Roots Too, by Matthew Frye Jacobson | Literature Review

Abandon stomach ye who read, for this book can definitely challenge any preconceptions you have about identity.


This book is about the issue of Caucasian Americans turning to their European ethnicities in a post-Kennedy America. Before that point, they based their history to the Mayflower; but as soon as the television series Roots came out, they traced it back to Ellis Island.

The middle part focuses on this played on in the big screen and in politics, while it ends with more discussions on gender and the various conflicts that can come with what would later be dubbed the “Oppression Olympics.”

Matthew Frye Jacobson

He teaches American History in Yale University, and his colleagues and students were helpful in writing this book, among organizations like the Massachusetts Historical Society.


There are a lot of paradigms between the individual and America as a nation when it comes to Americans reclaiming their ethnic ancestry. This is usually done in order to show that America is a nation of immigrants. It has been used–or abused depending on how you look at it– by politicians starting with John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in order to “reconnect” with his ancestral lands. This would become a feature for US presidents with Irish ancestry, such as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

Jacobsen mentions how people who search out their ethnic ancestries often do so because they feel alienated from the materialistic, corporate environment of American life, which is one that is uniform and nihilistic. As such there is a paradox that can occur, which is the fact that close-knit families and community were used in the face of poverty; while in American life, those basic needs are met, yet the community is not needed.

Yet, there is a lot of ignorance over the reality that America functioned as a pigmentocracy, in which European immigrants could be given the luxuries of a sustainable job and good housing, while non-white immigrants including emancipated African-Americans were relegated to a lower category and subject to discrimination. There was also the misconceived notion that European immigrants benefited from hard work and that African-Americans should do the same; without understanding that it was the European immigrants who served in World War II who benefited from the G.I. Bill, among other “big government” policies which ensured that they benefited. There is also the issue of false equivalence that is used in order to delegitimize the grievances of African-Americans. This was especially done in the ’70’s onwards.

This ignorance also plays out when the book and the television series Roots came out. Although it provided a stunning portrayal of African-American slavery, it did not spark widespread interest in slavery or African-American history, rather in ancestry since Alex Haley detailed the book in a saga structure from Kinte to the “Americanized” descendant.

The mentions of particular films proliferate the book, since they show the evidence of Hansen’s Law being in effect, as well as the sense of the roots journey. One such film is Rocky which provides a major focus on the Italian-American identity through Rocky Balboa. This was more exemplified in Rocky and The Godfather series, but less so in Grease and West Side Story.

There is also the distinction made between ethnicity and race–an attempted one to be exact. Race was always used to classify differing groups of people into completely separate categories. However, with the advent of the Nazi’s, the issue of race became an unsanitary one, since it shifted more towards classifying people based on ethnicities. However, at the end, ethnicity simply became a part of race.

There is also the issue of gender, since Jacobsen argues that the antimodernist roots-journey ends up in the patriarchal standards of the ethnic traditions previously had in the ancestry. However, at the same time, abandoning those ties means conforming to the Anglo-Saxon standard that were already set for European immigrants.

However, when it comes to race, religion, ethnicity, and gender, at some point there is a boiling point and those of these particularities start fighting amongst each other. This was most prominent specifically among African-Americans and Jews. Although there was a large representation of Jewish activists during the Civil Rights movement because it took place a few decades after the Holocaust happened; by 1967, the views started to change during the Israeli-Arab War in which Jewish activists identified as Zionist, while African-Americans sought commonality with Palestinians.


As much as Michael Dukakis managed to use his Greek immigrant heritage to win voters from all over the country, George Wallace also used European ethnicities to win public office–as Ian Haney Lopez noted. This was in spite of the fact that Wallace spoke fondly of the “Anglo-Saxon Southland.” Likewise, Jacobsen would agree with Lopez that dog-whistling and fasciosubliminalities were involved in George H. W. Bush seizing the vote away from Dukakis with the Willie Horton case. In which case, while racism was not explicitly used, it was the stereotype of the black men raping white women which traced its roots back to the Reconstruction era.

The use of ethnic pride is not one that can be trifled with, since it can make people do anything, even be fooled by corruption. This was a major theme of Malcolm X’s autobiography. While he did rail against “the white man,” he also held skepticism over the Nation of Islam, of which he was a loyal second-in-command to their prophet Elijah Muhammad. This organization became prominent in the African-American community because of how it was able to appeal to the Africanness of its recruits–albeit a very distorted one that includes believing that white people were invented by an evil scientist. Upon embarking on his religious and personal pilgrimage, Malcolm discovered that people of all races can be united.

Knowing how potent ethnic pride was, Malcolm would advocate for civil rights, while also he would note that American history should not be infantilized or white-washed–excuse the pun. Rather, it should be told in its most honest form. The same should definitely be said about immigrant history, how immigrants traded their cultural, linguistic, and religious identities for a synthetic Anglo-Saxon Protestant framework.

Writing Style

The phrase “nation of immigrants” is frequently mentioned throughout the book in order to disprove of its notion, but also to show how it has become so normalized it distracts from the very usages it is used in.

Jacobson makes use of a lot of terms in order to encapsulate the points he attempts to make. The word identity is substituted with words such as particularity, which is used to refer to a specific ethnic group. The phrase white primacy refers to the idea that the real reason why immigrants from Europe were able to become Americanized was not because of hard work, but because they would pass as white. Another phrase that he used, usable past, is used in order to refer to people who were not given any reason to look backwards at their family history until they benefit from it.

Real-World Application

I am guilty of thinking that reaching into my ancestral roots–in this case my Cornish roots–would be able to dispel the influence of shallow mass media. However, the moment giant production companies start catching on, then it becomes a paradoxical attachment, since ancestral ties reach into something profound within every person, for it is the story of how they themselves came to exist, therefore a story of the human condition; but it can also be subverted into something that serves the very few. It can be used by production companies in order to make money, and by politicians in order to be elected.

This modern corporate media and the divisive politicians can be like the overbearing dad, while these ancestral ties can be like papa–you know that he can be retrospective in his beliefs, but gosh-darn-it he is always there to lend an ear and impart wisdom. And appealing to papa is always in rebellion against the father, despite being generations apart. That in itself is paradoxical, because you are going back and looking forward at the same time.

Jacobson did note that it is not just the Republican Party (such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) that uses this tactic in order to win votes, but also the Democratic Party (such as JFK and Jimmy Carter). The issue with the phrase “nation of immigrants” is that it does not take into account that this “nation” came at a catastrophic price; specifically with the slavery of African people and the genocide against the indigenous population.

It can also be used not just also used in order to make money or win office, rather to build solidarity, with examples being the numerous student organizations dedicated to dealing with issues like the Northern Irish Troubles by Irish-American students, or the Never Again Action movement who protested against ICE in order to shut down the abusive detention centers.

All I can say is that when you talk about someone’s whiteness, they may, in a matter-of-fact way, state “Technically yes” and not give it much thought. But if you were to talk about their Irishness, they would go on about how their ancestor and his family of six emigrated to the United States during an Gorta Mor. However, it becomes a completely different scenario when ethnic pride is used to silence any further discussion, almost as an All Lives Matter remark.

Ideally, we should view ourselves as nations-within-nations-within-nations ad infinitum, connecting with cultures either inherited or adopted. However, in the modern setting, doing so would completely ignore the history behind the Balkanization within the context of US history. So, it is important to be mindful and careful about how these identity markers are used.

I’ve encapsulated the ways in which the issues in the book can be addressed on an individual basis in the best possible way I can describe them.

  1. Denial of History: Just because it happened to your own ancestors, does not mean it did not also happen to other ancestors; in a lot of cases, their ancestors might have been worse off than yours.
  2. False Equivalency: the discrimination and home-sickness faced by the European immigrants was completely different from slavery and genocide faced by African- and Native-Americans.
  3. Media is not Real-Life: If you remember when your parents told you “Don’t copy the TV;” well, I do think that it is relevant to this book, because a movie like Grease cannot accurately inform you about the Italian-American identity. The directors, executives, and actors involved always have a profit motive, and if it meant using inaccurate information, then come what may.
  4. Find Commonalities: A solution is to discover the skeleton key that brings marginalized people of all colors, religions, and genders together in order to champion civil rights. It is one thing to identify who you are, but it should also involve explaining why it matters to everyone else and how you are going to use it.

Recommend This To…

Rediscovering Recommendation
  • Anyone who has felt lost and abandoned, in terms of “who” they are. Jacobson will explain to you how the concept of “who” you are is easily manipulated to suit the needs of powerful people.
  • Anyone who is already proud of their heritage. I would suggest that when reading this book, you will not hear a one-sided argument, rather an argument that has been thoroughly grounded due to the multiplicities of identities discussed in the book.


  • “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told To Alex Haley.” 1st Trade Edition. Ballatine Books. February 1992.
  • Ettachfini, Leila. “The Jews Organizing Against ICE to Stop Concentration Camps”Vice. 2019.
  • Jacobson, Matthew Frye. “Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post–Civil Rights America.” Harvard University Press. 2009.
  • Lopez, Ian Haney. “Dog Whistle Politics.” Oxford University Press. 2014.

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