Matthew Frye Jacobson, “Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America” (2006) – I could do a whole personal essay on this, having witnessed first-hand a number of different ways people in my life have interacted with white ethnic identity, and having interacted with it in various ways in my own life. Let’s just say that “Roots Too” begins with a recitation of Hansen’s Law. This was a proposal by a sociologist early in the twentieth century who said that the second generation of any given ethnic group in America rejects its ethnic heritage, while the third generation goes looking for it again. Well, I’m fourth-generation, and I don’t think Hansen had anything to say about that. What I do know is that however it was for my parents or grandparents, for me, white gentile ethnic identities have had virtually no meaningful impact on my life, and none in comparison to race, class, sexual orientation, even region seems to be a bigger deal. I think this is fair to say for most of my white age peers.
I guess it fits with my dismissal of white ethnic identity that I don’t turn this into a personal essay, given how personal narratives of self-discovery constituted much of the white ethnic revival of the late twentieth century. We hear a lot about these in “Roots Too.” This is very much cultural history, so we get extended chapters about white ethnicity in movies and books as produced by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Norman Jewison, assorted Roths (Henry and Philip!), and numerous people I’ve never heard of who apparently made a splash in the late twentieth century.
In fact, I’d argue Jacobson basically buried the lede. To me, most of the interest in this story is the way white ethnic identity politics became one tool in the toolbox of America’s denial of its ongoing race problems after the recession of the Civil Rights/Black Freedom movement. It’s proved a remarkably diverse tool. From the right, you have the white-ethnic-bootstraps narrative, “our ancestors became successful through hard work and no handouts blah blah blah.” From the (notional, liberal) left, it’s basically proven to be a busy-box, a distraction, and there’s nothing the declining white seventies left loved more than a good distraction. This is how you got embarrassing spectacles like former SDS head Tom Hayden (never the sharpest tool in the shed, frankly, though he seemed an earnest enough old guy) trying to defect to befuddled Irish cops at the Dublin airport and briefly changing his name to something more Irish-sounding, or radical feminists trying to construct pre-Indo-European spiritualities for themselves. Forty, nearly fifty years on, this stuff is just cringe-making, especially because we know it helped weaken and distract from the fights to come. Jacobson tells all these stories, but only after long chapters on the movies and books, much of which focused on technical aspects of their construction, like the way the films emulated old photos of immigrants. I guess it’s nice that he’s not too thesis-heavy, but he could have gotten to the point quicker.
In fact, as Jacobson argues, New Left and New Right joined hands (and sometimes shared personnel, like ex-new-left-er-turned-neocon-white-ethnic-whisperer Michael Novak) in their criticism of the “melting pot” concept so popular in the 1950s and in their embrace of white ethnicity. In classic form, the right used the concepts to advance their own power and the left used it on journeys of self-discovery. Arguably, we are still dealing with the fallout, not only in the form of toxic memes like “Irish slaves” blobbing around like turds in a pond, but in the form of the fetishization of supposed pre-modern “community” forms and values you still see on much of the left today. It’s not the biggest problem we face, by a long shot, but it’s not helpful.
Jacobson uses the language of there being a transition from a “Plymouth Rock” America to an “Ellis Island” America. You’d figure that’d be a good thing- maybe a baby step, but it’s still nice that white ethnics aren’t facing prejudice anymore, right? Well, for one thing, Jacobson couldn’t have known this in 2006 but the most enduring of the Ellis Island prejudices, antisemitism, has seen a revival in recent years. The white ethnic revival treated Jews more or less like it did Italians, Irish, etc. They all “succeeded,” fanned out into the suburbs, went looking for their roots afterwards, etc. But it seems antisemitism is more persistent, tied in more deeply with historical dynamics, than the other prejudices facing contemporaneous white immigrant groups. There’s been no QAnon-style revival of anti-Catholicism, for instance, to go along with their revival of the blood libel. Meanwhile, Jacobson admirably resisted the blandishments of “whiteness studies,” which was going strong at the time and insisted that the Irish, Italians, etc. “became” white. Nope- as Jacobson points out, according to the law of the land, the Naturalization Act of 1790, they were considered “free white persons” from the very beginning, whatever other prejudices they faced. The embrace of “Ellis Island America,” with its hyphenate-identites taken on board as fully American, indeed, the bedrock American, signaled a circling of the wagons, not a liberation. ****