Blog Post

"Whiteness of a Different Color": The Google Ngram Version

For the past couple of weeks, I've been teaching my students--in "Constructing Race in America"--Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color (1998), an incredibly influential examination of how whiteness has been contested in the United States since its founding. (There is no Google Books preview for the book; for those of you with access to ACLS humanities books online, though, you can read the whole thing there.)

As part of his larger argument, Jacobson asserts that European immigrants (from Ireland, Italy, Poland, etc.) were, slowly over the 3/4 century between the 1840s and the 1920s, given a sort of "probationary whiteness"--that they were seen to be not on the same level as native-born Anglo-Saxons, but they were also understood to be "higher" than African Americans.  In roughly early-to mid-twentieth century (beginning in the 1920s), Jacobson insists, a confluence of events that reworked how race functioned across the nation--the Johnson-Reed immigration quota law, the Great Migration, the beginning of the collapse of Jim Crow--created opportunities for previously marginal whites to "become Caucasian." Irish and Ukrainian immigrants, he claims, were able to gain full whiteness through a deployment of "Caucasian" as an organizing principle. With the advent of ethnicity, race was solidified and the category of Caucasian was no longer riven by internal divisions understood as racial.

So, for the hell of it, I decided to plug "caucasian" into the Google Ngram widget I talked about in my last post, in the time frame covered by Jacobson's book (rougly 1790 to 1950), in American English. This is what I got:

It's pretty impressive how well it matches Jacobson's argument: a small rise of the term out of obscurity with the sudden spike in immigration to the United States, especially from new places; a relatively stuttering, uncertain prevalence during a period where scientific ways of thinking about race were gaining popularity but in which "Caucasian" would not have fit the dominant approach (exclusion) to marginal whites; and a massive spike in the 1920s (in the midst of the Johnson-Reed era and the Great Migration) as whiteness begins to be consolidated.

A graph taking an even longer view (1790 to 2008) shows something quite intriguing, too:

There's a massive spike beginning in the 1960s, increasing alongside the emergence or rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Society, Black Power, Vietnam, economic crisis/malaise, the "white ethnicity" movement, and so on--but dropping precipitously in the 1990s.

As I noted last time, there are significant limits to what these cool little graphs can show, but I'll be using the first graph with my students this week, just to see what we can see.


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