Brits By the Boatload
When that boatload of Brits showed up in Massachusetts, they quite literally considered themselves god’s gift to the continent. Subsequently, they decided which religions were acceptable; which ethnicities and countries of origin were acceptable; who could vote; who would be enslaved; who lived and who died.
This norm has functioned continuously since, letting some in and refusing entrance to others. This normative power is what Professor Ignatiev meant by “white” in her book How the Irish Became White.
A look at the election results this past Tuesday demonstrates that white skin and male gender are still the tickets to power in the United States, the power of whiteness.
That boatload of British Anglo Saxon Protestants declared themselves the baseline. The arbiters of all things worthy. And they vote.
US history shows that some groups were able to get into the club relatively easily. Descendants of German immigrants, for example, now outnumber descendants of British immigrants. George Washington was half German, though it took until 1890 for a full-blooded German to be elected to national office . . .
Germans became white in 1890.
Professor Ignatiev argues that the Irish became white by becoming more racist than the British and Germans. One piece of evidence: is it a coincidence that the great haters on Fox News are generally of Irish extraction?
Whiteness. It’s a club.
Tuesday’s election demonstrated that whiteness hasn’t given up. I suspect it will become more overt in the next several years.
Here’s a hero many haven’t heard of: A. Philip Randolph. Randolph was African American, born in 1889. He organized a union called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. One of the first African American unions. He was also president of the Negro American Labor Council and vice-president of the AFL-CIO.
Whether it’s right or wrong, the Marxist analysis of race that Randolph believed is very simple: the ruling class (read: that boat load of Brits) uses racial prejudice to divide and conquer the poor. In other words, Marxists say that “whiteness”—and allowing some into the club of whiteness—is a manipulative tool for controlling the poor, the majority.
True or untrue, this analysis of race is why humanists, Unitarians, Universalists, and other progressives were once at the forefront of anti-racism work and nowadays are not. True or untrue, the Marxist story marked a path that could be usefully followed.
A. Philip Randolph was a Socialist. An atheist. And a humanist. He signed the second Humanist Manifesto in 1973. (As did Betty Friedan.) The second manifesto was a child of the more explicitly socialist first Humanist Manifesto, written when the New Deal was a heady dream.
Humanism has socialism in its DNA. After all, if you believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, it’s hard to argue that “white” America and its engine, Capitalism, offer a level playing field. Facts on the ground point the other direction. Far from being a statement of individualism, the inherent worth and dignity of every person implies communal action toward communal good.
After all, after you’ve asked how a nation can create a level playing field, you have gone down the road of redistributive justice. The most extreme of un-individualistic ideals.
There are two ways to redistribute wealth: revolution and taxes. Sane people tend to suggest that taxes are the way to go . . .
But back to A. Philip Randolph, who helped plan (along with nonviolence theorist, gay rights activist, and socialist Bayard Rustin) the 1963 March on Washington, where MLK gave his greatest speech. That march was the culmination of a way of thinking outside the norm.
And that was then. Isn’t it almost unthinkable in today’s US? Where would the Civil Rights Movement have been without labor halls to speak in and union money?
We are the stories we tell ourselves. “True” or not, some narratives bear richer fruit than others. The idea that race is a construct used by the oppressors to oppress was the fuel of the Civil Rights Movement. Nothing since has borne so much fruit.
I’m just sayin’ . . .
A Phillip Randolph put it this way:
Justice is never given; it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship.
This post appears on