Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

One of the most defining features of American life centers around race. Even today, some ten years after the Genome Project unveiled what we already suspected---that race is a social construct rather than a biological one---race continues to dictate the ways in which we define who is and isn’t an American. This also determines who is deserving of the benefits and social entitlements that come with being a citizen. This became more evident during the 2008 presidential election, when then Senator Barack Obama, became the leading Democratic contender for the White House. It was evident in the dialogue between Obama and Clinton supporters, in the way black voters initially rejected Obama because they thought he didn’t have a snowballs chance in hell to win (at least until his win in majority white Iowa surprised even the most studied political scientists); in the way the media covered the primaries; the way Rev. Jeffrey Wright, Obama’s former pastor, became a lightning rod during the campaign because of his statements concerning whites; in the notion that Obama’s run signals an era of post-racialism; and the way even after Obama’s win his citizenship came into question by Tea Partiers and the most virulent racists who refuse to believe that a black man can have as much right to occupy one of the most important seats of power in Western civilization. Since then, we continue to witness such issues from conservatives targeting groups like ACORN and the New Black Panthers for spurious accusations of voting fraud to the faux outrage concerning edited comments by Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the Department of Agriculture, regarding what was perceived to be racial comments directed toward a white farmer whose farm she actually help to save. What it all comes down to is the question of who and what is considered American, and clearly, throughout this country’s history, black people surely ain’t it.

Yet, in Nell Irvin Painter’s thoroughly researched book The History of White People, published last year by W.W. Norton & Co., the question of what it means to be a true American was always shaped around the idea of what it meant to be white, a preoccupation that even predates American history. Painter presents a telling historical survey of how “whiteness” was shaped and defined over the course of world history based on little more than the personal prejudices and insecurities of the people and the times. Pseudoscience played an important role in validating these beliefs, so it is perhaps ironic that it would take real science to debunk many of them. Painter does a thorough job of showing how these “researchers” often used shoddy methodologies or contradicted themselves even in their own work to hammer home conclusions that served more to flatter their own ideas of racial superiority. What is most surprising, however, is how significant figures in American history helped push along the meme that “whiteness” can be exclusively defined by an Anglo-Saxon/Nordic/Teutonic heritage. Thomas Jefferson, despite the fact that he fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, was one of those figures, which is hardly surprising. But I was thoroughly disappointed that philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was also one of those figures who pushed this false premise (Emerson is noted for his antislavery beliefs).

What’s even more surprising is how so many “so-called” white ethnics who arrived in this country as immigrants were likewise excluded from definitions of "whiteness." Eugenics projects, IQ tests, cephalic indices (the measurements of skulls from various ethnic/racial groups), and the like were all used to validate notions of race tied to intelligence, character, and morality and used specifically to divide Europeans into three distinct races: Anglo-Saxon/Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean, with the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic race being the most superior. Race geneticists, which included amateur scientists in the fields of economics, philosophy, theology; as well as anthropologists and social scientists who carried on the work that preceded them, often changed their views about whether Germans or Teutons could be considered white based on personal prejudices. For example, Germans or Teutons were included and then excluded from the race (WWI definitely ruled Germans outside of that exclusive circle, and Hitler’s own use of eugenics in the genocide of German Jews became an embarrassment to those pushing forced sterilization on America’s poor women), a clear enough indication of what race geneticists were really peddling.

The very racial attitudes directed toward blacks (who, along with Native American Indians, Asians, and Latinos, were largely ignored during these early racial classification projects) were also directed toward the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Slavs, and Russians during the great waves of European immigration throughout the 19th and early 20th century America. In fact, the notion of family degenerates---that biology indicates poverty and social pathology rather than class and environment---began with sociological studies on white European immigrants and poor white Southerners. These studies led to bogus IQ tests that limited European immigration and forced sterilization, not to mention defining popular cultural attitudes toward these groups of people. Since the 1960s, however, such attitudes have been solely applied to the sociological study of blacks in the inner city, beginning with the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 study “The Moynihan Report,” which roughly blamed the effects of social pathology at the feet of single mothers, while ignoring issues of class, race, and social economics. The effects of these studies still shape how the general public views poor people of color and is what lays at the heart of the thirty-year dismantling of social programs designed to aid them.

Painter does a superb job of following this thread of “whiteness” from its early beginnings in Greek antiquities to present day America, and how race geneticists not only affected the way America came to define itself and how current events, from the housing crisis to the collapse of the economy and the hostilities bubbling just above the surface of American society, owes a great deal to their nefarious works. Of course I’m projecting a lot of current day America into Painter’s work, but it isn’t hard to come to certain conclusions. In The History of White People, Painter fills in the missing dots that has been missing in much of our retelling of American history. The broadening definitions of “whiteness” more than anything helped those who would otherwise have been excluded from the American dream, while at the same time continued to deny those who were definitively denied inclusion. So when some Americans cry out that “they want their country back,” you cannot help but draw the conclusion that what they really mean is that they want a return to the ideas of this myth of American-ness based exclusively on “whiteness,” an exclusivity which ironically at one point limited their own ancestors to the margins of American society. Perhaps the anger they exhibit is due to the harsh reality that that myth never had any currency to begin with, and in the end, those who are now suffering from the economic collapse no longer have the bulwark of “whiteness” to protect them from its damaging effects.

Painter’s writing, I think, should be noted here because she does have a very engaging style that is scholarly and informal. Painter is never hyperbolic in writing about the race geneticists of the past, but lets the reader know where she stands with them in very subtle terms. She is also appropriately generous and empathetic toward those who suffered greatly from these racial classifications, either through mob violence or forced sterilization, opening up ways in which race can be truly and openly discussed in a nation that would otherwise sweep such discussions out of public consciousness. After all, if in the past white ethnics suffered as much in this country from racism, then it reveals how America is less defined by racial differences as it is by class, a fact, since this country’s beginnings, that has always been denied. This doesn’t mean that the racial dichotomy since the 1960s, which roughly divides itself between black and white, doesn’t still hold sway and continues to affect millions of people under its clutches regardless of socio-economics and class. But it does open up the possibility of moving past race by revealing that, even in the throes of this Great Recession, all Americans who have not benefited from being rich and white, have a stake in making this country as inclusive as the Constitution suggests it ought to be. Nell Irvin Painter’s wonderful book is simply one step down that road that will hopefully lead us toward a true America.

1 comment:

  1. It's true - my grandfather told me growing up how he and his family were treated with open racism by landlords and others; back in the 30's and 40's, many white Americans felt Italians were not white. We can only hope that such attitudes directed towards African Americans and Latinos today will be as hard to imagine one day as it is now to hard to imagine the violent intolerance once directed towards those now viewed as "white" (many of whose grandchildren great-grandchildren have lost that memory, to their detriment).