Immigration & Racial Formation

  • Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. (Jordan)
  • Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Roediger, David R. Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. Basic Books, 2006. (Alyssa)
  • Conzen, Kathleen Neils, David A. Gerber, Ewa Morawska, George E. Pozzetta, and Rudolph J. Vecoli. “The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the U.S.A.” Journal of American Ethnic History 12, no. 1 (October 1, 1992): 3–41.

It is quite easy to conflate race down to a “bifurcated system” of white and black. When someone mentions race or racial formation, images of African Americans immediately come to mind. However, in this weeks readings discussing race and immigration, Jacobson, Roediger, and Ngai turn instead to the construction of the white race or “whiteness.” As Jacobson notes in his introduction, contemporary society often takes for granted the (complex) formation of the white race and how it was not always “monolithic.” Each of these texts, then, approach whiteness and immigration in a way to complicate and contextualize immigration (from Europe, Asia, and the Americas) and the changing framework of race and ethnicity.

In both Jacobson and Roediger, the importance of language and racial terms was surprising and intriguing. They both show the formation and development of both labels and racial monikers. Jacobson’s overarching argument is structured around the move from “white” to “Anglo-Saxon” and finally to “Caucasian.” He notes in his introduction, and periodically throughout his text, that each of these labels carried certain meanings (as derived from the timing of its usage) and that a view that these terms were interchangeable or meant the same thing is both short sighted and ill informed. Furthermore, Roediger shows how different racial epithets could actually bring different groups together such as the term “Guinea” for blacks, Italians, and later on Asians. The power of language and these labels when it comes to racial categorization and formation is interesting and somewhat unexpected. Additionally, Ngai’s notes on terminology illustrates the complexity surrounding illegal aliens etc. These readings helped to drive home the power and importance of categories, as dictated and supervised by the commanding or controlling culture. There are interesting and important parallels within my own research regarding categorical racialization. I am thinking of Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color (a play on Jacobson’s title perhaps) and the racialiazation that nineteenth century Mormons underwent, especially in light of the public practice of plural marriage.

Another important question or theme that these texts, when taken together, bring to light is in what arenas does one locate the radicalizing forces. Roediger, in his introduction/first chapter, recognizes the work of Jacobson from 7 years before but notes that “he [Jacobson] assumes that the key sites of racial transformation are legal and intellectual.” Jacobson resided heavily in works of literature and the arts as well as the courts and legislative workings of the times. I would add that much of Ngai’s analysis resides in the politics and law. Roediger, instead, tries to reintroduce the “messiness” of racial formation in the United States and focuses instead on a more social history view. This is to say that Roediger sees the social influences and events influencing political and legal actions. Thus does this radicalization or racial formation arise from politics and legal arenas, does its inception come from social constructs, culture, etc.? I don’t know if these texts provide a clear answer as to where one can begin to locate these racial formations or from what arena did they come to fruition.

Finally, referring back to Benedict Anderson’s text on the imagined communities of nationalism, I couldn’t help but apply his framework for nationalism to racial categories. Is it possible to define these racial categories (whether broad categories such as Caucasian, or more specific labels such as illegal alien or even Greasers) as a type of imagined community?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Jacobson’s discussion of language and racial terms relate to Anderson’s framework regarding imagined communities? Does it relate at all?
  2. How does Ngai’s and Roediger’s text respond to Jacobson’s overarching breakdown of whiteness from 1790 to 1965? Do they support his argument that the 20th century saw a movement towards a monolithic “Caucasian” race?
  3. Who or what groups are missing from Jacobson’s, Ngai’s, and Roediger’s discussion of race? Are there other non-state/non-political groups at play in racial formation?
Immigration & Racial Formation

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