Monday, October 13, 2008

Lynching to Belong: Claiming Whiteness through Racial Violence. By Cynthia Skove Nevels. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, October 2007. Cloth: ISBN 978-1585445899, $24.95. 208 pages.
Review by John Barnhill, Ph. D.

Whiteness was so valued by immigrants in east central Texas and, perhaps, elsewhere, that during the nineteenth century they threw over the civilization they had brought with them in order to escape from subordinate status and gain admission into the white over-class, even though that class was built on racism and racial violence. So contends Cynthia Skove Nevels in a short but well-argued examination of three instances of immigrant involvement in lynching during the late nineteenth century.For some time a fashionable approach to understanding the incorporation of immigrants into the dominant society has been “whiteness studies.” The emphasis is on the ways in which immigrants adapt to make themselves palatable to white society, to lighten themselves into acceptability. One argument is that the white population initially classifies newcomers as non-white, and in a black-white society the only non-white is black. Asians, South Europeans, Irish, Germans—all were initially black to the dominant “white” society that rejected or marginalized them. And black was not a color that anyone wanted to be, for black meant bottom of the pile, mudsill, convenient scapegoat, marginally human perhaps. Definitely, black was bad, and immigrants were quick to realize that if they wanted to move out of the “black” category into some sort of whiteness they had to take on traits of the dominant society. Germans and Irish have been for a long time fully white, while Asians still stand somewhat outside the door but safely away from the black mudsill. Nevels uses a whiteness studies approach in her study of immigrants and lynching in east central Texas during the late nineteenth century.Before dealing with the lynchings themselves, she has to develop the context, and she does so at relative length, devoting several chapters to discussing the economic and social development of the region, particularly the rise of a black-white culture that had no place for those of uncertain color. She discusses the founding of various towns, their economic progress or lack of same, the black towns and the white with black neighborhoods. And she notes, accurately, that lynching, particularly of blacks by whites, was common (as it was to continue to be after the period in question, when there was no longer an issue of the status of immigrants with unfamiliar background.) Thus, lynching became a component of white culture that immigrant groups assumed to acquire whiteness—as well as a sign on the part of the white majority that the immigrant group had moved into whiteness or at least a step away from blackness.In one case the victim was an Italian immigrant. Her attacker was lynched, but only in conjunction with those accused in a later attack on a white girl. Her attacker languished in jail, and her retribution remained irrelevant for months, Nevels says, because Italians had not yet crossed the line into whiteness, a line that separated inviolate white women from other females, who were considered less honorable and were thus less likely to be avenged for having their honor besmirched. In another instance, an Irish man provided the key evidence against an accused black man, becoming white by helping the white community in a critical time. And, of course, there were the immigrant communities that accepted if not abetted the necessary lynching that their white neighbors performed against black malefactors.Nevels notes the newspaper coverage of immigrant groups, pointing out the tendency to hyphenate descriptions of foreigners: Italian-American, Bohemian-American, and Irish-American, for instance. This classification by ethnicity, she contends, is comparable to the practice of identifying blacks but not whites by race. A more benign interpretation is that the editors and the readership were mostly “American,” with no knowledge of what hyphen might apply to their ancestry. Perhaps they added the prefix to make a distinction between newcomer ethnic and old settler. A hyphen is not necessarily offensive anyway. There were more than enough really offensive slang terms in common use, had the editors truly intended to degrade the Czech- or Irish-Americans in the community.Nevels writes well, and she provides solid context for the examples she uses to argue her position. Her documentation is solid, and illustrations help to clarify what is a relatively brief work. However well-documented and argued, Lynching to Belong is not by any means a final answer to a difficult and controversial question. One case study, no matter how thoroughly documented, cannot be definitive, particularly one that addresses only a handful of cases out of the hundreds of available lynchings.The field of whiteness studies has its critics. Aside from having difficulty with establishing what whiteness might be and who owns it, whiteness studies seems to offer glib answers to a complex set of issues. And it slights class, religion, and other differences that separate groups. Rednecks are not considered white in some circles because they lack the dominant culture. To some critics the whiteness interpretation boils down to “to get along, go along.” That seems a bit light to account for acceptance or participation in an act of violence that flies in the face of most ethical and moral constraints that in theory apply to civilized behavior.Nevels makes a valiant effort but falls slightly short, as have other practitioners of whiteness studies. Still, she brings a fresh perspective to the perplexing issue of what causes virulent crowd behavior such as lynching. When she and other young scholars find additional examples that substantiate her argument and that have no effective alternative explanation, then she will earn the distinction of originating a new interpretation. In the meantime, she has created a solid work that the scholarly community should not ignore.

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