The notion of the white race found traction in the North American colonies, not because it described a clear scientific concept or some true historical bond between persons of European descent, but rather because the elites of the colonies (who were small in number but controlled the vast majority of colonial wealth) needed a way to secure their power. At the time, the wealthy landowners feared rebellions, in which poor European peasants might join with African slaves to overthrow aristocratic governance; after all, these poor Europeans were barely above the level of slaves themselves, especially if they worked as indentured servants.

From the mid-1600s to the early 1700s a series of laws were promulgated in Virginia and elsewhere, which elevated all persons of European descent, no matter how lowly in economic terms, above all persons of African descent. The purpose of such measures was to provide poor Europeans (increasingly called whites) with a stake in the system, even though they were hardly benefiting in material terms from it. In other words, whiteness was a trick, and it worked marvellously, dampening down the push for rebellion by poor whites on the basis of class interest, and encouraging them to cast their lot with the elite, if only in aspirational terms. White skin became, for them, an alternative form of property to which they could cleave, in the absence of more tangible possessions.

This divide-and-conquer tactic would be extended and refined in future generations as well. During the Civil War era, Southern elites made it quite clear that their reason for secession from the Union was the desire to maintain and extend the institution of slavery and white supremacy, which institutions they felt were threatened by the rise of Lincoln and the Republican Party. One might think that seceding and going to war to defend slavery would hardly meet with the approval of poor white folks, who didn’t own slaves. After all, if slaves can be made to work for free, any working-class white person who must charge for their labour will be undercut by slave labour and find it harder to make ends meet. Yet by convincing poor whites that their interests were racial, rather than economic, and that whites in the South had to band together to defend “their way of life”, elites in the South conned these same lower-caste Europeans into joining a destructive war effort that cost hundreds of thousands of their own lives.

Then, during the growth of the labour union movement, white union workers barred blacks from apprenticeship programs and unions because of racism, with the encouragement of owners and bosses who would use workers of colour to break white labour strikes for better wages and working conditions. By bringing in blacks and others of colour to break strikes, bosses counted on white workers to turn on those who replaced them, rather than turning on the bosses themselves. And indeed, this is what happened time and again, further elevating whiteness above class interest in the minds of European Americans.

The effectiveness of racist propaganda to unite whites around race, even if it meant overlooking economic interests, has been stunning. And while it would be nice to think that this kind of shortsighted mentality were a thing of the past, it appears to still maintain a grip on an awful lot of whites in the present day as well.

White Like Me cover