Nell Irvin Painter begins The History of White People declaring that “because race is an idea, not a fact…its questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm.” In the just under 400 pages that follow, Painter recounts more than 2,500 years, from the ancient Greeks through today, of examples of thinking on peoples now thought of as white.
Painter, who has written several books on African American history, focuses here on whites, as they are often defined as “the leavings of what is not black,” and much of what has been written on white races has fallen into obscurity.
What emerges from this is a convincing argument that race, far from being a permanent scheme of categorizing human beings, is a social construct, a relatively recent development that has changed over time.
Painter points out that “for most of the past centuries…educated Americans firmly believed in the existence of more than one European race.” She explains that this view legitimized the rule of elites by attributing the inferior social position of slaves and workers to a perceived racial inferiority. She points out that while today this ideology is recognized “as it relates to black race…in other times the same logic was applied to people who were white.”
Those at the top decide who’s white
Painter’s definition of who qualifies as white is ambiguous, sometimes used interchangeably with “American,” and differs depending on the historical period. Generally, it seems that “American whiteness,” according to Painter, implies belonging to a group considered by elites to be “Americans,” a category that has remained in flux and is intertwined with class and gender.
The book is structured around four “enlargements of American whiteness.” The first three include the extension of suffrage to all white men in the late eighteenth century, the acceptance of Irish Americans alongside Anglo Saxons as “superior stock” in the late nineteenth century, and the same process for the descendants of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, including Jews, following the Second World War.
These successive groups of immigrants initially faced harsh discrimination and were labeled as an inferior demographic threat to “real Americans.” Painter details how political and economic leaders used anti-immigrant hysteria to crack down on the growth of unions and radical movements in the first decades of the twentieth century, identifying left movements as an “alien” threat to the existence of American society.
Sometimes these “inferiors” were classified as white, as in an 1876 Thomas Nast cartoon that labels an offensive, stereotypical caricature of an Irish man as “white.” According to others, they were not “white,” or were at least members of a race deemed inferior to and separate from the Anglo-Saxon ideal: Painter cites Ralph Waldo Emerson who in 1829 spoke of “the Irish” and “the Caucasian race” as distinct.
Painter argues that the “fourth enlargement of the American” is occurring today as people of color break into the highest echelons of American society and larger proportions of the population identify as multiracial. She wonders, “Is this the end of race in America?,” but tempers this by pointing to attempts in recent years to use the science of DNA, which undermines scientific notions of race, to relegitimize race and racial differences.
Although she concludes by saying that “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,” Painter does not explain what produced this yearning in the first place and why elites continue to be driven by it.
In discussing the persistence of racism in the modern United States, Painter overlooks the significance of events like the housing crash, which has disproportionately impacted people of color while the right has scapegoated these victims, blaming them for Wall Street’s crisis. Such developments, more than discussions on the lack of connections between DNA and race, are vital to understanding the role that race and racism continue to play in the United States.
This omission highlights a weakness that runs throughout the book: Painter focuses almost exclusively on elite opinion, especially in academia, rarely mentioning those who dissent from white supremacist thinking and not rooting academic thought firmly enough in its political and economic context.
Similarly, she mentions challenges from within academia and from a handful of Black activists, but largely glosses over the role of mass struggle, including of whites who have challenged white supremacy directly by struggling in solidarity with Blacks.
This approach has its uses, as these elites have historically been the driving force behind the invention and propagation of racist ideas, but it leaves out the perspectives of those targeted and demonized by racism. Simply shining a light on white supremacist arguments is enough to make apparent their absurdity, often presented at the time as science.
For example, Painter recalls the Prussian “father of art history,” Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who in the eighteenth century promoted a white beauty ideal based upon Roman copies of ancient Greek statues carved in white marble. Winckelmann never traveled to Greece to see the originals, which were painted a darker hue.
Then there is Samuel George Morton, a leading American anthropologist in the mid-nineteenth century who collected and measured nearly 1,000 skulls in his lifetime, “which he judged to predict intellectual ability according to race.” Morton, a staunch white supremacist, measured ancient Egyptian skulls and concluded that most were white. Painter writes: “[A]ncient Egypt’s glory is linked to the superiority of white people…Never mind puzzling details. What looked like wooly hair in ancient Egyptian depictions Morton deems wigs worn by Egyptians over their real hair, which surely was straight and light-colored…”
However, the question of why self-contradictory racist ideas were promoted by academic and political elites for hundreds of years is one that Painter touches on but does not satisfactorily explain.
Painter argues that racial schemes set the poor and powerless at the bottom and the rich and powerful at the top.… [I]nnate qualities are needed to prove the justice—the naturalness and inalterability—of the status quo.” Of course, “in the United States…that often turned into a justification for African slavery.”
However, she does not pay sufficient attention to the events that precipitated the rise of racial slavery and the foundation of American definitions of whiteness as counterposed to Blackness.
The Marxist Theodore William Allen, in his classic 1975 pamphlet Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race, argues that beyond being simply a social construction or “yearning,” in seventeenth-century colonial Virginia “the plantation bourgeoisie established a system of social control by the institutionalization of the ‘white’ race whereby the mass of poor whites was alienated from the black proletariat and enlisted as enforcers of bourgeois power.”
Defining race in response to struggle from below
In other words, rather than simply a justification for a status quo that consisted of the enslavement of Blacks, racism and racial slavery were established out of necessity by a ruling class of slaveholders in order to secure a supply of agricultural labor and cement their rule over Black slaves and poor whites. The promotion of white identity was used by the ruling class to build a cross-class alliance and use poor whites to enforce an economic order to the detriment of Black slaves and poor whites. As the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, “they divided both to conquer each.”
Painter recounts the largely forgotten history of white slavery in Europe and of white (and Black) indentured servants sent the to British colonies, pointing out that in mid–seventeenth-century Virginia bonded whites outnumbered Africans on tobacco plantations. She does not mention Bacon’s rebellion, however, when, as Allen writes, “the armed working class, black and white, fought side by side for the abolition of slavery,” missing an event that is essential for understanding the advent of racial slavery and the genesis of the modern American white/Black racial dichotomy.
In the decades following the defeat of the rebellion, the colonial ruling class passed a series of laws that singled out descendants of Africans for special oppression. By importing African slaves to ensure a steady supply of labor, racializing perpetual servitude, and employing poor and indentured whites as an armed force to repress Black slave revolts, colonial planters created a system of divide and rule.
Also left unexamined is the era of Radical Reconstruction, when Black freedman challenged white supremacy, voted, and were elected by the thousands to local, state, and national offices, while many poor whites gained the vote for the first time. Reconstruction was overturned by a wave of Klan terror and the disenfranchisement of Blacks, an outcome of a struggle over the fate of the newly freed slaves.
The Populist movement of the 1890s challenged the racist Democratic Party’s stranglehold on the South, providing examples of the possibility of solidarity between poor white and Black farmers. Following the defeat of Populism, Jim Crow laws were enacted across the South, a response to interracial challenges to the ruling class reminiscent of the response to Bacon’s Rebellion. And, as Painter addresses, post–First World War radicalism was met by the ruling class with a Red Scare that included the scapegoating of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, waves of deportations, and anti-immigrant legislation.
The Communist Party, which in the 1930s included tens of thousands of whites struggling for racial equality alongside Black members, is mentioned only once in the context of their use of “Nordic” figures to represent “the American worker.”
This is not to say that for most of American history majorities of whites haven’t harbored racist ideas; they have, and millions still do. The point is that by excluding so many whites who challenged white supremacy, The History of White People leaves the reader with an account that does not do justice to the role such struggles played in shaping elite definitions of whiteness and the policies enacted to enforce them. Rather than being simply a social construction emanating from academia and achieving consensus among the broader populace, changing definitions of American whiteness have been shaped by the outcomes of struggles that challenge these elites from below.
In spite of these weaknesses, The History of White People is a valuable text, full of fascinating examples of the absurdities of racist elite thought. Painter argues convincingly that race and racism are not part of “human nature,” as is commonly assumed, but were created and enforced by those at the top of society. If human beings invented these disgraceful institutions, we can tear them down.