The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940
Matthew Pratt Guterl
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
$39.95 / £27.50, 256 pages, ISBN 0674006151.

Miriam Miranda Chitiga
Claflin University

Guterl’s book takes us through a very crucial stage (1900-1940) in the socio-political construction of race and color in America. In his very well written Epilogue, Guterl writes, “The central premise of this book [is] that the principal social forces responsible for the growing national significance of ‘the Negro’ and the reunification of whiteness—especially in regard to the Irish—can be found in the 1920s and 1930s.” (p. 187)

Guterl starts off his brilliant historical analysis of the conceptualization of race and color in America with two poignant quotes; one is from Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk (1903), which speaks to the issue of difference—skin color difference, and the other is from James Baldwin, which describes color as a socio-political, not individual reality. These quotes foreshadow Guterl’s assertion, one that has become more acceptable in critical race studies, that race and color are, indeed, politically and socially constructed. In his Introduction, Guterl writes:

Race is a bizarre social invention, a public fiction masquerading as physical fact. In a nation where everyone is carefully […] scrutinized and then classified according to the imprecise dictates of certain visual cues (namely skin color), we all learn to assume that race exists as a public marker of supposedly real social, cultural, and genetic differences. (p. 3)

In his introductory narrative, Guterl, a white member of a multi-racial family, discloses his first encounter with northern American racism in a personal anecdote in which he describes an incident when he was labeled a “Nigger” by a bunch of white boys, on account of his mixed-race brother. Guterl’s personal disclosure is effective in that it provokes his audiences to recall similar experiences, thus making the text more relevant to their own lives. Further, Guterl’s revelation about his own race helps the reader understand the racial standpoint from which he is writing. The Introduction lays excellent ground for the discussion that follows in the four very detailed and well-crafted chapters. Throughout the book, Guterl shows that the concepts of race and color are mutable, evolving, ever-changing, dynamic and very arbitrary.

The four chapters are based on the lives and works of “four nominal [male] New Yorkers” (p.7) whose contributions to the social construction of race and color in America—in particular, their role in America’s movement from “a multiplicity of white races to […] bi-racialism” (p.7)—are most invaluable. These men are: “the Irish-American nationalist Daniel Cohalan, the eugenicist and white supremacist Madison Grant, the African-American advocate of social justice W. E. B. Du Bois, and the novelist and “American” pluralist [mixed-race] Jean Toomer.” (p.7) Interweaving their personal, scholarly and social activities, Guterl very painstakingly traces how much each of the men’s views originated, developed, changed, was influenced by peers and world events, and influenced the prevailing rhetoric on race and color.

In “Salvaging a Shipwrecked World”, Guterl shows us how Madison Grant, together with his fellow white supremacists constructed a variety of “scientific” ways to determine and influence political rhetoric on race identity. At first, the major concern in the North was of an intra-color nature of race politics among Whites (i.e. to differentiate between “Nordics” and other two major “European races”—very close to and actually incorporated into Hitler’s Nazi politics). Later, the emphasis moved to the inter-color politics, a previously Southern concern, to differentiate between the white race and the “problematic” Negro. This chapter is most informative about the institutionalization of racism and other injustices that still prevail against non-Whites, especially Blacks in America.

“Bleeding the Irish White” portrays the battle of Cohalan and other influential Irish men for the full citizenship of Irish-Americans as well as for those back home in troubled Ireland. The fight for Irish nationalism and recognition was intertwined with issues of race and gender. Guterl explores the interwoven nature of the Irish, Indian and African-American struggles for justice and freedom. He also discusses the love and hate relationships between the Irish- and African-Americans, who had to compete for the limited access to resources, which the Nordic-Americans allowed non-Nordics to have. In this chapter, Guterl’s research and writing skills are at their best. Using poignant quotes and vivid detailed descriptions, Guterl gives his reader the feeling of being witness to the historical events and developments that he presents.

In “Against the White Leviathan” Guterl presents Du Bois’s dynamic struggle with the definitions of race and color, taking us through some of the interrelationships among Du Bois and other influential black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. In this chapter, we are told about the way Du Bois wrestled with the concepts of pluralism, “the ultimate uniting of mankind and [a] united American nation,” (p. 151) and of bi-racialism. His view was one that was also advocated by a very unlikely ally, the influential white supremacist, Lonthrop Stoddard. Du Bois adopted Stoddard’s characterization that bi-racialism “is not discrimination; it is separation. Biracialism does not imply relative ‘superiority’ or ‘inferiority’; it is based on the self-evident fact of difference [emphasis added] (p. 149)—this stand on bi-racialism sounds like a precursor to the one on “separate but equal” education systems that came later. This change in Du Bois’s racial-political view came after years of witnessing gross injustices (including numerous lynchings) of Blacks at the hands of Whites, wherein Bu Bois became “less optimistic about the chance of assimilation, more distrustful of white folks, and more aware of the critical role of ‘the Negro’ in facilitating the whitening of other immigrant groups.” (151) This is definitely one of his most extensively researched chapters. Guterl presents a refreshingly balanced view of both Du Bois and Booker T. Washington; quite unlike those views that simply glorify or vilify the two African-American legends. One might ask, however, why Guterl so painstakingly explores the weaknesses and disunities of the black leaders, while he does not do it with the white leaders he discusses in the book. But then again, it might just be a matter of historical fact!

In “The Hypnotic division of America”, Guterl explores how Jean Toomer’s psychological struggles and contradictions with his personal racial identity (and sexuality) intersect with Toomer’s cultural work and with his contributions to the construction of race and color in America. The examination of racial ambiguities leads to the continuation of Guterl’s discussion of the sore dividing issue of the intra-racial discrimination that is based on skin color shades, among African-Americans. These and other in-group divisions are further illuminated, as are the problems of identity crises, which are imposed by the restrictive binaries of racial blackness or whiteness.

In his analysis of the black migration to the North, Guterl gives us insights into the pervasive process of segregating neighborhoods, thus, giving us a historical view of the origins of the infamous white suburban phrase often heard when a black family moves into a white neighborhood: “There goes the neighborhood!” He also shows us some of the beginnings of Negrophobia and negative stereotypes of Blacks. In his narrative of events, Guterl illustrates the effectiveness of the policy of ‘divide and conquer’ as used by the ruling Nordic-Americans to get white immigrants to riot and fight against African-Americans. In his Epilogue, he writes: “Immigrant communities in Newark, New Jersey, even as they protested discriminatory anti-Catholic ordinances […] would find that beating up on “the Negro” was the surest route to civil rights.” (p. 188) The analysis also illuminates the interrelatedness of race, color, class, power, nation, and to some extent, gender.

Guterl provides a very good analysis of how northern racism shifted from an intra- (white) racism, where “Nordics” “plotted” against their “lesser white” European immigrants to the interracial racism where the reunified white race (Caucasian race) discriminated against their “unassimilable” (p. 189) “Negro” counterparts. In discussing this shift in Northern, and ultimately, American racial politics, Guterl illustrates that: “The uplift of America's many different white peoples came at the expense of black folks, for whom life would get worse.” (p. 189) He also illustrates issues of defacto vs. dejure racism, overt vs. covert racism as originally found in the southern and northern regions of America, respectively.

Guterl addresses the problems of race and color on both national and global levels, thus showing on the one hand the usually masked parallels and interdependencies between American racial-power policies, practices and other issues of racial inequality, and on the other hand those of countries such as apartheid South Africa, Ireland, and colonial India, among many others. He also takes us through the crafting of racial segregation laws, misogyny laws, and many other present-day institutionalized anti-Black efforts.

Guterl's book has all the components of a first class scholarly text. It has a very illuminating Introduction, four well researched chapters, plenty of very poignant quotes, a very revealing Epilogue, extensive notes, and, an adequate Index (which could be more comprehensive though). The title of the book is very appropriate, and so is the capitalization of the three main terms, namely "COLOR, RACE and AMERICA"!

My personal opinion? Guterl's is a landmark text in American racial politics. It is a mandatory text for most graduate courses on Race, American Identities, Political Science, American History, and others that examine the construction of “Americanisms”. It is a must-read for scholars of Women's and Gender studies, Multicultural and Diversity studies. Guterl's very well researched and excellently written historical analysis of race and color issues in America provides great insights into the current racial turmoil and injustices that prevail in present-day America, and, to an extent, in the world. I would recommend this book to every social scientist and to anyone who is interested in becoming more enlightened in, and in enhancing social justice and racial relations. This book is the most comprehensive I have read this year.