“‘White’ is an idea, an evolving social group, an unstable identity subject to expansion and contraction, a trope for welcome immigrant groups, a mechanism for excluding those of unfamiliar origin, an artifice of social prejudice… ‘White’ is not a biologically defined group, a neutral designation of difference, an objective description of immutable traits, a scientifically defensible division of humankind, an accident of nature unmolded by the hands of people.” (Haney Lopez)

Becoming White, then, is not an either/or proposition, but rather it is an uneven process, resulting in racial identities that change across contexts and time. Thus, in the 1920s eastern and southern Europeans could be White for purposes of naturalization, but still racial inferiors in the close context of immigration and the more general milieu of social relations. […] Recall now the question that opened this book. Judge [107] Smith in Shahid asked: “Then, what is white?”[81] The above discussion suggests some answers. Whiteness is a social construct, a legal artifact, a function of white people believe, a mutable category tied to particular historical moments. Other answers are also possible. “White” is an idea, an evolving social group, an unstable identity subject to expansion and contraction, a trope for welcome immigrant groups, a mechanism for excluding those of unfamiliar origin, an artifice of social prejudice. Indeed, Whiteness can be one, all, or any combination of these, depending on the local setting in which it is deployed. On the other hand, in light of the prerequisite cases, some answers are no longer acceptable. “White” is not a biologically defined group, a neutral designation of difference, an objective description of immutable traits, a scientifically defensible division of humankind, an accident of nature unmolded by the hands of people. In the end, the prerequisite cases leave us with this: “white” is common knowledge. “White” is what we believe it is.

Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 80-81.

 

  1. [81]Ex parte Shahid, 205 F. 812, 813 (E.D.S.C. 1913).

“The prerequisite cases show that race is a social construct fabricated in part by law.” (Haney Lopez)

The prerequisite cases show that race is a social construct fabricated in part by law. More than this, these cases specifically illuminate the construction of Whiteness, constituting that rare instance when White racial identity is unexpectedly drawn out of the background and placed abruptly in question. Moving away from legal theory, it is useful to ask what the prerequisite cases tell us about Whiteness. It may seem that these cases say relatively little, both because the courts failed to offer a developed definition of White identity, and also seemed to concern themselves much more with who was not White. In the end, however, it is exactly these practices that tell us most about the nature of White identity today, drawing into view both the maintaining technologies of transparency and the relational construction of White and non-White identity.

Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 155.