There is a fascinating piece of Detroit history that serves as an excellent case study into the historical social construction of what is thought of as “the white race.” Race has no biological basis at all, and has been socially constructed over centuries to create a system of subjugation, oppression and privilege based on skin color.
The number of people included in the white race has increased over time. Historically, people from Ireland, Italy, and Slavic countries were excluded from whiteness. For a multitude of reasons, these groups were assimilated into whiteness later on, whether to and protect the system of racial privilege, or to protect the capitalist system which had been constructed upon the racist systems of black slavery and colonialism in the global South.
The social construction of whiteness was made almost absurdly clear by Henry Ford and his “English Schools.” Workers, especially European immigrants, flocked to Detroit in order to work at Ford’s for the five-dollar work day. The five-dollar day was split into two sections: $2.40 for the worker’s labor, and another $2.60 paid to the employee upon proving that they are “worthy.” To qualify for the $2.60, a counselor or investigator from Ford’s Sociological Department would have to certify the worker’s lifestyle and that they lived in a “proper home.”
Worker’s were also expected to graduate from Ford’s English School, which taught them all the aspects of what Ford and the company thought were the proper American worker lifestyle. At the Ford School worker’s would learn English and learn the American lifestyle, often by repeating phrases in chorus:
“Employees should use plenty of soap and water in the home.”
“Nothing makes for right living so much as cleanliness.”
“The most advanced people are the cleanest.”
Upon graduating from the school the workers would participate in a ceremony that people from all over the area would attend. The ceremony consisted of the English School graduates, dressed in the traditional clothes of their native country, walking into a giant “melting pot” while being stirred. The graduates would then walk out of the melting pot dressed in common “American” clothes, waving United States flags.
The imagery of the ceremony is incredible and telling. Immigrant workers would rid themselves of the baggage of their native lands, embracing their new American identity, and the benefits that came with it. This is part of the nature of whiteness and “white” culture. Casting off ethnic culture, heritage and history to embrace “white” culture.
What Henry Ford was able to do with the assembly line for cars, he also did for the reproduction of whiteness and white hegemony. This brings to mind some idea of why Henry Ford was the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf or awarded the German Iron Cross (the highest honor in Nazi Germany).
This all reminds me of a story I was told once by an older friend of mine, a mentor of the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s, who had told me that his family never told him about the history of his Irish ancestors, who came to America to avoid persecution for activity in their participation in the Irish Republican Army.
I myself am very fortunate to know a great deal about my family’s history in this country. My great grandfather immigrated to the United States to escape a bounty placed on him after deserting the Bulgarian army after spending time with anti-royalists and pacifists. In 1920 he was arrested for communist activity in Detroit’s Eastern Market during the Palmer Raids, a precursor to the Red Scare that specifically targeted Slavic immigrants.
Many white people have been systematically denied family history such as this because of how they help to expose the myth of “whiteness.” If a person of Irish heritage learns about their families history in the IRA, than that person learns about the English occupation and the history of the Irish’s struggle in the United States. Same for Slavs, Poles, Italians and so on. What if they were to learn about how the US government tried to have them deported for organizing unions and fighting against the Robber Barons?