What Does it Take to be White?

In a new piece in the Atlantic, Emma Green explores whether or not American Jews can be considered “white.” Apparently, the election of Donald Trump has given this question new urgency since white supremacists supported his campaign and one, Stephen Bannon, has become Trump’s chief adviser. Bannon’s ex-wife alleged in court that Bannon would not let their children attend one school because it had too many Jewish students (who he referred to as “whiny brats”), wondered why another had so many Hanukkah books in the library, and opposed a third because it used to be housed in a Jewish Temple. Bannon did not contest the allegations at the time (“it would serve no useful purpose to refute each of the critical comments Petitioner has directed at me.”) and some of them have been independently corroborated by reporters who tracked down the school administrators who interacted with Bannon at the time.

It’s pretty hard to define whiteness, but it’s probably good to put things in perspective by asking why the Irish were not originally considered fully white and how they became so. In some ways, both Jews and the Irish have always been white, as least as far as immigration and citizenship laws are concerned. But they both experienced discrimination in housing and employment, as well as social estrangement and politicized racism.

The controversial Noel Ignatiev explored the Irish’s journey in a 1995 book called “How the Irish Became White.” Maybe you won’t fully embrace his thesis, but however it came about no one, including Irish-Americans, questions their “whiteness” today.

American Jews overwhelmingly self-identify as white when forced to choose, and secular Jews seem to blend in and certainly don’t experience police harassment or suffer from other disabilities suffered from darker-skinned minorities like being treated as presumptive shoplifters. I haven’t forgotten that former Chief Justice William Rehnquist had restrictive covenants in the deeds of two of his homes that barred their sale to Hebrews or nonwhites, but I think housing discrimination against Jews is mostly a thing of the past (correct me if I’m wrong).

In a lot of ways, then, Irish-Americans and Jewish-Americans have become white over time. I was doing some research recently on the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in Indiana during the 1920’s, and it was quite clear that the organization at that time in that state was much more anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish in its outlook and priorities than anti-black. I don’t think that legacy has simply disappeared on the far right (or Alt Right), but it does seem like anti-black racism has more power at the moment.

I don’t think you bother to ask if Jews are white, though, unless you think they’re under some kind of renewed threat. Stephen Bannon sits at the left-hand of the president, and he’s known for making anti-Semitic remarks, not for bashing Catholics.

Of course, most Latinos and certainly most Mexicans are Catholic, but their religion seems like less of an animating factor for Trump’s anti-immigration supporters than their race, their language, and the perception that they compete for low wage jobs. I guess for the Klan, their Catholicism is one more mark against them, but not the first and most important one.

In any case, Irish-Americans aren’t feeling threatened, which tells you that there is still something that distinguishes them and their whiteness from the whiteness of Jewish-Americans.

There is no definitive definition of whiteness, nor could there be. But I think you can’t really consider yourself fully white until you are completely free of the sense that you aren’t fully accepted. If you think you can be denied something that a white person would never be denied, or that you could become a victim for a reason that no white person would ever become a victim, then you’re still somehow on the outside looking in.

And I think it’s kind of absurd to think that anyone wants to become white. What people want is to have their identity be a non-issue. But those are basically the same things.

And if you look at it like that, people or subgroups can become more white and they can become less white.

It’s possible that with Trump’s attacks on media and his faux-populist attacks on the finance sector, along with the increased influence of his white supremacist supporters, we could see being Jewish become more of an issue and a disability and a risk than it has been in the recent past. Through Trump’s actions, American Jews could become less white, at least for a time.

But, again, it’s not the relative level of whiteness that people are concerned about. It’s discrimination and hate-crime and alienation that are worries.

From that perspective, I think Jews, unfortunately, have more in common right now with blacks and Latinos and Muslims and Asians and gays than they do with Irish-Americans and WASPs.

And I don’t think that was true before this election cycle.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.