Races in American History of the Twentieth Century

Matthew Frye Jacobson and Lizabeth Cohen were instrumental in explaining the subject of race in American history during the twentieth century. The majority of Jacobson’s work and especially ‘Barbarian virtues’, has received much attention after the September 11 events. His arguments about the United States of America encounter immigrants both at home and abroad from 1876 to 1917 have received much attention in the recent past. In his book, Jacobson explains that after World War II, America was very much committed to colonization and very much attracted to empire and expansion. After the break-up with the Soviet Union, the US was engaged in the imposition of new world order, the American order (Jacobson 113).

There was a need for enhancing the economic expansion and developing global markets for home-made goods and services. This is the same period in time that witnessed mass immigration into the US, which together with American expansion played off each other in an array of cultural representations of the time. The new wave of migration especially from Eastern and Central Asia and Eastern Europe brought about mixed reactions between the “foreigners” and the “nativists” (Jacobson 116).

On the other hand, Lizabeth Cohen talks about mass consumption to show how it brought about wonderful things for consumption as well as explaining the central dimensions of society during the postwar period. According to Cohen, American society became a model in the world whose mass consumption was assumed to bring about far-reaching benefits. She explains how the political economy (mass consumption and public policies) and political culture (political practices, attitudes, and behaviors) became intertwined (Cohen 121).

The subject of race is evident in consumerism since during the late 1930s and after the Second World War, there were competing ideas of purchaser consumers that led to self-interests in the market place hence the loss of confidence in the effects of the average purchasing power. This essay discusses the twentieth-century American views on a race through culture and consumerism by using Jacobson and Cohen’s monographs. It further argues how the white Americans view people of color at home and abroad and gives a personal opinion on what the aspects of culture and consumerism tell us most about Americans’ views on race in the twentieth century.

In the twentieth century, especially after the Second World War, there was an emergence of both racial and gendered hierarchies among the different social groups in the United States. The Anglo-Saxons exhibited a lot of supremacy over their inferior stewards including the blacks, the Hebrews, and the Celt. The blacks, for instance, faced a lot of disenfranchisement, rampant violence, and even lynching at their own homes (Jacobson 250). This depicted the highest form of racism in the day. In the Philippines, black journalists and the clergy faced racial freighted policies that required them to cover up the murder of the Filipinos who were fighting for their liberty and independence.

In fact, at one point the journalists and clergy of black origin declared that they would rather be called traitors than continue adoring such racial policies (250). Diabolical race hatred had been established by the white Americans in their entire home rancor. They had endeavored to propagate race phobia to all the Filipinos and Spaniards so that a strong foundation of racism and their supremacy would be established when the civil rule would begin (251).

Even though “progress” and “advancement” became the justification for many eugenics campaigns meant to stop racial discrimination locally, it later provided a flag for imperial annexation in the abroad to impose civilization. African-American soldiers who were working hand-in-hand to ensure implementation of the policy of expansion at one point denounced it because they were much appalled by the racist sentiments and deeds by their fellow whites. Black democrats under the Negro National Democratic League went public to make anti-imperialist sentiments due to the form of culture of racism that existed during this period (251).

The fact that the foreigners were hard-working made them highly welcomed in the increasingly industrializing nation. However, they faced a lot of discrimination. Many labor organizations that had been formed around the white supremacy were very much committed to making sure the Chinese and Asians were excluded from such organizations.

According to Cohen (112), language together with the conception of citizens as consumers had taken hold during the Progressive era. Consumerism was discovered to be a social force in the New Deal era where agencies and actors reconceptualized the role of consumers among civil societies and policymakers during and after the Second World War. The government emphasized very strongly on citizen-consumers. This emphasis ensured that both women and African-Americans rose into positions of leadership including attaining political powers.

The sudden attention of the New Deal to consumers as a voice of the general public allowed the minority groups to rise as a ‘countervailing power’ worthy of gratitude. Women rose to leadership positions in consumer and labor movements, and hence many racist leaders and black residents began politicizing African-American consumers in the 1930s for their benefits. Both good consumerism and good citizenship were viewed as intertwined and hence inseparable (Cohen 119). Women seemed to receive special stewardship following this New Deal while African-Americans used it as a means of struggle for equal rights and to combat discrimination.

However, after World War II, citizen consumerism suffered a big blow at the hands of purchaser consumers who only consumed in pursuit of their gain. It is a period in time that saw a rise in Consumer’s Republic and purchaser consumers who prospered economically by propagating the seeds of natural egalitarianism (Cohen 129). Concerns relating to citizen-consumerism such as fair prices, labeling, product safety, and grading lost ground and hence the African-Americans suffered in the hands of political leaders who were motivated not only by their selfish interests but also by racial motives (133). Furthermore, national security and economic health became of central importance to consumerism thus becoming a male territory other than women’s.

The “consumer’ shifted from women to either men alone or couples. Following state policies that recognized the male purchaser as to the citizen, man became dominant as the head of the family, the breadwinner, the chief taxpayer, and the owner of the household (147). Television programs used authoritative male-voice to teach women that their place was in the kitchen (150). During the wartime, majority of African-Americans had been angered by racial discrimination in public places and following the strong linkage of citizenship and consumerism, it presented an opportunity for them to have bus boycotts and sit-ins especially in the south (166).

In cities such as Alabama and Birmingham, there was a lot of delineating in buses, parks, theatres, and stores among the black and white populations (1985). Due to the self-interestedness of the purchaser consumer and the increasing residential suburbanization, there was the emergence of social classes among the two racial groups. The white Americans only shared less with the blacks, including culture and the public space (255).

According to Jacobson, the distinction of people by race in the twentieth century was by phraseology. For example, the Hebrew race, the Celt race, and the Slavic race among others. What was known as the whites in the early nineteenth century had become known as white races in the early twentieth century and further consolidated into the white race or the Caucasian race in the mid-twentieth century. However, contemporary distinctions of people by ethnicity are deeper than when compared to this period. The White Americans used a three-tiered scheme to distinguish between the Nordic from the Mediterranean and the Alpines. Other schemes used, as earlier mentioned included the Hebrew, Celt, and Slavic to distinguish about thirty-six or so to forty races from Europe.

From 1880 to 1920, there was a wave of migration to America that greatly influenced the scheme of the race (Jacobson 124). There was the implementation of what was known as the “first naturalization laws” that allowed the “free white persons” as the only people to become naturalized citizens who were fit for self-government. During this period, there was a notion that American democracy was not by any chance comers. However, the arrival of millions of whites from Europe and Asia sparks controversy on “whether they were white and if so, how white they were and if they were fit for self-government” (Jacobson 131).

According to the natives, the immigrants were certainly not; hence the emergence of the racial distinctions of the immigrants. For instance, there was a unified whiteness that distinguished finer differentiations such as the Anglo-Saxons. This type of racial distinction was quite visible. People from eastern and southern Europe were generally known as the Slavs, the Hebrews, and the Mediterranean, all of them today known as the white ethnics especially the Italians, the Jews, and the Poles.

A group of Americans who called themselves the Anglo-Saxons discriminated against others such as the Hebrews and the Celts by referring them as inferior. The Saxon oppression for the groups from ashore such as the Celt has even brought different notions of the Celtic identity to the Irish and the Anglo-Saxon old guards. The long-time residents of the US, popularly known as the Anglo-Saxons perceive themselves differently both socially and biologically, from the immigrants.

In the twentieth century, the concept of Americans’ thoughts towards people of different colors in the world was very much influenced by race. The race also became a subject of measurement. Biologists (also known as psychiatrists and psychometrists during this time) were very much interested in measuring the cranial capacity, genes, or the bodily of not only an individual but the entire people. Thus they carried out standardized tests to measure the innate capacity to determine the intelligence of people of different races. People were characterized depending on the results achieved. For instance, the Pole was said to be notoriously sluggish, plodding, and steadfast while the Jews were perceived as sneaky, cunning, and clannish. The Italians were depicted as notoriously quick-tempered, brutal, and therefore dangerous.

The traits of people of different races were portrayed in magazines, for example, Harper’s magazine that engraved a scene of an Italian man beating an eight-year-old boy for not bringing enough money home. In this type of scene, the brutality of the Italians is depicted in the physicality of the picture. Thus the idea of physicality is being interconnected with the unmistakable physical and biological identity. This type meshing with supposed character traits is multiplied across the spectrum, ranging from the press to schools to scientific treatises.

Policy debates over the immigration of 1924 were not without racism and mixed thoughts. Eugenicists argued that the immigrants were not attracted to America for the provision of labor but rather viewed them as stock seeds whose motive was to generate and procreate the next generation of Americans. This is a notion that transpired in most debates of the day and had a great degree of influence in responding to the social conditions including immigration, urbanization, rural-urban migration, and urban distress among others.

Even though the racial distinctions are slowly melting away, the subject of race is still ripe among the Americans. People who are considered being “white” are those connected to European heritage. Racial classification is based on social contexts and historical processes. In Latin America, economic status, for instance, is largely used to classify the whites compared to phenotypic traits. It is said that “money whitens”, and hence blanks can consider themselves brown (mixed race) by how much wealth they become. Some whites are also classified as a mixed-race (darkening) due to the increasing levels of poverty among the white population.

In my own opinion, the Americans established racial distinctions of people to identify themselves as the natives. They were not happy with the new wave of immigration in 1924. They perceived their bodily form, way of governance, social practices, and values as different from those of the foreigners. On the other hand, due to their economic prosperity, the Americans viewed themselves differently from the blacks hence the shift of citizen-consumers to purchase consumers in pursuit of selfish interests.

Works Cited

Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Print.

Jacobson, Matthew. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000. Print.

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