The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
By default, any book claiming to be a history of “white” people must necessarily be a history of “race science.” Surely one must clearly define the boundaries of your subject? It is Nell Irvin Painter’s careful historiography of those shifting boundaries that make up most of this book. She deftly describes the classification and reclassification of races depending on the background of the classifier, and the contemporary political environment, and relates many shocking facts that are typically glossed over in other types of social history.
Painter’s book starts with classical Greek and Roman views on white people and progresses through to the 20th century. It is a tour of the underside of western intellectual history, and many revered heroes of the past are exposed — Alexis de Tocqueville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Ford — the list goes on. Her takedowns are exhaustive and epic, as she points out the inconsistencies in logic and the juvenile reasoning, which adds to the difficulty in reading the book. I had to put it down in frustration a number of times. Painter proves to be much more patient than me.
Her analysis of race science is focused almost exclusively on scholars and politicians. Although it is disappointing not to see how the “average” person gains their views on race, it is understandable. The literature likely does not contain much from the perspective of the average Joe about his reasoning for his racist attitude. We are left only with the work of men of means for analysis.
The book does spend much time on the denigration of poor white people — those who are shut out from the privileged race basically because they make “regular” white folk look bad — underscoring the role of class and the intersectionality of race. When I talk about rejecting whiteness, much of my argument is class-based. In The History, Painter shows how race science was used to justify eugenics and other policies to isolate and destroy the poor in the early 20th century. Later, there is an excellent section in the book on the post-war GI Bill and social mobility of Italian Americans. As they came back from the war and were supported by government programs into house ownership and college degrees, their class changed and they began to take on many of the attitudes of whiteness, including the sense of entitlement — the meritocracy myth is foundational to whiteness.
The History of White People is dense, and since it covers such a convoluted journey of puerile hypothesizing, it is a challenging read. Moreover, there is no progressive narrative where in the “dark and distant past” the scourge of racism was rampant, and over time people came to their senses and racism has disappeared. This is no story of humanity’s arduous righteous climb to a higher level of being. Progress is clawed back as much as it is gained. The ranking and re-ranking of people by those at the top of society is highly dependant on the prevailing political winds and threats to the position of the elite. During the first World War, the Germans were down-ranked out of whitehood, and soon Americans were to worry about “Soviets” and “the feebleminded Juke-Kallikak-Polish-Russian-Jewish-French-Canadian-mongrelized-Alpine Under-Man.” Later, as America faced immigration “crises” from Asia and Eastern Europe, the Irish and Italians, previously outsiders, were invited into whiteness. The race to whiteness is competitive and relativistic.
The overt racism in the book may seem extreme by the standards of today, especially by white people who are fed a pablum of inclusiveness while people of colour suffer daily under a system of deep racism and endless microagressions. (A contemporary example: whites who say things like “I’m not a racist, but why can’t we say all lives matter?”) The History of White People is not the kind of book you gift to your Trump-supporting uncle, but it is the kind of book for people who are looking to do a serious examination of racial hierarchy and want insight into how we have arrived at our current structure.