White Enough to Be American? Race Mixing, Indigenous People, and the Boundaries of State and Nation

By Lauren L. Basson | Go to book overview

Conclusion

Controversies surrounding racially mixed people and places at the turn of the twentieth century exposed consternation and confusion among U.S. officials, journalists, and other citizens as they struggled to redefine the boundaries of their nation and state. Slavery had recently ended and there was no longer a continental frontier. Industrialization was transforming the economy and millions of everyday lives. Thousands of immigrants from

Europe arrived on the East Coast, while the United States consolidated its hold on the West Coast and embarked on a new phase of overseas imperialism. Prevailing understandings of what it meant to be American became dislocated in the context of these tremendous social, political, and economic changes.

The concept of an American state consonant with the North American continent and an American nation reflected in visually distinguishable white, male, capitalist faces became untenable. As the territorial state and U.S. citizenry expanded, what it meant to be American became defined more explicitly and more abstractly. Commonsense definitions often clashed with legal and political realities. Americanism no longer depended on ownership of property in the form of land. Rather, it became a form of property in and of itself. To be American, as an individual member of the nation or a territorial member of the state, meant in large part, to possess a commitment to the institutions of private property and white supremacy that served as the ideological foundations of the nation and state.

Debates about people and places considered racially mixed contributed to these changes in what it meant to be American. Controversies that took place at these crucial intersections shaped the ways policymakers and other European American observers struggled to articulate rationales for the new boundaries they proposed to draw around the nation and state. As they grappled with political and legal cases involving questions posed by people and places they viewed as racially mixed, U.S. officials and observers redefined the properties of Americanism through processes of contestation, cooperation, and compromise.

The debates stimulated by the cases concerning racial mixture examined in this book revealed unresolved discrepancies between the goal of territorial acquisition, on the one hand, and the determination to preserve white supremacy, on the other. An expanding commitment to the concept

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