The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

Well, the jig is up. After more than 400 years of ascendancy, whites no longer rule the American roost. Exit polls this November reveal that 59% of white Americans voted for Mitt Romney–a commanding majority in our electoral system–and he still lost. Though this result essentially repeats the result from 2008, when the defeated John McCain received 56% of the white vote, something about the outcome this time around feels definitive. White America can no longer “deliver” the presidency.

Literally and figuratively, I am not entirely sure what skin I have in this game. I am a mix of Lebanese, German, and Mexican, and I feel comfortable tagging myself “off-white,” both for comic effect and truth-value. But I can only approach this year’s racial-electoral result with ambivalence. I feel a little sorry for white America, even for the whites who backed the winning candidate. Indeed, my less-white part (Lebanese, Mexican) feels a little sorry for my more-white part (German). Whites used to claim to bear their own special burden–the “white man’s burden”–for the proper upkeep of civilization. Have we now made whiteness itself unbearable?

Of course, even to speak of “whiteness” is too facile. It obscures the fluidity of white racial status over the course of American history. What has made one white, after all? Being of European descent? But in the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries, during the great wave of immigration to the United States from southern and eastern Europe, Italians, Poles, and Russians–typically Catholic, Orthodox, or Jewish–came as Europeans of doubtful whiteness. Native-born Protestant Americans carried the mantle of whiteness, being, at the very least, “more white”  than the others. Eventually, however, all of these ethnicities folded into the white race. What about the Arabs? My Lebanese-American father, whose skin was dark and whose first language was Arabic, was not-white as a boy, but he gradually grew into whitehood as he learned English in public school, served during World War II, voted for Dewey, got a degree, and entered the middle class. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, a half-Arab like myself could unconsciously assume his own whiteness, though in appearance only my skin-tone really showed my European ancestry.

Whiteness has changed, and undoubtedly will continue to change.  But what has whiteness meant to our political system? Historically, whites did not simply participate in and contribute to our politics; they created it. We would be hard pressed to find anything historically African or Arab or East Asian or Native American in our political system. Our political system is resolutely British and, above all, English. This is true not simply of our formal electoral mechanisms but also of our ideological framework. Our great “big government” and “small government” divide has its origins in the “court vs country” divide that roiled England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It reflects the historic focus of English-speaking Protestantism on the distribution of power and the dangers of its abuse (hence the difficulty of superimposing Catholic political thought onto the American template). No matter what race American voters are, they go to the polls as Britons–participating in a system created by British people and thinking about politics in a British way.

In truth, to be “white” in America has long meant more than race or ethnic affiliation, and more than possession of a set of legal rights and privileges to the exclusion of others. It has also meant an embrace of a political tradition established centuries ago. And Americans who embrace that tradition, whether we are black, Arab, Hispanic, or Asian–do so as assimilators. The total circumstances of our assimilation will have often been sad, tragic and unjust. But it cannot be denied that the assimilation has taken place.

A strong case can be made for abandoning the very concept of a white race. America may end up a place where everyone is white, or no one is.  And certainly there is no point in endlessly trumpeting the “whiteness” of our political system. But so long as exit polls speak of white voters, and demographers speak of a white race, I think we should give credit where credit is due.

5 responses to “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being”

  1. Yet another unpredictable and fair ending to your blog, Tony! Wasn’t the U.S. constitution greatly influenced by Catholicism?

  2. Paul – Not really. It has sometimes been argued that the Constitution’s underlying principle of popular sovereignty–that political authority ultimately comes from the people–originated in Catholic political thought. Perhaps–but the concept is so deeply Anglicized by 1787 that I would not put much stock in the connection.

  3. Your posts are always so thought provoking TJ. Do you mean the legal framework for our elections was written into American law from a British Model? But America was an unsettled land at its founding. What of the many other influences? Spain dominated the area you grew up and my very state name demonstrates that Illinois and other Mississippi connected future states were under French influence. What were the franchise rights in Texas’ own Republic? Did they mirror the U.S. Constitution? BTW only one Catholic signed the Declaration of Independence. I doubt we had made much progress or were of much influence by the time of the Constitution. As to labels in polling, I think the term I recall most is “Ethnic Whites” which to me, born in an industrial Northern U.S. city, always meant: Irish, Polish, German, Lithuanian, Italian, mostly Catholic European voters. I wonder were German non-Catholics counted as Ethnic whites. Chicago, like most big cities was settled in the form of Ethic Ghettos, almost full extensions of the homeland, with no real mixing of marriages until after WW II. I think I could apply this postulate to every big, industrial city of the North. Protestant domination lasted only in the upper North East. Even the proud Knickerbocker traditions gave way to the rush of immigration to New York. It was the big machine politics in big cities that stopped people voting in ethnic blocks. Maybe Tammany’s push behind Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for President was the breakthrough for that. But don’t people vote the culture they think they belong to. And I would argue America voting is more about class than anything else. Is Herman Cain in tough with any significant part of Black America? No, rather he acts like the wealthy person he desires to be and with the people he has hitched his wagon to. What about this other carpet bagging candidate that jumps all over the nation running in any race. Illinois republicans brought him in at the last minute in exchange for paying off all his old campaign debts, when their main candidate was derailed by scandal…Alan Keyes, that’s his name. The great thing is that no one group can elect a president anymore, as if any group can be considered cohesive. I heard someone say that America in 20 years will look like San Antonio does today. So if one tier of the economy can try to buy our government at least a lot more of us can dominate the polls. Think about 1981, not ALL the White people voted for John Steen did they? But a bright Hispanic, educated at Harvard and MIT spoke the right class inflecton, even if his heart was focused on improving the Barrio.

  4. Mike – You packed a lot in this comment. French and Spanish colonial government lacked representative legislatures, while such institutions became central to the British colonial experience. It is hard to get past that basic reality. French Canada was conquered by Britain in 1763, and it was the British who established representative government there in 1791. Germans comprised a third of the population of colonial Pennsylvania, but there was nothing German about the electoral system there; the German immigrants were fleeing the politics of their homeland and had no interest in establishing it here. Texas pulled away from Mexico in 1836 with a population by then dominated by former U.S. citizens who promptly created a republic based on the model of the U.S. Elements of French and Spanish law certainly survive in the U.S. but the structure and spirit of our political system, by far, is British, and particularly English.

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