“Chris Wallenska, Mister Wallenska (or, the preferred form, plain Mister) was fresh out of seven years of classics and philosophy. He was all of 24, although he seemed centuries beyond us in his knowledge of the world—the ancient Greek and Roman world, the only one that mattered. He taught us their languages as well as English and religion, a catechism class he deplored as theologically neanderthal. I remember him actually throwing the book, a thicker, more Jesuitical version of my elementary school’s, onto the floor in disgust when we reached the question regarding the effects of masturbation, which ranged from acne to sudden death. Any sign of rebellion in those days, a few years before Vatican II convened, seemed scandalously heroic, or just plain scandalous, depending on how much inclined you were toward nailing theses to church doors. I was no Martin Luther, but I thrilled at any display of dissent. …”
My father’s family refused to attend his wedding. They refused because they disapproved of the woman he was marrying, an Irish-Catholic. They were Catholics themselves, so it wasn’t the woman’s religion they objected to. They refused to accept her into their family because she was the daughter of Irish immigrants. She was not a suitable mate for their son and brother because she wasn’t “white,” or at least was less white than they were.
They wouldn’t have put it that way back in 1928. They would have said she was riffraff or used some other pejorative term to indicate the woman’s low social status. But whiteness was the criterion they used to judge her even if they didn’t realize it. Germans, some Germans, had been considered almost white for the better part of a century. Irish were not.
This sort of thinking is hard to understand in the second decade of the 21st century. We think we know what “white” and non-white, or “people of color,” “black,” Latino and Asian mean. But my mother and her people, who were as white as Finns in pigmentation, were not considered so for more than a century after they began arriving in this country in substantial numbers. True, by the Naturalization Act of 1790 they were not excluded from citizenship as were Africans. But the only people who were were truly white were the British, so-called Anglo-Saxons. And well into the 19th century even those did not always include Scots, who were once looked upon as no better than savages.
In America “white” and “black” are not indications of skin color. They are social markers. The color that accompanies them is imagined. Swedes were once considered non-white, “swarthy Swedes.” Italians were “guineas,” the word originally used to designate Africans who derived typically from the coast of Guinea. Hungarians, Poles and Russians were not white until the fourth or fifth decade of the 20th century. Even more, each of these nationalities were each different races. When judges in the 1920s had to decide who was white and who wasn’t they heard testimony from experts who might state there were anywhere from three to forty or more races.
We think we have this sorted out now. There are whites and there are people of color. Or, there are African Americans (meaning anyone who has any African ancestry no matter what they look like), Latinos/Hispanics (no matter what color they are), and Asians. The idea that someone of Irish or French descent is not white seems preposterous to us, unless they are also of African descent.
This change of perspective is not the result of historical accident or the consequence of our maturing as a nation. What made those Poles, Swedes, Belgians and other peoples non-white is the same thing that made them better than the “race” beneath them in the racial pecking order: they were not Anglo-Saxon, i.e. truly white, but they were not “black.”
My mother’s complexion was lighter than my father’s, whose people were from Bavaria. Yet, as Irish, she belonged to a race inferior to his. He in turn was less white than a Hoover or a Coolidge. Eastern Europeans were less white than most western Europeans (also less intelligent and deficient in other ways as well).
But “blacks” were in a category of their own, and still are. That’s why Richard Rothstein, the author of The Color of Law, objects to the term “people of color.” The experience of African Americans is unique, unparalleled in the history of the world. No other society has defined anyone by one ancestor, no matter how remote, our so-called One-drop Rule. And in America other brown-skin people have not been discriminated against as have African Americans. Mexicans were admitted to communities no African American was allowed to live in. In 2019 African Americans marry whites at a minuscule rate compared with Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, though Puerto Ricans are fifty percent African heritage and Mexicans and Africans have intermixed to such an extent that there is little obvious trace of the African in today’s Mexican population.
It’s a cliché that the first word a new immigrant from Europe learned was “nigger.” That’s what those immigrants were not, they learned, no matter how badly they were treated by folk “whiter” than themselves, no matter how low on the totem pole of American life was the position they occupied. But neither were they – Polaks, Hunkies, Dagos, Kikes, Donkeys, Krauts and others – really white. Most of them, including my father and belatedly my mother, did become honorary whites in the 1930s. That was when the Roosevelt administration granted them new homes with dirt-cheap mortgages underwritten by the federal government on the explicit, written stipulation that only whites be sold those homes and that those homes be resold only to members of the white race.
The Nazis were more liberal in that decade when they decided who was and who wasn’t Aryan than we were in our One-drop Rule. The lawyers and jurists charged with drawing up the Nuremberg Laws seriously considered American racial law and practice but decided it was too harsh. They settled on one non-Aryan grandparent as the standard by which to exclude someone from the master race.
The One-drop Rule started in the North. Southerners knew too much about their family histories to believe in such a fiction before the North imported it into the South after Union troops were removed following Reconstruction. But Dixie embraced it as its own, and a fiction of racial purity became national in a way it had never done so in the history of this or any other nation.
The second world war did a lot to knock Americans of German descent off their pedestals as just one step lower than their Anglo-Saxon betters. During the first war my father was confronted as a child with images of German soldiers impaling Belgian children on their bayonets. It would seem that vulnerable period of his childhood should have made him feel inclined to shun his German ancestry. But he still sprinkled German in his speech (he was third-generation American) when I was a young child during the second world war. My mother was his “leibchen” or “schotzie,” what didn’t matter was “max nix.” But that changed during or soon after the war when he no longer seemed to remember any German and in response to my questions about our German roots told me it was better not to inquire (it turned out he didn’t know anything himself; he was just afraid of finding out the worst).
By then, the early 1950s, my mother, along with other Americans of European descent, had become permanently white. The totem pole remained the same: Anglo-Saxons at the top by themselves, southern Italians at the bottom. But everyone who derived from the continent of Europe were now accepted as members of the white race based upon one criterion: they were not black, not “Negro.”
If anything, our ideas of “white” and “black” have hardened since then despite the end of legal discrimination. How can that be? Why do we employ a ridiculous term like “mixed race” at a time in human history when any biological basis for the idea of race has been proven baseless? And why is our concept of race so radically strict, even in face of evidence that tens of millions of “white” Americans have substantial African ancestry whether they know it or not?
The Queen of England is black by American standards. She boasted of her African ancestor when she made her first tour of the Commonwealth in the 1950s. Forty percent of Brits of African ancestry marry non-blacks. Latinos, Japanese, American Indians intermarry at similar rates with white Americans as British blacks do with British whites. But American blacks remain uniquely marginalized.
Megan Markle or Colin Powell would not be considered black in any place but the US. Certainly not in Africa, not even in apartheid South Africa. Trevor Noah was kept indoors by his grandmother because she knew if she let him play on the street with the neighbors’ children, who considered him white, he would be arrested for living in a black township. Noah’s father is Swiss. In America he can be taken for Latino but certainly not for white.
There was a time, especially in the old South, when what today is known as mixed race was almost the norm, in places like South Carolina and Florida especially. In Florida under the Spanish, “race” was a matter of status, not color, much as it is in Brazil today. The words “white” and “black” were used, but they did not indicate pigmentation. After America took over that state the first thing it did was reduce dark-skinned people to slavery no matter what their previous social status. Those who could fled to more tolerant societies like Cuba.
Left to themselves, people mix. The idea that color-prejudice is built into us as human beings has no historical basis. It’s not that we don’t notice color, but the idea that people will shun each other because of it just isn’t true. It’s only when color becomes a marker for something else – slave status, e.g., as it did in the 19th-century South and a kind of untouchable status thereafter – that it takes on the force of a natural condition.
Before the suburbanization of America working-class people of all colors lived together and had families together. Institutional racial policies by the federal, state and municipal government of the US separated them beginning in the early part of the 20th century. “Whites” were lured out of the cities into suburbs built exclusively for them, while “blacks” were ghettoized and deprived of services that could not be denied to whites.
But the coup de grace of economic and social death was visited on African Americans by the racist policies of the New Deal. The Federal Housing Administration and later the Veterans Administration underwrote tens of millions of American mortgages on the condition, explicitly mandated, that none of those homes be sold or resold to Negroes.
Middle-class wealth in the US is based on home ownership. It represents an investment to draw upon and pass on to children. It’s what created the middle class in this nation, the white middle class. Denying African Americans that wealth (they have only 5-10% of their white fellow citizens’) meant condemning them not just to substandard living conditions and services but to substandard education as well and ultimately to de facto segregation.
American schools are as segregated today as they were at the time of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. American neighborhoods are as segregated as well.
What made the rest of us white, the privilege of home ownership at rock-bottom cost, at the same time defined who was black in a way centuries of chattel slavery and decades of Jim Crow could not accomplish. When we watch a Ferguson explode on our TV screens or hear about the latest shooting of an unarmed African American by a policeman, we are not seeing and hearing the results of the Middle Passage or the consequences of the One-drop Rule. We are confronted with the consequences of deliberate government policies put into place by successive administrations since the days of Woodrow Wilson, culminating with the legislation passed under the administrations of FDR.
We admit discrimination and racism are horrible but we quickly add that my ancestors weren’t even in this country during the time of slavery and never participated in the worst crimes of Jim Crow. That may be true. But our parents and grandparents received critical financial assistance from the federal government at a time that assistance made possible an ascent into the middle class for themselves and their offspring. That critical assistance was denied by law to African Americans. And that has made all the difference.
If you would like to read a couple of the books that helped lift me out of my ignorance—none of which, by the way, are out of the mainstream of orthodox scholarship—I offer the following:
The Color of Law, A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein, Liveright Publishing, 2017.
Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, David R. Roediger, Basic Books, 2006.
For a concise and striking summary of Professor Rothstein’s book, I suggest this interview with him. It runs about 25 minutes.
My latest at Eclectica:
We think that we think with our prefrontal lobes, our so-called conscious mind. But it ain’t so. We think with our entire body. That’s why the idea that Artificial Intelligence or computers could replace us is absurd. Unless we made a computer out of material and in a form identical to the flesh-and-blood ones we already have—in which case it would be human—AI can never replace us….
“We believe so firmly in our individuality that we don’t see how much of us is unoriginal, imitative, someone else’s—everyone else’s….”
My latest at Eclectica:
NPR’s Marketplace reported yesterday about a family in a town in Ohio being victimized by a very pernicious real estate scam. That family is one of many in the area and across the country who lost their homes following the 2008 financial collapse. Unable to get a regular mortgage, they were offered and accepted a “rental to buy” at what seemed reasonable terms. But it turned out there were tens of thousands of dollars in liabilities with the property that they were responsible for, including 112 building violations and $3,000 a year in taxes. This, despite their being just renters.
Half of their monthly rent, just $400, is supposed to go toward eventual ownership of the house. But it they fail to make a single payment they will be evicted, with no equity due them no matter how much they have paid in toward the house’s purchase and no reimbursement for any monies they have spent to maintain/restore the property or for taxes paid on it.
This situation is going on all across the country and comports, the NPR report concluded by saying, with the history of redlining practiced by banks in African American and other minority communities.
What the report did not point out is the historical context that would explain why African Americans and others are freely preyed upon this way in 2018.
When low-down-payment, low-interest, low-monthly-payment mortgages became available to working-class Americans under an underwriting arrangement between developers and the Federal Housing Administration set up in the FDR administration in the 1930s, African Americans were deliberately and specifically excluded from those mortgages. Sharks like the ones who are victimizing that family in Ohio and others stepped in back then as well to offer the same kind of rent-to-own arrangements, under the same installment-plan conditions: one missed payment and you’re out, no matter how long you have paid into the property. No chance of selling even at a loss. Nothing.
That the same scam is being perpetrated on the same group of people eighty years later should be a national scandal, not a five-minute story on public-radio. If the FHA and later the Veterans Administration had not excluded African Americans from affordable home ownership over several decades (it only ended, legally, in the 1970s), that family in Ohio and millions more like them would not have found themselves prey to such victimization. African Americans would, over the generations, have been able to amass the kind of home equity that the children and grandchildren of poor European immigrants were able to do. That Ohio family’s situation has deep historical roots that deprived two or more generations of the economic leg-up “whites” were granted, not to mention the job discrimination that accompanied their inability to gain homes of their own on an equal footing. As it is, today African Americans only possess 5% of the wealth whites do, wealth that would have lifted them into the middle-class along with their white working class fellow citizens.
Make whole is a term used in reference to compensating a party for a loss sustained… It may include either actual economic losses or… non-economic losses… —U.S. Legal.com
Why has there been no mass extermination of people of African descent in the United States? Why no Final Solution like that of the Nazis in the 1940s, no ethnic cleansing such as took place in the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s? We have had lynchings by the thousands, mass incarcerations, and to this day we see routine violence enacted on African Americans by police and civilians alike. The sum total of the treatment of African slaves and their descendants amounts to an American Holocaust but, with some exceptions—Tulsa, East St. Louis, notably—there has been nothing as blatant in its intensity and scope as the Nazi atrocities….
I heard a guest on Bloomberg Radio today predict a coming “crisis” for the American economy: soon we will not have enough skilled workers, or workers of any kind, to meet the needs of the labor market.
I’ve suspected for many years the reason we’ve been so willing to accept large numbers of immigrants into the country is because immigrants, especially well-educated ones, are a cheap way to meet our labor needs. I mean “cheap” in both the economic and moral senses – we don’t have to pay for the educations or training they already have, and we don’t have to face the moral and fiscal obligation of educating tens of millions of our own citizens who are unemployed or underemployed for lack of a comparable education and training.
We have been a nation of immigrants for the same reason we were once a slave nation. We needed the muscle of millions to take possession of a continent we decided to claim as our own. Later we needed brains to develop our technology and staff our professions. We could have developed our marginalized poor and disenfranchised, but instead we chose to write them off.
Those disadvantaged Americans are descendants of the original “dreamers” – the ones who freed themselves from slavery or whose ancestors came here in search of a better life wherever they originated. We should not be throwing anyone out of this country who was born here or is an established resident (my grandfather was an “undocumented” immigrant). But we might want to consider putting some of the empathy and effort we put into regularizing the status of millions of undocumented immigrants into rehabilitating the tens of millions we continue to exclude from the benefits most immigrants to this country were afforded in the early decades of the last century. That was the same period when African Americans were deliberately denied access to home ownership under the New Deal and were excluded from good public and private employment.
Home ownership accounts for the greatest part of the wealth of ordinary Americans. It not only makes possible a nest egg to pass on to offspring, it also provides equity to be used for a student loan or to start a small business. Thanks to those New Deal policies African Americans today possess only 5% of white wealth. Their not having access to good jobs since the days of slavery has had consequences that don’t need to be spelled out.
It’s easy to support a law that gives legal status to deserving immigrants. It’s quite another matter to make a commitment to atone for three or more generations of deliberate public policy of segregation and economic disenfranchisement. We embrace one because it makes us feel good to do so. We shy away from the other because we have not been taught the roots of the present crisis for people of color in this country but also because the effort required to make those citizens whole is so daunting. But it’s time we started to learn our history, put it into the textbooks we use to teach our children, and make meaningful reparations for it.
A newly published short story of mine:
By Thomas J. Hubschman
“Which would you go back to? If you were forced to choose. Which of the two?”
The sun had so warmed the room that even naked he felt uncomfortable. She, who got a chill when others were going about in T-shirts, seemed to feel just right. He sometimes told her she was part reptile, only fully mobile after she had reached a body temperature well above what was adequate for warm-blooded creatures. But at the moment she looked very mammalian indeed, her pink skin traced with pale veins and selectively sprinkled with freckles and discreet moles. Propped up on one elbow, she could be the older sister of the woman who had lain beneath him a few minutes ago. But instead of drawn tight to her jawline, the flesh now gathered slackly to one side of her face. Her breasts, no longer spread hemispheres, strained earthward like weighted sacks.
“It’s an impossible question,” he said, fighting a keen urge to close his eyes.
“Why impossible? Just imagine you had to go back to one or the other.”
He knew what his response had to be as soon as she spoke, herself full of mischievous energy after their sunny lovemaking. Above all, his answer had to be plausible, even true if possible, the truth one told a woman being of a different kind than what one told a friend or even one’s child. But woman-truth was also the most difficult, bearing the dual burden of not being a lie and yet never being what the woman did not want to, or must not, hear.
“I wouldn’t go back to either one….”
Read the rest of “Sunbath” at:
“We should be called homo narrans, Storytelling Man, not homo sapiens. We spend our lives spinning narratives about everything, from how the universe began to why we were late for work. We make sense out of the reality we live in by making stories about it. Mind, I didn’t write “making up” but “making.” A narrative is not by definition a fiction, though we love that kind of story as well.
“We’re so immersed in our story-telling, we rarely acknowledge our dependence on it, or we think we use it just as a convenience. But despite our insistence that we are a reasoning creature, it is narrative we rely on to make sense out of virtually everything, even our most abstract scientific ideas….”
My latest in Eclectica. Read more: http://www.eclectica.org/v22n1/hubschman_salon.html