The identity of White Americans can be described along a number of dimensions. Perhaps the most basic is the statistical portrait derived from numerical data as compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau; however, a more nuanced understanding of this group emerges from consideration of their history, culture, and social location.
White Americans by the Numbers
White Americans are one of the five racial designations defined by the U.S. government, the others being Black/African American, Asian, Native American/Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (and Other). Whites are defined by the U.S. government as comprising people of European, Middle Eastern, or North African descent. The U.S. Census conducted in 2000 found that 77.1% of the American population indicated that they were White, alone or in combination with another race, with 75.1% reporting that they were White only. Whites also had the opportunity to indicate their family ancestry, the most commonly reported being German (with 15.2% of the total population), followed by Irish (10.8%) and English (8.7%). With regard to place of residence, Whites are distributed fairly evenly throughout the United States, with the largest total numbers of Whites living in the South (34%) and the Midwest (25%) relative to the West (21%) and the Northeast (20%). The highest concentrations of Whites can be found, however, in the populations of the Midwest (85%) and the Northeast (79%).
In terms of their social, political, and economic standing, White Americans are the dominant racial group in the United States. The United States has had White presidents and vice presidents exclusively, and as of the November 2006 elections, Whites held approximately 94% of seats in the U.S. Senate and 83% percent of those in the House of Representatives. With fewer than 10 exceptions throughout history, all elected governors of all 50 states have been White. Whites occupy the overwhelming preponderance of corporate executive positions, serving as chief executive officers at about 495 of the 500 largest corporations as represented by Fortune Magazine in 2006. White people are overrepresented in every powerful and highly paid profession: Overwhelmingly, American lawyers, judges, physicians, bankers, college professors, and journalists are White. The vast majority of American wealth resides in White hands, as documented by Meizhu Lui and her colleagues in their 2006 book The Color of Wealth. For every dollar of wealth owned by a White family, people of color own less than a dime. Family median net worth (i.e., assets minus debts) provides another way of looking at this disparity. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, the median net worth for White American families in 2001 was $120,900, whereas for people of color it was $17,100. In short, in nearly every walk of life, the lists of the wealthiest, the most powerful, and the most influential feature a preponderance of White Americans.
The Origins of Whiteness
Another way of understanding White Americans involves the origins of Whiteness itself as a collective group identity. Race in general has been declared a biological myth by bodies such as the American Association of Anthropology; rather, racial groupings are understood to be socially constructed, historically contingent identities that arise from a particular confluence of social, cultural, political, and/or economic forces. More specifically, the notion of Whiteness as a meaningful way to categorize human beings is a fairly recent development that did not exist at the time the first European settlers ventured onto this continent. The first colonists, therefore, would likely have called themselves English, Dutch, German, or perhaps Christian rather than White. As described by such historians as Howard Zinn, the socioeconomic forces that initiated the creation of Whiteness in the 1700s derived from the emergence of one of the most important economic engines of the new American nation: the transatlantic slave trade. Not only were the profits to be made from the importation and sales of African people considerable, the developing plantation system relied completely upon slave labor. In response to the necessity of justifying these practices, Whiteness materialized as a new group identity that collectively privileged the new American owning class by establishing a racial hierarchy in which Whites could claim superiority. Whiteness, therefore, provided a rationale for the buying and selling of Africans and their children, their subsequent lifelong enslavement, and the appropriation of all profits from their labor.
Africans were not the only people to find that Whiteness—or more specifically, the occupation of a social location outside and beneath it—bore important consequences in their lives. Conquered people of color throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean lost their land and resources to White colonialists, while Asians in the United States saw their wealth-building opportunities legislated away by White lawmakers. Such legislation had its foundation in the Naturalization Law of 1790, which stated that only “a free White person” was eligible for American citizenship. In the century that followed, Asians of every ethnicity filed suits in state and federal courts claiming that they had the right to be considered White and thus were among those allowed to own property and be protected by law. These included, for example, Takao Ozawa, who emigrated from Japan in the late 1800s, attended the University of California, and raised a family in Hawai’i where he worked for an American company. He appealed the repeated denials of his naturalization requests all the way to the Supreme Court, where, in 1922, he was denied a final time for the stated reason that he was not Caucasian. Finally, in the 1940s, racist laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Alien Land Law of 1913 were repealed.
By law, therefore, Whiteness constituted the legally sanctioned platform for social and economic dominance in America well into the 20th century. White Americans’ historical control of political power, property ownership, and wealth creation, in addition to all the other rights of full citizenship, sheds light on the contemporary concentration of wealth and power in White American hands. Moreover, it is from this historical context that Whiteness derives meaning; for this reason, psychologist Ruth Frankenburg has conceptualized Whiteness itself as an artifact of sociocultural dominance production.
The Culture of White Americans
Many White Americans would be surprised by the idea that they have a culture. The notion of culture is often associated in the minds of Whites with people of color and the ways in which their ethnic traditions, food, and music are seen as different or exotic. In fact, White Americans do have cultural traditions and norms, even though they are largely invisible as such to Whites themselves. This invisibility derives from the fact that Whites tend to see White culture not as a culture at all but as “just the way things are”—as the standards, customs, and values that describe the essential human experience. White culture, then, gains power through its invisibility, in that it becomes the standard against which all others are judged.
The terms White culture and Eurocentric culture have been used to describe the culture of White Americans and the worldview according to how they live and perceive reality. Accordingly, the word Eurocentrism refers to the tendency to order and understand reality according to the tenets, beliefs, and values of White/Eurocentric culture. Psychologist Judith Katz has explicated the components of White culture, which begin with the value of individualism, as opposed to prioritizing collective or community well-being. In keeping with this value, the individual is understood to be the primary social unit, autonomy is highly valued, and individuals are expected to master the environment and exercise control over the circumstances of their lives. Closely related is the value placed upon competition: All situations can be understood as win/lose propositions, and winning is all-important. Status is accorded to individuals on an economic basis; money and property ownership are important symbols of status, along with titles and credentials. Communication is characterized by direct eye contact, limited emotional expressiveness, and little physical contact. Whites’ sense of time is characterized by a future orientation and delay of gratification; time is viewed as a commodity and strict adherence to schedules is valued. Family structure is typically patriarchal, with the male as the traditional head of the nuclear family unit and the female subordinate to him. Beauty ideals for women are based on White physical characteristics (e.g., light skin, blue eyes, blonde hair) along with a thin body and youthful appearance; men are understood to be attractive primarily on the basis of their economic status and sociopolitical power. Musical and artistic aesthetics are derived from European models, and accepted histories are based on the perspective of Europeans who colonized the North American continent. Christian religion is foundational to White American culture, with most holidays deriving from either Christianity or White accounts of North American history.
Psychologist Derald Wing Sue has written about the culture of White Americans, their worldview, and ethnocentric monoculturalism. Ethnocentric mono-culturalism refers to (a) the conviction that one’s own culture is superior to any other; (b) a sense of entitlement to promulgate one’s own beliefs, values, and traditions at the expense of others; and (c) the sociopolitical power to do so. Cultures are not, in and of themselves, either bad or good, and all cultures tend to privilege their own beliefs over others; therefore, it is the latter of these aspects—power—that is the key to ethnocentric monoculturalism and what makes it harmful to outgroups. In the United States, this means that groups other than White Americans, and those whose cultures and worldviews differ from Whites, are often seen as inferior, deviant, alien, and incapable, even if exotic and interesting. The fact that power resides almost exclusively with White Americans means that this negative evaluation damages the life opportunities and well-being of people of color in a White-dominated culture.
Another construct that helps illuminate the operations of Whiteness and White culture in America is hegemony. Hegemony refers to the capacity for powerful groups to maintain dominance not only through institutional, political, economic, and/or military displays of power but also through their ability to shape cultural norms, ideals, systems of understanding, and conceptions of “common sense” in a way that supports their dominance. According to the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, hegemony functions so that dominant groups exercise power from within subordinated people themselves, in that subordinated people internalize ideas and structures that define the dominant group’s power as natural and preordained. The culture of White Americans, then, can be said to be hegemonic in the United States in that many of the tenets of White culture have a natural, “of course” quality to them. Celebrations of the “rugged individual,” the symbolic display of personal purchasing power, and beauty pageant contestants of various races whose features correspond to White beauty ideals are unremarkable, taken-for-granted features of American life. Along these lines, author Toni Morrison has noted that the phrase “White Americans” itself has a redundant quality; the word American contains notions of Whiteness within it.
White Americans and Privilege
Open commentary by White Americans regarding Whiteness has been infrequent, although Black scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois have written influentially about Whiteness since before the turn of the 20th century. One of the best-known White expositors of Whiteness and its privileges in recent decades is Peggy Mcintosh. In her Wellesley College working paper, first published in the late 1980s, Mcintosh explored her identity as a White American and the unconscious privileges associated with it, calling it “an invisible knapsack” of assets and advantages that she carried with her into every situation. For example, Mcintosh observed that, as a White woman, she nearly always had the opportunity to be interviewed and evaluated by people of her own race, that history told her that people of her race created civilization as she knew it, and that bandages and other products were made to match her skin tone. Mcintosh also explored the personal and moral ramifications of allowing oneself to become aware of White privilege, noting that such awareness had direct implications regarding social justice and meritocracy: If certain people acquire unearned advantages simply by being White, then this is not a society where everyone gets what she or he deserves, and Whites who acknowledge their privilege must also acknowledge that any success that they have enjoyed has been furthered because of it.
Marked White Americans
As mentioned, the hegemonic nature of Whiteness in the United States means that Whiteness is, for the most part, unmarked. In other words, anything that does not correspond to White cultural ideals is marked as discrepant—as different, ethnic, foreign, or unusual—but Whiteness itself goes unnamed as the accepted standard according to which “differentness” is judged. One group of White Americans, however, occupies a social location slightly outside the unmarked heart of White American culture and therefore requires a label to indicate their outsider status: poor Whites, variously called White trash, trailer trash, rednecks, or hillbillies. Anthropologist John Hartigan has discussed the meaning inherent in the name-calling directed toward poor White Americans. Specifically, the fact that the “Otherness” of poor Whites requires demarcation points to the classist and racist underpinnings of White American culture. Hartigan also discussed the various shades of meaning among these labels. Redneck is a label that poor or rural Whites sometimes embrace, in that it conveys a defiant attitude in the face of mainstream social rejection, whereas white trash is an identity that no poor White wants to own, in that it corresponds to the nadir of the class spectrum and conveys the lowest point of social contempt. Hillbilly, on the other hand, has more specific regional connotations and encompasses the complexity of the Appalachian mountain experience: an identifiable cultural heritage of music, food, art, and love of the land, experienced within a context of shaming poverty and social isolation.
Antiracist White Americans
One of the ways that White culture maintains its hegemonic dominance is by “erasing” White antiracist thought from history. This silence supports the impression that Whiteness has always been an accepted part of American life; moreover, those White Americans who wish to question or challenge White hegemony are left with no models of how such a thing might be done. In fact, there have always been White Americans who comprehend Whiteness and the corresponding oppression of people who are not White and who oppose the oppression outright. For example, Thomas Paine is widely studied by American schoolchildren who learn about his influential pamphlet Common Sense, which advocated the emerging American Revolution against the British. What is not as frequently mentioned is that he was also emphatically opposed to slavery and wrote tracts on the slave trade that were certainly read by influential White slave masters of the day such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Radical pre-Civil War abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison receive scant, if any, acknowledgment, while John Brown, who was hanged in 1859 for treason after attempting to instigate antislavery insurrections, is cast by history as a zealot. History instead presents White Americans with Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, a man who was politically neutral on slavery although personally opposed to it. In a letter to the New York Tribune in 1862, Lincoln stated that his priority was saving the Union and if he could save it without freeing any slaves, he would do so. This trend continues to the present day; White antiracists such as Robert Jensen, Judith Katz, Tim Wise, Jeff Hitchcock, and David Roediger are virtually unknown in mainstream White American culture or scholarship.
Changing Demographics: White Americans in the Future
Since the 1990 U.S. Census, the White population has grown more slowly than the population as a whole, having increased by 5.9% as compared with the growth of 13.2% for the U.S. population as a whole. This pattern of slowing growth has led to the widely accepted view that by approximately 2050, Whites will no longer be the single most populous racial group. It remains to be seen how these changing numbers will impact the social location of White Americans or their awareness of it.
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