Your roots are showing

A darker shade of white

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The holidays are upon us. By way of thanking all of you for being so willing to support my fledgling substack project, this week I'm releasing a set of year-end posts. These are five reads about the state as I see it of five sectors I follow. Might have been perfect for raising the level of chitchat at a normal year's run of December parties. In 2020, I hope they'll edify if it's not your field and that you'll let me know what I'm missing if it's your bailiwick I'm reflecting on. So far:

Thank you for reading, for subscribing, and for forwarding to friends who you think might enjoy. A quick administrative note: I'll be adjusting my Substack price levels upward in the new year so now is a great time to grab a paid subscription if you've been considering. Or to use Substack's gift option while the prices are lowest. Cheers!


Beyond black and white

The Republican Party was born as an ethnic party. Formed out of a fusion of the anti-slavery factions in the Whigs and the Democrats, it absorbed the straightforwardly named Free Soil Party and established itself as one half of the American political duopoly that has persisted down to the present. But its core motivations were as much cultural as ideological. It was a revolt of one section of America against the power of the South and “Slave Power.”

Despite all of the nostrums about ending slavery and polygamy and the need for federal investment in public works, the 1856 map shows who the Republican Party first drew its support from: it was the party of Northern Yankees. It was about identity, not ideology. Though in some contexts “Yankee” gets used as shorthand for all Americans, the term originates with the citizens of New England. Seeking opportunity outside of their overpopulated homeland, New England Yankees fanned out from their crowded corner of the United States. Yankee traders and whalers became the most numerous Americans beyond the nation’s shores. So common that the term Yankee became synonymous with American. 

New Englanders also migrated westward all along the northern fringe of the United States, creating the “Yankee Empire.” They settled the vast domains of western New York, northern Ohio and Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Later the western portions of the Yankee Empire also became a magnet for Germans and Scandinavians, whose lifestyles and values were more consonant with those of New Englanders than with other factions of “Old Stock'' Americans further south. 

This was the soil where the Republican Party took root. In 1860, the Republicans nominated a Kentucky-born candidate, Abraham Lincoln, and the party’s reach expanded to other parts of the north beyond the Yankee fringe, thus capturing political power, which it would hold until FDR’s New Deal. Until Roosevelt’s realignment, every election involved jockeying between the old factions of Yankees, other Northerners, and the South. Though all these groups were white, their rivalries were deep and old. Despite attempts to patch up the fabric of American society, the blood spilled during the Civil War forever held the citizens of the North and South at a remove from one another.

In contrast, in 2020 the debate often foregrounds “whites” and “communities of color” as if the world is divided into such stark demographic dualities and always has been. Only it isn’t describing anything more than a recent fashion. The idea of a white America vs. oppressed minorities is a flattening and erasing of the persistent internal divisions amongst the former. 

Some systems of categorization obscure more history than they illuminate. This is patently obvious to many when it comes to “communities of color.” What has the Cuban American to do with the Hmong American? But the same applies to white Americans, from the erstwhile white “ethnic” category including Catholics and Jews, Italians and Poles, to the Mayflower descendants.


The old ones

In the 20th century, the past stream of migrants through Ellis Island captured the American imagination. There were several reasons for this. First, the Germans, Italians, and Poles who arrived in the decades around 1900 had fresh memories of the old country, and the first generation was still alive after World War II. The “old country” was not yet dim oral history but vividly conjured in the personal histories of living people. Second, the romanticization of the great Ellis Island wave of migration was part of a process of assimilation that produced a homogeneous white American self-conception in the decades after World War II. The war had brought together G.I.’s from all walks of life.  Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. Northern urban Italian and Southern, rural, Old Stock American. But in some ways, this just sublimated older distinctions that persisted below the surface.

The romantic narrative of late 19th and early 20th-century immigration flattered the descendants of the Ellis Island generation, who settled in alongside the old Americans. Whereas in the first decades of the 20th century the vast waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants were seen as a threat to the American way of life, motivating immigration restriction in the 1920’s, the coalescence of a cohesive white identity after World War II leaned on a rose-tinted depiction of the Ellis Island generation.

But who were the old Americans that predated the most famous immigrant wave? These consisted of earlier waves of migration, in particular, Germans and Irish in the early 19th century who triggered the first rise of xenophobia in the United States, but more importantly, the Old Stock of white and black Americans who were present in the United States in the 1790 Census. As late as 1990 these Old Stock Americans contributed nearly half the ancestry in the USA. These are the people whose roots in America go back to the colonial period. They were settlers and slaves who established themselves in the North American colonies of Britain. Not immigrants to the United States of America. 

Despite the vast differences in the experiences of free white Americans who emigrated from Britain and enslaved Africans brought over in bondage, the language, and religion of colonial America impacted both groups in deep ways. Though their paths diverged, white indentured servants who worked alongside enslaved Africans shaped and were shaped by the nascent black American culture. The black American practice of jumping over a broom during weddings derives from folk traditions in the British Isles, while the parallel emergence of blues and country music cannot be understood without the mutual cultural exchange between Southern blacks and whites. Though fundamentally set apart, black Americans are more rooted in the soil of this nation than most whites.


The Other Americans

The tortured history of black Americans, the descendants of Africans enslaved and brought to the New World, is well known. Much of American history is an engagement with this founding sin of slavery, and the unreconciled nature of racial relations in this country. Black Americans are in many ways the most American of our citizens but also the most alienated from our history. By the Revolutionary War, the enslaved population of the United States was already Christian and English-speaking, with few retaining any deep knowledge of Africa. 

Black Americans represent the most prominent and well-known bloc of Old Stock Americans, but they are not the most numerous. Speaking about  “white Americans'' artificially brackets many different types of Americans together. In the process, we erase a tense history of conflict and a fruitful synthesis of folkways. When headlines trumpet the fact that “most white voters voted for Trump” they collapse the essential distinctions and local histories that drive these social and political decisions. The cultural and social distance between a white roofer in southern Mississippi and a white lawyer in Connecticut is vast. And yet both are just “white” beneficiaries of “systemic racism” in our present-day secular theology.


The Four Folkways

The most prominent theorist of the different cultural streams of Anglo-America is David Hackett Fischer. A historian at Brandeis, he identifies four general Anglo-American folkways at the founding. These were the groups of Anglo-Americans who interacted with the native peoples of North America, and the enslaved Africans brought over to power the cash-crop economy of the South. 

First, there were the New England Yankees, descended mostly from 30,000 settlers who arrived from England in the 1630’s. These were mostly Puritans, and disproportionately from the eastern coast of England, where these religious sects were most numerous. It is not a coincidence that Boston, England, lies on the eastern coast of the English Midlands. A huge number of early Puritans also migrated out of the neighboring region of East Anglia, the home country of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who had Charles I executed and established a Puritan republic in the 1650’s. The famous Boston accent is actually a descendent of an extinct East Anglian one.

Second, the younger sons of the British rural gentry and servants settled the rich agricultural sections of the lowland South. If the people of New England descended from Puritans, then these Southern tobacco farmers and planters were the scions of the Cavaliers, the people who worked in their homes and plowed their fields. The Cavaliers were the old foes of the Puritans from the English Civil War. Where the Puritans tended to be from the east of England, with close connections to the Dutch Calvinists across the North Sea, the aspiring planters and their tenants tended to have roots in the west of England, in the agricultural hinterland beyond metropolitan London. Whereas the Puritans were a people of the book and town, the planter crew favored plantations over cities, hunting over reading.

Between Southerners and New Englanders lay the middle zone of the Hudson and Delaware river valleys, and those motley colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. New England and the lowland South had a homogeneous ethos, whether that be Puritan bourgeois egalitarianism or strict social hierarchy. But the middle colonies were defined by their heterogeneity, with Quakers in Philadelphia, Dutch in New York, and Swedes in Delaware. The alliance between the Quakers and Pennsylvania German immigrants in the 18th century set the template for the coalitional politics that would come to define the United States. Very different groups were often brought together by common interests. And the mercantile orientation of the Mid-Atlantic port cities anticipated the commercial orientation of America at its peak.

Finally, the last great wave of migration before the Revolutionary War was from the borderlands between England and Scotland. Often called “Scots-Irish” thanks to their sojourn in northern Ireland, these people emigrated in vast numbers in the mid 1700’s, arriving in Philadelphia, and pushing inland to the hill country beyond the coast. Going north, but especially south, the Scots-Irish occupied the vast interior sweep of British America. Largely detaching themselves from the productive and manufacturing economy of the coast, the Scots-Irish recreated the factious, honor-bound society of northern England and Ireland on an exaggerated scale in the American uplands. This was the first wild American heartland, and the Scots-Irish were the first great “Indian fighter” culture to emerge on the frontier. 


The past is prologue

As a child in upstate New York, I was taught about the Civil War with no ambiguity over “good guys” vs. “bad guys”. Why? Because upstate New York sent soldiers to fight the South, and is firmly a northern locality.  When we read about the English Civil War, it was clear that the Puritan Roundheads led by Oliver Cromwell were more virtuous than the Cavaliers who backed the king. As an American it is hard to not root for republicans against the soldiers of the king. We see our own history. There wasn’t a deep philosophical analysis of which side was just in its cause, there was simply an extrapolation from the shared history that people in that region of New York took for granted. This included the children of immigrants from Bangladesh.

The weight of this was clear to me only later when I met people from other parts of the country, and realized they saw history differently, and people from England, whose views about the English Civil War and the American Revolution contradicted what I had taken for granted. A Korean-American friend who was raised in the southern college town where his parents were professors recounted learning that the North had aggressed against the South, and committed war crimes. He did not exactly defend the Southern position, but it was inculcated in him and he couldn’t shake that. So here we were, two young men, children of  Asian immigrants, recapitulating the disagreements between two groups of white Americans who fought each other in bloody battles in the 19th century over the destiny of black Americans. These were not our ancestors, but they were the ancestors of the cultures which became our own.

When we are told that ours is a history of unremitting white supremacy, we are being sold a myth that masks the real history. The myth has some basis in fact, but it elides as much as it illuminates. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to free white people. But many states also allowed non-white men to vote. Despite the law restricting naturalization to whites, the original “Siamese twins,” Chang and Eng Bunker, settled in North Carolina, became slave owners, and American citizens. The 19th-century United States was a continent-spanning republic, and it contained multitudes and countless contradictions.


50 shades of white

In 2020 the discourse on ethnicity and race is reductive. The media and pundits have registered shock that Americans of Latin American origin often preferred Trump to Biden. The data also makes clear that many immigrant-heavy precincts shifted to Trump since 2016. The reasons are no doubt diverse, and there are no final conclusions at this early date. But demography is clearly not destiny.

But what about white people? The history of the 19th and 20th century is manifest evidence of diversity amongst the core racial ethnicity in this country. Social statistics collected during the 1840 Census which painted the South in an unflattering light were omitted by 1850, because Southerners bridled at the sermons of Northern Yankee preachers denigrating them as debauched and violent. In 1834 a Roman Catholic convent in Massachusetts was burned down in anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant riots fomented by resentful Yankee natives. Into the early 20th century the Ku Klux Klan targeted German, Italian, and Irish Catholics. In the 1850’s violence engulfed Kansas as Yankee and Southern settlers battled each other with guns and knives. The ethnic conflict reached its pre-Civil War crescendo with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown became a hero and martyr in the North, and by the end of the Civil War Union armies were marching to “John Brown's Body.” In the South, Brown was viewed as a terrorist.

This is not a deep dark history. It’s in any standard history book. It’s the heritage, the legacy that every American, of any race or origin, shares. The idea of one white America fuses together mismatched fragments of identity. But any unity perceived at a remove dissolves upon close inspection. The idea of all-pervasive white privilege and white supremacy in 2020 America masks the reality and diversity of white American experiences. A white American of lower-class Southern origins may become a tenured professor, change their accent and elide their upbringing, but in the process, they are “passing” from one identity to another. The term “white” implies more of a shared experience and history than was ever there.


True unity out of the diversity

The Manichaean temptation is a universal and recurring motif across human societies. The light and the dark, the good and the evil. But the real world is rarely that starkly divided. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime were exceptional in the sense that they truly seem to have been as evil as they are depicted by their enemies. Human experience usually exhibits more complexity and shades of gray.

Today America slouches into the 21st century, the holdover hyperpower of the 20th century. The fusion of white ethnics and the Anglo-American folkways after World War II was a flash of unity across the centuries of the republic. Though the divisions between Old Stock Americans and new immigrants crystallized by the Ellis Island migration faded with time, older fractures continued to exist beneath the surface. The Civil Rights revolution of the 1960’s divorced Southern whites from the Democratic party, and opened up a new era of ideological and cultural polarization. Trump’s red America is rural, and tends to be concentrated amongst the descendants of Cavaliers and Scots-Irish. In contrast, the leadership of blue America falls to the Yankees and their fellow travelers, liberal white ethnics, Jews, and highly-educated Asian immigrants. The coalitions battling across our culture and politics are not new, but channel deep historic outlines that go back to the 17th and 18th century.

If there is a white supremacy, who are these white people? My wife? Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Czech and English-origin mother in Iowa? Does the out-of-work mill worker in North Carolina truly share in the same patrimony of privilege as the scion of Upper-East-Side old money? Do they really both inherit a privilege that oppresses the children of Indian doctors and Mexican construction workers? The results of the 2020 election, where white suburbs shifted against Trump, and Latino and Asian precincts drove Republican victories down-ballot, illustrate that the theory of racial polarization where “communities of color” are arrayed against “white supremacy” is ridiculously reductive. Americans vote as individuals based on their own interests and values, not as racial blocs.

When I visit very white, liberal neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest lately, it’s easy to find blocks with a Black Lives Matter sign screaming its self-conscious slogan from every lawn or living room window. Back home in a neighborhood that’s actually half black, with more mixed-race couples than not, and Latino construction crews blasting Spanish talk radio all day long, it takes me a couple of weeks to realize I haven’t seen a Black Lives Matter sign since I got back. These Americans are out putting up Christmas lights, walking their dogs, and hammering in For Sale signs. This cross-section of America is diverse. And busy with the real stuff of life.



Thank you again for reading, for subscribing and for forwarding to friends who you think might enjoy. A quick administrative note: I'll be adjusting my Substack price levels upward in the new year so now is a great time to grab a paid subscription if you've been considering. Or to use Substack's gift option while the prices are lowest. Cheers! 

Give a gift subscription