A Letter and the Legacy of “Not White” in the USA
With the events of the past months, and as Austin McCoy discussed here on Nursing Clio last week, it should be clear that white privilege is still alive and well in the United States. Despite the optimism following President Obama’s election six years ago, and the Republican Party’s tweets, we do not yet live in a society where the color of your skin doesn’t matter. To make matters worse, while the discussion should be about how best to fix the problems of racial injustice and economic oppression in the United States, substantial numbers of people refuse to even accept that it’s a problem. They prefer to believe that those who suffer from systemic poverty, police violence, and a biased justice system get only what they’ve earned by being lazy, or breaking the law, or acting badly.
This message comes most clearly from pundits like Bill O’Reilly, who continue to argue that white privilege died with the end of legal segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. More than that, they assert that white Americans are the new victims of discrimination. Going after O’Reilly feels like a cliché at this point, but unfortunately his arguments aren’t nearly as fringe as they should be. People who argue that white privilege doesn’t exist often do a few things:
- They point out that state-sanctioned slavery and segregation are over.
- They use anecdotes to try to prove systemic change, such as that “the most powerful man in the world is a black American, and the most powerful woman in the world — Oprah Winfrey — is black!” (that’s O’Reilly again).
- They suggest that people of color who are not African American benefit from policies designed to address the legacy of slavery that also discriminate against white Americans.
All of these arguments assume that more than 300 years of discrimination and racism can be wiped out by one generation’s worth of civil rights protections (and very little effort to address economic equality). The Supreme Court certainly seemed to believe this when they started dismantling the Voting Rights Act. Based on this assumption, they conclude that white privilege no longer exists, and therefore policies designed to break cycles of inequality discriminate against white Americans. For many white-identified Americans, these conclusions make a lot of sense, especially in light of the economic recession.
This assumption, and the denial of white privilege, misunderstand both the depth and the breadth of racial injustice in the United States.
To get a sense of what I mean, let’s step back 90 years to 1924 to glimpse the long and personal echoes of racism in America. In the spring of that year, a new mother in Virginia received a letter from the head of the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. It read:
This is to give you warning that this is a mulatto child and you cannot pass it off as white. A new law passed by the last legislature says that if a child has one drop of negro blood in it, it cannot be counted as white. You will have to do something about this matter and see that the child is not allowed to mix with white children, it cannot go to white schools and can never marry a white person in Virginia. It is an awful thing.
The head of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, and the man who sent this heartbreakingly cruel letter, was Walter Ashby Plecker. Plecker, along with two other men, led Virginia’s most powerful white supremacist organization, the Anglo-Saxon Club. Together they played a key role in the passage of Virginia’s 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity (the “new law” to which he refers in this letter). The 1924 law, one in a series of laws passed in Virginia during the 1920s based on racism, nativism, and eugenics ideology of the time, explicitly divided people into just two racial categories, “white” and “colored,” and forbade marriage (and thus implicitly sex) between the two. Virginia wasn’t the only state with such a law, but it became famous as the origin of the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case that overturned these laws.
In his role at the Bureau of Vital Statistics, Plecker took it upon himself not only to aggressively enforce the new law, but also to reinforce a worldview that defined people into two discrete groups: “White” and “Non-White.” Now, Plecker didn’t invent this. Virgina and other states had laws on the books since the 1690s banning interracial marriage, and culture had already dictated a type of informal one-drop rule. Legally speaking, though, most states varied in their definitions of “whiteness” to allow anywhere from one-sixteenth to one-fourth “non-white” ancestry. But with the 1924 law, Virginia essentially ruled that any “non-white” ancestry made someone “colored” and therefore not allowed to attend white schools, institutions, or entertainment venues, or to marry a white person.
In a telling example of the ways power and racial classification interact, the Virginia legislature did include a loophole in the “one drop” rule, which came to be known as the “Pocahontas Clause.” Many of Virginia’s white elite liked to claim they descended from Pocahontas and John Rolfe — which would make them, under the new law, “colored.” To correct for this, they amended the law to count as “white” anyone with less than one-sixteenth American Indian ancestry.
But this loophole only benefited those with enough power to claim it. For the majority of Virginia’s American Indians, the racial integrity law had devastating short- and long-term consequences. Walter Plecker believed that African Americans would “claim” American Indian ancestry in order to pass as white and — according to the eugenic science of the day — “contaminate” the white race with their inferior heredity. He also believed there had been enough intermarriage between the two groups that there were “no native born Virginia Indians free from negro intermixture.”
In his role as registrar, Plecker took the matter into his own hands and started rooting out and “correcting” birth certificates he believed incorrectly listed race as Indian by marking them as “mixed.” In 1943, he sent the following letter to all of the local registrars in the state, warning them of “mongrels” attempting to pass as white and attaching a list of surnames they should watch out for — families he believed were “mixed” that might attempt to register as white.
This letter says a great deal about the racial and scientific outlook maintained at the time among people like Plecker. His stance was zealous, but not uncommon.
Out of a combined desire to protect their heritage and in recognition of black oppression in the state, Virginia Indians resisted this violence to their identities, but were largely powerless to stop it. As Warren Fiske of the Virginian-Pilot has reported, entire communities emptied as Virginia Indians left the state.
Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, the ideology of white superiority, and need for “purity” that lay behind it, are only a few examples of the kinds of racial injustices that have piled one upon the other to create the mountain that defines white privilege today. The last remnants of the 1924 act weren’t overturned until 1975, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that Virginia really started trying to undo the legacy of Plecker’s actions. But this type of deeply ingrained racial thinking will take much more than a generation or two to undo. And as Emily Badger recently pointed out in the Washington Post, lack of privilege compounds over time. Correcting these injustices is about more than fixing birth certificates or ending explicit discrimination.
The tricky thing about privilege is that you often don’t see it when you’re the one who benefits. So when public figures like O’Reilly or Senator James Webb say that white privilege no longer exists, it confirms a lot of white people’s personal experiences.
As Peggy McIntosh articulated so well in the late 1980s, and again in a 2014 interview with Joshua Rothman, it can feel insulting to be told you benefit from privilege if you don’t do so intentionally. McIntosh described how, as a feminist well versed in the problem of male privilege, she was initially offended to be told that, as a white person, she benefited from another kind of no less powerful privilege. Gina Crosley-Corcoran tells of a similar experience stemming from economic privilege.
Privilege comes in many forms, from body shape and ability to nationality to sexuality. But the history of the United States, and especially a long legacy of cultural and scientific racism targeted at all “non-white” peoples (which at times also included Irish and Jewish immigrants), makes race a particularly challenging issue that many would prefer to ignore.
I do believe that one day we’ll get to a point when white privilege no longer exists. When people can identify however they like without wondering whether they’ll be targeted or mistreated or discriminated against. When parents don’t have to teach their children how to protect themselves against others’ prejudices and assumptions. I don’t know how long it will take, but I know it’ll be more than a generation. And I know we’ll never get there by denying the problem exists.
NOTES AND FURTHER READING
1. (My emphasis) Letter from Walter Plecker, April 30, 1924, quoted in J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) 91.
3. Chief Kenneth Adams, (Upper Mattaponi), Style Weekly, September 2004, quoted in Gabrielle Tayac and Edwin Schupman, “We Have a Story to Tell: The Native Peoples of the Chesapeake Region,” ed. Mark Hirsch (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 2006), 14. See also Danielle Moretti-Langholtz et al., In Our Own Words: Voices of Virginia Indians (Williamsburg, VA: Two Rivers, 2002).
For more on race and marriage in the United States, see:
- Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
To learn more about eugenics and race in the United States, I recommend:
- Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
- Wendy Kline, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
If you’re interested in more about eugenics, race, and gender in Virginia in particular, or want to know more about Walter Plecker:
- Gregory Michael Dorr, Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008).
- J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
- Tori Talbot, “Walter Ashby Plecker (1861–1947),” Encyclopedia Virginia.
- Interviews at the American Indian Resource Center Podcast Series, The College of William & Mary.
Featured image: Warren K. Leffler, photographer, “Taxi cabs with sign ‘White only, Becks cabs’ on side, Albany, Georgia,” created/published: August 18, 1962. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, call number LC-U9-8340-29.