Coloring in Oppression

THIS SHORT VOLUME by Jacqueline Battalora, a professor of criminal justice at St. Xavier University in Chicago, addresses a very important topic in American history and society: The legal, social, and political invention of the category of “white people” as a privileged group, which defines them as the normative Americans over against others, variously defined as “black,” “colored,” “Indians,” and “mulatto.”

When English settlers founded the New England colonies, they referred to themselves as British. As more people from other countries of Western Europe arrived in the area, they tended to group those they saw as similar to themselves as Christians, Germans, etc.—the term “white” was not used—over against “Negroes,” Indians, and rival colonizers such as the Spanish and French.

The term white was first used in colonial law after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, during which some African and European indentured servants formed an alliance. Virginia’s colonial leaders responded with a package of laws that created a racial caste of African-descended slaves, distinguished from European servants. These laws decreed that African slaves could not be freed and free Africans could not hold office, serve in the army, or hold European bond laborers. This group was thus disprivileged, in contrast with those of European descent who were defined as “white.”

The term white also soon appeared in Maryland colonial law, forbidding African-descended people from owning weapons and testifying against “whites.” Anti-miscegenation laws also developed, forbidding “white” people from marrying those who were “black” or “Indian,” fining them if they did so and taking away any children from such unions, who were labeled “abominations.” These laws actually only applied to “white” women, since “white” men often had concubines from these forbidden groups without penalty.

When the colonies formed into the United States, the category called white passed into federal law, defining who could immigrate into this country and who could become citizens. Decreeing that only “whites” could become citizens created various conflicts in the course of immigration history.

The U.S. seized northern Mexico after the Mexican-American War in 1848. To assure Mexico that its citizens in areas taken into the U.S. would be well treated, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo decreed that these Mexicans could choose to become U.S. citizens and would thereby be defined as white. Many of these Mexicans had Indian and African ancestors; in the states that formed in this region, leaders who wanted to deprive Mexicans of their land shaped state laws to ignore the treaty and refuse them classification as white.

“Whiteness” worked in a different way for Irish people emigrating to East Coast areas in the 1830s. British and Anglo-Saxon American elites had defined Celtic people as “nonwhite” at that time. Some Irish immigrants were disposed to side with abolitionism against slavery. But Irish workers in American cities often found themselves as rivals of free blacks for the same jobs. By identifying with the Democratic Party and its doctrine of white supremacy, the Irish were able to win against their ethnic rivals and come to be defined as white in U.S. law.

Battalora details how the categorization of diverse groups of people as white or non-white has not only deeply shaped U.S. law and politics but also the ethnic identity of those thus defined. Although some of the discrimination against non-whites has been eased in U.S. law since the 1950s, these concepts continue to shape our identities as Americans. Every day “whites” and “non-whites” experience different treatment at the hands of the police and other authorities as they are perceived to belong to one or the other group. Battalora calls us all to continue the work of dismantling these divisive ways of separating us from each other as human beings. 

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a visiting professor of feminist theology at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of 46 books.

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