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The birth of a “white nation”

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Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

By Annemarie Carr / Staff Writer

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To Jacqueline Battalora, white people are an invention.

She clarified: Designating a group of light-skinned people as “white,” Battalora said, only started less than 350 years ago, and the separation of people by race only dates back to the 17th century. Racial problems, Battalora said, started in the United States after the government passed anti-miscegenation laws, which said white people could not marry non-white people.

Battalora, a lawyer and professor of sociology and criminal justice at Saint Xavier University, made this case to nearly 100 students, faculty, staff and community members packed in room 2017 of the Cathedral of Learning at a lecture Wednesday afternoon. Battalora’s talk focused on her new book, “Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today.” Pitt’s School of Social Work’s Center for Race and Social Problem sponsored the talk as part of a series of speakers this fall.

Battalora said her book focuses on the beginning of labeling white people as a distinct group and how the label has caused racial and social problems, like segregation and discrimination, in the United States. Battalora also previously served as a Chicago police officer and has engaged in anti-racist training since the mid-1990s.

“This was the first time white referenced a group of humanity — and a government doesn’t label a group of people for no reason. There is a fundamental piece of information that is desperately needed in K-12 education,” Battalora said, referring to U.S. schools rarely teaching the history of racial segregation and the social, racial and gender inequality that resulted.

Larry Davis, dean of the School of Social Work, said most universities would not back a Center on Race and Social Problems as Pitt does. Davis said the diversity the series has brought to campus has impressed him and said the Center on Race and Social Problems has been hosting this weekly lunch series for more than 12 years.

“We’ve had over 110 speakers, and we do anything on race,” Davis said. The School of Social Work hosts the series which the law firm, Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney PC, funds.

Battalora began her lecture by talking about colonial America, when all free men had the same opportunities as a matter of law.

“African men could vote, and they did. They could own slaves, and they did. They could marry someone of the opposite sex, and they did,” Battalora said.

Battalora explained the idea of “whiteness” was built off the British idea that you must be Christian and freeborn to deserve rights and privileges that the government can deny others.

This idea was not wholly popular at the time, but it eventually led to strict laws.

In 1676, colonists rebelled as part of Virginia colonist Nathaniel Bacon’s rebellion and posed a threat to capitalism. After the rebellion, English Parliament issued new laws that included prohibiting blacks from holding office, marrying whites, possessing weapons and testifying against whites. The government now required that employers pay whites in goods, including a gun and powder after completing a term of service.

Battalora said these new laws did very little to improve the economic status of these new white people, but it tossed native tribes and people of African descent to the bottom. The laws linked all white people, even those who were common laborers — a connection that still occurs today in the context of the top 1 percent and the 99 percent of income earners.

“Today, many white people feel more connected to Paris Hilton than their African American neighbors,” Battalora said.

The first appearance of “white” as a label was in 1681, Battalora said. Under anti-miscegenation laws, colonial America prohibited marriage between a white person and a non-white person. The Supreme Court ruled these laws unconstitutional in 1967 when it ruled in favor of interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia.

“Inventing a label for a group of people is an achievement if it actually sticks,” Battalora said.

That label still exists today and is prominent in recent events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, Battalora said, adding that white supremacy exists in every facet of this nation.

“Ferguson will happen again, because we haven’t changed what caused it,” Battalora said.

For retired professor of social work, Mary Page, the opportunity to hear Battalora’s talk was long awaited.

“I’ve always wanted to hear her talk, and I know she goes to a lot of different places,” Page said. “The topic of white privilege and race has always been near and dear to my heart.”

Battalora said students and teachers have to look back through history to make changes today.

“Justice, equality and due process have never been real for everyone, but they can be,” Battalora said. “Without knowledge of basic legal education in this nation, we don’t have the tools we need to address these issues. White people are as much of a fiction as race is a fiction — it’s all about power.”

Editor’s Note: Due to an editing oversight, an earlier version of this story falsely attributed “Bacon’s rebellion” to the philosopher Francis Bacon. It was Nathaniel Bacon, a Virginia colonist, who started the rebellion. The story has been updated to reflect this change. 

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The birth of a “white nation”