Recently Megyn Kelly, on Fox News, made the argument that both Jesus and Santa Claus were “really” white. Let’s put aside for the moment that fact that one is an entirely fictional character and the other is a character for whom very little historical evidence exists.
She’s right about Santa Claus–he was mostly imagined by Thomas Nast as white partly, as I’ve argued before, because the modern version of Santa Claus was closely linked to the Union cause in the Civil War, and the nation state that emerged as a result. It was a benevolent and abundant white North Mast imagined through Santa Claus.
But what about Jesus? Was he white? I have no idea what people in Jerusalem looked like in the time of Jesus. But historically, Americans have found this a vexing problem.
The naturalization law of 1795, Congress’s first statement on citizenship, stated that naturalized citizenship was only available “to free white persons.” According to this law a non-white person could never move here and become a citizen. A non-white person born in the US was a citizen, at least until the Dred Scott case, but to immigrate and become a citizen you had to be a “free white person.” Although most americans don’t know about it, this law was in force till the 1940s.
You can see the problem right away though–what does “white persons” mean? Does it refer to “race,” or does it refer to skin color? In a series of cases, starting after the Civil War, state courts and eventually the Supreme Court tried to answer this question. Below are a very few examples taken from the long list at Ian Haney-Lopez’s website
It’s an odd list–note that “Mexicans” come up only once, and are declared white. Jews do not appear. Although there’s been plenty of anti-semitism, as far as I know Jews were always allowed to become naturalized citizens under the 1795 act. Although Armenians and Afghanis were suspect, according to the law, italians were not and never appear.
People from the middle east were a significant problem though. Are Arabs white? For example in 1914 a Syrian, George Dow, was rejected by South Carolina’s District Court on the ground that Syrians were “asiatics” and not white, and not eligible for citizenship. Dow appealed, arguing correctly that European Jews were admitted as citizens, and that Syrians and Jews were both Semitic peoples and thus white. He added that he came, literally, from the land of Jesus Christ. Did the court think Jesus Christ was not white?
The judge responded that European Jews were a religion, not a race. And although he had his doubts about the whiteness of non-european jews,
Judge smith simply dodged the Jesus question, suggesting that whatever Jesus may have looked like, he didn’t look like Mr. Dow.
He clearly implies that Jesus was racially distinct from Syrians, although no one can doubt Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews have only become, according to the judge, europeanized since the beginning of the diaspora.
Dow’s case eventually reached the Supreme Court where the South Carolina decision was overturned. The Supreme Court ruled, in Dow vs. United States (1915), that:
it seems to be true beyond question that the generally received opinion was that the inhabitants of a portion of Asia, including Syria, were to be classed as white persons. It is true that Syria and the contiguous countries of Asia near the Mediterranean have been subjected to many changes in their inhabitants through conquest and other causes, and that the present inhabitants have racial descent from many different sources. Yet… they must be held to fall within the term “white persons” used in the statute.
The Court clearly seems unhappy about this. Syrians are dark and not white seeming, yet they are white, even though the court has its doubts
While it’s tempting to argue that the most important aspect of Christianity is its clear universalism, there have always been attempts to equate christianity with whiteness and with white nationality. Before the Civil War, Polygenists argued that the story of Adam and Eve was the story of white people: there must also be a black Adam and Eve and an Asian Adam and Eve, but the the Bible is the story of white people. That those people were Jewish, and/or racially “semitic” was always a problem. It’s still a problem: Jesus is still often depicted as an unambiguously white man whose religious gift is closely linked to the United States itself:
This is a white Jesus giving the Constitution–as if he wrote it himself–to mostly white people. He’s backed by symbols of nation. This is presumably the Jesus Megyn Kelly had in mind? This or the twentieth century, hollywood-lit, unambiguously white Jesus of Warner Sallman
As mentioned here before, Thomas Nast began depicting Santa Claus in more or less his modern form during the Civil War. His Santa spread gifts to soldiers in the field and to families reunited by furlough. Nast very closely linked Santa to the order, affluence, and generosity of the Union, and offered Santa’s benefits to those southerners willing to stop being naughty and start being nice.
These images connect Santa Claus to nation, and specifically to the triumphant north. They have room for some black people–like McNaughton’s painting–but it’s overwhelmingly a vision of white people.
So Megyn Kelly is sort of correct. “Santa Claus” in his modern form has always been not just white, but a symbol of white nationalism. And jesus has always been both a symbol of universalism and also a symbol of a very specific white nationalism.
Note: The “racial prerequisite” cases culminated in the early 1920s. In the case of Ozawa v US the Supreme Court decided that Japanese persons were white in color but not caucasian, and could not become citizens. Then a few weeks later it heard the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, a “high caste hindu,” and decided that Asian Indians were caucasian but not white, and could not become citizens. Ho Ho Ho.