This outstanding history of the concept of race in America focuses on the overlooked mass migration from black to white as many African Americans gave up their identities in return for the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As blacks, they suffered restrictions on the ability to earn a living, get an education, enjoy public facilities, avoid threats and insults, and live without the fear of lynching when the mood of whites spoiled. As Sharfstein points out (and as was demonstrated in the book I reviewed earlier this week, Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name, even years after the Civil War ended,
Countless thousands of Negroes in the South lived in conditions approximating slavery, shackled by sharecropping contracts, arrested on trumped-up charges, and sold as convict labor. Every few days a Negro was lynched: burned, shot, castrated, hacked to pieces.”
Thus, crossing the invisible line between races became more and more attractive for “racially ambiguous” people, of whom there were many. Some even chose poverty as whites over affluence as blacks to escape the poisonous consequences of racism.
This journey from black to white forced Americans to come to grips with what the meaning of race, and how much of a “melting pot” they wanted their country to be (in contrast to populist rhetoric). Ironically, in the South, white communities often let individual blacks “pass” as long as they lived and acted as whites. After all, “to insist on a stricter rule would have been dangerous to the social order, as it would have risked reclassifying an unsettling number of people.”
In order to illustrate the experience of African Americans crossing the color line, Sharfstein follows three families over two centuries. He selected these three, he writes, “because they were typical, but also extraordinary.” And in the course of documenting their experiences, he offers a close-up look at seminal events in American history from the perspective of how they affected racial classification and what it meant for the millions of Americans outside the strict classification of black or white. As Sharfstein argues, “From the colonial era well into the twentieth century, the idea of race – the notion that blood transmitted moral character and social fitness – provided a central reason why American democracy exalted some people at the enduring expense of others.” It’s a radically different and fascinating way to approach American history.
As Sharfstein emphasizes, from the very beginning of our nation, “…the consequences of being black or white were enormous. It often meant the difference between slavery and freedom, poverty and prosperity, persecution and power.”
Once the importation of slaves was forbidden, the South needed to ensure that the children of slaves remained slaves in order to have a steady supply of new slaves, in spite of the fact that many of them had white slaveholding fathers. And of course, the creation of an inferior “Other” helped to eliminate class tensions among whites.
After the Civil War, the need for sharper boundaries between black and white increased. Sharfstein postulates:
Before the war slavery had established and supported white privilege. As long as law and violent custom preserved the boundary between master and chattel, privileged whites had had little read need to insist on racial purity; allowing ambiguous people to become white only strengthened the prevailing order. [He observes that many of those in the middle claimed a Cherokee or Portuguese grandmother.] In slavery’s absence, however, preserving white privilege seemed to require new, less flexible rules about race and constant, aggressive action to enforce them.”
One of the most effective methods of fostering resistance to civil rights for newly freed slaves was to express racism through the vocabulary of sexual deviancy. Thus orators railed about the “degeneracy of black women and the “depravity” of black men justifying laws separating the races. Later, at end of the 19th Century, “scientific” reports on the races “established” that blacks were “innately stupid, lascivious, violent, and diseased.” The language used created the political reality, in spite of the fact that the “reality” suggested that it was actually the white men who couldn’t keep away from the black women.
Lawmakers had a number of incentives to legislate the definition of whiteness, because it not only designated race, but status and privilege as well. [As legal scholar Robert Cover famously pointed out, a legal tradition is part of a normative world that establishes paradigms for behavior. Because the Constitution is such a powerful symbol for most Americans, its pronouncements have enormous impact. In the Dred Scott case (60 U.S. 393, 1857), the Supreme Court declared that all people of African ancestry, whether slave or free, were not citizens of the United States. State-imposed racial segregation was upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537, 1896). These decisions transformed the myth of white purity and the value of white privilege into “objective facts.” Thus do “legal interpretive acts signal and occasion the imposition of violence upon others." (Robert Cover, “Nomos and Narrative,” 97 Harv. L. Rev. 1, 1983 and “Violence and the Word,” 95 Yale L. J. 1601, 1986)].
Legislatures and courts began to delineate “drop by drop” how much blood made a person white or black. (Of course, a drop of white blood didn’t translate into whiteness, but a drop of black blood equaled blackness, clearly demonstrating that the goal of such legislation was to solidify a social order. Moreover, as Cheryl I. Harris points out, “The acceptance of the fiction that the racial ancestry could be determined with the degree of precision called for by the relevant standards or definitions rested on false assumptions that racial categories of prior ancestors had been accurately reported, that those reporting in the past shared the definitions currently in use, and that racial purity actually existed in the United States.” Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” 106 Harv. L. R. 1707, 1740, 1993)
And in fact, this is part of Sharfstein’s whole point: many white Americans are not as racially “pure” as they might think they are. Whiteness is more of an ideological construct than a reality.
And yet, as Sharfstein notes, “The harder whites made it for blacks to earn a living, educate their children, and just make it through a single day without threat or insult, the greater the incentives grew for light-skinned blacks to leave their communities and establish themselves as white.”
The color line has always functioned, Sharstein avers, “in terms of racism, not race; hierarchy as opposed to heredity; barriers instead of blood.”
Evaluation: In spite of the meticulous research and theoretical underpinnings of this book, it is eminently readable: free of academic obscurantism without sacrificing its critical authority. For those of you who prefer to pick up history from the human angle in the form of stories about memorable characters, this book is perfect: the saga of the three families selected, The Gibsons, The Spencers, and The Walls, turned out to be absolutely absorbing. In clear and compelling prose, this book tells a story that should not be missed.