The late March White Privilege Conference in Madison, WI (2,400 attended; 2015 in Louisville, KY March 11-15) had several Keynotes (Available at whiteprivilegeconference.com). The first was “Birth of a White Nation” by Jacqueline Battalora, a lawyer and professor of sociology and criminal justice at Saint Xavier University, Chicago. In her keynote she set forth something, which many of us in the EALA, may not be aware, namely, that “white” is a legal social construct and not a biological reality. She indicated this was put in place through early colonial laws in Virginia and Maryland, before many of our ancestors arrived in the United States. It gave European descent people an immediate privilege and set the stage for future laws
to ontinue white superiority and the resulting privileges.
Battalora provided the historical documentation for this, which she also does in her 128 page book of the same title. Birth of a White Nation includes a 24 page Acknowledgment and Introduction section where she shares some of her personal journey with this issue including this statement, “I was born a female and made a white girl”.
Of the book’s 5 chapters, the first three include much of what she shared in her keynote. Chapter 1 is entitled “White People: The Creation” which began in the 1600’s
as a result of labor issues involving plantation workers before and after Bacon’s Rebellion (1676). The British male plantation owners, as colonial lawmakers, created laws with consequences related to skin color and free or bonded status for the laborers.
There was a new division created. Relationships were changed. African descent, natives, and mulattos were most negatively affected.
Chapter 2, “Race 101: How ‘Whites’ Became a Success”, builds on the previous chapter, and moves it beyond men with one section called “The Trade in Women’s Bodies”. Women were seen as the route to “white” purity and anti-miscegnation laws with stiff consequences helped make sure that “white” women would be for “white” men only. With this, socialization with those who were African descent, native, or mulatto became even more limited. Not just social but also economic class increasingly developed. People were seen as less than human and more as objects. Laws passed in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s steadily saw the word “white” appear. To make sure this was known, laws were read at the end of church services and by sheriffs on the steps of courthouses. In summary she said, “The laws literally made ‘white’ people more valuable by allocating more rights and resources to them, largely by stripping them from those of African descent and members of native tribes.”
“The Americanization of White” is the title of chapter 3 where she shows the 1790 Naturalization Law, which existed until 1931, brought the influence of colonial era laws to the new nation. This law required being “white” to become a citizen of the United States of America. It helped make non-whites become the primary source of human capital for economic purposes to the benefit of the “white” economic elite. Because African descent residents were not citizens (Verified by the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision) they were often driven away from any July 4th celebrations. Blacks were increasingly stereotyped as lazy, prone to criminality, and unworthy of respect or fair treatment. This racialization became the norm and was later applied to Chinese laborers. They had arrived during the California Gold Rush (1848-55) and also to build the western railroads. U.S. expansionism, manifest destiny, nativism, and industrialization drove the need for more laborers, and with it came additional non-native discriminating and anti-miscegenation laws. By the mid-1800’s, only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were automatically considered as native, whether recent or earlier immigrants.
The negative effect of existing rules is well reflected in the next chapter, “Contingent Whites and Inbetween People: Mexican and Irish in the U.S.” It covers two groups which should have been considered as American, but only one became such. With the end of the Mexican-American War in 1846, the territory gained eventually resulted in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and provided the additional land to also create California and Colorado. Battalora states this war had a moral component to spread Protestantism and democracy. 100,000 Mexican citizens lived on this huge piece of land, but new laws requiring proof that they owned their property prevented them from becoming American citizens. Mexican law did not require deeds. The Irish presence was largely prompted by the Potato famine. They crowded together in cities and took any kind of work, even being called “white niggers”. However, they would not work with African descent laborers, and claimed to be “white”, even though they were not protestant. Led by their Roman Catholic church leaders, this claim eventually helped them gain citizenship. (Included with these four chapters are discussion questions, some with a contemporary focus.)
Battalora’s last chapter, “Seeing White and Naming Injustice” points out that when colonial law in 1681 granted a superior status to “white” British residents through special rights and privileges, it became easier for the Naturalization Act in 1790 of the United States of America to extend those same rights and privileges to all identified as “white”. In addition, the statement “If you work hard, you can succeed” is not true for everyone living here, especially non-whites, because of citizenship denial, lower wages, exclusion from certain neighborhoods, fewer job possibilities, and limited educational opportunities. She also states most people think of the word “race” as connoting non-whites and that “white people and the claims of their superiority constitutes the greatest work of fiction”
But Battalora doesn’t end then but instead with “Afterword: Why Would Whites Work to Dismantle Whiteness?” She states that when whites learn of their unearned advantage is not true for people of color, they become unnerved by the injustice and want to correct inequality. But she also notes, “It is nonetheless evident in the degree to which most white people are unaffected and complacent in the midst of severe harms that non-white communities endure.” Near the end she says, “While it may be difficult to face white supremacy within our institutions, history, and ourselves, it is necessary for that truth to be named if it is to be confronted and dismantled.” Hence, part of our work as an European American Lutheran Association.
~Written by Paul Bauman, July 2014
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