Poster advertising the 1915 film which promoted xenophobia and an idea of the inequality of races (creative commons licensed)

by Fergus Selsdon Games

“Civilisation’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?… It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” 

–       F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

It seems like identity is everywhere. Modish terms you might encounter include ‘tribalism’, ‘polarisation’ or even ‘identity politics’. But where do these terms really come from? And why do historians spend so much time talking about them in relation to immigration?

One answer lies in the writings of American intellectuals during the first decades of the twentieth century, when some fifteen million immigrants were admitted to the United States. While prominent figures processed these changes in varied ways, one pronounced segment of opinion was characterised by a rampant xenophobia. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson watched box-office sensation The Birth of a Nation at a special White House screening, describing the film as ‘history written by lightning’. The movie, which inspired a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, depicts the post-Civil War era as ravaged by the unintelligence and sexual aggressiveness of black men. Historian Louis Menand writes that the film was received by many as ‘a story about the unassimilability of black people [resembling] an analogue to their belief in the unassimilability of European immigrants’.

That same year, a new edition of Arthur de Gobineau’s The Inequality of the Human Races – an arch tract of Social Darwinism and scientific racism – was published in English. Then, in 1916, Lothrop Stoddard published his Rising Tide of Colour (later satirised by Fitzgerald). The anti-immigrant hysteria was also perpetuated by figures who considered themselves progressives. Sociologist Edward Ross, one of the best-known public intellectuals of the period and a keen champion of the labour movement, argued that ‘the theory that races are virtually equal in capacity leads to such monumental follies…’.

Yet, just as Social Darwinist determinism gained a foothold, various branches of American thought struck back. These branches also engaged with the ways in which individuals should conceptualise their identities in accordance with diversifying socio-demographic conditions, but they arrived at a strikingly novel set of conclusions. In 1908, Franz Boas (‘the father of American Anthropology’) led a general investigation of American physiology, examining 17,000 people. Boas’s team found that children born in the US of immigrant parents had different physical features than children born in Europe of the same parents, suggesting that ‘all the evidence now is of a great plasticity of human types’. That revelation paved the way for a new explanatory framework in the human sciences – one that moved beyond rigidly racialised taxonomies, by foregrounding the socio-cultural conditions of race.

Some of the most sophisticated responses to the era’s racial animus came from figures with backgrounds in the liberal arts. Graduating from Harvard in 1907 with degrees in English and Philosophy, Alain LeRoy Locke maintained a complex attitude towards his own African-American racial identity. ‘I am not a race problem’, he once wrote to his mother. In extended writings, Locke attempted to balance a ‘melting-pot’ conception of American collective identity – by adopting ‘the cardinal principles of that social culture’ – with the understanding that such group labels are ‘ethnic fictions’.

Locke’s insight drew on the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, who, in 1903, coined the term ‘double consciousness’, in reference to the multiply experienced self-identity of African-Americans. Du Bois provided a platform for victims of racist disadvantage to deal with their unfolding lives. As Du Bois put it, ‘the destiny of the race could be conceived as leading neither to assimilation nor separatism but to proud, enduring hyphenation’. It is no coincidence that Du Bois has been deemed a constituent of American pragmatist philosophy, which maintains that knowing the world is inseparable from agency within it.

Contests among 1920s American intellectuals, therefore, point to the ways in which identities are invented within ‘pluralisms’ of socio-cultural practice, but are, nevertheless, vividly ‘experienced’ by group members. It is because identity is mobilising – whether by nativists, or in the interests of social justice – that it must be taken seriously.

Fergus Selsdon Games is OICD Intern


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