For Some Reason, Being White Still Matters

Photo by Evan Nesterak | CC BY 2.0

In the wake of the August 2017 neo-Nazi rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville, VA, the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics (with Reuters/Ipsos) conducted a survey that warned, “some Americans express troubling racial attitudes even as majority oppose white supremacists.”

Asking whether white people and/or racial minorities in the United States were “under attack,” it found the following:

+ 14 percent agreed that white people were under attack but disagreed with the statement that nonwhites were under attack.

+ 31 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that the country needed to “protect and preserve its White European heritage.”

+ 16 percent agreed that “marriage should only be allowed between two people of the same race” and 17 percent agreed that marriage should be restricted to the same race.

Americans are fearful, the nation is changing and most people’s place in it is uncertain — and racism is one of the ways this fear plays out.  Racial identify is America’s version of apartheid.

Since the nation’s founding four centuries ago, racial identity has played a key role in the country’s social, moral and political orders — especially what it means to be “white.”  The first Africans land in the British colony of James Town (now Virginia) in 1619 and their status, either slave or indentured servant, remains somewhat a mystery.  Along with other early colonialists, whether Dutch in New Amsterdam or Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay, the world was divided between the white settler and the other, the darker-skinned Native peoples.  The forced importation of slaves from African and, later, African-American peoples only made the need for whiteness for some that much more important. Over the subsequent centuries the meaning of race, especially what was considered white, fundamentally changed.

So important was the issue of racial difference that it was memorialized in the Constitution, with male slaves granted only 3/5th a white male’s citizenship identity.  Thomas Jefferson fully embraced his whiteness in deed (i.e., ownership of slaves, fathering six children with his slave, Sally Hemings) and in word.  In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), he argued:

I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.

For Jefferson and many others over the last few centuries, race involved two conflicting truths, competing values that anchor U.S. and Western social order.

One involves the concept of race as a “scientific” factor, based on a notion of secular or modern truth; the other conceives race in “ideological” terms, grounded in a religious or traditionalist belief.  These differing interpretations of racial identity have long been in conflict, suggesting why many Americans still cling to the nation’s oldest myth, a belief in race as an ideology and a social practice.

For Americans, “race” served as a metaphor to imply social hierarchy between blacks and whites.  It legitimatized of white-skin privilege – and continues to do so.  For centuries, both African-American and white people, whether enslaved, indentured or free, understood the racial rules – the “given” — that structured social and inter-personal relations.  These relations, unless forcefully challenged, became institutionalized practices determining social structures and power relations.

In 2000, the Human Genome Project (HGP) reported that the genetic difference between people of different skin colors — black, white, Hispanic, Asian – was essentially zero.  The geneticist Craig Venter, head of Celera Genomics and HGP’s chief scientist, acknowledged that race is a fiction, declaring that it is a “social concept, not a scientific one.”  His team sequenced the human genome and found that all humans share 99.99 percent of the same genetic code.

Nevertheless, against the HGP’s findings and other “scientific” findings, a great social fiction persists that race or skin-color fundamentally differentiates people, formalizing a human hierarchy-of-being.  This belief poses a simply if challenging question: Why does race still matter in the U.S.?

Race matters to both white and black Americans, but the question takes on greater significance in the face of the profound developments now reconfiguring America’s social order.  First, 21st-century capitalism is defined by globalization, resulting in the restructuring of the nation’s economy and social order.  Second, by 2042, the U.S. is projected to be a “majority-minority nation,” a country in which racial minorities will make up a majority of the nation’s population.  Third, the U.S. is witnessing the erosion of “endogamy,” the cultural rule that encourages group members to marry only persons within their group; .

The U.S. is being remade and a lot of people are freaked out, contributing to a rise in false assurance of racial self-identity.  Adding immediacy to these developments, Donald Trump is president.


The meaning of whiteness changed over time.  Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), a French naturalist and zoologist, believed there were three distinct races: the Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow) and the Ethiopian (black).  Historian Nell Irvin Painter, author of the essential study, The History of White People, notes that Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), a German naturalist, used the word Caucasian “because he wanted to underscore the beauty of white-skinned people.”  He located them spreading from Europe, into Russia, into India and into North Africa.  But, as she warns, “The Caucasus is a border area between Europe and Asia and it’s an area freighted with mythological baggage — Jason and the Argonauts, Mount Ararat.”

During the mid-19th century, Social Darwinists elevated the notion of whiteness into a scientific principle, arguing that Charles Darwin’s concept of the “survival of the fittest” could be extrapolated from nature to population and societal developments, particularly imperialism.  But, as Painter argues, during this period the U.S. was defined by more than one white race – the superior Saxons or WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and the inferior Celts or Irish.  This social tension gave rise to the Know-Nothing movement that drew together Protestants who felt threatened by the rapid increase in European immigrants and, most especially, Irish Catholics, flooding the cities.  They felt that Catholics, as followers of the Pope, were not loyal Americans and were going to take over the country.

Mass immigration from Europe and Asia during the late-19th and early-20th centuries reconfigured the nation’s demographic identity and so too whiteness. Descendants of the earlier Irish immigrants were rebranded as northern Europeans while Southern Italians and Eastern European Jews were seen as the new inferior, nonwhite people – “wops” and “kikes”; Chinese immigrants were long discriminated against, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the Immigration Act of 1924 that included the Asian Exclusion Act.  In the face of WW-I and anti-German fervor, “Nordics” replaced Saxons as the notion of the true white race.

Pointer notes that the nation’s “third great enlargement” of whiteness took place during the mid-20th century. “Politics and the mobilization of Americans to fight the Great Depression and to fight the Second World War,” she finds, “opened up American-ness to people who had been considered alien races and their children and grandchildren.” During the half century between 1916 and 1970, the Great Migration led some 6 million African Americans to move from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest and West, recasting the nation’s demographic makeup. However, she warns, “whiteness continued to be defined, as before, primarily by what it isn’t: blackness.”

“We’re currently in the midst of the fourth great expansion, which is an expansion of the idea of the American,” she argues, “that an American doesn’t necessarily need to be white to be considered American.”  She adds, “’American’ now includes Hispanics, for example, and people who identify themselves as multiracial.”  Unfortunately, for all-too-many, this is not the case.


Donald Trump’s election relaunched the religious right’s culture wars as well as the race-nationalists’ call for white-identity politics.  Some make technical distinctions between “race nationalists,” “white supremacists” and “white separatists,” but the terms share a common belief that white people should have a distinct identity as a group, not unlike African-Americans, one based on what they argue is a shared genetic makeup and cultural — i.e., European — heritage.

They reject any information, like the NGP findings, IQ studies, etc., that does not validate their belief in white superiority.  More so, they claim that multiracial or multicultural societies are inherently less stable than mono-racial ones.  They insist that America’s worst days are yet to come as the country’s demographic make-up continues to morph.  Many race-nationalists claim that racial tensions lead to social instability and an increase in crime, pointing to inner-city [i.e., African-American] neighborhoods and ignoring the opioid crisis gripping rural and small-town white America.  In addition, many self-proclaimed nationalists are dropping the swastika for khakis and organizing to promote race-based political activity.  Their efforts range from the militant actions in Charlottesville to those who seek to form groups modeled after the NAACP.  Some go further and call for white people to be allowed to live separately from non-whites, including in an all-white state modeled on Israel.

Richard Spencer, among other race-nationalists, champions such beliefs. “The ideal of a white ethno-state — and it is an ideal — is something that I think we should think about in the sense of what could come after America,” he proclaimed.  He also declared, “We [white people] conquered this continent. … Whether it’s nice to say or not, we won and we got to define what America means and we got to define what this continent means.”  He warned, “America, at the end of the day, belongs to white men.”

Graeme Wood, who says he went to high school with Spencer, reports that for Spencer, “race is more akin to the German Volksgeist, literally ‘the spirit of a people.’” He says that Spencer advocates for “white Christendom, a group with indistinct geographical borders, but roughly including European peoples, from Iberia to the Caucasus, who were Christian as of a few hundred years ago.”  A re-envisioning of Cuvier‘s trifecta.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) identifies 917 “hate groups” that can be divided between “race-based” and “other” groups.  It finds that since 2014, the number of hate groups rose 17 percent, insisting that “a presidential campaign that flirted heavily with extremist ideas” is the cause of the uptick in such groups.  However, in 2011, it identified 1,018 hate groups. Will Trump’s Year Two add another 100 or so groups to the roster?

Groups the SPLC considers race-based total 450 groups and the other “hate” groups total 467.  The race-based group include (along with number of groups): Neo-Confederate (43), Racist Skinheads (78), Neo-Nazi (99), White Nationalist (100) and Klu Klux Klan (130).  The other “hate” groups include Christian identity (21), Anti-Muslim (101), Anti-LGBT (52), Black Separatists (193) and General Hate (100).

It’s unclear if the deepening sense of rage among a sizable number of “white” Americans will further metastasis.  Sadly, if the economy stumbles into a crisis like that of 2007-2009, one can expect a further spike in the number of hate groups, including race-nationalists.  As suggested by Virginia’s Center for Politics survey findings, under early-21st century capitalism, many may feel that it is only their “white skin privilege” that keeps them from being swallowed in the deepening social crisis.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out