THE DARK HISTORY OF “WHITE”
The History of White People by Nell Painter
We were told that the election of Barack Obama meant that we—America—had transcended into a beatific state called “post-racial.” We were proud of having overcome three centuries of a history of stubborn slavery and an even more intransigent segregation, both of which were based on bogus “racial” “theories.” We proudly and overwhelmingly elected an African American as the President of the United States. Once the tears of joy and pride had been wiped way and clear vision was restored, it was shamingly clear that, far from being a phenomenon of the past, racism was alive and well and virulent in the “land of the free” and the “home of the brave.” The years-long assault on the legitimacy of a Presidency, the determined and unrelenting efforts to force “failure” upon, not only one man—because he was black—but upon the general population has spanned a gamut of accusations: “Muslim,” “Kenyan,” Socialist,” “In over his Head,” “Ineffectual,” even “Monster,” and so on. Make no mistake, racism is hiding behind each and every one of these words.
Whatever words are used, they all add up to one word “black,” which is the opposite of “white,” and, in the minds of these retrogrades racists, there are two words that should never come together: “Black” and “President.” It is important to understand that the (right-wing, Conservative, Tea Party, whatever) attitude that Barack Obama can never be a “legitimate” President is fundamentally different from that of the Democrats who felt strongly that George H. W. Bush had not been elected President twice and had been put in the office through a unilateral action on the part of the Supreme Court but bowed to the rule of law and lived peacefully (if unhappily) under his Presidency. The complaint of the Democrats was a legal one, while the complaint against Obama is a racist one. Over time, Democrats learned to live with what seemed to them to be a coup d’êtat and let the subsequent career of Bush determine his fitness to serve, but, in contrast, the refusal to accept the very basic fact that Obama is an American citizen (born in Hawaii) continues.
The question is why?
Of course, it is impossible to get inside of the psychology of a sizable group of people, but it is possible to get into the history of the culture that created the concept of “whiteness” and the racial dialectical that similarly constructed its polar opposite, “blackness.” Until recently, the very thought of “white” was an absent presence: there but invisible, unspoken but acted upon, reiterated but not acknowledged. “White” as a “race” existed and exerted an unquestioned power but “white” was not seen. This social “white noise” was embedded in the cultural common consciousness, coming from everywhere and no where. The power of “white” rested upon the fact that its source and origin remained both operative and obscured.
Some twenty years ago, “white” came out of the dark and into the light of history and “whiteness studies” was born. This 2010 book by Nell Irvin Painter is part of these academic attempts to examine “whiteness” or “white” as a concept, but, in this book, she examines how the description of a skin color, “white,” became a loaded term, implying innate superiority of one skin color over anther and, by extension, of one “race” over another. To those who watch The Colbert Report, Painter was the game author who attempted to get it across to Stephen Colbert that “white” was an intellectual construct. Colbert asked a very interesting question, trying to determine if her book was a straight historical account of the comings and goings of white people. The History of White People is not what its title infers and the title is probably both ironic and provocative.
With a Ph. D. from Harvard and an academic position at Yale, Painter, a gifted artist and celebrated historian, took up the task of tracing the history of what I could call the “need to define” “white people.” This self-imposed task separates the work of Painter from the theoretical field of “whiteness studies,” for she has produced what is a fairly straightforward account in which she traces to the formation of a discourse on “white people.” It is only recently that an African American has been in the position to write about white people. Or to put it another way, white people have written a great deal about black people but society and culture prevented the objects of this whitened scrutiny to write back. The sheer fact that Painter is black gives the title an extra punch, mitigated by her easy and congenial manner: she comes in peace not in condemnation. As Painter explains on the first page,
I might have entitled this book Constructions of White Americans from Antiquity to the Present, because it explores a concept that lies within a history of events. I have chosen this strategy because race is an idea, not a fact, and its questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm.
One of the oddities of “white people” is that unlike “German people” or “British people,” there is a paucity of literature devoted to defining “white people.” This scarcity is particularly notable when compared to the enormous amount of time, energy and ink spent on defining “black people.” There is, in fact, an excess, a surplus, an overflow of writing on “black,” giving the relative silence on “white” the kind of power only wielded by withholding. Withholding of “white” gave “white” not just a powerful potency but also created an assumption of what white meant, a blankness that allowed “white” to be over/written by whatever qualities the culture desired. In other words, “Blackness” was defined from the position of “Whiteness,” which was the vantage point of power and privilege which claimed in inalienable right to Represent. This is power indeed.
Painter’s book in interesting because of the way in which she lays out her argument that the “history” of “white people” is a discourse devised for socio-economic purposes dedicated to the maintenance of domination. First, she tracks down the basis of the word “Caucasian” and then linked the term to “white” which is then linked to “beauty” which was then connected to “intelligence, leading to the logic of superiority. Second, she establishes how the historical connection between color, “black” with bondage and “white” with free, and slavery was made. The importance of taking these two steps or of establishing these two separate discourses, is that the discourse of racial superiority and the discourse of slavery are separable. Painter has to separate the concepts because, once slavery was abolished, the discourse of racial superiority could live on unchanged. Slavery is easy to outlaw; the concept of one race being “superior ” to another is an idea and cannot be abolished.
Slavery can die but racism can live on.
How Racism began, without “Race”
Nell Painter begins her journey into understanding how two neutral words, “white” and “people” became conjoined with ancient Greece, supposedly the “cradle of Western civilization.” The ancient Greeks had no concept of “race” and differentiated among the peoples they came into contact with in terms of place or locale. Historians divided various tribal groups in a accordances with the physical and social distinctions due to climate or terrain. But there was one group that was beyond their empirical reach, those mysterious and legendary inhabitants of the region the Greeks called the “Caucasus.” Here was the land of myth. As Painter laconically describes it, this modern territory,
…is a geographically and ethnically complex area lying between the Black and Caspian Seas and flanked north and south by two ranges of the Caucasus Mountains. The northern Caucasus range forms a natural border with Russia; the southern, lesser Caucasus physically separates the area from Turkey and Iran. The Republic of Georgia lies between the disputed region of the Caucasus, Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and Azerbaijan.
Today this region is still remote and isolated, only occasionally breached by modernity but through a historical accident that is rather arbitrary, “white people” have been named “Caucasians.” Like the Greeks, the Romans had no concept of “race” but the contribution of the Romans to racial thinking was both considerable and accidental. It was the Romans, who, in search of Empire, classified most of the inhabitants of Europe. The Romans were interested in the “civilization” or cultural traits of the non-Romans compared to the Empire builders. “For Roman purposes,” Painter writes, “politics and warfare defined ethnic identities.” Painter points out that it was Julius Caesar who gave many of the names we know and use today, from “Gaul” to “Germania,” to the peoples he encountered. In discussing the differences among these scattered and disparate tribes, Caesar was assessing their relative battle worthiness and determining how he would subdue them.
The Romans, as Empire builders, were imperially promiscuous, the better to blend the subjugated peoples to the conquerers. The result was centuries of intermixing and intermarriage resulting in a hybrid culture that some say diluted the social foundation of the Romans and gradually eroded the Empire. In contrast, the Germans or the Germanic tribes would be very resistant to the benefits of Empire and were hostile to outsiders. In the early years, during the time of Caesar when the Romans were striving to understand their northern neighbors, important differences were imagined. As Painter says,
How could eminent citizens of this great empire squeeze out admiration for the dirty, bellicose, and funny-looking barbarians to the north? The answer lies in notions of masculinity circulating among a nobility based on military conquest. According to this ideology, peace brings weakness; peace saps virility. The wildness of the Germani recalls a young manhood lost to the Roman empire. Caesar headed a train of civilized male observers—with Tacitus among the most famous—contrasting the hard with the soft, the strong and the weak, the peaceful and the warlike, all to the detriment of the civilized, dismissed as effeminate. As we see, the seeds of this stereotype—a contrast between civilized French and barbarian Germans—lie in the work of ancient writers, themselves uneasy about the manhood costs of peacetime.
The Greeks imagined the Caucasians and the Romans imagined the Germans and these ancient mythologies would link “whiteness” to “masculinity” or, to put it another way, there would be a link between purity and resistance compared to hybridity and femininity. The Gauls submitted to the Romans and permitted interpenetration of tribal cultures while the Germans remained “uncivilized” and aloof, withdrawing behind the Rhine river where they remained unmolested. The importance of “Teutonic purity” would be revived later and after the fall of the Roman Empire, Painter relates, “white people” are linked to the barbaric tribes of the British Isles, another resistant group divided by Hadrian’s Wall. The Anglo-Saxons, like the many tribes of the Roman Empire were an amalgamation of conquers and the conquerers—a hybrid mixture of Viking/Scandinavian tribes that invaded the island and settled.”
It is interesting that the ethnic groups that gave the Romans the most resistance, the tribes in Great Britain and Germany, were the ones who became linked to “white people,” however, another element had to be added before the concept of “white” could come into existence. As stated, the modern concept of race is a very modern one and was linked to the final ingredient: “black” and slave. Until the sixteenth century, slaves were of all colors. In fact, as Painter points out, the word “slave” comes from the word “Slav,” or the Slavs from eastern Europe who, as the result of the labor shortage after the Black Death, were caught up in a lively slave trade. The “Slave” and the “black” “race” were not paired until the need for workers on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean encouraged the European colonizers to depend upon the Africans.
The Confluence of “Black” and “Slave”
The Spanish eradicated the indigenous population of the Caribbean in a couple of generations and, the English settlers of the North American continent also found out that it was difficult to enslave people—the Native Americans—in their own territory. Africans, seized and stolen from their homes, arrived in America dazed and disenfranchised, far removed from their own cultures with no hope of returning, made good slaves: strong and healthy, confused and divided by dialects and languages. Unlike the Native Americans, the Africans had nowhere to run and no place to hide. However, the idea of “slavery” and lifelong servitude took decades to affix itself to Africans only. Other books have outlined the process in which white indentured laborers and black indentured laborers were socially and legally separated from each other, leaving the white person “free” and the black person “enslaved,” but foundational focus of Painter is the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because it is in this period of “enlightenment” that the slavery of black people had to be justified.
Although she later outlines how the “peculiar institution” of slavery in America was developed, Painter unexpectedly begins by linking “white” and “beauty” through
the eighteenth-century science of race developed in Europe, influential scholars referred to two kinds of slavery in their anthropological works. Nearly always those associated with brute labor—Africans and Tartars primarily—emerged as ugly, while the luxury slaves, those valued for sex and gendered as female—the Circassians, Georgians, and Caucasians of the Black Sea region—came to figure as epitomes of human beauty.
The profitability of slavery, regardless of color, throughout the eighteenth century, would stifle any moral qualms about holding humans in bondage for two centuries. However, Painter emphasizes a clear and present subtext in the racialized discourse: the practice of dividing people in terms of physical appearance—beautiful and ugly—based on the Greek ideal (as filtered through Roman art), laced with sexual fantasies, stimulated by both homosexual and homosexual desire. Beauty, for men and women, was Greek and was attributed to certain kinds of features deemed unique to Europeans (white people) as opposed to Africans, Asians or Slavs. Tall, slim, pale-skinned, straight hair and straight noses were the favored elements—not just Greek features based on marble statues, but also diametrically and conveniently opposed to dark skinned, flat nosed, coarse haired Africans and Asians.
Painter does a nice job of presenting a number of intellectual and philosophical and scientific ideas put forward in the eighteenth century (and in the two subsequent centuries) concerning the measurement of skulls and the angle of facial profiles. To the reader conversant with these endeavors, the author presents a brisk summation across a series of chapters. The underlying reason for this growing discourse on “difference” is, of course, linked to the rise of Empires. The imperial adventures of European nations coupled with the enormously profitable enterprise of slavery were inconvenient coincidences with the Enlightenment and its rational doctrines of equality. We can assume that the serious manner in which the Europeans blinded themselves with (pseudo) science to account for their unwillingness to allow the logic of Enlightenment thought to play itself out was a defensive measure.
In America the need to distinguish “white” from “black” was acute. Europeans were intent on explaining their supposed superiority in terms of beauty, equated with innate intelligence, as the reason for colonizing and exploiting the rest of the known world. Unlike the Americans, the Europeans did not keep slaves nor did they depend upon a slave economy. In the American South, an agricultural feudal economy while the Europeans built an international mercantile economy. But in a small and new nation, the South was not only anachronistic but also powerful. Its leaders were slaveholders reluctant to give up their incomes to square their words of freedom with their deeds of slavery. When the Americans gained their independence, they did so by denying the majority of its inhabitants, women and slaves, basic rights. As English politician Samuel Johnson caustically asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
Painter places Thomas Jefferson, slave owner, lover of a slave, father of slaves, at the center of the American thinking on the significance of “Anglo-Saxon” heritage. She writes,
To Jefferson, whatever genius for liberty Dark Age Saxons had bequeathed the English somehow thrived on English soil but died in Germany…In 1798 he wrote Essay on the Anglo-Saxon Language, which equates language with biological descent, a confusion then common among philologists. In this essay Jefferson runs together Old English and Middle English, creating a long era of Anglo-Saxon greatness stretching from the sixth century to the thirteenth. With its emphasis on blood purity, this smacks of race talk. Not only had Jefferson’s Saxons remained racially pure during the Roman occupation (there was “little familiar mixture with the native Britons”), but, amazingly, their language had stayed pristine two centuries after the Norman conquest: Anglo Saxon “was the language of all England, properly so called, from the Saxon possession of that country in the sixth century to the time of Henry III in the thirteenth, and was spoken pure and unmixed with any other.” Therefore Anglo-Saxon/Old English deserved study as the basis of American thought. One of Jefferson’s last great achievements, his founding of the University of Virginia in 1818, institutionalized his interest in Anglo-Saxon as the language of American culture, law, and politics. On opening in 1825, it was the only college in the United States to offer instruction in Anglo-Saxon, and Anglo-Saxon was the only course it offered on the English language. Beowulf, naturally, became a staple of instruction.
Jefferson’s obsession with the Anglo-Saxons and their mythical racial “purity” was shared with other Americans who were intent on establishing a cultural distinctiveness for those descended from English ancestors. The subtext was more than an attempt to elevate the “pure” white race above the African slaves; it was also a device used to coin social difference to elevate one class of white people above another. The sheer quantity of argument and writing about their racial superiority on the part of white males from all corners of intelligentsia imply a deep unease with their convoluted reasoning. Every now and then a counter argument was put forward, and a rare black voice was heard. Painter introduces the reader to David Walker, a free man in Boston and a well known activist who, in 1829 wrote David Walker’s Appeal: in four articles, together with a preamble, to the coloured citizens of the world, but in particular, and very expressly, to those of the United States of America. According to Painter,
Walker’s Appeal spread a wide net, excoriating “whites” and, indeed, “Christian America” for its inhumanity and hypocrisy. Over the long sweep of immutable racial history, Walker traces two essences. On one side lies black history, beginning with ancient Egyptians (“Africans or coloured people, such as we are”) and encompassing “our brethren the Haytians.” On the other lie white people, cradled in bloody, deceitful ancient Greece. Racial traits within these opposites never change.
Another sub-text that Painter locates in the growing American discourse on race is the dilemma of slave holders—the moral and psychic damage done to them by owning human beings and being unwilling to let the humans in bondage go free. To the modern reader, the guilt of the Founding Fathers is pure hypocrisy, for these high minded men did not have the courage to let go of their slaves, the foundation of their wealth and class position. When the Constitution was written the argument for doing nothing about slavery was put forward, for owning slaves seemed to be on the verge of being less and less profitable. However, the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1794 by Eli Whitney ended the wistful hope that slavery would collapse of its own weight. Once slavery was profitable, the discourse of justification intensified.
Slavery as the American Stain
The need to explain why slavery should continue to be a feature of American life would become more pressing as the nineteenth century progressed. European nations gradually outlawed slave trade, but sharp eyed observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville realized that the slave culture in the South constituted a moral cancer, a disease in the democratic republic. It is not just slavery, however, that is the embedded flaw, it is racism. Racism made it possible to enslave the black and to push the Native Americans off their lands. In his perceptive Democracy in America (1835) Tocqueville wrote unflatteringly of the Southerners:
“From birth, the southern American is invested with a kind of domestic dictatorship…and the first habit he learns is that of effortless domination…[which turns] the southern American into a haughty, hasty, irascible, violent man, passionate in his desires and irritated by obstacles. But he is easily discouraged if he fails to succeed at his first attempt…The southerner loves grandeur, luxury, reputation, excitement, pleasure, and, above all, idleness; nothing constrains him to work hard for his livelihood and, as he has no work which he has to do, he sleeps his time away, not even attempting anything useful.”
Europeans made fortunes in the vile trade of capturing and selling slaves but they distanced themselves, not from the profits but from the consequences by not actually owning Africans. According to Painter, Tocqueville seemed to find it hard to write of the South and its customs, but his friend Gustave de Beaumont examined slavery in America in Marie, or Slavery in the United States, a Picture of American Manners, written in the same year as Tocqueville’s first volume on America. However, Beaumont’s book was not translated into English until 1958 and, tragically, when it was finally published in America, its theme, how “one drop” of “black blood” designated an individual as “black.” Indeed, Painter does not point this out but during World War II, the American blood supply for the soldiers was divided between black and white blood.
For Painter, the Civil War and the extended blood letting over the question of slavery verses the rights of a state to own human beings is only but one part of the question of “race” that, by the nineteenth century had begun to define American thinking. As she writes,
In a society largely based on African slavery and founded in the era that invented the very idea of race, race as color has always played a prominent role. It has shaped the determination not only of race but also of citizenship, beauty, virtue, and the like. The idea of blackness, if not the actual color of skin, continues to play a leading role in American race thinking. Today’s Americans, bred in the ideology of skin color as racial difference, find it difficult to recognize the historical coexistence of potent American hatreds against people accepted as white, Irish Catholics. But anti-Catholicism has a long and often bloody national history, one that expressed itself in racial language and a violence that we nowadays attach most readily to race-as-color bigotry, when, in fact, religious hatred arrived in Western culture much earlier, lasted much longer, and killed more people. If we fail to connect the dots between class and religion, we lose whole layers of historical meaning. Hatred of black people did not preclude hatred of other white people—those considered different and inferior—and flare-ups of deadly violence against stigmatized whites.
What makes this book remarkable is that long before the Republican’s so-called “Southern Strategy” of the 1970s, American had already absorbed racial and racist thinking even before the Civil War. The other value of the book is the sad evidence of how deeply supposedly intelligent and fair minded people, American and European intellectuals and scientists were implicated in fashioning a discourse of dehumanization and prejudice. Painter devotes a segment of the book on how various immigrants who were not English struggled to be accepted as “Americans.” Broadly put, in Hegelian terms, the Master/Slave, the One/the Other dialectic became deeply embedded in the American psyche. Although America was a nation of immigrants, from the very start, only certain kinds of immigrants were welcome: no Irish, no Italians, no Jews, no Eastern Europeans, no Asians, and so on. In fact the nineteenth century, punctuated by the Civil War was one long struggle against the Other, whether it was the Native Americans in the West or the Catholics in the East.
Enlarging “White” through Diminishing Others
Many of the literary architects of the discourse of racism that constructed the concept of “white people” created a construct of “whiteness” that was designed to maintain the privilege of a favored few. Thomas Carlyle, generally well remembered for his efforts to improve the conditions of the working class, stained his record of humanism with viscous writing about the Irish. When Carlyle was writing the Irish were being deliberately starved out of Ireland but he was a man without pity. As Painter wrote,
Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), the most influential essayist in Victorian England, held the racial-deficiency view, having fled Ireland’s scenes of destitution in disgust after brief visits in 1846 and 1849. In one cranky article he called Ireland “a human dog kennel.” From his perch in London, Carlyle saw the Irish as a people bred to be dominated and lacking historical agency. He took it for granted that Saxons and Teutons had always monopolized the energy necessary for creative action. Celts and Negroes, in contrast, lacked the vision as well as the spunk needed to add value to the world.
Thomas Carlyle teamed up with the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson in a rather awkward partnership. Carlyle thought that slavery was a perfectly permissible state for the inferior race, while Emerson was an abolitionist. But both were involved in a mystical enterprise of elevating an imaginary Anglo-Saxon “race” above other “races,” such as the benighted Irish. As other writers have pointed out, the language and terminology developed by the English to defame the Irish and justify the British rule over Ireland. This language of inferiority and beastality was formed centuries before the African slave trade and was already ready to be deployed and applied towards any group considered unworthy. Although, as Painter points out, African Americans, such as Frederick Douglas, understood the parallels of prejudice against the Irish and the blacks, the Irish rejected this comparison and fought to be called “white.”
Other respected philosophers, from France’s Ernest Renan and America’s Matthew Arnold wrote extensively of the wonders of the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons. These writings can be read benignly as an attempt to delineate a national identity for a modern world, now obsessed with “difference.” But this strain of thinking was also at heart divisive and, for America, racist. By the middle of the nineteenth century, America was experiencing a tidal wave of immigration, starting with the Irish, followed by the Italians, all of whom were Catholic and all of whom were, therefore, alien to the supposed Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. The poetics of a Matthew Arnold and the violent bigotry of the Know Nothing Party are but two sides of the same coin. By mid century, as Painter writes, “The Anglo-Saxon myth of racial superiority now permeated concepts of race in the United States and virtually throughout the English-speaking world. To be American was to be Saxon.”
The reasons for this painstaking and fictional construct of “Teutonic” and “Anglo-Saxon” superiority seems clears today. Carlyle feared the consequences of democracy and other writers feared the invasion of the Others. However, the extent to which these supposed “great” men were aware of the contradiction between their views of the superiority of “whiteness” and the mercy and love of Christianity and promise of equality and democracy is unclear. But for the next one hundred years (and beyond), there would be a mountain of writing piling up a pseudo scientific and pseudo philosophical explanations for why certain peoples should be excluded from the basic rights of human beings and citizens of a free nation. This discourse constructed a fantasy vision of “white people” that was the base for a superstructure of exclusionary laws directed against people who were “not white.”
Clearly the political unconscious of both America and England is an ugly one, but Painter includes an interesting section that links racism not just to beauty but also to sexual desire. Most of the constructors of “whiteness” were middle class privileged males who may or may not have been latent homosexuals. Painter reads their texts much the way in which we read Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s writings on (Roman copies) Greek Art and finds an underlying current of, shall we say, intense admiration for the (male) beauty of the Teutonic ideal. These descriptions of the beautiful white male linger on today—fair skin, blue eyes, blond hair, tall thin frame—and are seen in Ambercombie and Fitch and Ralph Lauren advertising. That said, “white people” are gendered male and “beauty” is linked to the idea of “white.”
With the dubious intellectual weight behind the notion of the inherent and innate superiority of “white people,” came the construction of the “Aryan” idea that was so powerful that art history still includes the ancient Egyptian culture as “Western,” regardless of the fact that the Egyptians were Africans and black. The romantic idea of Aryan and white continued to be supported well into the twentieth century, as after the Civil War in America, “whiteness” was linked to enfranchisement and the power to vote. Even though black men were give the “right” to vote in 1870, full voting rights for non-whites took a hundred years to come about and the hard-fought right to cast a ballot remains under threat today.
Aryan Supremacy Through Eugenics
One of the great services of Painter’s book is the parade of scholars and scientists who wrote of the wonders of being Aryan and Anglo-Saxon and who did studies of the human skull in order to “prove” racial superiority. Today, these men are obscure and well-known only to specialists, such as Painter, but, in their time, as she stresses, they were respected and celebrated. What is remarkable is not only how forgotten these architects of racism are today but also paradoxically how completely their discourses penetrated the American collective consciousness. Reading of one after another of these supposed intellectuals is simply depressing. Decades after slavery was abolished, the writings kept coming, their perpetrators festooned with honors and crowned with laurels, halted only in the face of the Nazis.
Not that the proponents of Aryan superiority would be entirely silenced by the horrors of the Holocaust but the doctrine of racial superiority would lose its luster, at long last. The nation therefore owes a great deal to the occasional and brave white dissenter, like the anthropologist, Franz Boas, who joined with Black intellectual, W. E. B. Dubois to fight racism and anti-semitism in those decades before the Second World War. As Painter points out,
During the late nineteenth century, poor, dark-skinned people often fell victim to bloodthirsty attack, with lynching only the worst of it. Against a backdrop of rampant white supremacy, shrill Anglo-Saxonism, and flagrant abuse of non-Anglo-Saxon workers, Boas appears amazingly brave. It mattered little in those times that lynching remained outside the law. More than twelve hundred men and women of all races were lynched in the 1890s while authorities looked the other way. Within the law, state and local statutes mandating racial segregation actually expelled people of color from the public realm.
The voices, such as that of Boas, who spoke out against the bogus assertion of “race,” were shouting into a headwind of rhetoric. American histories rarely stress the articulate racism of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. But early in the twentieth century, instead of leading the population into a new century with new thinking, they vigorously extended the creed of “Anglo-Saxonism.” The trend towards to “Teutonic,” abated somewhat due to the Great War in which the Germans or the Teutons were the enemy. One of the outgrowths of elevation of “white people” was the attendant fear of “race suicide,” due to the threat of intermarriage among the Anglo-Saxons and “inferior” whites. In the Northern states, these rants were due to the continued flux of immigrants who were diluting the essence of the “white” race, in the South, the fear of inter-racial mixing drove many localities to forced sterilization of those who were unfit to breed.
The “science” of eugenics, that would become the driving force behind the Nazis extermination of the Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” was, like many of the racist theories in America, tended to be the brian child of New Englanders. Cradled and supported by the most eminent universities in the nation, these writers drove a discourse of exclusion and elimination of the wrong kind of blood or hereditary. It was taken as an article of faith that “inferiority” was hereditary and that there was no concept of environmental considerations that may have caused generational poverty. On one hand, scholarship was turned into public policy that prevented equal opportunity and, on the other hand, those who were impacted were then declared inferior due to generations of bigots who kept the Irish, or the Italians, the Chinese, the African Americans, and so on, from achieving.
The solution to the socially engineered under achievements of the poor and disadvantaged was forced sterilization, which was found constitutional by an 8-1 majority. Virginia led the way in 1924 and for a decade (with California coming in as the second largest sterilizing state), until shamed when the Nazis took up identical policies of sterilizing the poor and those who might inherit a tendency towards criminality, other states followed. But forced sterilization continued until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Eugenics was directly linked to the argument of inherited superiority of “white people” by taking the assumption of birth rights and privileges and turning it against towards those who had inherited poverty.
If one inherited one’s low economic status, then one also inherited a low intelligence. As with sterilization, technology and pseudo science was put in the service of white suprematists. Blithely unaware of the impact of environment upon intelligence and of the inherent biases in the so-called “intelligent” tests designed by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, the anti-immigrant “nativists” used yet another measure to disenfranchise and marginalize the less white whites. The bundle of frantic efforts to maintain domination with tactics including Jim Crow Laws, forced sterilization, anti-immigration intelligence testing and restricted immigration were all based on the supposed superiority of the very white European stocks. However, as these superior beings, in all their shining whiteness, descended into the mad savagery of the Great War.
White Public Policy
The awkwardness of seeing the “white people” acting badly did not deter decades of effort during the twentieth century in legitimizing people of color, Catholics, and Jews. These bigoted beliefs mainstreamed and popularized through mass media and had become widely believed. Fortunately, these beliefs were forced underground and were muted by mid-century. As Painter explains,
After its heyday among race theorists in the 1910s and 1920s, Anglo-Saxonism declined during the Great Depression and the Second World War. A new generation of social scientists had outgrown such blather on race. Now scholars were questioning the very meanings of any and all concepts of race and studying the troubling fact of racial prejudice. Ruth Benedict, along with Franz Boas and their like, were beginning to carry the day…The change from 1920s hysteria to 1940s cultural pluralism occurred simultaneously in politics and in culture.
After the Second World War II, racism, based on the the ideal of “white” beauty, continued under other guises, despite the fact that the idea that there was a scientific entity called “race” was being debunked. During the final decades of the twentieth century, the idea of “white people” was less intellectualized and more politicized. The efforts to assert the superiority of whites was no longer respectable in academia but the efforts to deny African Americans the benefits of the New Deal, the G. I. Bill, and even basic civil rights continued in public policy through a maze of laws and customs. In addition to being pushed to the margins, people of color were trained through mass media to “look white.” As Painter writes,
Much nose bobbing, hair straightening, and bleaching ensued. Anglo-Saxon ideals fell particularly hard on women and girls, for the strength and assertion of working-class women of the immigrant generations were out of place in middle-class femininity. Not only was the tall, slim Anglo-Saxon body preeminent, the body must look middle-rather than working-class.
People of color or different “ethnic” types were forced by real estate laws and municipal zoning to live in ghettos and barrios, where they were invisible. The race presented by mass media as “American” was pure white, people of color were rare and on the fringes in movies and many mainstream magazines, from news magazines to fashion magazines, refused to print photographs of people of color. But the Civil Rights Movement countered the myth of white cultural and physical superiority by challenging white people on moral grounds. Painter quotes Malcolm X,
“When I say the white man is a devil, I speak with the authority of history…. The record of history shows that the white man, as a people, have never done good…. He stole our fathers and mothers from their culture of silk and satins and brought them to this land in the belly of a ship…. He has kept us in chains ever since we have been here…. Now this blue-eyed devil’s time has about run out.”
While the “white people” were frightened after hearing the frank assessment of a certain portion of the African American public, that same public would be alarmed at the writings of an anti-melting pot white supremacist, as quoted by Painter, as having
taught at Stanford University and the experimental college of the State University of New York at Old Westbury. In The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, perfectly suited to the times, Novak concentrates on those unmeltable “PIGS,” Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Slavs, in their view so long reviled: “The liberals always have despised us. We’ve got these mostly little jobs, and we drink beer and, my God, we bowl and watch television and we don’t read. It’s goddamn vicious snobbery. We’re sick of all these phoney integrated TV commercials with these upper-class Negroes. We know they’re phoney.”
These words, complete with misspelling, from Michael Novak’s Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972) would, today, be termed “hate speech.” At the time, they were the leading edge of the Nixon “Southern Strategy” which was a fancy term of thinly disguised racism. Here and there a few lone voices among white Southerners were raised and revealed the inherent lack of “ethics” in the system of racial segregation, bases upon the fiction of “white supremacy.” Painter presents
Lillian Smith (1897–1966), a white southern essayist, novelist, and (with her lifetime partner Paula Schnelling) operator of a fancy summer camp for girls, powerfully described her South in Killers of the Dream (1949 and 1961). The book pilloried southern culture as pathological and white supremacist southerners as caught in a spiral of sex, sin, and segregation.5* Here was a book of wide influence that portrayed whiteness as morally diseased.
It would take science, real science this time to put to rest the notion that there was “race.” There are only human beings who have skin colors and facial features that have evolved due to the environment. Painter quotes
the words of J. Craig Venter, then head of Celera Genomics, “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one. We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world.” Each person shares 99.99 percent of the genetic material of every other human being. In terms of variation, people from the same race can be more different than people from different races.18 And in the genetic sense, all people—and all Americans—are African descended.
Painter’s book is divided into a series of what she terms “Enlargements of Whiteness.” The First Enlargement” is in fact the formation of the post-Enlightnement discourse on “white people” by writers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The Second Enlargement builds on these beginnings and uses the ideas of racial superiority to expand political rights for one group of white people, the males, and excluding other groups, people of color and women. The Third Enlargement expanded these privileges after the Second World War by showering benefits upon white males and by excluding equally deserving people of color and women from the great government “thank you” stimulus that created the male middle class. The Fourth Enlargement is one of the struggle of women and people of color to enter fully into the American dream.
People of color made inroads during the post-war period because the discourse that defined “white people” was doubly discredited. First the Nazis adopted lock, stock and barrel the entire panoply of racist ideologies and used this discourse on “Aryans” and “Anglo Saxons” and what have you to slaughter millions of human beings. Second, the final stand of the white supremacists during the Civil Rights period was so public and so ugly and the resulting photographs and television coverage was so shaming that it was impossible to defend the determination to disenfranchise millions of American citizens. But the final coup de grâce was the genetic studies that proved that all humans share the same genetic makeup and that there is no scientific entity that could be separated out as “white people.”
Painter ends with the hope that perhaps intermarriage and “race mixing” will end the black/white dichotomy but that is far in the future. In the meantime as she points out “Nonetheless, poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness, driven by an age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior.” The discourse on “white people” is alive and well and is an article of faith by millions of Americans who may or may not be aware of the immoral and unethical and unAmerican roots of their ideologies. It is sad to learn from this book that the term “American exceptionalism” is a code for “white people”—Anglo-Saxon “whiteness.”
When politician say that “Barack Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism,” they are saying “Barack Obama is black.” Like all the invading immigrants from the Irish to the Hispanics, he doesn’t “belong;” he is not an “American.” The discourse on “white people” is why there is such a strong belief that the President wasn’t born in America. Obama cannot be an American because he is an African American; he is black. Painter needs to write a sequel to this book that focuses on the twenty-first century salvage operation of this discourse which continues on the fringes on hate websites and in political speeches. The Discourse of “White People” continues to mar the American Dream.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.