Invention of the white race

Mathew Forstater forstate at
Thu May 28 07:09:27 PDT 1998

I think the evidence is strong that modern racism is rooted in the 15th century, and has been continuous. We may speak of different periods, e.g. 19th century scientific racism, etc., but that is different than being discontinuous. The emergence of modern racism is inseparable from the rise of capitalism (Eric Williams, Oliver Cox), but these arguments should be combined with those found in West's "Geneology of Modern Racism" and the work of Dona Richards/Marimba Ani.

"Race" is a social construction and so who is "white" has changed across time and place. In the US, it is true that Southern and Eastern Europeans who were not considered white at one point, later became white. This process, and the role played by organized labor, is documented by Herbert Hill, ("Race and Ethnicity in Organized Labor: The Historical Sources of Resistance to Affirmative Action" JOURNAL OF INTERGROUP RELATIONS, Winter, 1984; "Black Labor and Affirmative Action: An Historical Perspective" in Shulman and Darity(eds): THE QUESTION OF DISCRIMINATION, 1989, Wesleyan University press), among others.

Hill outlines the way in which wave after wave of European immigrants were able to "acculturate", "assimilate," go through the "Americanization" (whitenization) process. Hill does not say that European immigrants had it easy, not at all. But they were eventually accepted. Many union leaders, for example Samuel Gompers, President of the AFL from 1886 to 1924, argued that Chinese, Japanese and African Americans were "unassimilable" and should therefore be excluded. One of Hill's most fascinating points is that racist ideology was part of the Americanization process. I can't do justice to Hill's work, but it is a disturbing history.

Mat Forstater

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