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White people were manfuactured: Henry Ford’s Assembly Line of Whiteness

January 24, 2011

There is a fascinating piece of Detroit history that serves as an excellent case study into the historical social construction of what is thought of as “the white race.”  Race has no biological basis at all, and has been socially constructed over centuries to create a system of subjugation, oppression and privilege based on skin color.

The number of people included in the white race has increased over time.  Historically, people from Ireland, Italy, and Slavic countries were excluded from whiteness.  For a multitude of reasons, these groups were assimilated into whiteness later on, whether to and protect the system of racial privilege, or to protect the capitalist system which had been constructed upon the racist systems of black slavery and colonialism in the global South.

The social construction of whiteness was made almost absurdly clear by Henry Ford and his “English Schools.”  Workers, especially European immigrants, flocked to Detroit in order to work at Ford’s for the five-dollar work day.  The five-dollar day was split into two sections: $2.40 for the worker’s labor, and another $2.60 paid to the employee upon proving that they are “worthy.”  To qualify for the $2.60, a counselor or investigator from Ford’s Sociological Department would have to certify the worker’s lifestyle and that they lived in a “proper home.”

Worker’s were also expected to graduate from Ford’s English School, which taught them all the aspects of what Ford and the company thought were the proper American worker lifestyle.  At the Ford School worker’s would learn English and learn the American lifestyle, often by repeating phrases in chorus:

“Employees should use plenty of soap and water in the home.”

“Nothing makes for right living so much as cleanliness.”

“The most advanced people are the cleanest.”

Upon graduating from the school the workers would participate in a ceremony that people from all over the area would attend. The ceremony consisted of the English School graduates, dressed in the traditional clothes of their native country, walking into a giant “melting pot” while being stirred.  The graduates would then walk out of the melting pot dressed in common “American” clothes, waving United States flags.

The imagery of the ceremony is incredible and telling.  Immigrant workers would rid themselves of the baggage of their native lands, embracing their new American identity, and the benefits that came with it.  This is part of the nature of whiteness and “white” culture.  Casting off ethnic culture, heritage and history to embrace “white” culture.

What Henry Ford was able to do with the assembly line for cars, he also did for the reproduction of whiteness and white hegemony.  This brings to mind some idea of why Henry Ford was the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf or awarded the German Iron Cross (the highest honor in Nazi Germany).

This all reminds me of a story I was told once by an older friend of mine, a mentor of the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s, who had told me that his family never told him about the history of his Irish ancestors, who came to America to avoid persecution for activity in their participation in the Irish Republican Army.

I myself am very fortunate to know a great deal about my family’s history in this country.  My great grandfather immigrated to the United States to escape a bounty placed on him after deserting the Bulgarian army after spending time with anti-royalists and pacifists.  In 1920 he was arrested for communist activity in Detroit’s Eastern Market during the Palmer Raids, a precursor to the Red Scare that specifically targeted Slavic immigrants.

Many white people have been systematically denied family history such as this because of how they help to expose the myth of “whiteness.”  If a person of Irish heritage learns about their families history in the IRA, than that person learns about the English occupation and the history of the Irish’s struggle in the United States. Same for Slavs, Poles, Italians and so on.  What if they were to learn about how the US government tried to have them deported for organizing unions and fighting against the Robber Barons?

  • George

    “Race has no biological basis at all, and has been socially constructed over centuries to create a system of subjugation, oppression and privilege based on skin color.”
    – Statements like this simply prove that if a mantra is repeated often enough, the masses (being the asses that they are) will eventually swallow it. If race has “no biological basis”, then how is it that DNA evidence will disclose the race of a rapist? If it has no biological basis, then why are the differences between these groups of people (races) obvious to one another? (or for that matter, why do people of the same race gravitate toward each other even in so-called “melting pot” societies?)If there is no such thing as race, then why do blacks have dark skin and whites the opposite? Or similarly, then why do the Chinese and Japanese (on average) test higher on IQ tests than those of other races? Surely you do not think that people actually believe this PC nonsense? They may well play along to appear socially acceptable for the sake of employment or similar considerations, but no one actually takes this nonsense to heart. If a person were to take you seriously, they would then have to assume that you do not trust what your own senses tell you-in which case your sanity would be in question.

    • What I’m talking about has nothing to do with political correctness. One can’t discern the race of a person from their DNA. One can identify a person’s skin color, or other physical characteristics, from a person’s DNA. But it’s society that clumps those things into racial categories or gives those features significance. There’s nothing biologically that makes a person “white,” for example. That’s part of the point of this post. Italians, Irish, Slavs, and many other people who today fall into the “white” category, weren’t counted as white in the early 20th century. The definition of “whiteness” has changed drastically over time. Often certain Latino, Arab people, etc. might be seen as “white” if they have light skin, a certain class background, immigration status, etc., while people of the same ethnic group or background don’t read as “white” because of their skin color, immigration status, primary language, etc. That’s social construction, not genetics or biology.

  • George

    “What I’m talking about has nothing to do with political correctness.”
    – On the contrary, political correctness (and political pressure) have stifled the truth with regard to this subject. To the extent that DNA markers can predict the geographic location of a person’s ancestors, forensic science can predict a person’s race. Yes, there have been those who argue both for and against the accuracy of this science, but politics is the driving force behind the denial of reality here just as it is the driving force in denying a correlation between the preponderance of African Americans in Camden NJ (for example) and the fact that it is the US crime capitol. In the same way societal pressures to conform to “accepted views” are at the bottom of this movement to “reeducate” the public into acceptance of the “race has no biological basis at all” doctrine. I note with interest that you are only calling the existence of the white race a “social construct”. With regard to your reference to “certain Latinos”of light skinned complexion who might be regarded as white, I hasten to inform you that those (most hail from Mexico) are in reality whites of Spanish ancestry and not mixed with the indigenous Indian tribes – they are Mexico’s ruling elite. You might find the following articles enlightening:

    • Okay, but I’m saying that the idea of what race is and who is in what race is historically contingent. There is no “white gene” or “black gene” for instance. There are physical characteristics that are socially clumped together into different racial categories. That’s what I’m trying to explain when I point out that Italians, Irish, Slavs, etc. were, for a long time, not considered white. Whiteness was something solely denoted for Anglo-Saxons, French, Spanish, Germans, etc., basically the traditionally big European powers.

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