Immigration and the Boundary of Whiteness

by Steve Martinot

This article describes three relationships: 1) between anti-immigrant movements and resistance to slaves escaping north before the Civil War; 2) between early anti-immigrant movements and the present resistance to Latino immigration; and 3) between the situation of Latino immigrants today and the debt servitude imposed on black farmers after the Civil War.


Borders That Are Not on Maps

In Oscar Handlin’s account of immigration in The Uprooted, a second implicit border—in addition to the official border of the nation—makes its shadowy appearance.[1] It is the border that he names "alienation." Writing sensitively from the perspective of the immigrant, Handlin presents it as a social barrier against which poverty threw most of Europe’s new arrivals to the US for roughly a century and a half, bruising them psychologically for their existence as strangers. Some well-heeled immigrants stepped easily over this border while those who had nothing but their labor to sell found it hard and grievous. Even the modes of exploitation were unfamiliar compared to the ones they had left behind. Often coming from rural areas, these groups understood agriculture better than industry, and industrial labor stranded them in their pauperization.[2] Many saw the way their accents caused judgmental scowls on others’ faces as the doors of employment opportunity closed in their faces. They crowded together in small apartments in order to pay the rent. Some vulnerable immigrants even allowed themselves to become the unwitting football kicked around by party politics. As often as they were told they would never make it as "Americans" because they were too lazy and too parasitic, they were accused of competing in the market unfairly and taking jobs away from "American" workers. They looked at "America" through this pall of xenophobic prejudice as if from afar, while finding themselves in the midst of it and unable to extricate themselves.

In Handlin’s writing, the force of this second border seems to occur automatically, as if it had happened before, or perhaps had never stopped happening to people. Indeed, it appears again in contemporary complaints about Latino immigration, levelled at those who today risk their lives to cross a dangerous border for US employment. These immigrants already know they will work jobs that white people rarely accept, while being accused simultaneously of not wanting to work. They too encounter the shadowy second border and form cultural communities to keep from starving psychically.

This unspoken internal border had also appeared in an anti-immigrant movement even earlier than those explored by Handlin. During the 1800s in Pennsylvania, and later in other northern states, this anti-immigrant force expressed a similar concern about unwanted people who didn’t want to work, who would take others’ jobs, and who were dirty and uncivilized. A segment of the public demanded that Pennsylvania’s borders be closed to these immigrants. Oddly, the guards who would close this border were not to be stationed at the main port in Philadelphia, but instead along Pennsylvania’s southern border with Virginia and Maryland. Its target was not European immigrants, but runaway slaves seeking freedom from southern plantations.[3]

This "anti-immigrant" movement was not driven by respect for the fugitive slave clauses of the Constitution[4]; in 1847 Pennsylvania enacted a law of non-compliance with the federal policy of returning fugitive slaves.[5] Nor did it reflect a fear that free African Americans would become a political force; populist mobs and lawsuits were adept at preventing African Americans from voting or having their votes counted from the early 1820s until African American disenfranchisement was written into the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1836, Indeed, anti-black riots occurred in Philadelphia every year from 1831 to 1836. The very continuity of the violence suggests it was not fear that drove the white mobs but rather the intentional enactment of an unwritten social policy. As Leon Litwack points out, both proslavery advocates and white abolitionists participated in enacting segregationist regulations because they both agreed that a separation of the races was desirable and that integration resulted not in the "elevation of the degraded, but the deterioration...of the better class."[6] In other words, these immigrants seeking freedom were perceived as a corruption of the purity of white "American" society, and the "nation" being delineated and defended by this internal "border" was the white nation. What drove this early anti-immigrant movement was white nationalism.[7]

Yet, the form and effect were so similar to that second hidden border appearing in Handlin’s descriptions that they beg comparison. Like the new arrivals from Europe who landed in debt and were dependent on others, refugees from slavery were thrown together in dehumanized conditions by a society that did not care how they lived. Forced into overcrowded slums, they were charged with being biologically-inclined towards uncivilized living and self-imposed segregation—in much the same mode as the impoverished European immigrants.[8] In cities like Philadelphia and New York, the impoverishment of runaway slaves only increased the poverty of the free African Americans who already lived there.[9] They competed with each other for work that was withheld. Their destitution increased white hostility and segregationism. To be "accused" of poverty was to be accused of cultural inferiority, which these African Americans then in turn suffered as a denial of employment. A bond or tax on the Black community itself was even required to pay for projected social care or welfare.[10] Some ordinances required African Americans to prove free status and often barred them from attending educational institutions.[11] These ordinances created an environment in which many whites granted themselves license to commit violence or to threaten it arbitrarily. In 1829, mobs assaulted Black communities in Cincinnati so severely that 50 percent of the African Americans left for Canada.[12]

The overall African American response was to form clandestine networks of Black organizations and mutual aid societies. Safehouses were founded to facilitate escape from the South which later became known as the underground railroad.[13] And this highlights a significant distinction between the paths travelled by these different groups of migrants—the European immigrants and the escaping Black bond-laborers. People escaping plantation bondage had to make their way across terrain infested with patrols, bounty-hunters, and white people who simply believed that Black people needed to be kept chained to hard labor. Few of these whites thought sympathetically of the physical torture or perhaps death awaiting those fugitives they might be party to returning to bondage. In contrast, among the hardships many Europeans encountered while traveling to a port to book passage to the US was a hostility that only sped them on their way. And even if, in some cases, they were refused entry into the US, they might return to destitution and possible dislocation in a European port far from their original home, that destitution and dislocation did not come with additional punishment. After the Civil War, many poor European immigrants had their ticket furnished by industrial agents in order to throw them into debt and debt servitude in the US until their passage was paid off;[14] the steel, mining, railroad, and packinghouse industries were foremost in this practice, which they used to keep their labor force in line. For Black escapees, the inverse was the case: they only found tenuous safety after arriving in a "free state." The threat from both fugitive slave-catchers and kidnappers who sold fugitives in the South permeated the culture. Black communities in the Northern states, facing the possibility of family or community members being suddenly seized or disappearing, often constructed elaborate security networks.

Jack Johnson and the Color Line

At the end of that century, this unspoken interior border remained legible. A recent PBS documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness," presents a portrait of its operations in unmistakable terms.[15] The film details the story of Jack Johnson, a black heavyweight prizefighter who remained undefeated in all but one bout. Rising from the underworld of illicit boxing in 1890s Texas, Johnson proved himself able to defeat all he challenged, black and white. Yet, as he dispensed with his opponents, with only the heavyweight title to gain, he found that the white heavyweight titleholders he challenged refused to fight him. John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, and Jim Jeffries, in turn, declined his challenge, indicating they would never let the title be taken by a Black man. Their refusal demarcated this inner sanctum of championship as a domain to which Johnson would always remain an alien, a stranger, a man without a visa.

The fear (and cowardice) implicit in these white boxers’ refusal to fight Johnson was transformed into valor by a vast outpouring of supportive sentiment for each one. The white press, white sports writers and editors, white politicians, devotees of the sport, and much of white society all extolled this protection of white dominion. The usual racist reversals were deployed in defense of their decisions. Most prominently, Johnson was labeled both lazy and a coward. Even that "man of the people," Jack London, chimed in on the side of white sanctity against Johnson’s power and talent.

The film presents evidence of an open obsession with whiteness that Johnson had provoked by his mere existence as an undefeated and indefatigable Black boxer. What lurks in this social obsession is a specter of the fragility of white identity, and the thinness of its hegemony.

Johnson followed each successive titleholder around the country, and even to Europe, repeating his challenges and publicizing their rebuttals. Eventually, he got his fight. In 1908, he fought Tommy Burns, the current champ, in Sydney, Australia. He won the bout and the title handily.

In the wake of his success, the attacks on Johnson by white society increased. Disparaging him endlessly in the press, the entire white nation showed itself possessed by the need to find a "great white hope," a challenger to take the title back. One by one, Johnson defeated them all. With no new viable talent on the horizon, the former champ, Jim Jeffries, was entreated to come out of retirement. The fight occurred in Reno, Nevada, in 1910. Johnson played with Jeffries for 14 rounds before putting him out of his misery. But the moment the news of Jeffries defeat was broadcast, race riots occurred in dozens of cities around the US. As Johnson returned from the fight, traveling to his home in Chicago by train, hundreds of Black people were beaten, shot, lynched by mobs, and burned out of their houses. Editorials appeared across the country warning Black people not to think that they had gained any new stature or human standing as a result of Johnson’s victory. Tortured and panicked by its own fragility, white nationalism’s self-generated sense of its own lost stature and human standing appeared able to reinstate itself only through a spate of wanton violence and anti-black criminality.

Nevertheless, through his wit, and his intuitive sense of how to out-maneuver the white obsessions with segregation and the denigration of Black people, Johnson constituted a beacon of self-respecting personhood for Black communities all over the US. Beyond his talent in the ring, he showed an independence of personal comportment that extended to throwing off both white anti-miscegenation rules and the boot heel of obeisance. His words bit into the fabric of the society that sought to exclude him. But if Johnson thus provided African Americans with a renewed articulation of their entitlement to citizenship (simply on Constitutional grounds), the resultant assaults and riots demonstrated that Johnson’s existence itself, in a profound Fanonian sense, constituted a form of violence to the social coherence of white society—not unlike an aggressive act by a foreign power.[16]

In short, Johnson’s experience further demonstrtes the real content of Pennsylvania’s earlier anti-immigrant movement. Both disclose a boundary of whiteness that was of much greater importance than the boundary to be found on a map.[17] The commonalities of these two accounts suggest that whiteness was the real substance of that second border that haunted the subjects of Handlin’s account, whose form he could only label as "alienation." They were not-quite white.

Handlin’s account does not address the subject of white identity. He never investigates in depth what was being preserved by the "nativism" with which anti-immigrant sentiment styled itself. His narrative leaves out the subject of escaped slaves as immigrants, despite their own analogous "uprootedness." Yet, the structures of discrimination the European immigrants encountered had been honed against Black people, and were already in place, ready to be shifted to the new arrivals or not, depending on the whim of "nativist" sentiment. The machinery of exclusion and segregation, the accusations leveled against both groups, and the contorted and inverted logic used to rationalize both forms of discrimination impacted them similarly. While these forms of exclusion and violence result from a "nativist" border in Handlin’s narration, the fundamentally racialized character of this border, its delineation of a white nationalism, is illuminated by the experiences of Johnson and the earlier escaped slaves.

Ultimately, the European immigrant groups, who initially suffered from cultural exclusion and alienation, found that second border porous for themselves. A mode of racialized integration into US cultural membership (as white) awaited them (sometimes across one or two generations, however). In contrast, the border African Americans continually encountered was one they could not cross without massive movements, such as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, to break it down. For Handlin, these differences are incidental. At most, he explores the psychological significance of African American experiences of alienation. Not only are the two experiences of alienation and exclusion significantly different, but their differences are not unrelated. The porosity of one boundary and the durability of the other meant that the European immigrant had the option to cross the ethnic border by offering to become a guard on the racialized border.

Handlin’s sensitivity to the ethnic border and to those who collided with it is acute. It allows him to adopt the immigrant point of view rather than that of the "nativist." It is what inspires the insightful humanism of his book. In taking the European immigrant’s perspective with respect to nativism, however, he too finds himself able to cross over that "nativist" boundary, and to position himself on the side of the white nation with respect to Black people—a stand he also takes with respect to the Chinese exclusion movement. He speaks of African Americans and Chinese from afar, and no longer with a refined sensitivity to their perspective. He does not distance himself very well from the theories or theorists (foreign and domestic) of biological race inferiority to which he gives brief mention.[18] He understands that for European immigrants, movement was possible toward enfranchisement. But he leaves untouched the fact that African Americans were always being torn away from it—by state constitutional provisions before the Civil War, by systems of poll taxes under Jim Crow, and by the disenfranchisement attendant upon the massive felony charges and racialized sentencing that today throw ever more people of color into the largest prison industry in the world.[19]

Although it is easy to generate metaphors about Black people as immigrants in their own homeland due to the similarity of their treatment with that of European immigrant groups, significant differences remain in terms of the integration and prosperity of both groups. European immigrants eventually found they could cross the hidden boundary of alienation by aligning themselves with forces of racial exclusion, those that imagined Black people as permanently immigrant in the country of their birth. They had only to become "white," a process that meant performing acts of "nativism" and abandoning the ethnic cohesion that led to their "alienation." Most often, this meant distancing themselves from Black people and evincing a scorn that, when amplified, was a fully articulated anti-black racism. As Toni Morrison has pointed out, the process of rearticulation as white has worked for all groups of European immigrants. Adopting the anti-black ethos that united the "white nation" was the condition for admission beyond that second border.[20]

In bypassing the "other" immigrant movement without notice—and in having the luxury to do so—Handlin himself retraces the European immigrants’ own mode of passage. Focusing on the national boundary that gets drawn on maps, he excludes what that "other" border, the "color line," signified by its existence. Writers like W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass, among many others, had to play Handlin’s role by telling the story of African Americans who were refused permission to cross the color line—Douglass as an escaped slave, and DuBois as a raconteur of the conditions of the freed slaves re-enslaved in debt servitude after the Civil War.[21]

These two internal borders are not unrelated, despite their tangible differences. To the extent that a border is a technology of national existence, both the racialized and the "internal" border of "alienation" are part of the technology of white cultural self-definition, to be opened or tightened, racialized and deracialized according to the economic and cultural requirements of the moment. That is, behind the process of racialization and the alienation of "the uprooted," there is a single complex social structure which materializes through its performances of border-defense: it is the structure of whiteness.

Jack Johnson’s victory and response, the civil rights marches, the freedom rides, the voting registration drives, the children enrolling in schools in the wake of Brown v. Board, were all met with a white populist defense. The intensity of white resistance to these events illuminates the threat of such racialized border-crossing. The reprisals taken for Johnson’s victory, the movement against affirmative action, the refusal to recognize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the media-politician mob that barred Lani Guinier from appointment to a Civil Rights administrative post, all had the aura of indictments for trespass. In its defensive responses, white nationalism indicates that these transgressions have called its boundary and its very identity into question.

But they also do more than that. These events occur in a juridical context that has taken the form of police profiling, brutality, and impunity toward Black people that white society has generally found acceptable. That acceptability, beyond the ongoing empirical derogations of Black personhood, signifies a purpose. The forms of exclusion enacted through white populist "border actions" are not merely in defense of a social framework, but serve to racialize white people as white. Against the fragility of white racialized identity, the need for white social solidarity and allegiance is the real import of this second racialized white border.

Latinos and the Second Border

Today, a new anti-immigrant movement has emerged against Latino immigration. It is a populist movement that includes rancher patrols, enjoys the support of many unions, and has spawned chauvinist or white nationalist paramilitary groups like the Minutemen (who have terrorized Latino communities in the midwest and southern states, and have taken it upon themselves to build a fence along the Mexico-Arizona border). . Similar to the anti-black, anti-immigrant movement of the 1800s, the contemporary one seeks to prevent Latino immigration through a variety of laws, reorganized residency controls, a militarization of the border, and violence (e.g. the use of SWAT team tactics against Latino communities). It has made border crossings dangerous in the same way that Black escapes from slavery were. Latinos have been shot or died of hunger and thirst in the desert trying to get across. Such deaths number in the hundreds over the last decade.

Most migrant Latinos in the last fifteen years have crossed the US border not to settle, but to earn money to send back home to family and community.[22] This is far afield from the motivations of African Americans moving to Pennsylvania in the 1820s. While the latter moved northward with the goal of never returning, the former migrate largely with the intention of returning home after having saved money. Most Mexicans, in fact, return after an average of three years in the United States.[23]  In this respect, Latino immigration also differs markedly from the immigration that Handlin describes. While European immigrants who moved did so with the intention of residing permanently in the United States and integrating themselves into white society, Latino immigrants who come to stay often find integration barred in many ways that parallel the segregation faced by African Americans.

There are historical parallels in the roles played by African Americans in the nineteenth century and Latino immigrants today. In 1800, the economy depended upon the slave plantation production of agricultural goods for international trade and credits. Today, the US economy depends on Latino agricultural labor for both international trade and credits and for domestic fruit and vegetable products. Indeed, various local economic disruptions have resulted in recent years from government raids or roadblocks against Latino agricultural workers. When immigration agents intercepted Latino workers traveling to northern California to harvest cherries in 2006, the agents were sued by the cherry growers because the crop rotted on the trees. The arrest of twenty-one workers in the onion fields of Vidalia, Georgia, prompted thousands of workers to abandon the fields at the height of the harvest season. When a raid on a North Carolina town arrested twenty-four undocumented workers in the fall of 2004 inciting thousands of workers to leave or go into hiding, the town lapsed into depression because all production stopped.[24]

Although Latino immigrant motivations differ markedly from those of escaping slaves before the Civil War, their condition reveals a similarity to that of Black farm workers after the Civil War. Many agricultural workers, freed from slavery, were thrown into a pseudo-enslaved condition called "debt servitude." The debt servitude of Black tenant farmers or sharecroppers was a system of subjugation to white landowners or commercial establishments through debt. The farmer would mortgage his crop in advance to a commercial or landed lender to get the money to buy seed, farm tools and equipment, as well as food for subsistence during the growing season. When the crop was harvested, the lender would seize and sell it, and keep what the farmer owed for formerly advanced retailed goods from the proceeds—often pushing the farmer deeper into debt.[25] An attempt to escape this vicious cycle by running away or by secretly saving part of the crop for personal purposes would lead to arrest and incarceration on chain-gangs. There, the man would remain in forced labor for the state economy, often indefinitely at the whim of the prison administration.

Insofar as many undocumented Latino workers are paid subsistence, often in scrip, and housed under guard in labor camps (which happens mostly on the East Coast), they live in forms of social constraint similar to those of Black sharecroppers.[26] Attempts to escape, to form unions, demand human rights, receive social services to which their labor and taxes as workers entitle them, run the risk of arrest and arbitrary detention (without due process) by immigration authorities. Thus, undocumented workers, like Black tenant farmers, are tethered to labor under extreme duress.

On the other hand, Latino laborers today have the possibility of escaping to cities where large Latino communities serve as havens, offering social networks among which to hide, obtain information and documents, and begin a more independent life.[27] The vast migration of Black laborers to northern cities after the 1880s to work in factories gave rise to similar haven communities against the trap of debt servitude.

Undocumented persons, as well as Black citizens, face police profiling. Contrary to popular opinion, racial profiling is not simply an element of traffic stops; it occurs in supermarkets, rental and employment offices, mortgage and loan offices, and in defendant counciling and sentencing. For immigrant laborers, Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) raids are an ever-present threat. Furthermore, any resistance to labor conditions exposes workers to dangerous possibilities: for the undocumented, there is prison or deportation; and for African Americans, arbitrary felony charges. The immigrant has no access to basic civil rights, such as courts, trial procedures, or due process while in the hands of immigration authorities. Detention is often arbitrary and indefinite. While African Americans are granted the legal benefits of citizenship, discriminatory practices within the legal system often undermine them (for instance, through public defenders who council pleading to a lesser felony, and thus collude in the felonization of the Black population).[28]

The conceptual thread of immigrant conditions that runs through these different immigrant landscapes reveals a social structure that spans the gap between historical and contemporary forms. The constitutive parts of this structure are forced labor and an ethos of imprisonment which is linked to police harassment (profiling) and impunity (whether official or white populist), and which is often deployed as an arbitrary form of terror.[29] The ethos of imprisonment is at the core of this entire historical process. Debt servitude was a form of forced labor insofar as it was enforced by the threat of prison and chain gangs. Slavery itself, as a system of forced labor regulated through passes, patrols, and corporal violence, could itself be considered a form of prison labor. Today, the massive incarceration of Black (and Latino) people has embedded both these groups in an ever-expanding prison-industrial complex.[30]

What this structure reveals, when viewed across different historical eras, is the analogue relation between the racialized border (the color line of segregation and disenfranchisement) and the "internal" national boundary (which Handlin characterized as "alienation") that today constitutes the domain of the anti-Latino immigration movement. Neither boundary is coincident with the border drawn on maps and both are internal to the United States. For Black people, the color line remains impermeable, while the border Latinos confront is more porous, like that encountered by the European immigrants Handlin describes. The analogy between borders suggests they are founded on the same cultural structure, which erects boundaries in order to define itself through them. The white nation that defines itself (racially) behind one border is the same white nation that defines itself (nationally) behind the other. The racial boundary is constructed to generate a socio-cultural coherence for white racialized identity. White identity, in turn, is given a "national" character by the "internal" national boundary that accompanies it. If that "national" character has a certain spectral quality, it is because it resides in a cultural rather than a geographic domain. In effect, the "national character" of the US needs three borders for the purposes of self-definition, one external and two internal. These borders are all conceptually incommensurable, yet they function homologically with respect to the same social entity.

The Question of Cultural Structure

A cultural structure is more than a way of thinking, a mind-set, or the ways in which disparate elements of human existence render themselves coherent for members of a society. It is also a relation of social practices that cohere as common understanding, as both a regularized pattern of social thought and the production of that thinking itself. It defines the proper and the ethical as the existence and acceptance of social practices.[31] Discerning its operations is important analytically insofar as it provides the ability to understand a cultural framework for those who reside within that framework and see the world through its contours; it enables them to see beyond the terms by which that culture chooses to characterize itself. To locate and identify the cultural structures that organize the popular consciousness of a society in its political, social, and juridical operations, one must identify the historical threads or continuities by which it manifests itself up to the present.

Insofar as the structural relations examined here involve the police, the judiciary, etc., it is important to recognize that these departments of governance do not constitute cultural institutions as such. Cultural institutionality is instead produced by their modes of operation. Police impunity, indefinite detention, arbitrary assault or arrest, the doctrine of an "illegal" person that parallels the stereotyped criminalization of African Americans (as revealed by the anti-immigrant ethos from 1800 to the present) are what constitute cultural institutionalities. The specific institutionalities occur through white populist action, whether enacted by civilians or by the police (and regardless of whether all the persons acting are in fact white). Their (paramilitary) populism is granted authority by the cultural structures that organize and govern them, providing legitimacy for certain impunity and for certain extra-legal brutality, even at the hands of the police. The waves of lynchings that have swept the US at various times have depended upon this cultural legitimacy. While paramilitary and "para-political" draw some rhetorical legitimacy from reference to official jurisprudence, their authority results primarily from their recognition by members of the cultural socius. Indeed, it is their innate familiarity that makes them acceptible.

Insofar as white identity, and the coherence of white culture, depends on certain institutions, those institutions constitute components of the structures of racialization. Historically, the structures of racialization have been the social means by which white society has produced itself as white over against others it has defined as non-white for its self-racializing purposes.[32] With respect to present immigration, it is not that Latinos are being racialized as black. Chromatically, they span the entire spectrum (those light enough to pass often announce that Latinos are white as well). Nor are Black people being expressly denied the rights of citizenship in the same mode as are immigrants. The purpose of the homology developed in this essay is not to valorize the categories that have been created by the two borders in question, but to question the two borders with respect to their role in reconstituting whiteness through those categories. Under the para-political activities of the present populist anti-immigrant movement, the two borders are being brought into coincidence to play similar roles with respect to white cultural coherence and white racialized identity.

There are, of course, many ways for white society to make itself white. In his seminal work on the variety of forms of the construction of whiteness in California, Tomás Almaguer has revealed different forms of white self-racialization with respect to Mexicans, Native Americans, and Asians.[33] The Mexican land grant owners of California were alienated from their land through a juridical attack on local titles. A federal requirement of property deeds was instituted, despite the absence of such legal instruments for those land grants. Often incapable of meeting the new requirement, the land grantee lost the land, reducing him to second-class status with respect to the white settlers armed with their federal statutes. Native Americans were declared by fiat to be non-human, and were hunted, killed, or enslaved with a barbarity that white culture managed to use to proclaim itself non-barbaric (civilized). In effect, those who were found to inhabit the territory were transformed into foreigners, in the process of which the white settlers "nativized" themselves on the land. And as Alexander Saxton has argued, it was against the Chinese laborers brought to build the railroad that white workers in California defined themselves through a populist labor movement as the working class—and thus defined the working class as white.[34] 

Populism and Panic

The present discernible panic over the possibility of a "non-white majority" in certain areas of the country is bringing these incommensurable borders into yet closer proximity socio-culturally. Generated in this context of fear, laws pinpointing Latino immigration have been passed to deprive immigrants of humane social services and education. A harsh misanthropic scorn is directed at those people traversing the border to find work (some of whom die). Yet, in an allegedly democratic political environment, a shift of majorities should not be a problem, let alone a source of callous misanthropy.

Before the Civil Rights era and the Voting Rights Act, populations now referred to as "minorities" were lumped together as the "colored races." The razing of barriers to voting in the 1960s, and the access that African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, and others thereby gained to that hallowed act, changed the discourse and the vocabulary, deploying a language of democratics in place of race. In democratic procedure, the concepts of "majority" and "minority" refer to the outcome of a vote. Reference to a group of people as a "minority," however, is a designation assigned prior to any vote. It is a label that signifies exteriority and exclusion from mainstream political processes, in which majorities and minorities occur only after the vote. To be a minority is to be outvoted in advance, and a priori. "Minority" ceases to be a term of democratic procedure, and becomes a term of social difference, a status imposed by others who thereby guarantee their own majoritarian status. In short, a group becomes a "minority" by being minoritized by a majoritarian group. It has the same relationality as that of racialization, wherein whites define themselves as white by racializing others as non-white in order to not be them and to dominate them. "Minority" is a euphemism for racialization.

In other words, the concern with people of color becoming a majority is not a concern with democracy. It is an anxiety that expresses concerns about the sanctity and coherence of white society and the hegemony of its white racialized identity. The coherence of white culture is what resides behind the coincident national and racial borders of the US as a political realm, a coherence that can be preserved only if whites remain the majority. The panic incited by Latino immigration is a response to a perceived threat to the color line, fearing a subversion of society’s sense of its own whiteness. This panic resonates with the fear expressed in denying a Black man the opportunity to become boxing champion. An outsider, citizen or not, has threatened to step across a border (the internal border, the color line) for which no "immigration" status has been granted. It is tantamount to claiming that, for whites, democracy is white, as a political structure, and that it can continue to be a democratic structure only with a white majority. This has been the import of the various boundaries and border obstructions, since 1800, that I have been examining.

The structures I have explored in this essay exceed simple prejudices. What is at stake is a conception of the US in which the nation defines itself and its political system as white. The fear of a non-white majority, focused on Latino immigration, is a fear generated not only by the fragility of white racialized identity, but by its need to preserve the state and its political institutions as white. It is to insure that although black or brown people join parties, run in elections, get elected to office, and vote on measures, they do so within white institutional structures. The conjunction of "internal" national and racial borders is a partial articulation of what this means. The mere presence of black or brown persons in white political structures does not change their character, because the whiteness of these institutions is structural. The structure in which they participate remains a white structure because each black or brown face remains a "minority" face. This is why, for so many white people, each Black person elected to office is said to represent all Black people (and each elected Latino to represent all Latinos), instead of that person being viewed simply as a Black or Latino voice in the halls of government.

At the constitutive outside of "white democracy," the issue of immigration, the relation of the national border to the internal boundaries of white "nativist" society, and the structures of racialization for which the oppression, segregation, and disenfranchisement of Black people is archetypal, all come together. The racialization of Black people provides the form for the exclusion and "alienation" of those European immigrants who are not-yet white that Handlin describes. The anti-immigrant populism honed against waves of European immigrants provides a form for the movement against Latino immigrants. The anti-immigrant populism against Latino immigrants provides the form for their racialization, not as black but as a minority whose purposes obey the same political economy. This interweaving of "immigrant/racializing" relationships around these multiple instantiations of borders shows the national border to be structurally indistinguishable from, though politically incommensurable with, the racial border or "color line."

In these terms, the white articulation of the issue of Latino immigration takes on a strange, schizophrenic character. Latinos remain essential to the white economy, yet are to be excluded (deported or imprisoned) in the defense of the white boundary guarded in the name of the national boundary. That schizophrenic character in reality expresses the difference between the para-political "state" that has always acted in its populism against immigrants, black enfranchisement, affirmative action, etc., and the Constitutional state that enacts immigration laws and proclaims human beings to be "illegal" in their very humanity.

It is within this white para-political state that white populism expresses itself. Handlin mentions the specter of this populism, but he doesn’t understand it. Speaking of the KKK in the 1920s, he says, "it was not so much because they hated the Catholic or the Jew that the silent men marched in hoods, but because by distinguishing themselves from the foreigner they could at last discover their common identity, feel themselves part of a meaningful body."[35]  Handlin is of course being too parochial here. The KKK was indeed anti-semitic and anti-Catholic; but the identity they rendered meaningful for themselves by marching together under their hoods was a white identity, which had been honed and constructed through the violent and never silent racialization and oppression of Black people. For Handlin, to exclude the KKK’s central focus (Black people) in his description is to position himself, as we observed above, within a white racialized identity.[36]

The populism that guards the white border of the US goes far beyond the KKK, however. In Jack Johnson’s case, the thousands of whites who poured out to witness his fights, screaming for his blood in the name of whiteness, were playing their part in constituting that white identity. Those who rioted and killed hundreds of Black people across the country when Johnson defeated Jim Jeffries in 1910 were acting in concert as proxies of the white para-political state. The movements against the immigration of escaped slaves during the first decades of the nineteenth century were populist movements that swept up slavery’s defenders and abolitionists together in their common desire to preserve the sanctity of a white culture. Today, that white para-political state has appeared both in general support for the repeal of affirmative action and in the vision of closing the Mexican border that drives the Minutemen. All these forms of populism are modes of defending the cultural border of white racialized identity. In their para-political statehood, they signify the congruence, though not the political identity, of the two borders, the racialized and the national.

From the slave patrols to contemporary police profiling, from police impunity to the militarization of the Mexican border, from the criminalization of African Americans to the indefinite detention available to immigration authorities, from the migratory labor camps to the prison industry, there is a homology of structures that re/produces itself through borders—ones that immigrants try to hide from themselves, and that the Black communities, in every movement for autonomy and self-respect, unavoidably encounter. For all subjects (Black people, alienated Europeans, Latino immigrants), there are degrees of impoverishment and segregation. Likewise, there are generated cultures of resistance for survival (a minimal definition of cultural ethnicity from which to struggle for equality). For all, there is a more profound cultural structure that drives these processes.

The border that anti-immigrant movements defend is a border that circumscribes and protects the operation of the structures of racialization that constitute the foundation for both white culture and the white nation. The purpose of the structures of racialization is not simply to define and exclude non-whites from full social participation, but to redefine, reconstitute, and reconsolidate white racialized identity in the face of its own fragility. That fragility requires violence, police impunity, an ethos of imprisonment and forced labor as its first option toward those the white nation racializes. While the peoples racialized differ over time, bearing different histories and locations, all reside in structural homologies with each other—as other to the white nation that depends on them both economically and culturally.



1. Handlin, Uprooted.

2. Ibid., 272.

3. Turner, Negro in Pennsylvania, 149-154. See also Litwack, North of Slavery, 66-70. Litwack lists Indiana, Ohio, Connecticut, and Illinois as having prominently passed "anti-immigration" statutes. In Illinois, the enactment stated its purpose to "exclude further ingress of negroes, and to remove those already among us as speedily as possible." Ibid., 71.

4. In particular, Article 4, section 2. Wiecek, Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism.

5. Turner, Negro in Pennsylvania, 238.

6. Ibid., 66.

7. In pursuit of this white nationalism, many northern whites supported slavery in the South, even as it was being abolished in the North (and had already been effectively abolished in Pennsylvania). Slavery, for them, served the two misanthropic goals of keeping labor in place and working (in reality, captive) in the nation’s chief source of capital accumulation, and of keeping Black people from mingling in white society.

8. Handlin, Uprooted, 272.

9. Turner, Negro in Pennsylvania, 158-167. 

10. With the election of Jefferson to the presidency in 1800, the party that he led, which eventually became the Democratic Party, became a strong representative of southern slaveholder interest in the northern states. It helped redirect the abolition process into gradualism, and pressed for a general segregationism whose severity and malevolence toward Black people would dissuade slaves from running away. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, 186.

11. Litwack, North of Slavery, 70.

12. Ibid., 73.

13. Ibid., 263.

14. Handlin, Uprooted, 67.

15. Unforgivable Blackness. The title is taken from an article written by DuBois about the attacks on Johnson’s person and character as he won and defended his championship.

16. Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, chapter one, "Concerning Violence." The government's violation of Black citizenship extended to Johnson himself. In the wake of his demonstrated undefeatability, it fabricated charges under the Mann Act (which prohibited transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes), arguing that because a couple of his lovers were white, his very intimacy with them was "illicit." The fact that the one former lover who agreed to testify against him had travelled with him before the Mann Act was passed, making the charges ex-post facto, did not bother the government. Johnson was convicted in 1913, and sentenced to a year in prison. 

17. The general hostility to Johnson is not something restricted simply to the dark period of Jim Crow, with its para-political structures of anti-black violence. It recurs even in the present. The attacks on Lani Guinier by a mob made up of press and politicians, by people who had never read her works but were critical of what was said in them and which resulted finally in the withdrawal of her appointment to the Civil Rights Commission, is an example. The recent re-indictment of eight former Black Panthers for cases thirty years old that, even in the 1970s, rested only on confessions extracted by torture, evinces an obsessive refusal by government to relinquish its self-defined sense of having been attacked or offended. The refusal of the state of Pennsylvania to grant Mumia Abu-Jamal a new and fair trial despite a confession by the person who committed the murder for which Mumia was framed, is another case. To do so would not only reveal the frame-up, but it would release a journalist who was targeted by the police because he had revealed police brutality in his journalism.

18. Handlin, Uprooted, 275-279.

19. Jones, American Immigration, 89, 149. On the prison industry, see Davis, "Masked Racism"; and Parenti, Lockdown America; Schlosser, "Prison Industrial Complex," 51-77. See also the webpage of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The US has more than two million people incarcerated, the largest among nations both per capita and in actual numbers, with an incarceration rate more than seven times the world average. Seventy percent are people of color. 

20. Others have dealt with how different groups have escaped from the prejudicial indictments of the immigrant. Noel Ignatiev writes a book called How the Irish became White. Karen Brodkin writes How the Jews Became White Folks. The goal of racialization is not just the derogation of others; its goal is the hegemonic consolidation of the racializers, the creation and recreation of whiteness and white racialized identity. It is entry into this process that constitutes "becoming white." See Morrison, Playing in the Dark.

21. Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; DuBois, Souls of Black Folk, chapters 7 and 8. The white racialized border I am addressing should not be confused with DuBois's notion of the double consciousness. He is speaking of the psycho-cultural effects on Black people of living in a hostile social environment, while the racialized border delineates the social domain in which white people express and enact that hostility. 

22. The political economy of Latino immigration is a complex phenomenon, having to do with structural impoverishment of Latin America by foreign (mostly US) investment, and the exploitation of Latin American labor and resources by multinational corporations, recently ideologized as "neo-liberalism." During the first phase, foreign investment in Third World countries extracted raw materials with cheap labor, removing both product and earnings to the metropole, and exporting manufactured goods whose marketing would complete the process of financial extraction from that country. In the second, neo-liberal phase, all land and public assets are privatized, and multinational corporations dominate economic process, destroying local (often non-market) economic structures and social welfare institutions that the people had relied upon during the previous phase to survive. Faced with a doubly devastated economy, people migrate to the center to which their home wealth had been removed in a conscious or unconscious process of retrieval. See Jalée, Pillage of the Third World; Gerassi, The Great Fear in Latin America; Arévalo, Shark and the Sardines; Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents.

23. Airola, "Use of Remittance Income in Mexico"; Amuedo-Dorantes, Banzak, and Pozo, "On Remitting Patterns of Immigrants."

24. US Border Control, " Guest-worker Plans."

25. See note 11.

26. Rural Migration News, "North Carolina: Pickles"; Balderrama and Molina, "Networks of Exploitation." It is significant that a great number of the migratory agricultural laborers on the east coast are Black. 

27. For an interesting view of these Latino communities and networks from the inside, see Pérez, Diary of an Undocumented Immigrant.

28. Lydersen, "Behind Bars." Also see her book, Out of the Sea and Into the Fire. A hint of the effect of profiling and racialized arrests and sentencing can be obtained by comparing the ratio of African American population by region to that of whites, and relating it to the ratio of African American prisoners to white prisoners. That is, the ratio of Black to white prisoners is divided by the ratio of Black to white residents, to produce an index. For the US as a whole, this index is 5.57 (for 2005). For California, it is 6.5. That means that the natinal incarceration rate for African Americans is 5.57 times that for whites (while crime rates for both populations is about the same). And that is just relating African Americans to whites. Adding Latinos and Native Americans would change this index in different directions, depending on the region. For prison statistics for the US, see The Sentencing Project,

29. In "Jim Crow Remembered," William Fisher tells the story of the arbitrary and gratuitous police raids on impoverished Black communities in Florida in the 1950s, resulting in the beatings and at times killings of Black people, for the miniscule bounty received for each arrest. This violence merely replaced the mob assaults and KKK parades through Black neighborhoods of the 1920s, which in turn superseded the earlier operations of para-military groups throughout the south after the 1870s. Today’s raids on Latino communities by immigration agents have the same arbitrary and corrupt mob character.

30. The structure of the prison industry is complex. The present prison population is comprised of roughly 70 percent people of color. This massive incarceration of people of color is based on a system of victimless crime laws, implemented through racialized arrests based on police profiling and impunity, and ratified by racialized sentencing. The police rationalize their profiling on the basis of past arrest statistics, but those statistics represent past profiling and discriminatory arrests and prosecutions. Impunity is at the heart of this process. The laws that make it a crime to disobey an officer render any command the officer may give a potential criminalization of the subject. A humiliating command becomes an instant criminalization of the subject’s sense of self-respect. See Martinot, "The Militarization of the Police."

31. For those interested in pursuing this concept, see Foucault’s deconstructions of power and knowledge in his many writings on that subject and Bourdieu’s notion of the "habitus" in The Theory of Practice. Most importantly, see Sartre’s concept of "seriality" as he develops it in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, especially in his application of this to coloniality and racism.

32. Martinot, Rule of Racialization, chapter 4.

33. Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines.

34. Saxton, Indispensable Enemy.

35. Handlin, Uprooted, 280.

36. Historically, the "meaningful belonging" that Handlin names has its origins in the very birth of the slave system, and in the early slave patrols that consolidated white consensus as a cultural structure. First organized at the turn of the eighteenth century, the patrols’ job was to stop runaways and to disrupt any attempt at organization or autonomy among the slaves. As militia units conscripted from populations of poor white farmers and workers, their role was to defend white society against rebellion by those who enslavement had driven to desperation. Starting as marginal, they found they could gain acceptance and approbation in white society through arbitrary violence against Black bond-laborers, acts they characterized as valorous interruptions of incipient rebellion. Thus, a style of violence as the modus operandi of white society was initiated at the very moment of its birth. Martinot, Rule of Racialization, 67-69; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 618-619.