WWII and race in the Post-Nazi era

Part VI of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

After the end of World War II, there was a significant shift in race-thinking. As the horrors of the holocaust came into popular awareness, it became less acceptable to talk about the differences between races in general, and white-supremacy in particular (Omi, 2001). This was exemplified in the 1950, 1951, 1964 and 1967 UNESCO Statements on Race (Hiernaux & Banton, 1969 – pdf), which take an increasingly strong stance against any scientific basis for race, and criticize the use of biological understandings of race to justify racial discrimination.

The end of the Second World War also initiated significant changes in American and Canadian culture with the rise of the consumer society. Many feared a massive post-war depression, as had followed WWI. This provoked a consensus across business and political party lines that endorsed mass consumption as a way to transition into a peacetime economy. In this context, consumption was not only about personal comfort, it was a civic duty (Cohen, 2003).

The American GI Bill of Rights (1944) is an illustrative example of the ways that racialization became more covert after the Second World War, but continued to shape social structures, institutions and the distribution of resources. The GI Bill of Rights was one of many American government measures to promote purchasing power and it is now understood as an important mechanism that enabled social mobility for soldiers returning from war. While this bill was a significant contributor to the prosperity of many in the decades after the war, many studies have overwhelmingly indicated that “the better off a GI was going into the war, the better off VA benefits made him after it” (Cohen, 2003, p. 156). Part of this difference is accounted for by the personal entitlement and social capital of middle and upper class men, but a large part of the difference came from the structures and distribution of benefits of the GI Bill itself. For example, while the GI Bill would cover the high tuition of private universities, it was very difficult to receive support for the costs of apprenticeships, skills education or on-the-job training, all forms of education associated with working class employment.

In Canada, talk about race, and particularly about whiteness, also declined during the post-WWII time period. It was replaced with euphemistic terms like culture and ethnicity, which continued to mark some as different from unmarked (implicitly white) Canadians, as Canada started to regulate culture and assimilation through the Nationalities, Citizenship and Multiculturalism branches of the government (Day, 2000). This strategy has meant that difference is managed through policies of inclusion. However, the cultural differences that are included are only the observable aspects. James (2008) argues that Canada’s multiculturalism policies are based on a ‘surface’ definition of culture, which negates the power differences that exist between perceived groups (especially between the dominant and ‘minority’ groups), and the ways that minority groups are expected to conform to the deeper aspects of white European Canadian culture (i.e. the organization of families, economics and politics). This is the double effect of multiculturalism in Canada: the explicit policy is one of multiculturalism and affirmation of diversity, while the implicit values reaffirm whiteness as the central or normal experience (Mackey, 2002).

The civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s in the USA and Canada led to many gains in equality, particularly in the legal domain. Formal and explicit racism largely ended, and race-equalizing policies such as affirmative action and hiring equity were adopted to try to address the historical inequities. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, affirmative action provoked a growing backlash among middle-class (particularly male) whites (Giroux, 1997). It is in the context of this backlash that there is an increasingly colourblind or race neutral approach has been expressed, in the media, in pop-culture, in the USA courts, and by government leaders and policy makers. Chapter 4 explores how these ideas are then taken up and expressed by commenters on a blog post about diversity.

Between the world wars: 1920s and 1930s

Part V of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

As the western world was rebuilding itself in the wake of World War I, races continued to be seen as a ‘natural’ way of categorizing humans. During this time, Caucasian became more widely used to describe an increasingly broad range of white-skinned people. This was the result of the legitimacy of science being used to consolidate white as a unifying category (Jacobson, 1998). In the U.S., the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act significantly decreased non-British European immigration. This, combined with increased internal migration of southern African-Americans, lead to the consolidation of the various white European ethnicities into the broader category of Caucasian, which was defined in opposition to blacks (Jacobson, 1998). Barrett echoes this analysis. He says that southern and eastern European “ethnic communities had by then come to identify themselves as white in relation to the burgeoning black urban population” (Barrett, 2001, p. 35).

Brodkin-Sacks (1992/2003) uses the US census to illustrate the growing inclusivity of the word white. The census of 1930 made a distinction between Eastern/Southern and Northern “Euroimmigrants” (Brodkin-Sacks, 1992/2003, p. 118). However, “the 1940 census no longer distinguished native whites of native parentage from those, like my parents, of immigrant parentage, so that Euroimmigrants and their children were more securely white by submersion in an expanded notion of whiteness (Brodkin-Sacks, 1992/2003, p. 122). Due to these converging dynamics, white was becoming a unifying category for previously diverse groups of immigrants.

In Canada, there was a significant decrease in the number of immigrants generally, and especially from non-British and non-American sources. With the increasing economic depression, a 1931 government order closed the door almost entirely to immigration, and it was not opened again until after the end of World War II (Green & Green, 1999). Canadian immigration policy was entirely focused on the assimilation of immigrants into English-Canadian or French-Canadian culture. In practice, this meant that “immigrants who were culturally or racially inferior (or at least different) and incapable of being assimilated should be excluded” (Palmer, 1976, p. 465). The Canadian government was committed to creating a primarily white population, and largely achieved this through exclusionary immigration policies and assimilation practices for recently arrived immigrants.

The 1930s also saw the beginning of the trend within the scientific community to discredit scientific theories about race. This was in part because of the lack of evidence for these theories, but also because of the growing awareness of Nazi race theories. In 1939 some geneticists formulated the “geneticist’s manifesto” which rejected Nazi-like race theories (Jacobson, 1998; Province, 1973). These were the germinating seeds in this time period that enabled the explosion of social constructionist theories of the last half of the twentieth century. Boas, for example, wrote in 1937 that the “mind, body, custom, and social behavior are all subject to the ‘plastic influence of environment’” (as cited in Jacobson, 1998, p. 101).

Despite the world wide economic depression of the 1930s, this time period was also a time of major accumulation of wealth by whites in the US, and corresponding disaccumulation of wealth by blacks. As an example of economic accumulation and disaccumulation, some authors note the large discrepancy between the net worth of whites and African Americans with equivalent annual incomes. This discrepancy has been explained to a large degree by differences in the value and equity of the homes owned by whites and blacks (Brown et al., 2003, p. 23-24). Some of this discrepancy can be traced back to the New Deal programs created during the Depression in the 1930s. These program were set up ostensibly to benefit all citizens during a time of national crisis. However, in part because of the tensions in the US Congress at that time and pressure from southern US representatives, government social programs were set up in ways that covertly and effectively benefited white people significantly more than black people. This is clear in the Social Security program that was implemented: it excluded those who were employed as maids or farmworkers from coverage. This decision and the effects of this policy were not racially neutral, as about 75% of the total black labour force in the US were employed as either maids or farmworkers, and therefore excluded from the Social Security program (Brown et al., 2003, p. 28).

1870s to 1924: Increasing immigration

Part IV of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

“To become White has often been constructed as synonymous with becoming truly American” (Maher, 1997, p. 4).

The end of the civil war in the US and the resulting massive internal migration of African-Americans through the 1870s, as well as increased non-British immigration, prompted changes during the late 19th century in previous delineations of the races (Allen, 1994). The ‘naturalness’ of race of the pre-1870 time period became one of the foundational beliefs in the explosion of scientific research into the ‘human races’ through the late 1800s and early 1900s. In particular, the early nineteenth century saw the rise of scientific studies of race alongside the eugenics movement. Eugenics became the practical strategy to achieve white racial superiority and advocated (among other things) for increased birthrates for whites and birth control for non-whites. These ‘scientific’ studies were highly ideologically driven and based on very little evidence (Provine, 1973).

Throughout the late 1800s, immigration continued to increase to both Canada and the US, with different results and responses. In the US, the Naturalization Law of 1790 effectively excluded all obviously non-white immigrants from becoming citizens, but the rise of non-British European immigrants started to provoke discomfort about the definition of white. Whiteness started to become more fragmented, and what was understood as a singular white race became more pluralized (Jacobson, 1998). Although the response to this was to restrict immigration, the whiteness of non-British European immigrants was actually very rarely questioned. In fact, their status as white formed the basis for the question of immigration, as all non-white immigrants were still effectively barred from citizenship. The year 1924 marked an important peak in the eugenics movement in the US, with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act that severely restricted immigration.

In Canada, the 1901 Census used the four-colour racial classification of white, yellow, black and red to categorize the population. This categorization scheme fit the predominant operation of race in this time period, the Great Chain of Race. The Great Chain of Race theory stated that human races were evolving in similar ways that Darwin argued species evolved over time. This idea became popular because it legitimated white superiority at a time of increased immigration from non-British European countries. These immigrants were seen to be less easily assimilated (and therefore less desirable) than those from Britain (Day, 2000). The Great Chain of Race was used to legitimize a two pronged strategy of more restrictive immigration and more active assimilation of those already within Canada’s borders.

The assimilationist policies and practices of the colonial government are especially visible in relation to First Nations. For example, if indigenous people wanted the right to vote in federal, provincial or territorial elections prior to 1960, they were required to relinquish their status as Indians. This meant that they would no longer have access to land, housing or resources on their traditional territories. The choice was thus to stay excluded from Canadian citizenship, or become a Canadian citizen at the expense of the recognition of their First Nations status. James (2008) writes about the similarities between apartheid laws in South Africa and the Indian Act in Canada. South African government delegates came to Canada to visit Indian reserves around the same time that apartheid laws were being put into place. While it is more commonly recognized that apartheid laws created institutional and structural barriers, it is less common for Canadians to recognize the ways that the “Indian Act, a form of structural racism, served, and still serves, as a mechanism to maintain a culturally ‘white’ Canada” (p. 103).

Another example of restrictive immigration in Canada was the first Chinese Head Tax legislation in 1885. This “head tax” required immigrants from China to pay $50 (the tax was increased to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903) to the Canadian government in order to enter to Canada. It’s intention was explicit: to profit from Chinese migrant workers and to exclude them from becoming Canadian citizens. In 1923, the Canadian Minister for Immigration and Colonization issued an Order in Council which restricted entry to all but a few classes of people (Day, 2000). The Canadian Order was based on a inclusive definition of immigrants, meaning it specified who was included, rather than who was excluded. Of the select few who were included, most classes were based on immigrants estimated capacity to contribute to the economy. British and American immigrants were specifically mentioned as having good potential to be “economic contributors”. This language ascribed characteristics not only to certain races, but even more specifically to national origin. The effect of this legislation was to exclude those seen as racially undesirable, without giving the appearance of having done so. These measures were extremely effective in excluding immigration, particularly for those of Asian origins; for example, only eight Chinese are recorded as having immigrated to Canada between 1923 and 1947 (Day, 2000).

This history of immigration laws account for the current racial make-up of Canada’s population. Despite all of the restrictions on who has been able to become Canadian over the past 200 years, it is rarely acknowledged that the Canadian population has been actively constructed.

The “White Canada” Policy

Part III of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

Canada is often described as a “nation of immigrants.” This telling of history often includes “Canada’s present-day Indian and Inuit [who] became this country’s first immigrants when they journeyed to America by way of the Bering Strait” (Knowles, 2007, p. 11).1 By situating Indigenous people as immigrants, the differences between Indigenous people and European colonizers are minimized, effectively hiding the violences of colonization and the illegal appropriation of indigenous land. This story also undermines the claims of Indigenous people to their land, that, for the most part, has never been legally ceded (Deloria, 1995; Iseke-Barnes, 2005).

Canada’s history of immigration policies makes evident the way that the current Canadian population has been an actively racialized construct. For example, in the 1920s, Canada’s immigration objective was to attract more British and American immigrants, as well as immigrants from the “preferred countries” of central and northern Europe (Hawkins, 2000 p. 26). According to Mackey, “up until the Second World War, when most immigration ceased, Canada had a strict hierarchy of preferred racial groups for immigration” (Mackey, 2002, p. 33). Hawkins (2000) describes these practices even more specifically. She says, “elements of restriction, directed first against the Chinese and later against all potential non-white immigrants, were present in [Canadian] immigration legislation from the 1880s onwards. The power to exclude would-be immigrants in certain categories and of certain origins, on which the White Canada policy was based, was laid down in the Immigration Act of 1910” (p. 16).

For the first 100 years of Canada’s official existence, immigration policies were explicitly racialized. It was only in the 1960s that immigration policy in Canada was changed to allow immigration from non-European countries. This has resulted in a largely white population in Canada. It is predominantly more recent immigrants who are racialized in other ways. This allows current discourses about the problems with “immigrants” in Canada (i.e. their supposed inability to assimilate, or their puported stealing of Canadian’s jobs) to functionally hide the ways that those ideas are racialized.

  1. Knowles is a prolific writer on immigration history of Canada, and her widely distributed book is in its second edition.

Early race history: Slavery and Colonization

Part II of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

In the US, whiteness was enshrined by Congress as early as 1790, when “all free white persons” had the opportunity to become citizens. Although Congress included white in the definition of who could become a citizen, it did not articulate who was considered white (Jacobson, 1998). This was in part because the delineation between white and not-white was so taken for granted that it did not require definition.

However this general taken-for-grantedness was not total, as the example of Alexina Morrison illustrates. Morrison was born into slavery, but after being sold as a slave in 1857, she claimed that her white skin (and blond hair and blue eyes) was proof that she couldn not be a slave and attempted to gain her freedom. Even in the colonial slave-owning society of the 1850s, whiteness was not always so easily defined – although this is not to imply that it is more easily defined today. In an examination of Morrison’s case, Johnson (2000) highlights some of the mechanisms through which whiteness and blackness operated, such as lineage (i.e. born to free or slave parents), biology (i.e. blood content, facial structure) and sexuality (i.e. was she a good, chaste woman – because this was how white women were defined). Each of these three factors shed light on how race was operating at this time, and how the boundaries of race were being constructed and policed.

The visibility and prominence of slavery in the US has often overshadowed the violent, but more historically distant and marginalized, events of colonization. Roediger (1991) contends that First Nations were not as available to be the foil against which whiteness was defined. This was because Native American populations were declining rapidly in the early days of confederation in the US (due largely to the violences of colonialism) and the remaining indigenous communities were being forcibly relocated to more remote areas. African slaves and free blacks, on the other hand, were more integrated into the daily lives of white people, and thus whiteness came to be defined in comparison to black rather than Native-American in the colonial period. The legacy of this definition of whiteness continues today. Even in Canada where significantly fewer African slaves and immigrants, race is often said to be about white and black. Those who are more ambiguously racialized (such as First Nations people or people of Asian decent) are not always recognized as being “people of colour,” but nor are they always recognized as being white.

The role of First Nations in the national imaginaries of the US and Canada was predominantly that of the “disappearing Indian.” This was an active construction in both Canada and the US during the early days of colonization and was enabled by the trope of terra nullius, or “empty lands” (Lutz, 2007, p. 41). European colonizers often spoke, wrote and made art about the vast empty lands of Canada and the US, despite the existence of a wide diversity of indigenous nations. As Day (2000) argues, terra nullius was actively created by European colonizers: “before the ‘waste’ lands could be populated, they had to be de-populated; that is, their emptiness had to be constructed in colonial practices so as to correspond to colonial theory” (p. 117-8).

In contrast with the US, whiteness in the Canadian context was articulated primarily through the language of civilization in contrast to the ‘savage indians’ (Jacobson, 1998). The ‘civility’ of Canadians is two fold. On the one hand, First Nations are available as those who need to be civilized, thus constructing European colonizers as those are more civilized. On the other hand, colonizers in Canada took pride in being so much less violent than colonizers in the US, thus allowing the Canadian national myth to be one of peaceful coexistence with First Nations (Mackey, 2002).

A Brief History of ‘Race’ in Canada and the US

This is the first of a series that I will post on the history of race in Canada and the US.

The word race, as it refers to biological or genetic differentiations among humans, first appeared in the english language in the last decade of the fifteenth century, the same time that Europeans arrived for the first time in what is now known as North America (Hirschman, 2004; see also Oxford English dictionary, 2000). Despite the recent and growing calls for the ‘end of race’ and the growing consensus among scholars that race is socially constructed, race continues to have a real presence in Canadian and US culture, and continues to shape how these societies are organized (Omi, 2001).

Within whiteness studies, historians have played a central role historicizing race and whiteness (s.f. Roediger, 1991; Saxton, 1990/2003; Jacobson, 1998). While there is some consensus on the fact that understandings of race and whiteness have changed over time, theories vary widely on exactly what those changes have been. Some of the most well known include Roediger (1991), Ignatiev (1995) and Guglielmo (2003). Roediger, for example, traces the emergence of the white worker in the 19th century. Before this time, Roediger contends, the “white worker” did not exist with the same kind of meanings that it has today (Roediger, 1991, p. 20). Jacobson takes a slightly broader look at the changes in whiteness in the U.S. He posits that the political history of whiteness in America is divisible into three great epochs: 1790-1840s, with the first naturalization law; 1840s-1924, the mass immigration of Europeans; 1924 onwards, after the immigration restrictions of the Johnson-Reed Act.

Situating race as a historically flexible concept is significant because it challenges the claims (implicit and explicit) that race is a natural way of categorizing humans. This gives more substance to the increasing challenges to biological or scientific understandings of race. When it is made visible that whiteness has not been the same throughout history, it is much harder to claim that a particular manifestation or occurrence of it is natural.