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Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race [Paperback]

by Matthew Frye Jacobson
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 1, 1999 0674951913 978-0674951914
America’s racial odyssey is the subject of this remarkable work of historical imagination. Matthew Frye Jacobson argues that race resides not in nature but in the contingencies of politics and culture. In ever-changing racial categories we glimpse the competing theories of history and collective destiny by which power has been organized and contested in the United States. Capturing the excitement of the new field of “whiteness studies” and linking it to traditional historical inquiry, Jacobson shows that in this nation of immigrants “race” has been at the core of civic assimilation: ethnic minorities in becoming American were re-racialized to become Caucasian. He provides a counter-history of how nationality groups such as the Irish or Greeks became Americans as racial groups like Celts or Mediterraneans became Caucasian. Jacobson tracks race as a conception and perception, emphasizing the importance of knowing not only how we label one another but also how we see one another, and how that racialized vision has largely been transformed in this century. The stages of racial formation—race as formed in conquest, enslavement, imperialism, segregation, and labor migration—are all part of the complex, and now counterintuitive, history of race. Whiteness of a Different Color traces the fluidity of racial categories from an immense body of research in literature, popular culture, politics, society, ethnology, anthropology, cartoons, and legal history, including sensational trials like the Leo Frank case and the Draft Riots of 1863.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

When we speak of race, we tend to categorize nonwhite people into rigid classifications--but how is whiteness itself determined? Yale American Studies professor Matthew Frye Jacobson looks at the American construction of whiteness out of its polyglot European immigrant population. In 1790, United States naturalization law granted citizenship to "free white persons"--which meant, mostly, those of Anglo-Saxon descent. Thus, Celtic-descended Irish immigrants were discriminated against. As the U.S. population became more culturally mixed beginning in the 1820s, with an increase in immigration from non-Anglo Europe, the nation experienced "a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races."

In other words, people who came from Poland, Germany, Italy, and Greece, as well as Jews from many nations, all became, by virtue of the "melting pot" ethic, "Caucasian" whites. But, as the graphically racist cartoons reproduced in the book show, the creation of whiteness was--and is--by no means an easy, continuous process. Jacobson details the political assault on white racism that culminated in the civil rights movement and cites the contemporary "revival and denial of white privilege" in the United States. Although he expresses doubt that a dismissal of white privilege will happen anytime soon, he does hope that in "recognizing the historical fabrication, the changeability, and the contingencies of whiteness, we might begin to look in a new way upon race, the power relations it generates, and the social havoc it wreaks." --Eugene Holley Jr. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Whiteness of a Different Color offers an unanswerable demonstration that the historical whitening of European immigrants intensified 'race' as the marker of a white/black divide. Jacobson challenges at once the revival of the Caucasian racial category and the real inequalities to which it points. (Michael Rogin, Robson Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley)

In this fascinating book, Jacobson traces the development of racial identity in America. Between the 1840s and the 1920s, racial differences and hierarchy between Anglo-Saxons and other white ethnic groups were given great significance. "White ethnics" were generally considered as distinct and inferior to the original Anglo Saxon immigrants...[Whiteness of a Different Color] explodes the myth of the American melting pot. Jacobson demonstrates how white racial inclusion was inextricably linked with the exclusion of non-whites and, interestingly, how their widely-recognised whiteness is partly due to the presence of non-white groups...This is a thought-provoking account of an often overlooked topic. (Claire Xanthos The Voice)

Whiteness of a Different Color tells us about the varying, and inevitably failing, attempts to come to terms with the concept of "whiteness", which, despite its vicissitude and inconclusiveness, was, and still is, one of the most important notions in American political culture...True to his "identities" as historian and American Studies scholar, Jacobson's sources are tremendously varied, ranging from novels, films, print journals, to legal records, colonial charters, and state constitutions...The book's argument is most convincing. (Christiane Harzig International Review of Social History)

[Matthew Frye Jacobson's] analysis of the European immigrant experiences, American racial classifications and "their fluidity over time" is a valuable addition to the flourishing genre of "whiteness studies" in the fields of labour and working-class history...Racial categories and perceptions, Jacobson argues, are cultural and political fabrications, reflections of power relationships in a society that has periodically needed to construct (and reconstruct) an "American" and "white" identity out of an increasingly polyglot European immigrant population...Whiteness of a Different Color is a subtle and sensitive exegesis and deconstruction of the immigrant experience in American culture. (John White Times Higher Education Supplement)

Jacobson builds a history of how the category of "whiteness" plays in American history...His goal is to demystify, and the tone he takes does exactly that. Wry and often sarcastic, his bite is sharpened by his ability to pick out the dark, unintentional humor from his sources. (Willoughby Mariano New Haven Advocate)

Jacobson's important book helps to fill an important gap in the literature about the history of European immigrants assuming different racial identities in the United States...Because of its broad sweep of history, Jacobson is able to reveal previously ignored ways in which anti-racism coalitions have succeeded without yielding to assimilationist ideology. (Louis Anthes H-Net Reviews)

Jacobson has written a provocative, nuanced account of American race formation and especially of the way in which many American immigrants from Europe were cast initially as "nonwhites" in the late 19th century...Using a variety of sources, including film and fiction, Jacobson concludes that whiteness is clearly a socially constructed category infinitely malleable as a political tool. This historical survey is highly recommended for all libraries. (Anthony O. Edmonds Library Journal)

This groundbreaking book advances the study of white identity (both as category and as consciousness) significantly. It takes intellectual chances and makes the risks pay off. (David Roediger, author of The Wages of Whiteness)

Whiteness of a Different Color is nothing less than a powerful synthesis of American history. Viewing the U.S. through the prism of race, Matthew Frye Jacobson re-writes 'immigrant history' and, in the process, discovers the key to America's past and future. (Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Race Rebels)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674951913
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674951914
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.1 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #478,798 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent content analysis of a social construct.... April 30, 2002
WHITE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR by Matthew Frye Jacobson is an excellent historical summary and deconstruction of the social construct called "the white race." Anthropologists, sociologists, demographers, and historians like Jacobson who study race and ethnicity have suggested over and over that even if race differences exist they are not fixed (the definition of white has changed over time and no consensus has been formed concerning it's constiuent parts). The biological sciences provide no evidence that race exists. Humans with different hair color, skin color, eye color, eye shape, and/or other "race" characteristics straddle all the "race" groups.
Jacobson uses a variety of written sources to make his case --that "non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants and their children were perhaps the first beneficiaries of the modern civil rights movement." He has compiled evidence from many historical legal cases involving various individuals who attempted to establish evidence of "whiteness" in order to obtain U.S. citizenship or some other perq reserved for the "native white race." He points out that the legal evidence is conflicted. Are Armenians white or aren't they? How can Japanese with a white skin be nonwhite and Italians with a dark skin be white in one set of court proceedings and the reverse found in different courts on different days?
Jacobson includes information from literature, news journals, and other written sources to illustrate that authors as diverse as Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad and Mr. Hearst of newspaper fame all offered an opinion about race at one time or another, and that while everyone started out assuming they knew what it meant to be white, most soon discovered the operational definition was another matter.
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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly remarkable achievement! March 9, 1999
By A Customer
Every once in a while, a book comes along that changes both the direction and focus of historical scholarship. Matthew Jacobson's *Whiteness of a Different Color* is one such work. For nearly a decade now, scholars and readers interested in understanding the history of the racial dynamic in the United States have turned almost exclusively to the history of the working class. David Roediger's *Wages of Whiteness* is clearly the best example of a working-class history of the social construction of race, and, indeed, is far superior to other, similarly-minded works, such as Noel Ignatiev's mixed offering, *How the Irish Became White*.
Jacobson's work, however, shakes up the history of race, and illuminates a broader, shared history of difference, exclusion, and domination in American life. It is, in short, a truly *cultural* history of race in America. In clear and concise prose, Jacobson plots a long narrative history of race that reflects marked demographic, economic, and cultural changes. Building on the work of Roediger, Alexander Saxton, and others, he reveals the roots of the fragmentation of whiteness in the 1840s, and later demonstrates the forces responsible for the reconsolidation of whiteness in the mid-20th Century--for the near-complete assimilation of European immigrants into a singular "white race." There is, of course, much more here than a history of class-formation and race-consciousness, for *Whiteness of a Different Color* looks at this history of race in light of an abundance of sources drawn from every conceivable corner of American culture. Indeed, so powerful is Jacobson's argument, so forceful is his evidence, that one can only wonder why no one has put this all together before.
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30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Contemporary scholarship at its finest. May 1, 2000
By A Customer
"Whiteness of a Different Color" is a marvelous work of modern scholarship. In this excellent work of historiography/history, Jacobson explores the American conception of racial "whiteness" and how it has changed over time. This book won virtually every major scholarly award in 1999, most notably the American Studies Association's Award for the best book dealing with American istory and culture.
In the 19th century, "whitness" was reserved for Anglo-Saxons, and descendants of immigrants from the British Isles. Slowly, the concept of whiteness evolved to include Northern Europeans and Scandanavians, then other white gentiles, then Jews. Jacobson traces two major influences for this change -- assimilation into the American mainstream and the need to rectuit other "whites" to help polarize the nation between white and black. The previous was common in northern industrial centers and large cities, while the latter was especially prevalent in the Jim Crowe south.
This is a modern study because it takes unconventional themes such as the arbitrary construction of "whiteness" and explores it, as opposed to the more traditional form of research, which would include choosing an historical event and studying the facts. "Whiteness of a Different Color" is about people's conceptions, and misconceptions, rather than specific facts. Reflecting on that subject, I wonder if that isn't what's most important.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How we got into this mess... November 24, 2003
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Matthew Frye Jacobson 's Whiteness of a Different Color tells us all how we got in this mess. The book is subtitled European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. "Alchemy" is correct. It means that the "base metal" of Nordic, Alpine, Mediterranean and even Western Asian "races" were turned into the "gold" of unadulterated white status. Jacobson explains how "whiteness" was created by colonial elites for the purpose of defending the state from Indian invasions and slave insurrections, and continued by the American republic in order to create a sense of unity in its polyglot European immigrant population. In 1790, United States naturalization law granted citizenship to "free white persons" -- which meant, mostly, those of Anglo-Saxon descent. As the U.S. population became more culturally mixed beginning in the 1840s, with an increase in immigration from non-Anglo Europe, the nation experienced "a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races."

In other words, people who came from Ireland, Poland, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Jews from Russia and other Slavic nations all became, by virtue of the "melting pot" ethic, "Caucasian" whites. But, the creation of whiteness was - and still is - by no means an easy, continuous process. The Celtic, Nordic, Alpine and Mediterranean "races" were abolished in favor of the myth of one homogenous "white" race (with the adoption of the "scientific" term "Caucasian" providing a new legitimacy to the honorific "racial" term "white."

Jacobson contends that traditional historians have deliberately dismissed the "racial" distinctions of the 19th century and before as "misuses" of the word "race." Of course they didn't mean that Irish, Germans, Bohemians, Nordics, etc.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a great read!
If you're interested in race and racism, and how race is a social construct in the U.S. and how it came to be about, this is a wonderful read :)
Published 12 months ago by ambie
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting book
I was taking this class at local college, this was required reading. NOT MY Taste for reading! However the book was very interesting and pointing out the history of descrimmination... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Mark Richards
1.0 out of 5 stars whiteness of a different color
The book constantly repeats itself along the same line. It is very offensive to be subjected to the same ethnic stereotypes we have heard all of our lives. What is the point? JTD
Published on February 21, 2012 by jtduffy
1.0 out of 5 stars What modern genetics says
This book is misleading.

According to Cavalli-Sforza's research, the genetic distance between Anglo-Saxons and the Irish is less than 1. Read more
Published on August 7, 2010 by Herodotus
5.0 out of 5 stars fast and easy!
The book was in great condition and was delivered quickly! Pleasure doing business with you!
Published on May 29, 2010 by Christina M. Ginter
5.0 out of 5 stars great racial history
Jacobson provides a great deal of the formation of whiteness and how it has changed through time. It shows how the construction of a white race came about in America from Anglo... Read more
Published on January 3, 2005 by Neel Aroon
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent piece of scholarly work
In *Whiteness of a Different Color,* Matthew Jacobson draws upon congressional legislation and discourse, historical documents and memoirs, and popular culture in an attempt to... Read more
Published on August 19, 1999
4.0 out of 5 stars European Immigrant Fusion in the USA.
On page 259 of "Whiteness of A different Color" is a quote attributed to Slovenian writer Louis Adamic, written sometime in 1938:
". . . Read more
Published on February 18, 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoroughly provocative examination of racial constructions
Matt Jabobson has created a sound, brilliantly argued, and above all HISTORICAL work that deals with the multitude of lines that are crossed in all levels of American society in... Read more
Published on December 12, 1998
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