by Lauren L. Basson. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008. 256pp. Cloth. $59.95. ISBN: 9780807831434. Paper. $22.95. ISBN: 9780807858370.

Reviewed by Daniel Lipson, Department of Political Science, SUNY New Paltz. Email: lipsond [at] newpaltz.edu.


At a moment in United States history when Barack Obama is inspiring millions in his presidential bid, the reality of mixed-race Americans is becoming increasingly salient in a nation long obsessed with dichotomous black and white racial categories. With the population of people of color in the United States accelerating at rates unmatched by any other country in the world, racial discourse in the US has gradually come to accommodate the full cast of official minorities, moving beyond the limited focus on blacks and whites. Yet the historical precedent in the United States has been to leave little space for mixed-raced Americans, instead preserving the racial order by forcing them into monoracial categories. As Lauren Basson explains in WHITE ENOUGH TO BE AMERICAN? RACE MIXING, INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, AND THE BOUNDARIES OF STATE AND NATION, the turn of the 20th century proved to be a highly dynamic period that left a major imprint on the distinctive American model of racial categorizations.

Basson’s book conducts a microanalysis of mixed-race indigenous Americans during the period from 1885 to 1905, showing how conflicts over racial identity at the “margins” reveal central dynamics about the US nation and state – in particular, the shifting forms of white supremacy – during this volatile period of United States history. The first chapter covers the conflicts facing two “mixed blood” Indians who filed claims for land allotments following the dissolution of the Great Sioux Reservation in 1889. The legal challenges experienced by Jane Waldron and Barney Traversee in Chapter 1 reveal the different form white supremacy took. Whereas Americans with any African ancestry were labeled as black and excluded from the privileges of whiteness, American Indians faced the contradictory forces of assimilation and exclusion. Basson writes that “granting citizenship to American Indians formed part of a larger project to control the Indian population through partial assimilation, while simultaneously limiting Indian membership in the nation through the reinforcement of a strict racial hierarchy” (p.32). At the turn of the century, policymakers required definitions of racial identity that were increasingly precise in order to sustain and strengthen their racialized system. Whereas the prevalence of mixed-race Americans could have spurred policymakers to abandon the flawed racial scheme of racial categorization, instead they responded to this challenge with “renewed efforts to define race scientifically” that led them to “strengthen the rigidity of racial [*789] boundaries” (p.43). Blood quantum (as opposed to matrilineal descent, patrilineal descent, or tribal definitions of membership) began to emerge as the preferred government standard for identifying racial identity at the turn of the century, as the scientific community increasingly favored this approach. Basson argues that “the flexibility and fluidity of racial categories was diminishing, and the little room for mixed identities that had once existed was vanishing quickly” (p.1).

Whereas the last two case studies in Basson’s book examine activists who objected to being labeled as black by government officials and reporters, the first two case studies concerning Jane Waldron, Barney Traversee, and Louis Riel involve individuals who could pass as white. Jane Waldron’s mixed-race status hindered her efforts to obtain a land allotment under the Dawes Act of 1887. Waldron’s husband and father were white, while her mother was Indian. To win her allotment case, Waldron “had to present herself as if she were a widow in order to be recognized as a female head of family. In other words, she had to treat her husband as legally dead” (p.37). Barney Traversee ran into difficulty in his efforts to sell his allotment. The secretary of the interior prohibited even Indians who were US citizens from selling their land. Traversee shifted strategies and later denied being Indian, instead claiming to be white. His father was of French descent, while his mother was both European and Indian. Yet he claimed in his new narrative that both of his parents were white. In the end, the secretary of the interior ruled in favor of Traversee, allowing him to sell his land so long as he agreed to sever his ties to the Sioux Indian tribe. Government officials viewed Americans seeking to identify as mixed-race as such a threat to the American system of white supremacy that these officials went to great lengths to eliminate “mixed bloods” from the nation and state. US officials opted for delegating tribal status of such “mixed bloods” with claims to Indian identity to the specific Indian tribes, thus “conveniently absolv[ing] officials of the need to answer a question for which they had no adequate conceptual response” (p.52).

The second chapter examines the movement by the mixed-race Métis – and their leading activist Louis Riel – for a Métis homeland. The Métis practiced Catholicism and shared French, English and Scottish ancestry. During the late 19th century, Métis lived on both sides of the border between the US and Canada in the Northern Plains. Canada was moving quickly in the mid-1800s to purchase the Northwest Territories – which today consists primarily of the Canadian province of Manitoba – from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The United States chose not to pursue annexation of the Northwest Territories, in part to avoid angering Canada and Great Britain. Once Canada had annexed the territory, Louis Riel and his Métis followers declared a provisional Métis government and turned back federal government surveyors in the Red River Rebellion. One of their primary grievances was that Canadian officials were moving to parcel agricultural land into square private plots that conflicted with the Métis tradition of arranging their farms into narrow pieces of land, allowing each farmer access to the river. Riel moved to Minnesota and later to Montana after claiming to be a prophet [*790] and being released from being institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. He was charged with and convicted of treason in the territory of Regina and sentenced by the jury to death by hanging for the crime of executing a Canadian Orangeman during the Red River Rebellion. The Métis challenged US officials’ constructions of race as well as conventional definitions of the US nation and state to such a degree that the US government eventually issued a large-scale deportation of Métis. One Indian agent on the Crow reservation in Montana went so far as to write that the Métis posed a greater threat than the Indians because of the superior intelligence of the Métis stemming from European American habits and European heritage.

The third chapter provides a case study of Robert Wilcox – Hawaii’s first delegate to Congress and founder of the Home Rule Party – and the role racism played in debates over annexation and statehood. Wilcox’s mother was a distant relative of a previous king of Maui, while his father was a Rhode Island sea captain who became a rancher in Hawaii. Although he was an American citizen, his dark skin excluded him from membership in the US nation. While the second chapter examines the US decision not to annex an adjoining territory, the third chapter explains why the US did annex Hawaii and the role white supremacy and capitalism played in the debates over annexation of a territory so far from the continental US. At a time of growing US imperialism, “definitions of the US nation became more abstract, ideological, and ascriptive” (p.97). Being American no longer required living or owning property on the American continent; instead, it became increasingly connected to one’s commitment to white supremacy and the institution of private property: “Americanism, like whiteness, became a possession and form of property with its own attendant rights and responsibilities. Indeed, the possession of whiteness became a major component of what it meant to be a member of the American nation” (p.98).

While the first three chapters focused on how policymakers and the press decided mixed-race individuals’ claims of being American, the fourth and final chapter examines allegations of un-American activity by mixed-race Americans. This chapter highlights Lucy Parsons, a leading anarchist activist who described her ancestry as Indian and Mexican (but not African). Parsons identified herself as an indigenous American, claiming that the “white capitalists” were the true foreigners. But US officials along with the mainstream media portrayed Parsons and other anarchists as non-white foreigners who threatened American ideology and territorial integrity. Despite Parson’s denial, reporters labeled her as being a Negro, which was part of a concerted effort to further marginalize anarchist activism.

Of theoretical interest is the book’s challenge to Rogers Smith’s “multiple traditions” approach to American political culture. Whereas Smith suggests that racism has been rooted in a discrete, ascriptive/ethnonational tradition that has existed throughout US history alongside liberalism and republicanism, Basson argues that “racism was inherent in the full range of political discourses in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century” (p.180). Smith acknowledges the [*791] contradictions among liberalism, republicanism, and ascriptivism – particularly the clash between the egalitarian ideals of the first two philosophies and the bigotry of the third. In contrast, Basson exposes the racist contradictions that were internal to each of these three discourses. This is revealed by scrutinizing the discourses in practice at the local levels rather than merely analyzing “elite proclamations or the passage of abstract laws and policies” at the national level (p.180). Not surprisingly, Basson has less faith than Smith in the promise of the liberal conception of the nation.

WHITE ENOUGH TO BE AN AMERICAN provides a rich, in-depth analysis of racism in the American nation and state. While the book’s audience may be limited by focus on four historical case studies at the social, political, and geographical margins, the theoretical and empirical contributions of this book extend far beyond the narrow period and cases being examined. That said, the book could have benefited from further elaboration on the impact this historical legacy of race mixing has had on the racial order today. Basson’s book would be an excellent addition to upper-level and graduate courses on race/ethnicity and the law, American political development and political culture, socio-legal studies, American Indian studies, and whiteness studies.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Daniel Lipson.