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  • The Invention of the White Race[s]
  • Catherine M. Eagan (bio)
Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. By Matthew Frye Jacobson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. 368 pages. $29.95.

But me wurruk ain’t over jus’ because Mack has inded th’ war an’ Teddy Rosenfelt is comin’ home to bite th’ Sicrety iv War. You an’ me, Hinnissy, has got to bring on this here Anglo-Saxon ‘lieance. . . . Mack is an Anglo-Saxon. His folks come fr’m th’ County Armagh, an’ their naytional Anglo-Saxon hymn is ‘O’Donnell Aboo’. . . . I tell ye, whin th’ Clan ah’ th’ Sons iv Sweden an’ th’ Banana Club an’ th’ Circle Francaize an’ th’ Pollacky Benivolent Society an’ th’ Rooshian Sons of Dinnymite an’ th’ Benny Brith an’ th’ Coffee Clutch that Schwartzmeister r-runs an’ th’ Turrnd’ye-mind an’ th’ Holland society an’ th’ Afro-Americans an’ th’ other Anglo-Saxons begin f’r to raise their Anglo-Saxon battle-cry, it’ll be all day with th’ eight or nine people in th’ wurruld that has th’ misfortune iv not bein’ brought up Anglo-Saxons.

—Mr. Dooley [Finley Peter Dunne], “On the Anglo-Saxon” (1898)

Recently I was doing a workshop on racism. . . . A white, Christian woman stood up and said, “I’m not really white because I’m not part of the white male power structure that perpetuates racism.” Next a white gay man stood up and said, “You have to be straight to have the privileges of being white.” A white, straight, working class man from a poor family then said, “I’ve got it just as hard as any person of color.” Finally, a straight, white middle class man said, “I’m not white, I’m Italian.”

My African-American co-worker turned to me and asked, “Where are all [End Page 921] the white people who were here just a minute ago?” Of course I replied, “Don’t ask me, I’m not white, I’m Jewish!”

—Paul Kivel, Uprooting Racism (1996)

Mr. Dooley’s parody of the transformation of ethnics into Anglo-Saxons and Kivel’s joke about the reluctance of his workshop participants to admit that transformation both demonstrate not only the fabricated nature of racial identity, but how the relationship of European immigrants to whiteness has been imagined very differently over time. 1 These observations have nearly become platitudes among those who practice critical race theory. But Matthew Jacobson, in his Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, has treated the study of white racial formation with an unprecedented comprehensiveness, locating the Americanization of European immigrants as a process in which one can identify the phases through which the fabrication of whiteness has passed in America’s history, from the earliest colonial charters to today’s multicultural nation-state. Within these phases, he has examined the intricacies of the American racial landscape with a perceptiveness that is striking. Jacobson’s effort should be welcomed as a necessary advance not only for the burgeoning field of whiteness studies, but for race theory, immigration history, and American studies in the broadest sense.

One of Jacobson’s priorities in moving race “to the foreground of historiography on European immigration and assimilation” is to dispel the myth that America has been founded on the ideal of ethnic inclusion (12). Rather, he proposes that racism and the related conferral or denial of whiteness and its privileges has been “among the central organizers of the political life of the republic all along” (43). In making these claims Jacobson seeks to revise the work of Oscar Handlin and John Higham, who have depicted racism as periodically causing aberrations in America’s grand odyssey of democracy, not as a “language and a logic” that caught white as well as black and red others in its grasp throughout America’s history (135, 164, 274). Though David Roediger and Theodore Allen are well known for their recognition of the centrality of race in the construction of America, Jacobson also seeks to depart from their work to some degree as well, 2 by focusing on the “complex crosscurrents” of socio...

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