Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Whitening of the Jews and the Changing Face of Newark

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Whitening of the Jews and the Changing Face of Newark

Article excerpt

In Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, Matthew Frye Jacobson writes that race is a social construction based on a given historical context and demonstrates the shift in this construction beginning with the year 1790, when the first law concerning the acquisition of citizenship was enacted. According to the Naturalization Act, only free white males were worthy and thus eligible for citizenship. Following the adoption of the law, the concept of white-and who was and could be deemed white-changed markedly over the course of nearly two centuries to suit the needs of the U.S. government in dealing with an increasing variety of European (and Asian) types. A second period of understanding whiteness, running from approximately 1840 to 1924, corresponded with massive Irish immigration and led to the passage of the Johnson Act mandating immigration quotas. The 1924 quotas were based on the number of nationals from a specific country resident in the United States, according to the 1890 census. The census of 1910, however, was the last prior to the end of mass immigration caused by World War I and would have reflected altered demographic patterns more precisely. In this way, those races or groups declared nonwhite or "less white" suffered blatant discrimination. Race therefore became not a natural line of division, but a hierarchic construction to be used in social, economic, and political practice: bluntly stated, whiteness is power.

Jacobson also notes a change in court rulings in the 1920s. The 1922 Ozawa decision had been based on the belief that the 1790 law envisioned Caucasian (read Europeans) to be white; it created a Caucasian zone of whiteness and a second zone of Otherness. Another in 1923 (Bhagat Singh Thind vs. US) overturned a previous decision denying citizenship to a Japanese as a non-Caucasian. These decisions, the latter supporting a Sikh immigrant's claims, demonstrated the "ultimate function of race as an ideological tool and whiteness as property whose value was to be protected" (Jacobson 236).

Jacobson writes that a third period ensued from the end of open immigration and continued until about 1965. During this era the concept of race, particularly in post-World War II America, has come almost entirely to reflect color. Partially as a result of the Nazi use of "race," the term has been supplanted by "ethnicity" to express the notion of ethnic variation that race described in the period roughly covering 1840-1920. In her work on Jews and whiteness, Karen Brodkin uses race and ethnicity interchangeably and goes on to make a distinction between ethnoracial identity, or how we perceive ourselves, and ethnoracial assignment, or the way in which the dominant culture pigeonholes us. Brodkin discusses the identity and assignment issues in terms of the category of "in-betweenness," meaning "in relation to 'the blond people,' mainstream white folks, the women of my family felt different. However, in relation to African Americans, we experienced ourselves as mainstream and white" (17). In contrast to this perception of ethnoracial identity, David Roediger describes a more insidious use of in-betweenness among white working-class males. In Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past, he details in-betweenness and the use of whiteness by white working-class males and in his earlier work, The Wages of Whiteness, describes the origin of the term "white worker." He traces it back to the 1860s as a means of differentiating independent labor (mechanics, self-employed workers, "freemen") from dependent, for the most part wage labor, who could be equated with bond slaves (Wages 20). Americans, as early as the 1820s, he observes, loathed the term "servant" (considering democratic America had no masters) and preferred "hired hand" because it suggested property ownership and the ability of workers to sell their own labor. This, in turn, reverts to the view of colonial settlers as "hard-working whites" in contrast to the Other, "lazy, sex-crazed Indians" (Wages 21). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.