Sunday, February 10, 2008

Culturism and Whiteness

Culturists and other Americans should all know about whiteness studies because they command a lot of respect in academia's humanities departments. The book "How the Irish Became White" by Noel Ignatiev popularized whiteness studies. Whiteness studies has an interesting perspective. However, logical fallacies, culturist ignorance and destructive tendencies make this field an overall disaster for America. Academia influences our culture and teaches tomorrow’s leaders. For these reasons, it behooves those of us who are concerned with the fate of America to be aware of whiteness studies and culturist critiques of it.

Whiteness studies notes that not all white immigrants were treated the same. The Germans were considered heavy drinkers, the Irish were said to have added negative attributes of allegiance to the Pope and rowdiness. Italians were stereotyped as criminals and anarchists. Jew's communist tendencies were feared. All-in-all, in that immigrants faced discrimination, they were not treated as equally white as the "native stock." Many thought that the Jews, Irish, Serbs, Italians and others were not exactly white. They were even seen to constitute different races and so not fully American.

Being white, according to the whiteness studies folks, gets one privileges. It removes suspicion. Access to better jobs is another perk of whiteness. Besides assimilating, the fastest way for the new immigrants to "claim whiteness" involved buying into and accentuating America's pre-existing racial binary system. That is they had to be racist and distance themselves from blacks. Some, like Jews, had a hard time of this as history taught them to empathize with the underdogs. The Irish, who were sometimes compared to blacks and got terrible jobs, were the most emphatic at claiming their whiteness by being racist towards blacks. Thus, whiteness studies teaches us, white identity was largely built upon racist attitudes towards blacks.

Whiteness studies provide some valuable tools of analysis for historians. Yes, in 1790 Congress made naturalization available to all "free white males." But as immigration increased diversity who was white was less easily determined. Asians were legally barred from naturalizing. It was fairly clear they were not free white males. But what of Syrians? What of Turks? What of the Italians? What of Jews? Since being white was a prerequisite of citizenship, defining it was important. As immigration increased we ceased automatically calling all those with light pigment white. Geography and other factors had to be considered. This is an interesting insight for those of us who study immigration and our traditional attitudes towards immigration.

Some logical fallacies, however, plague whiteness studies. The idea that all American identity stems from racist categories provides a major example. Beyond not being black, Americans have had a lot of sources of identity. Protestant and Enlightenment sources, for example, have been at the root of what has defined America and Americans. We have traditions going back to Jerusalem and Greece, filtered through the Magna Carta and tempered by the searing conscientiousness of our Puritan culturist forefathers. Much of the times when whiteness studies people say "white" they mean "Protestant Enlightenment mainstream culture.” Much of what they call oppressive racism is simple assimilation. When kids get accent-free speech, that largely has nothing to do with a pathological hate for their race or black people. Assimilation can be natural and healthy. American ideals and culture cannot be reduced to belief in color. Whiteness does not account for as much of American identity and culture as whiteness studies proponents claim.

The assumed truth of "white privilege" in whiteness studies provides another example of a logical fallacy. America's wealth is derived from the rational application of mind to material possibilities and problems as well as incredible amounts of hard labor. One does not get wealthy by "claiming whiteness." Those who were seen as white did not get to retire on a government pension at the turn of the century. All people engaged in labor. The majority of those identified as white did grueling hard labor. Demographically, blacks have consistently comprised around ten percent of our population. For ten percent of the population to live off of the labor of ninety percent makes sense. But the idea that white America got all of its wealth, let alone its identity, by exploiting ten percent of the population is ludicrous. Ninety percent of a population cannot live off of the labor of ten percent of a population. Even if they could, this would not generate the fabulous wealth that America has generated. Whiteness cannot account for as much of America's wealth as whiteness studies proponents claim. There has traditionally been very little "privilege" to go around in America.

Culturism holds that cultural differences are real and important. Whiteness studies treats all discrimination against groups as completely arbitrary, irrational and insane. The groups that most worried the Protestant "native stock" of Americans were the Irish, the Italians and the Jews. The Irish Catholicism was seen as a threat to democracy and prosperity. Worldwide, Catholic colonies are less democratic, have lower literacy levels, and lower GDPs than Protestant colonies. Italians were said to lack reverence for education and engage in criminality. Stephan Thernstrom has shown that as late as 1970 Italian economic mobility was not as high as other groups. This month the Gambino family was finally busted in New York. Jews were at the head of labor movements, communist organizations, Civil Rights organizations, and the ACLU. Karl Marx and Freud have not exactly had zero impact on the western world. Is it totally mad to think that Jews have cultural tendencies that did not perfectly meld with the mainstream of American thought? Whiteness studies is much too quick to dismiss all cultural distinctions as arbitrary, irrational and insane.

Whiteness studies bases its claim that America is built on irrational racism on the supposition that all European immigrant groups eventually just became indistinguishable whites. While this was, they say, done on the basis of racism against blacks, it shows we had nothing to fear from diversity. But part of the reason those of us with white skin became white was the 1924 Immigration Act which greatly reduced the influx of peoples from Eastern and Southern Europe (Jews and Italians). This act gets represented as the definitive proof of America's racist dependence on whiteness for identity. If one, however, makes an investigation of the reasons given in the hearings leading to this enactment of this law, they discover that the great preponderance of the reasons given had to do with cultural predispositions, not race. While some were, not all who crafted this law were racists; many were culturists. Whiteness folks would do well to carefully distinguish between race and culture. But that would require that they first admit that cultural differences exist and are important. That would require them to admit that not all decisions by this government and Americans have been made on the basis of something so arbitrary and inconsequential as the color of skin.

Though the perspective has some value, whiteness studies can sometimes seem pathologically antagonistic to America. Karen Brodkin's "How Jews Became White Folks" is symptomatic. Many of the chapters of this book do nothing but call America racist. She even accuses whiteness of leading to her Grandmother's suicide. Racism has existed in America. It has been a major wall between whites and blacks. But, we have many other attributes too. Like others who are into whiteness, Brodkin seems to not notice that our country has any other attributes other than obsessive and persistent racism. Ironically, she considers Jewish self-definition to be a good thing, but American self-definition to be solely racist and oppressive and pathological. Brodkin proudly notes that Jews have been the leaders in all sorts of "progressive" movements such as communism, but then wants paint all the majority cultures' stereotypes about Jews as irrational and insane racism. Culture is important and significant.

Whiteness studies makes some valuable contributions to our understanding of America as well as its treatment of immigrants and assimilation. We need to be aware of and leery of racism. But whiteness suffers from logical fallacies, a failure to distinguish culture from race and, sometimes, a seemingly pathological disdain for America. America has been racist. America has been culturist. Most nations are either still racist and/or practice extremely heavy-handed culturism. Culturism means that we define ourselves. As America is not evil, assimilating into its culture is not evil. Not all attempts at self-definition are oppressive, racist, and irrational. We should not, as multiculturalists would have it, celebrate the cultural attributes of teen pregnancy, the criminal lifestyle and the love for Sharia law. Diversity is real and that is why culturism is necessary. Whiteness studies needs to distinguish racism from culturism if it is to help America get better and not just tear her down.
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