From the Desk of Gregory D. Smithers: The Fragility of American Whiteness

The following contribution comes from Gregory D. Smithers, author of Science, Sexuality, and Race in the United States and Australia, 1780–1940, Revised Edition (Nebraska, 2017). He is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Fragility of American Whiteness

The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, are a sad reminder of how racism, sexism, and misogyny are far from relics of America’s past. Seeing armed militias and white supremacists dressed in medieval-style costumes highlights how growing numbers of white men feel under siege. Their whiteness, their masculinity, and their racial privilege are, they believe, under assault.

The current outpouring of white supremacist conspiracy theories is nothing new. In my book, Science, Sexuality, and Race in the United States and Australia, 1780-1940, I chart the evolution of American anxiety about the fragility of whiteness. These anxieties have ranged from fears about bloodthirsty Indian “savages,” suspicions about “ungrateful” slaves rising in opposition to kill their white masters, anti-Mexican racism, anti-Semitism, and opposition to a slew of immigrant groups.

What unites these conspiracy theories is a fear that whiteness is constantly under attack. The republic’s founders understood this. It’s why the first Congress of the United States passed a naturalization law that defined citizenship as being for whites and whites only. It’s also why a slew of states renewed anti-miscegenation and fugitive slave laws to both police and preserve racial categories throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Some American founders, however, toyed with ideas about racial assimilation. Most famously, Thomas Jefferson developed mathematical formulas for the assimilation, or “blending together,” of Native Americans and African Americans with the white population.9780803295919-Perfect.indd

In the United States, such theories remained outliers to the dominant racial discourse of racial separatism. In contrast, British officials in colonial Australia developed assimilationist theories for the biological and cultural absorption of Aboriginal Australians and immigrant communities.

In Australia, assimilationist theories revolved around the idea that whiteness was strong, creative, and robust enough to absorb and civilize “inferior” races. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as American states in the South, Midwest, and West passed a slew of segregation laws to preserve the socioeconomic privileges associated with a fragile whiteness, Australian officials from Victoria to the Northern Territory and Western Australia implemented policies to “breed out the colour.”

These were extraordinary developments. Was whiteness really powerful enough to biologically absorb and civilize “aboriginal races” and immigrants?

White Americans, who believed they shared a “crimson thread of kinship” with their Australia cousins, watched these antipodean experiments closely. Indeed, American scholars corresponded with their Australian counterparts, newspapers such as the New York Times reported on Australia’s racial experiments, and politicians, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, took a keen interest in Australia’s racial policies and practices.

Prominent American scholars took particular notice of racial engineering efforts in countries like Australia. The American Sociological Society, for example, issued a series of early-twentieth-century statements that emphasized the benefits of racial mixing. A growing cadre of American anthropologists shared this faith. Franz Boas, for example, informed an audience in Berkeley, California, in 1910 that “the problem of race antagonism between the negro and European races in America will be solved inexorably by the leveling of the degrees of distinction between the negroes and whites by the amalgamation of blood.”

As much as American sociologists and anthropologists took inspiration from experiments in “breeding out the colour” in places like Australia, the racial reality of early-twentieth-century America simply didn’t lend itself to the implementation of such ideas. In the United States, the early twentieth century was an era of nativism, of Jim Crow segregation, and anxieties about a “rising tide of color.” At home and abroad, white American men saw nothing but threats to their racial identity and socioeconomic privileges.

As eugenic and social Darwinian discourses became commonplace in the United States and Australia during the early twentieth century, so opposition to race mixing of any sort grew. Across the United States, officials doubled-down on a commitment to defend “racial integrity.” And in Australia, a coordinated opposition to “breeding out the colour” took shape during the 1930s even as the Commonwealth government of Australia actively worked to “breed out the colour” in the Northern Territory.

Historically, whiteness has operated as a simultaneously powerful and fragile category of physic and socioeconomic privilege in settler societies like the United States and Australia. Understanding the historical dimensions of whiteness therefore goes a long way to appreciating why both the United States and Australia have borne witness to racist violence and anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years.