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).

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.

The Social Construction of Race

“Not all experience is social but the consciousness of it is framed in social experience. The starting point, therefore, is the collective inheritance, differentiated by class or social group background – the received wisdom each individual copes with, repetitively for the most part, sometimes innovatively. What results is an ongoing ‘social construction of reality’.” (Saxton, 1990/2003, p. 18)

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there has been an increasing consensus in the academic community that race is a socially constructed phenomenon. However, while the mechanisms of racialization have changed, race as a social category and inequalities along racial lines persist. For example, Gissis argues “that the category of race only seemingly disappeared from scientific discourse after World War II and has had a fluctuating yet continuous use during the time span from 1946 to 2003, and has even become more pronounced from the early 1970s on” (Gissis, 2008, p. 438). This persistence has prompted an expansion of the ways in which race is analyzed and the growth of the field of whiteness studies.

Jacobson was one of the first scholars to trace the changing social categories of race and whiteness through history. He argues that race is based “in the contingencies of politics and culture,” rather than based in biological or scientific notions (Jacobson, 2001, p. 86). This premise is significant because it makes possible an analysis of race as a changing phenomenon, rather than a natural or scientific fact. It is also important because it affirms that it is possible to affirm that race is both a socially constructed category and continues to have material and political consequences in people’s lives (Brubaker, 2002). These two perspectives are too often presented as mutually exclusive. It is said that either race is socially constructed (and so it cannot have an effect on people’s economic or political lives) or race has an effect on people’s lives (and therefore cannot be socially constructed).


Some argue that this debate is irrelevant, because there already exists a consensus about the social construction of race (Arnesen, 2001). However, while there may be a consensus in the academy about the social construction of race, it is certainly not the case in North American culture more broadly (Barrett, 2001). A quick look at almost any newspaper will show a number of references to race that are either based on a biological or scientific understanding of race or do not challenge such an understanding, implicitly allowing readers to believe that race has a biological basis [2]. A poignant example was a recent Canadian edition of Time Magazine during the 2008 American presidential campaign. It features Obama’s face, but half has been photocopied in black and white, making his skin appears white. Four of the headlines on the cover also refer specifically to race, including the feature article “Why the economy is trumping race” (October 20, 2008). The consensus on the social construction of race needs to be much more widely accepted before scholars abandon this area of research.

Class and race

I just came across this video, Neoliberalism As Water Balloon from Tim McCaskell

McCaskell_economic_structures
Class structure
McCaskell sex structures
Gender and class
McCaskell sexual orientation structures
Queer folk and class
McCaskell_race_structures
Race and class

It’s concise and well done, and makes some good arguments about how our economy is currently functioning to the benefit of those who are the top income earners and/or own corporations. As a side point to the main argument about neoliberalism, and I think as an attempt to have a more intersectional analysis, McCaskell makes a comparison between race, sex (by which I think he actually means gender), sexual orientation, disability and class. He argues that class is different than the others because in order to change it, we must change the structural shape of our society. Whereas the other social dynamics can be solved by fighting discrimination.

The visual metaphor that he uses is that if we imagine that society is currently in the shape of a triangle, economic class structures the triangle horizontally, while disability, sex, sexual orientation and race give varying degrees of vertical structure to the triangle – cutting across class lines.

It’s a compelling metaphor. And strategically used to highlight economic class, which is the central focus of the experiment and the short film.

However, there are three potential implications of this comparison that I find a little worrying. First, I think that it implicitly makes class more important than other forms of social structuring. This makes sense in the particular context of the film, because his main point is about class. However, I don’t think that a focus on class needs to come through a simplification of race, sex (gender), disability and sexual orientation. And I think we need to practice understanding how class, race, gender, disabilty, and sexuality have been, and continue to be, mutually generative and reinforcing.

Second, I think this portrayal runs the risk of diminishing the differences between race, sex (gender), sexual orientation and disability.

And lastly, based on McCaskell’s claim that in order to change the structures of sex, disability, race or sexual orientation we need to fight discrimination, whereas to change class we need to change the shape of our society, I think the implication is that class is structural, while race, sex (gender), disability and sexual orientation are just about the ideas that humans have. While it is not the only conclusion that one could come to, I think this argument leaves open the possibility of concluding that class is more real (i.e. less socially constructed) than race, gender, disability or sexuality.

This is precisely the tendency that David Roediger (1991) talks about in “The Wages of Whiteness”. He says that in many analyses of class, particularly in the tradition of historical materialism, there is a tendency to see class as more ‘real’ than race (p. 7). He attributes this, in part, to the academic argument that race cannot be seen as a biological fact (which has been revolutionary in the study of race and racism). In the context of an economic analysis that argues that class is not wholly socially constructed (but has real world evidence and effects), this has sometime allowed for people to come to the conclusion that class is more real than race.