Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America by Matthew Frye Jacobson

[24 March 2006]

By Whitney Strub

At the midpoint of the 20th century, ethnicity seemed on the decline in the United States. A monolithic whiteness engulfed popular culture, Cold War nationalism provided a venue through which groups such as Catholics (often eyed with suspicions left over from papal-plot conspiracy theories of days gone by) could assert their Americanism, and sociologists predicted the imminent demise of ethnic identity.

Of course, sociologists also predicted the decline of religion as society modernized, and they missed the mark a bit there, as any given social policy of the Bush II administration so painfully reminds us. In fact, white ethnicity enjoyed an American renaissance in the 1960s and ‘70s, and this revival’s effects still linger today, as Matthew Frye Jacobson expertly shows in Roots Too. Jacobson, American Studies professor at Yale, is certainly qualified for the task at hand; he’s explored the nooks and crannies of American ethnic identity in several earlier works, most notably Whiteness of a Different Color (1998), which examined the social construction of whiteness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as eastern Europeans, Jews, and other groups attained “probationary” white status after decades of exclusion from the social capital that category brought. Here, he looks a few generations down the line, as those newly minted whitefolk reclaimed their ethnic heritages.

The idea of whiteness as an artificial identity tailored to reinforce particular organizations of social power goes back several decades; in his landmark 1975 study American Slavery, American Freedom historian Edmund Morgan showed how the colonial elite instilled the idea of white supremacy in the laboring classes to prevent biracial uprisings after a 1675 rebellion. But only in 1991 did whiteness really emerge into academia as a topic of study, with the publication of David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness, which brought a similar analysis to the white working class of the early 19th century, showing how feelings of white racial supremacy were fostered to keep exploited workers pacified—they might have been “wage slaves,” but at least they weren’t real slaves, so the thinking went. Since then studies of whiteness have ranged from 19th century Southern women to white aficionados of the Harlem Renaissance. Surprisingly, little has been written about the emergence of the contemporary white ethnic revival, despite its undeniable prominence in numerous facets of American life.

Perhaps some historical distance was needed first. At any rate, Jacobson launches into the project with breathtaking ambition, surveying the vast political and cultural topography of white ethnic identity with breadth, depth and analytic rigor. He frames the ethnic revival as largely (but not entirely) congruent with the post-LBJ resurgence of conservatism, identifying three points of intersection: white ethnic voters have favored the Republican Party as it has captured all three branches of the federal government; white ethnics staff much of the New Right, from neoconservative intellectuals to Rudy Giuliani; and the ethnic mythology of immigration and uplift structures the rhetoric and substance of many contemporary policy debates, from welfare to affirmative action.

It is to that final point that Jacobson turns his main focus, with sharp insight. Ethnic revival shifted the iconography of Americanism from WASPy Plymouth Rock to downtrodden Ellis Island, which in turn normalized a narrative of immigration, poverty, hardscrabble work and sacrifice, and eventual uplift over the generations into educated, suburban comfort. The political use-value of this story is immense. First, it gives white ethnics an excuse to oppose social welfare programs: “my grandfather didn’t get any handouts, he worked for a living,” etc. Second, it legitimizes opposition to affirmative action programs or plans for slavery reparation on similar grounds, since most ethnic immigrants arrived after the WASP elite had eradicated many Native Americans and instituted and abolished slavery: this time, “my grandparents didn’t own any slaves/kill any Indians,” etc. The unspoken but obvious implications of these arguments are obvious; in the hands of politicians like Richard Nixon, they take aim at the inner-city black underclass (already excluded from the Ellis Island narrative by virtue of Africans’ coerced means of entrance to America), blaming it for its own poverty and thus absolving white voters of any moral obligation to lend help. If Italians, Jews, and others could climb up the social ladder on their bootstraps alone, why can’t African Americans?

Such an analysis, Jacobson makes clear, relies on heavy doses of denial and selective historical perspective. For while the huddled masses who passed through Ellis Island between the Reconstruction and World War I faced numerous obstacles, they also directly benefited from pre-existing structures of racism: white-only labor unions, government housing agendas that facilitated white movement to suburbia and black concentration in dystopian housing projects, and unbalanced access to education. By approaching ethnic immigration as something that post-dated racism, contemporary white ethnics “fossilize” racial injustice as something that happened a long, long time ago in an America far, far away, rather than acknowledge its institutionalization into the very fabric of the American social structure.

It was, in fact, the very uncovering of this structural racism in the Civil Rights movement that Jacobson argues instigated the white ethnic revival. White ethnics, eager to dissociate themselves from the newly contested social power of whiteness, aggressively and publicly positioned themselves as Italians, Slavs, Hungarians, Jews, and Poles, in contrast to the WASP establishment. These groups, not feeling they were to blame for American racism, grew resentful in the face of 1960s Great Society programs they saw as unfair handouts to African Americans, and thus began the “white backlash” of the 1960s that would culminate in that bizarre creation, the Reagan Democrat.

Jacobson glosses over the white backlash a bit too quickly, bestowing little attention on such pivotal moments as the 1964 Presidential campaign of racist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who surprised observers by picking up major support in white ethnic enclaves like Milwaukee during the primaries. But other historians have covered this, and Jacobson seems eager to reach new ground, tracking his theme through an interesting analysis of the 1988 election, where Michael Dukakis and his Greek heritage had a seeming lock on ethnic sympathies until the alienatingly patrician George Bush (and his nefarious advisor Lee Atwater) stumbled onto an even more effective way to shore up white ethnic solidarity: by pitting it against blackness, in the form of the notorious Willie Horton ads.

Jacobson also leads a fascinating tour through the cultural maze of white ethnicity, displaying a remarkably thorough grasp of everything from cinematic musicals to Jewish literature (the one instance in which he invites skepticism comes in a list of “the nation’s most celebrated filmmakers”: Scorsese, Coppola, Cassavettes, De Palma, Woody Allen and… Joe Eszterhas?!? Insert your own Showgirls joke). In several acutely insightful moments he reads cultural texts against political settings, finding, for instance, implicit traces of the 1965 Moynihan Report (which characterized the black family as “a tangled web of pathology”) in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather, which contrasts those families to its own tightly-woven, albeit criminal, Italian family. Rocky, released within three weeks of the 1976 Supreme Court decision supporting the white Allan Bakke’s grievance against the University of California-Davis Medical School’s affirmative action policy, receives a sustained examination. The two episodes both exemplified the inversion of actual power structures by reinscribing whites as victims of black power, be it the minor admissions quotas designed to offset precisely the white dominance being effaced, or the taunts and bragging of the cocky Apollo Creed. This cultural narrative of deserving whites like Rocky Balboa getting the shaft while undeserving blacks prosper (Jacobson astutely notes that Apollo is unjustly handed the victory) informs the politics of white resentment by legitimizing the various narratives of ethnic uplift-in-a-vacuum vs. welfare hand-outs.

Ethnicity is not a simple tool of reaction, though, and Jacobson spends admirable time showing its deployment at the hands of leftwing multiculturalists. His chapter on the ethnic impulse of second-wave feminism adds a new and too often overlooked element to the historiography of that topic, moving from the ways WASP standards of beauty provoked the ethnic (largely Jewish) leaders of the women’s liberation movement to challenge received wisdom to later conflicts between white and black feminists, and the ways ethnic identity played into them.

Roots Too ends by noting the ultimate irony of the myths that guide the ethnic revival: even as immigration is enshrined as the quintessential American experience, white Americans manifest a vitriolic opposition to immigration when it comes across not the Atlantic but the Rio Grande. Mexicans today face many of the same hurdles as ethnic Europeans a century ago, and often at the hands of those very immigrants’ descendents. Being an academic, Jacobson refrains from phrases such as “rank hypocrisy,” though he makes clear the various rhetorical smokescreens and circumlocutions necessary to justify this white racism that calls itself by any other names available. With this powerful case for less restrictive borders and more progressive social policies climaxing Jacobson’s deep research, clear and clever writing, and insightful analysis, Roots Too merits the highest praise and the widest readership it can find.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/roots-too-white-ethnic/