In case anyone doubted the continuing importance of whiteness in America the November landing of the Insight Probe on Mars is a salutary reminder. The image of teams of technicians and scientists, in maroon t-shirts, cheering the bumpy descent was beamed across the world by NASA. All were white. This whiteness eerily echoed the whiteness of America’s Apollo missions to the moon, celebrated in the movie First Man (2018, Dir. Damien Chazelle) in which our white hero’s step onto the moon is wildly cheered by the rows of all white scientists sitting in NASA control. Just in case you missed the racial ideology, all of these scientists were helpfully dressed in crisply ironed white shirts. Oh, and the moon is white, often blindingly so!
Yet we now know that the American space travel story was not entirely rooted in white America. In Hidden Figures (2016, Dir Theodore Melfi) the purposefully suppressed history of a group of pioneering and gifted African American women mathematicians and scientists (played by Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae) is powerfully told. Reduced to segregated bathroom facilities in separate buildings, denied access to the space centre’s cafeteria and excluded from research meetings this group of women nonetheless had a leading scientific role in building America’s ‘whiteness in space’ launch. A poignant scene in the film occurs when the first set of astronauts visit the scientists in a giant hanger and one of the former pilots tries to shake hands with the segregated African American workers but is hurried away by the administrators.
Hidden Figures reveals another classic trope about whiteness in America. As the vital scientific contributions of the African American women is increasingly recognized, the top (white) administrator (Kevin Costner) takes a sledge to one of the ‘segregated bathroom’ signs and tears it down in a dramatic crescendo. This scene conveys the other dimension of whiteness in America’s racial hierarchy: not only do whites enjoy multiple dimensions of privilege and power but it is whites who invariably reform the racist system, further diminishing the agency of the African Americans experiencing routine prejudice and institutional racism.
The same narrative shapes the movie Mississippi Burning (1988, Dir Alan Parker) with Gene Hackman playing the FBI hero, but is marginally challenged in the portrayal of President Lyndon B Johnson in Selma (2015, Dir Ava DuVernay). Many white historians criticize this last portrayal for showing LBJ as a reluctant leader of voting and civil rights reform. This misses the directorial stance. Like most politicians in Washingto,n Johnson wished to avoid deploying federal resources to advance civil and voting rights against correct America’s racial hierarchies and as the film accurately portrays it was only after the pressure of the civil rights movement and the potential anarchy of public disorder that LBJ reluctantly acts to intervene to support King (played by David Oyelowo). For once agency lies with the civil rights movement led by King rather than the dominant white politicians.
The Boundaries of Whiteness
Like other racial categories, whiteness is a socially constructed and politically determined ideological belief constitutive of the American political tradition. Devised as part of a rigid racial hierarchy in the context of African enslavement it operated to designate categories of inferiority and privilege. The durability and embeddedness of racial hierarchy in US political culture was affirmed after the Civil War from the 1880s as a rigid code of racial segregation, institutionalized in federal and state laws and endorsed by the Supreme Court in the ‘separate but equal’ Plessy (1896) decision, replaced the antebellum slave order. The new racial order was relentlessly black-white and enforced throughout the United States (not just the South) through a combination of laws and codes, active fostering of segregation by the federal government rather than mere reflection of societal forces, and above all by legal and illegal violence which terrified transgressors and violators of the racial order. Segregation took a legal hammering in the civil and voting rights reforms of the 1960s with some important achievements for desegregation in public life, expanded black registration and voting rates, anti-discrimination laws and their enforcement and the election of an African American to the presidency.
Positive developments coincided with many negative one of course. Notably, the pro- versus anti- segregation racial orders transformed into color blind versus race conscious policy alliances, the former an agenda for federal inaction. School and housing desegregation stalled from the mid 1970s, and in the case of schools a significant level of re-segregation has occurred since the Supreme Court lifted previous injunctions to integrate schools. Audit studies reveal persistent discrimination in labour markets. Voting rights took a significant battering in the Shelby (2013) decision invalidating the 1965 act and encouraging a flood of strict ID voter requirements in the states. The persistence of violence in America’s racial order is tragically revealed almost daily and sparked a significant social movement for Black Lives Matter.
The Power of Whiteness
Two aspects of the privileged place of whiteness in these racial orders bear underlining. First, whiteness had a powerful material significance. It was used by white working and middle class workers to exercise power in the labour market. Dubbed the ‘wages of whiteness’ by historian David Roediger the identity of whiteness gave workers a market power which helped their employment and income prospects while concurrently denying the same opportunities to African Americans. The long term inequalities in household wealth and wages is rooted in this factor, greatly aided by subsequent federal housing and mortgage underwriting policy which massively benefitted white Americans, and by the federal government’s upholding of segregation until the 1970s. Most unions enforced segregated local branches until the same decade.
Second, whiteness has been a shifting boundary, except for African Americans. The massive mobilization against European immigration between the 1890s and the national origins quota regime enacted in 1924 was galvanized by a disdain for east and southern European immigrants deemed to lack the quality of whiteness. The anti-immigration, eugenic charged restrictionist movement which flexed its muscle in the opening decades of the twentieth century considered immigrants from these countries un-white and unassimilable with native stock white Americans. This perception changed in the 1930s and 1940s as the ideology of Americanization extended – for pragmatic wartime reasons – to embrace ‘ethnic’ American groups who acquired membership within the white boundary. African Americans were never remotely part of this widened whiteness.
Whiteness and the censuses
The dominance of whiteness as the prime form of privilege in America’s enduring racial hierarchies is regularly signposted, often in the language of commentators fearful of the dissolution of these inherited benefits. Here are two contemporary instances.
For at least a decade the Census Office has issued forecasts of how the United States will become a majority non-white nation at some rapidly approaching date. (This of course does not mean that a majority of the electorate will be non-white soon since many of the so-called minority groups have yet to reach voting age and to register.) Mostly these predictions are alarmist. Rare is this headline – “Americans faces exciting future as increasingly diverse nation.’ Instead, it is the loss of privilege and political power for whites which animates descriptions of these future scenarios. The resonance with end of the 19th century and early 20th century prognoses is not just dis-spiriting but affirms how much the nation’s political culture self-defines as white.
Second, the electoral base of the Republican Party which powered Donald Trump into the White House is overwhelmingly rooted in the white part of America’s racial hierarchy. In 2016 Trump achieved a majority of voters in every demographic of white voter – men, women, with or without college degree, high school graduate, high or low income earner, age cohort and so forth. His coalition of well-off white middle and upper income earners, white Evangelical Christians and white nationalist voters is a remarkable revitalization of whiteness in the electorate, spurred by hatred of President Obama, hugely deepened racial polarization attitudes (overlaying partisan division), and the ideology of the Tea Party organized under an exclusivist banner of Make America Great Again. Despite the Democratic Party gains in the House in 2018, many Trump endorsed and Trump endorsing Republican candidates got elected in Senate, gubernatorial and state legislatures competitions.
Ignorance of history is a poor defence for those commentators issuing alarmist predictions of declining white population size and its consequences. Such alarmist bile can only be relevant to defenders of whiteness, an inherently racist stance.
Desmond King is Andrew W Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford. His publications include Making Americans: Immigration, Race and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy (Harvard UP, 2002); Separate and Unequal: African Americans and the US Federal Government (Oxford UP, 2007); and Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America (Princeton UP 2013, with Rogers M Smith).