Paul R. Lehman, Race:White or European American

February 8, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Posted in Ethnicity in America | Leave a comment

For several hundred years, Americans of fair complexions have lumped themselves or have been lumped into a group called Caucasians, whites or the white race. So-called white people, whether they accept the term or not, are identified by history and the law as European Americans. Many states during and shortly after the Civil War made laws that identified two races, one black, and one white. The only criterion for being identified as Negro, colored or black was having African ancestry. All other peoples were identified as white in these states.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court said that only European Americans could enjoy the privilege of being called white. Since many states disagreed, this color discernment was not maintained consistently throughout society. Shortly after the Civil War, many Southern courts hired people that were called race experts. These people would simply examine the physical characteristics of an individual and then pronounce whether he or she was white or not. In many instances the experts would identify members of the same family with the same parents as being of different races.

Today, this collection of so-called white or Caucasian people contains  many groups of differing beliefs: one group believes that a white race exists and they are a part of it biologically; another group believes that they are part of a white race that is biologically superior to all non-white people, and defend that belief; another group knows that there is no biological white race, but refuses to admit it for fear of losing the privileges that go with being white, and fight vigorously to prove that a white race does exist, and that it is the superior race; another group knows that there is no biological white race, but tries to act neutral while enjoying the privileges of being white; one group is not European American, but fair complexioned and pass for white for the privileges; one group admits that all people belong to one race and tries to down-play the white-black equation; other groups offer a wide range of beliefs which makes the issue of being white or Caucasian valueless. In essence, what does it mean to be white or Caucasian when it has no scientific basis, and any person of fair skin can lay claim to being one?

To be clear on the matter, there is no biological or genetic basis for a white or Caucasian race. The idea of such a race is a social creation. Why? Most of the reasons are based in economics; some on political power and control. However, the most important function of the created white and Caucasian race was to be of service to the wealthy European American ruling class. For example, during the period of slavery, being white meant having physical power over Africans, African Americans, and other ethnic Americans. After the Civil War the control became less physical and more psychological; that is, rather than a white identity being a financial advantage over non-whites, emphasis was placed on whiteness as the benefit.

 One scholar, Pem Davidson Buck, states that “…intellectuals provided fodder for newspaper discussions, speeches, scientific analysis, novels, sermons, songs, and blackface minstrel shows in which white superiority was phrased as if whiteness in and of itself was naturally a benefit, despite its lack of material advantage.”  He goes on to say that

This sense of superiority allowed struggling northern Whites to look down their noses at free Blacks and at recent immigrants, particularly the Irish. This version of whiteness was supposed to make up for their otherwise difficult situation, providing them with a “psychological wage” instead of cash—a bit like being employee of the month and given a special parking place instead of a raise.” (“Constructing Race, Creating White Privilege” in Paula S. Rothenberg, Race, Class and Gender in The United States, Worth Publishers, 2007)

                So, white and Caucasian people have been used in a variety of ways by the wealthy and powerful class of society with the only reward being membership in a group and the superficial privileges afforded the group. The words white and Caucasian say nothing about a culture or country, ancestry or heritage of the individuals using those words as forms of identity. For certain, these words conjure up the association to their historical and social past, but that identity is one that cast a dark shadow on human relations. On the other hand, the term European American speaks directly to the areas of culture, country, and ancestry. The privileges of being white or Caucasian in America are becoming very costly and difficult to maintain. The privileges of intellectual or biological superiority are no longer valid arguments of support. To the informed American, people who identify themselves as white or Caucasian might as well include Santa Claus as their grandfather. It makes about as much sense.


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