The ultimate color line

Race became a prominent topic in Ross’s writings in the 1930s, in the wake of Nazi Germany’s Rassenpolitik. Although most of Ross’s books of that decade deal with North America, the United States in particular, he omits to write about the abundantly tragic and violent history of its institutionally and legally sanctioned racial discrimination—still in place at the time of writing. Instead, with the era of slavery disappearing from living memory, it is the future expectations of African Americans and their increasingly louder claims to equal rights that worried Ross and provided him with an anvil on which to forge his own racial propaganda.

While the very broad range of American discourses concerned with race, from the KKK to Henry James, made it seemingly self-explanatory, it was commonly used in imprecise ways. Ross’s writings show the same tendency. On one hand this reflects his shifting point of view on the term’s defining characteristics, while on the other it is the result of his deliberate choice of words with different shades of meaning. For example, with regard to African Americans he unambiguously used race to mean “color-race”.1 But when referring to America’s so-called non-white European immigrants a different though not uncommon shade of meaning, pertaining to nationality, was introduced with such words as Fremdgeborene or Fremdstämmige (aliens or foreign stock—concepts also used in the US Immigration Commission’s 1911 report).

These shifts may well signal the notion of race’s “messiness”, a term used by historian David Roediger (see note 1). Certainly it accounts for the contemporary conception, if not experience, of race as a phenomenon with fluid boundaries, which was reflected in the unstable, confused use of everyday racial epithets in early 20th-century America by scholars, judges, immigrants, and American citizens of every background alike.2 Yet very few would have crossed the ‘ultimate’ color line. And Ross, too, in the referenced chapter, specifically separated African Americans from the rest when he writes that of the country’s 125 million inhabitants 113 million are white.

Nico de Klerk

Colin Ross. [Excerpt from] Der Schatten des großen Nachbarn. In: Der Balkan Amerikas. Mit Kund und Kegel durch Mexiko zum Panamakanal. 7. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1938 [1937]; 193-197.

Topic: Race
Case: American journeys


1 David R. Roediger. Working towards whiteness: how America’s immigrants became white. The strange journey from Ellis Island to the suburbs. New York: Basic Books; 2006 [2005]; 21.

2 Ibid.; 35-54.

Scroll to page top