Whiteness in Crisis: 20th Century Racial Tension
Alistair Bonnett identifies the ingredients that produced an 'identity crisis' for white people in the early 20th century.
Interrupting the polite hum of dinner party conversation, Tom Buchanan, the handsome, wealthy cad at the heart of The Great Gatsby, is moved to exclaim something remarkable. ‘“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently.’ The startled guests are treated to Buchanan’s particular view of world events: ‘If we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald has his character cite as evidence a book called ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard’.
On one level this incident is evidence merely of Fitzgerald’s familiarity with one of the most talked about books of the early 1920s, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy by Lothrop Stoddard. However, Buchanan’s opinions are clearly designed to evoke something bigger. They are employed by Fitzgerald to create a tone of moral panic, a pessimistic atmosphere sustained by the existence of a far-reaching debate on the collapse of white prestige.
As the title of Stoddard’s incendiary tract implies, the literature of white crisis that emerged and reached its zenith in the first three decades of the twentieth century is a literature of anger, of burnt pride. Its characteristic style is hyperbole. Yet, for all its rage, it is also a body of work that provides serious insights into the way white identity was viewed at the time; more specifically into the way that all kinds of political and social concerns were connected to its global role and status.