Matthew Pratt Guterl. The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. ix + 234 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-00615-7.
Reviewed by Brian Daugherity (Department of History, The College of William and Mary, Virginia)
Published on H-South (August, 2002)
A Case of Black and White: The Development of a New American Racial Consciousness
A Case of Black and White: The Development of a New American Racial Consciousness
Matthew Pratt Guterl's The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940 represents a refreshing new look at the formation of American racial identity in the early twentieth century. Addressing the question of when skin color became the preeminent measure of race in the United States, Guterl turns to the post-World War I years and views them through the lives of four prominent Americans: Madison Grant, the eugenicist and leading white supremacist; Daniel Cohalan, the prominent Irish-American nationalist and one-time New York Supreme Court Justice; W. E. B. DuBois, the African American social scientist and scholar; and Jean Toomer, the novelist and racial pluralist.
Through the eyes and words of these individuals, each centered in Manhattan during this era, Guterl traces the important social changes of the time and their impact on the nation's conceptions of race. The most important forces for Guterl's argument are wartime and postwar nationalism, the Great Migration and its effects, immigration restriction, and the emergence of a national popular culture. Largely because of their impact, Guterl finds in the twenty years following the Great War "a new American sense of race as color, as a simple matter of blackness and whiteness" (p. 9). This new sense of "race as color" replaced late nineteenth-century classifications of race based on nationality, religion, or language, and "divided the world's peoples into the simple categories of white, brown, yellow, and black ..." (p. 155).
The Color of Race in America is organized as four chapters, one for each of the individuals listed above, book-ended by an introduction and an epilogue. Representing an interesting balance between intellectual history and biography, the book flows smoothly, though somewhat repetitively, towards Guterl's well-stated points. On the positive side, one could use each of its chapters as a stand-alone essay highlighting the book's overarching conclusions.
Guterl begins in the late nineteenth century, noting that race was a confusing concept for many Americans at the time. Contemporary attempts at racial classification regularly employed differing standards, leading to "conflicting definitions of race" marked perhaps by language, nationality, religion, social standing, skin color, or some combination of each (p. 16). John Clark Ridpath, the ethnologist and author of Great Races of Mankind, noted in 1893, "at the present stage of our knowledge some uncertainty still exists relative to the best principle of division for classifying the different races of mankind" (p. 18). Guterl convincingly concludes, "'white' and 'black' were not stable, easily defined identities in 1900, nor was the popular interest in race single-mindedly focused on color" (p. 6).
Into the early twentieth century, Guterl continues, native-born Americans (particularly in the Northeast, where he focuses his attention) worried more about the increasing heterogeneity of the United States--the "alien menace" represented by the growing number of immigrants--than the largely southern "Negro problem." Armed with the Progressive penchant for scientific study, many scholars probed the negative effects of the "New Immigration." For Guterl, the work of one such scholar, eugenicist and white supremacist Madison Grant, reflected the seeds of a new American racial consciousness.
Grant's popularly written scientific treatise The Passing of the Great Race, published in 1916, was a bestseller of the day, a work (for Guterl) of "lasting cultural importance" with ideas "soon central to American political culture" (p. 32). Grant's fear, in Passing, was the extinction of native-born Americans via immigration, racial intermixing, and the lack of a united "race-consciousness." His solution: the adoption of a new basis of racial classification based not on religion, language, or nationality, but on genetics. Highlighting the newness of this definition of race, and signaling what was to come, Guterl notes, "Grant spoke lovingly of whiteness in a singular, or more global and inclusive sense, and thus considered racial identity as far larger than national or regional identity" (p. 37). Guterl convincingly suggests that Grant's preoccupation with the physical and biological bases of race--head shape and skin color--represented an important step in the reconstruction of race in America.
World War I, Guterl explains, played a crucial role in the development of America's new racial consciousness. Faced with foreign threats, American leaders demanded the loyalty of newly-arrived immigrants. This process of Americanization, and the reduction of ethnic differences, was encouraged by Grant's idea that "assimilating" immigrants (particularly those with northern or western European roots) and native-born Americans shared an essential commonality--whiteness. Thus, Grant's logic "made it possible for anyone who spoke English, looked 'white,' and subscribed to state patriotism (the new American religion) to lay claim to the civic privileges of Nordicism" (p. 43).
Whiteness could not, however, overcome the divisiveness of the postwar Red Scare. Even as patrician Americans combated Bolshevism by reaching out to some immigrants, and the working class more broadly, they viewed Jews and other "hyphenated" immigrant groups as members of racially distinct "inferior white races" (as French anthropologist Count Georges Vacher de Lapouge put it) (p. 45). The solution would be immigration restriction, another sign that whiteness had not yet overcome ethnic differences.
In the early 1900s, of course, the "problem" of race in the South differed from that of the North. Prior to the Great Migration and immigration restriction, southerners faced "the Negro problem," while northerners (including Grant) worried about the "alien menace." But by the 1920s, as Guterl makes clear, the situation had begun to change. Encouraged by wartime labor needs, scores of African Americans moved north in the later 1910s. Shortly thereafter, immigration restriction reduced fears of the "alien menace" in the North. As a result of both, patrician northerners increasingly believed the "color line" between blacks and whites represented a more important division than those "within whiteness" (p. 49).
Guterl finishes his first chapter, a lengthy one that lays the bases of his argument, with a discussion of one of Madison Grant's protégés, Lothrop Stoddard. According to Guterl, Stoddard played an essential role in the development of the nation's new racial consciousness. In The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy, published in 1920, Stoddard put forth the idea of "bi-racialism," separation of the races--based on skin color. This idea, combined with the development of a postwar popular and consumer culture, "slowly masked (or even erased) older divisions within ethnic groups ... in favor of a strictly white-over-black racial calculus" (p. 55).
African Americans, increasingly sidelined by the new racial consciousness, responded with vigorous protests. "New Negro" opposition to both the new conception of race and physical attacks on black communities was fierce and vocal. Sadly, Guterl suggests that such actions encouraged whites to view the "Negro problem" with growing concern. Even Madison Grant, a slow convert to bi-racialism, recognized "the new iron law of whiteness" by 1931: "all white men are equal, especially when in the presence of black folks" (p. 64).
Guterl's subsequent chapters flesh out his argument in greater detail. The second focuses on Daniel Cohalan, the important Irish-American nationalist. Cohalan, as the primary organizer of the first Irish Race Convention, held in New York City in 1916, and an associate of the Friends of Irish Freedom, was a leading advocate of Irish nationalism and anticolonialism in the years preceding and following the Great War. A proponent of early cultural pluralism and a firm believer in the uniqueness of the "Irish race," Cohalan sought to preserve the distinctiveness of Irish culture even as he emphasized the patriotism and loyalty of Irish-Americans. In the end, Guterl argues, such a distinction was impossible to maintain. He writes, "as the Great War began, a razor-thin line kept the Irish from being members of the white race; with the postwar dawning of a new sense of race and the emergence of worldwide anticolonialism partly based in New York, that line was quickly erased" (p. 70).
In chapter 3, Guterl explores the racial consciousness of a leading African American spokesman of the time, W. E. B. DuBois. Early on, Guterl notes, DuBois also believed in cultural pluralism, highlighting the unique contributions of African Americans to American culture and history. Influenced by Progressivism, however, DuBois increasingly viewed the world in economic terms--with whites determined to exploit the labor of blacks worldwide. Over time, this outlook increasingly manifested itself as a fierce anticolonialism, particularly after the outbreak of the Great War (which DuBois felt was caused largely by imperial competition). Guterl suggests that this anticolonialism, based increasingly on "Negro problems" worldwide, pushed DuBois towards a broad and international conception of blackness, mirroring the "whiteness," or bi-racialism, of Stoddard and others. In the process, DuBois "helped to move the lines of racial classification from 'the fifty races of the world' to five ..." (p. 127). Still, noting the inconsistencies of DuBois' conceptions of race, one is left wondering if Guterl could have chosen a more convincing representative of the new racial thinking (pp. 127, 136, 152).
Guterl notes that other African American activists also adopted an increasingly bi-racial outlook. Marcus Garvey, other Afro-Caribbean, and younger African American leaders accepted and celebrated blackness in a way that mirrored the consciousness of whiteness. This perspective, part of Garvey's attraction and clearly manifested in DuBois' own Pan-Africanism, signified not only the solidarity of "'the darker world,'" but also a "part of the broader transformation of American racial discourse" (p. 135). Guterl concludes, "after the Great War, radical and conservatives, New Negroes and Nordic voguers had a lot in common when it came to speaking, thinking, and symbolizing the idea of racial difference" (p. 138).
Guterl's final chapter examines the impact of the new American racial consciousness on the author and racial pluralist Jean Toomer. Toomer, of mixed ancestry, was repeatedly defined by, and celebrated for, his blackness after the publication of his prose poem Cane in 1923. Imprisoned by the new binary black-white racial identity, Toomer was unable to successfully put forth his own pluralistic views of race (pp. 166-167). In the end, "his early enthusiasm for Cane soon gave way to wariness" (p. 170) because "Toomer had come up against the same 'one drop rule' with which white supremacy hoped to control black folk, and with which Garvey and other New Negroes hoped to unite Black America" (p. 171).
The Color of Race in America represents an important addition to the debate over the formation of American racial identity. Intermixed throughout the text (and largely left out here in the interest of space) are cogent discussions of masculinity and the new racial consciousness, the international and foreign policy bases for bi-racialism (and vice versa), and an interesting exploration of space in terms of locality, region, nation, and world. To the extent that Guterl seeks to explain how the convergence of post-World War I social forces transformed American society from a multiplicity of races into a handful dominated by the binaries of blackness and whiteness, he has succeeded.
However, The Color of Race in America also raises questions for future scholars. With its basis mostly in intellectual history, the book will leave some wondering to what degree Guterl's new racial consciousness pervaded those below "the most supremely evolved representatives of their races" (p. 144). To what extent did the non-elites subscribe to the new racial ideology, and how was it reflected in the lower echelons of American society?
Secondly, Guterl, I think, glosses over distinctions that one might make between "whiteness" and "Americanness." To what extent did immigrants abandon their ethnicities to fit in as Americans, rather than as whites (see p. 185)? Though the two outlooks are related, they manifest a subtle difference worth exploring. Finally, one of Guterl's more interesting, if understated, points relates to the census of 1920, and specifically its abandonment of intermediary racial categories (p. 166). As a step on the road to the nation's new racial consciousness, one is left wondering exactly why the census change was made, and how that process ties in with Guterl's conclusions.
Guterl's The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940 is a must read for anyone interested in the formation of race, and racial identity, in early twentieth-century America.
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Brian Daugherity. Review of Guterl, Matthew Pratt, The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940.
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