biographical evidence, is not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that she has no discernable African ancestry. And of course I’m not “defending” the opinion because I don’t think the statute was constitutionally permissible to begin with.

      As for your first point, you are interpreting “white” as meaning “fully accepted as equal citizens.” My original post disputes that this is what being “white” meant historically.

      1. These legal proceedings that you refer to would have required proof that was technologically unavailable. And so the judges relied on racial prejudice.
        I hope that your law briefs are more convincing than your arguments online

        1. “These legal proceedings that you refer to would have required proof that was technologically unavailable.”

          Testimony about her ancestry was “technologically unavailable”?

    2. “your defense of a racist court determination”

      Wait, you’re criticizing a court for being racist because it didn’t convict a black man of miscegenation? That’s some through the looking glass thinking right there.

      1. I am indeed, because its reasoning was based on racist stereotyping.
        You prefer results oriented judging. Your prerogative.

        1. It’s not a stereotype. There are black people in Sicily.

    3. ” Having grown up in an Italian immigrant community, I can testify that Italians were deliberately kept out of the circles of power by the Yankee elite.”

      That doesn’t make Italians non-white. Of course Italians and many others were discriminated against. Heck, recent Polish immigrants to Ireland are discriminated against. Catholics were discriminated against. But nobody thinks that they aren’t white. The very notion that Italians, Jews, etc. were not considered white is absurd.

    4. Regarding Sicialians your defense of a racist court determination is laughable.

      You need to think a little harder. You’re saying the court was racist because it (a) held the prosecution to its burden to prove every element and (b) refused to act on its own to racially classify a person based on nothing more than a country of origin.

  5. Inventing past “discrimination” by Whites serves a useful purpose.

    Because of past, terrible “discrimination” by Whites, it is therefore permissible – even necessary – to discriminate against Whites today. For example, de-platforming Conservative Whites on university campuses.

    How could any right-thinking person not discriminate against such horrible people? And Black Conservatives? Those Uncle Toms…

    1. Get an education. Start with standard English, focusing on capitalization.

      Backwater religious schooling doesn’t count. Neither does homeschooling involving substandard parents.

  6. Declaring Italians, Jews, etc. as non-white is an essential element of the Woke religious creed.

    Whites are oppressors.

    Non-whites are oppressed.

    Italians, Jews, etc. were oppressed.

    Therefore, Italians, Jews, etc. must have been non-white whites.

    But since Italians, Jews, etc. are now oppressors they have become white.

    It makes a sort of twisted sense if you think about it the wrong way.

    1. The identity of oppressors and the oppressed changes in time. That is “progress,” don’t you think.

  7. So did the Black Irish ever become white?

  8. “…its finding that Sicilian was inconclusively white does speak volumes about whiteness in 1920s Alabama.”

    Lol. It certainly does. Specifically, it tells us that 1920’s Albamans were smarter than Matthew Frye Jacobson.

  9. My spidey-sense suggests that you are correct Mr. Bernstein, but how in the world would a court in the early 1920’s get “proof” up to the high standard that you suggest they demanded? Sorry, but you have a little more trust in judges than my 50 years are willing to give.

    *FWIW: In the early aughts my wife (black) had children with her ex (Mexican) — the state of Indiana insisted that the children get the father’s race and listed them as “white” on their birth certificates. I guess that “race” is fluid when it helps politicians demagogue their political opponents — same as always.

    1. There is a whole literature on how one proved one was white to a southern court’s satisfaction. One way was by reputation. Another was by being from descended from people known to be or have the reputation of being white. A third was whether one was accepted in “white” society or was limited to “negro” social circles. And more. No such evidence was brought in by the prosecutor, but you’re correct that it might be impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt with regard to an immigrant for whom social and reputational evidence wasn’t available. Which just means it would be difficult for the law to be enforced w/r/t to immigrants/newcomer whites, but so what?

      1. “One way was by reputation”
        In other words by hearsay.
        “Another was by being from descended from people known to be or have the reputation of being white.”
        In other words, someone who ancestors were Sicilian could never satisfy this because of the racist view of the southern Court.
        “A third was whether one was accepted in “white” society or was limited to “negro” social circles. ”
        In other words, on the hearsay of other racists.
        Bernstein, your acceptance of institutionalized racism speak pretty loudly about your objectivity and certainly detracts from your original hypothesis

        1. It’s bizarre that you think that accurately describing what people thought and did 100 years ago and more is “acceptance” or endorsement.

        2. Let’s talk about hearsay.

          Federal Rule of Evidence 803(19) contains a specific hearsay exception regarding the reputation of family history:

          The following are not excluded by the rule against hearsay, regardless of whether the declarant is available as a witness:
          . . . .
          (19) Reputation Concerning Personal or Family History. A reputation among a person’s family by blood, adoption, or marriage — or among a person’s associates or in the community — concerning the person’s birth, adoption, legitimacy, ancestry, marriage, divorce, death, relationship by blood, adoption, or marriage, or similar facts of personal or family history.

          I don’t know much about Alabama evidence law from 100 years ago, but I’d guess it was pretty close to that.

    2. DWB: “Sorry, but you have a little more trust in judges than my 50 years are willing to give.”

      I don’t necessarily trust judges, but I might trust this one. /My/ spidey-sense tells me the judge felt sorry for the “aged negro man” and not a little aggrieved at the authorities who were railroading him via threat of death, and so decided to slam the door in their faces with this “not white beyond a reasonable doubt” conclusion. It was a nice way of saying “Case dismissed! Now git outta my court!”

  10. They are referring to a stylized, sociological or anthropological understanding of “whiteness,” which means either “fully socially accepted as the equals of Americans of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic stock,” or, in the more politicized version, “an accepted part of the dominant ruling class in the United States.” Those may be interesting sociological and anthropological angles to pursue, but it has nothing to do with whether the relevant groups were considered to be white.

    I think you mean “fully socially, professionally, and politically accepted.”

    Regardless, I don’t understand this passage. First, you describe roughly what you think is meant by “white,” and then you claim this doesn’t fit with your understanding of the term. Well, OK, but I think Jacobson’s meaning is clear enough.

    Further, as I understand it, he is talking about a time when what we now consider whites were subdivided into “races” like the “Italian race,” the “Celtic race,” etc. Surely you’ve heard the term “the Hebrew race,” haven’t you? In this structure “whiteness” carried a different meaning than it might today.

    1. “Well, OK, but I think Jacobson’s meaning is clear enough.”

      It sure is. He says, “If the court left room for the possibility that Labue may have been white, the ruling also made clear that she was not the sort of white woman who security was to be “protected” by that bulwark of white to supremacism, the miscegenation statute.”

      But of course the case actually proves the opposite of what Jacobsen says. Alabama claimed that Labue’s status as a Sicilian immigrant was proof that she was indeed entitled to be “protected” by the miscegenation statute. The court simply pointed out that the fact that she was from Sicily didn’t prove that she wasn’t black.

      1. TIP,

        I was not referring to the specific case Bernstein cites but to the passage in the OP I quoted.

    2. Every group was a different “Race” back in the day, including the “Teutonic race” but literally everyone agrees that the Germans were white. As for the other thing, you are missing the point. I concede that if we make up a definition of “whiteness” today, and then apply that definition to the past, we can say that by today’s definition of “whiteness” Italians et al didn’t have it. What I am saying, though is that this definition is ahistorical, and that if we use the definition of what being “white” meant in 1790, 1820, 1850, 1880, 1910, etc., Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, etc were all generally considered to be “white,” sufficiently so that when the law divided whites and non-whites, these groups were *always* lumped in with whites.

      1. As for the other thing, you are missing the point. I concede that if we make up a definition of “whiteness” today, and then apply that definition to the past, we can say that by today’s definition of “whiteness” Italians et al didn’t have it. What I am saying, though is that this definition is ahistorical, and that if we use the definition of what being “white” meant in 1790, 1820, 1850, 1880, 1910, etc. Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, etc were all generally considered to be “white,” sufficiently so that when the law divided whites and non-whites, these groups were *always* lumped in with whites.

        You are talking legalities, not social realities. Yes, the Jim Crow laws and similar statutes drew a binary distinction between black and white. That doesn’t mean society didn’t have a hierarchy of “races,” as you admit. That hierarchy developed, according to Jacobson, during the time of mass immigration to the US, starting in the mid-19th century. And “white” was the top tier of the hierarchy, which definitely did not include the groups you name for quite a while.

        Now, if you are making the narrow point that these groups were white as a legal matter with respect to race-based laws, then you are correct. But that’s hardly grounds to claim the the “whiteness literature” is, in general, weak. It largely ignores the main point.

        1. Then by your own logic, Germans weren’t white in large parts of the country, as they were a clear lower class below Protestant Englishman. The Scots has the same problem.

          If your definition leads to the conclusion that Germans weren’t “white” then maybe you shouldn’t use that term to mean whatever you really mean, because “white” isn’t it.

          1. What you describe is the prevailing view on the left – that whiteness has subsequently expanded, belying any notion that race operates in society as anything inherent, even if it’s perceived as such.

            This is kind of a dumb semantic argument anyhow. Whiteness as the default and superior race is not contradicted by whiteness as explicitly contrasted with blackness.
            De facto versus de jure is like Civil Rights 101.

        2. This main point to understand is that there were a lot of categories, but race was the /master/ category. So lower “whites” could be discriminated against, but they existed above any “colored” people (today: “people of color”). And they were tabulated as such. The main Census designation in the early 20th century was “white” and “colored.” Coloreds were subcategorized as Negro, Chinese, Hindu, Indian, etc., (though typically just “Negro” and “other”). White immigrants were subcategorized by their country of origin.

          There could even be organized discrimination against lower whites — along with coloreds — that involved use of the courts — as where housing covenants would forbid selling a home to anyone of Eastern or Southern European ancestry. But that wasn’t required by the state or city.

          My in-laws were listed as of the “Hebrew” race on their ship manifests from as late as 1940, but they certainly could intermarry with any other whites, something that had been happening since at least the mid-19th century and probably much earlier.

        3. To reiterate from a comment above, here’s what I mean by white: When laws, norms, or rules divided people into whites and non-whites, you were grouped in with the whites. Law saws non-whites can’t marry whites. Were you allowed to marry whites? Union says it only accepts white men. You’re a man, were you eligible for acceptance? Public won’t accept white actors kissing non-white actors. Would you be eligible to be cast in a role where you had to kiss a white actor?

          All the groups you are suggesting really weren’t “white” were white by laws, norms, and rules.

          1. When laws, norms, or rules divided people into whites and non-whites, you were grouped in with the whites.

            When the only distinction made was that, you are correct. The point is that that was far from the only “racial” distinction that was made in norms and rules, at least, in the times Jacobson discusses. And when others were made “white” did not include those various minority ethnic groups.

            IOW, you are raising a technical semantic point and criticizing a field of study on that basis alone. It’s sort of silly, and more than a little arrogant.

  11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trBxPFLq__g

    the claim reminds me of that (NSFW language)

  12. Indeed, Cybelle Fox & Thomas Guglielmo systematically laid out the evidence in “Defining America’s Racial Boundaries: Blacks, Mexicans, and European Immigrants, 1890–1945”. I find it pathetic that we still have to point this out to the “whiteness” bozos.

  13. Incidentally, Justice Scalia was Sicilian, a “person of color” under the standards of southern courts

  14. So, I think there’s a few different contextual issues going on with David’s “Whiteness” post. If I read his argument correctly, Mexicans and Hispanics are “not white” but the Irish “are white” and thus had certain advantages, comparatively.

    Let’s start with this. “Race”….is a poor categorization here, for a number of reasons. Very broadly broken down, there are supposedly 4 “races” according to the old Gottingen style. Caucasian, East Asian (including Native American), African, and Aboriginal. But…it has issues. Indian (from India) would qualify as Caucasian…but I imagine that wouldn’t fall under David’s “whiteness” rules. Hispanics could be of primarily Spanish or Portuguese ancestry, but for some reason aren’t White…unless they look white, and then what?

    Comparatively speaking, the massive discrimination the Irish faced in the 1840’s is well on the order of any discrimination the Hispanics, or even up to the Asian population faced. While there weren’t National laws to the same extent (due to the relative weakness of the Federal Government), the State laws, with massive head fees (up to $1000 per head for an Irishman dropped in Boston) were near immigration bans. There are reports of thousands of Irish deported from Massachusetts in the 1840s and 1850s. Furthermore, laws were passed actually banning Irish Catholics from being buried in public cemeteries in Boston, while attempting religious conversion in public schools for Irish Catholics. Religious discrimination in many ways was more important in this time frame than racial discrimination.

    Again, it’s further back in our history. But it needs to be considered, especially if one is considering a Hispanic as “not white”…..except when they are.

    1. There are reports of thousands of Irish deported from Massachusetts in the 1840s and 1850s.

      I can’t find those reports. As a long-time resident of the Boston area, I am surprised never to have heard of them. Any more info on that?

  15. Never said Hispanics were not white. For the most part, Hispanics were considered white throughout American history until recently (and categorized by the census as such), but specifically Mexicans of primarily indigenous heritage were at times treated as non-white, e.g., segregated in some local school systems and of course subject to mass deportations in the 1930s. But merely being of Hispanic origin if you were relatively fair-skinned was not an issue, as the many movie and t.v. stars of Latin American heritage, who had romance scenes that would never have allowed for people considered non-white, attest.

    1. So, here’s the issue from my perspective. Sometimes Hispanics and Mexicans are categorized as “White”. Sometimes they aren’t. Mexicans were subject to mass deportation. So were the Irish in the 1840s. Mexicans sometimes had separate school systems. As did the Irish in the 1840s on occasion. And of course there were the cultural prohibitions on Catholics marrying non-Catholics.

      So, why are Hispanics and/or Mexicans categorized as “Non-white” sometimes, while the Irish never were able to be categorized as such? It’s gotten better for both groups in recent years, obviously. Still…

      1. The problem here is a redefinition of the term “white” followed by a back-application to eras when the term didn’t mean that.

        Many (most! All?) of these scholars use some flavor of definition as DB outlined, but the discrimination of the past didn’t work that way at all, and it varies both over time and geography. A Catholic in Boston was the lowest social tier in the early 1800s regardless of race, while those roles were exactly reversed in New Orleans. A Scot in New York need not even ask to clean garbage, or he could open a business if his own in Appalachia.

      2. The answer, historically, is that many Latin Americans have a large percent of Indian and/or black ancestry, and thus don’t look like Europeans. The answer, in modern terms, that there was a concerted effort by political actors and big business (primarily Spanish language communications companies) to forge a separate “hispanic” identity starting in the 1970s.

        1. So, now you’re going to a “They don’t look (and act) like us, so they’re not white” argument.

          And again, it begins, historically, difficult to differentiate some of the actions taken towards the poor Irish in the 1840’s, because they didn’t look and act like the Anglo-Saxon protestant core that made up the US at the time, from future discrimination against other groups that didn’t look like that core.

          1. No, I didn’t say like “us,” I said like “Europeans,” which is much broader than “us.” And I’m not making that “argument,” I’m explaining why historically brown-skinned Mexicans were sometimes (sometimes!) categorized as non-white, whereas light-skinned Mexican (and the Irish and other groups) were accepted as white. It also explains why Arabs were characterized as white by the Supreme Court, but Asian Indians were not, despite the latter’s argument that they were ethnographically “Caucasian.”

            1. The issue is, there’s a focus on a specific period of history (roughly 1860 to 1967), which largely ignores actions before this time period, and the heightened role of religious (as opposed to racial) bias that was critical in differentiating the “not us.”

              And that dramatic parallels can be drawn between the plight of Asians in the 1880s in California and Irish Catholics in the 1840s. Laws which, for example denied the right to vote to Catholics in the early colonies, and attitudes that carried well after that.

              If one restricts the argument primarily to the period after the Civil war, then it mostly stands. But expanding it before then to the early history of the country, and it’s rather weaker.

              1. None of that has anything to do with whether the Irish were considered to be “white” unless you start from the false premise that being considered white meant you were exempt from prejudice based on religion or nationality.

  16. But David Bernstine that definition of white will soon be of non effect because of the small numbers and because people that could be considered as white are fast dying out from low birth rate and the rest are being absorbed in to non-white races that have much larger numbers. That is correct whites are marring people who are white and at the same time the whites are not even having enough children to replace the ones that die let a lone the half white children that is produced. So unless there is a great effort to preserve the white which NO BODY wants to do.

  17. When I take a step back, it seems profoundly weird that there are raging debates about who exactly “is white” or who “was considered” white.

    1. I’m really confused on why people apparently can’t accept that people were grouped by skin color or heritage, and that whiteness didn’t have some ephemeral component about equality. Mormons were heavily discriminated against and nobody claims that they weren’t white.

  18. The way I see it, the whole controversy is not on well-founded grounds. The term “white” was only developed because Americans wanted to avoid “Caucasian”, as the latter term includes groups such as Northern Indians that are not historically a part of the United States. And so “white” was developed as a stopgap to fill the hole here (regardless “Caucasian” carries similar connotations in the United States today), only to be fleshed out in the 1970’s. The point is that “white” was founded on being the negation of being black or what have you, not directly pointing to certain groups fitting a certain characteristic.
    Now going off topic, but why in modern English does “African-American” primarily point to the American slave-derived subpopulation of Americans of African ancestry, and yet “European-American” refers to European emigrants?

  19. I didn’t read the original article, so perhaps I’m missing some context, but my understanding is that these claims are generally about white *privilege*. Which indeed, this court case supports: they wouldn’t presume just from the hue of a ‘lesser white’s’ skin that they were entitled to the *privileges* of “whiteness”.

    1. As noted, they are referring to “whiteness,” a modern construct, not an accurate historical reconstruction of whether people were actually considered “white” or not. “Whiteness” is something like “white privilege”, but no one seems to object when people insist that “my Italians ancestor weren’t considered white.” The reason Jacobson’s work is considered nuanced is that he makes it clear that Italians, et al, weren’t treated nearly as badly as blacks, so he’s rebutting those who suggest that their European ancestors were non-white in the same sense that blacks were non-white. But the reason blacks and European “ethnics” were treated differently is that in fact the European ethnics WERE considered to be white, just a lower status of whites. Again very simple: if law or custom or whatever separated “whites” from “not whites,” the European ethnics were categorized with whites.

  20. Anyone who has seen True Romance knows that many Sicilians have some African ancestry. A knowledge of classical era history would also tend to support this.

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