During the 2009 holiday shopping rush, a popular computer maker encountered an embarrassing problem—its vaunted facial-recognition program failed to register black faces. Much of the ensuing media discussion noted that such software was still in its infancy. It makes sense that computers would be confused about race. After all, their creators are often equally clueless.
Much American racial ignorance probably stems from our stubborn insistence on "recognizing" race in the first place. "Race is an idea, not a fact," Nell Irvin Painter reminds us in her impressive new book, The History of White People. "Each person shares 99.99 percent of the genetic material of every other human being. . . . [P]eople from the same race can be more different than people from different races." Without any empirical basis to support their efforts, she observes, arbiters of alleged racial difference proceed via "individual taste and political need." Painter diligently lays out the ways that such tastes and needs worked, over time, to create the classification "white." She tackles a provocative subject with easeful authority, proceeding with admirable restraint and letting flawed scholarship and thinking speak for itself. She only occasionally resorts to such harsh but justifiable descriptions as "nutty," "cockamamie," and "flagrantly nonsensical."
Painter argues that "a notion of freedom lies at the core of the American idea of whiteness." She traces the origins of this pivotal association to Europe—where freedom and whiteness weren't always so intimate: "Over more than a millennium, the vast story of Western slavery was primarily a white story. Geography, not race, ruled, and potential white slaves, like vulnerable aliens anywhere, were nearby for the taking." Philosophical justifications for slavery crossed the Atlantic as Europe began to stake a claim on the New World—and white captivity crossed as well. Before the expansion of the African slave trade in the eighteenth century, nearly four hundred thousand whites came to British North America as unfree laborers. According to Painter, the continent's motley mix "appealed to Western intellectuals as a test case for humanity. Who are the Americans? What are they like?"
Even after whites became free, Painter writes, they weren't all entitled to the same privileges. Poor whites were American by law, not custom. Their poverty and perceived wildness kept them "at a remove from the charmed circle" of "American" identity. At the same time, elite whites turned to science to distinguish themselves from those whites they deemed uncivilized, relying on a stream of scholarship that runs from nineteenth-century theorists such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (a German, he was the first to call whites Caucasians) through twentieth-century eugenicists such as Henry Goddard (an advocate of forced sterilization of "degenerates") and Madison Grant (whose work influenced the Nazis) to more genteel apostles of racial difference such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Commentators and philosophers were equally influential, with Michel-Guillame-Jean de Crèvecoeur and Ralph Waldo Emerson forging a tight identification between whiteness and "American" identity. So when Sarah Palin spoke in 2008 of going to "wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America" or Hillary Clinton highlighted, earlier in the election cycle, Barack Obama's lack of support among "hardworking Americans, white Americans," the limitations laid down by Emerson and others were reverberating.
Painter points out that poor Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, and others now considered white gained entry to the charmed circle by way of three "enlargements." The first occurred in the early nineteenth century, when property was removed as a requirement for voting. The second took place after the Civil War, as Germans and Irish assimilated more fully into the white mainstream as waves of southern and eastern European immigrants made them appear "acceptably American." The third began in the 1940s, when postwar prosperity expanded the white middle class but still excluded blacks and Asian Americans. These enlargements took place under pressure from industrialization and wars—and progressed despite organized resistance and "nativist" campaigns conducted by terrorists such as the Ku Klux Klan, politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt, and social scientists. Grant, for example, proposed eliminating the "least desirable . . . ten percent" of white Americans so as to eliminate crime, alcoholism, and other social ills. He didn't bother with a similar proposal for African Americans because he believed blacks were dying out on their own.
Painter focuses chiefly on the many decades preceding blacks' extraordinary gains in the civil rights era, the decades when "'racial problem' still meant immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—white people." By the 1960s, white Americans were no longer so preoccupied with classifying themselves according to their European origins. Today, societal and legislative changes, Painter suggests, have led us into the early stages of a fourth enlargement—the first to include blacks: "Although race may still be overweening, without legal recognition it is less important than in the past. The dark of skin who also happen to be rich . . . and the light of skin who are beautiful, are now well on the way to inclusion."
That's small comfort for the rest of us, and even less so for the underprivileged. "Poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness," Painter acknowledges, "driven by an age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior." The ability to overcome the tyranny of race apparently comes at a steep price. Too bad some of us still can't afford it.
Jabari Asim is a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow. His next book, A Taste of Honey, will be published by Broadway Books in March.