The race is on

History reveals multiple classifications of whites, ranked by power, privilege, and physical characteristics

By Kate Tuttle
March 21, 2010

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Race, Nell Irvin Painter writes, “is an idea, not a fact.’’ Painter, a professor of history at Princeton, has written several books chronicling African-American history, but the story she tells here mostly sidesteps the dichotomy of black and white. This terrific new book spins a less familiar narrative: the “notion of American whiteness,’’ an idea as dangerous as it is seductive.

Painter’s tale begins in the ancient world, where Greeks and Romans wrote about the mysterious, warlike people they encountered to the west and north. In antiquity there was no notion of race — what mattered was geography, language, culture, clan. The tribes living in what is now Georgia and Ukraine were called Scythians by the Greeks, whose great historian Herodotus described them as being fond of hemp and not in the habit of regular bathing. Romans ventured even farther west, meeting and conquering people they classified as Celts, Gauls, and Germani (the classifications morphed over time, as racial categories always do). Roman observers found much to admire in these men, ancestors of today’s Germans; in writings later embraced by race scientists (and then by Nazis), Tacitus praised them as “a distinct and pure people’’ with “fierce blue eyes, tawny hair, bodies that are big but strong only in attack.’’

The violence of ancient white peoples, lauded by the Greeks and Romans, was also attractive to those who claimed them as ancestors. Ralph Waldo Emerson, father of American transcendentalism, saw himself as a son of these Saxons (who, in the goofy myth-making this book so ably mocks, were said to spring from Germany and Scandinavia but bestowed their manly beauty and superiority on American whites by way of the early English settlers). In his 1856 book “English Traits,’’ Emerson writes of the qualities passed on by such virile white stock, including “good sense, steadiness, wise speech, and prompt action,’’ but also “a singular turn for homicide.’’ Strangely, he means this as a compliment, though observers from different backgrounds saw the same quality less favorably. Black Bostonian David Walker, in his famous Appeal of 1829, pointed out that “whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority.’’ Painter avoids taking sides, but she wields a withering deadpan when delivering such quotes.

Painter shows us Thomas Jefferson as yet another American enthralled by his Anglo-Saxon roots, who even proposed “embedding his heroic Saxon ancestors in the great seal of the United States.’’ Later Jefferson ensured that his newly founded University of Virginia offer courses in the Anglo-Saxon language — a curriculum soon adopted by other Southern colleges, and then by Amherst and Harvard, the first two non-Southern schools to teach it. Virginia’s Anglo-Saxon instructor had to be let go when he lived up to his race’s reputation and was caught horsewhipping his wife in public in 1840.

What matters here isn’t how silly Jefferson and Emerson’s ideas were; it’s how dangerous they were. As America was transformed by waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, a bogus science arose to meet the policy demands of those who would patrol the borders of whiteness — that is to say, of power, privilege, and identity. Painter traces the idea of classifying the (white) races of Europe to mid-18th-century Germany, where anthropologists borrowed ideas from livestock breeding and biology to create a taxonomy of European types. American academics chimed in, too, notably the Harvard economist William Z. Ripley, whose “Races of Europe’’ categorized people according to head shape, complexion, and height. At the top of the heap were the tall, blond Teutonic types, while Alpines (which included Celts) were shorter and darker, and Mediterraneans, the smallest and darkest of all.

Different scientists spawned varying classification schemes, with as few as two “races’’ or as many as 19; many felt such groups were close to different species, each descending from a distinct ancestor. All agreed that physical types betokened other characteristics; tall, blond dolichocephalics (those with long heads) were strong and intelligent, while the brachycephalic (round or flat-headed) Alpines were docile, dull, and easily led. “This idea of temperament as a racial trait was based on a perversion of Darwinian evolution,’’ Painter writes. “With a perfectly straight face anthropologists reasoned that evolution operated on entire races (not individuals or breeding populations), that races had personalities, and that physical measurements of heads betokened racial personalities.’’

From skull-measuring to IQ testing, science has long been complicit in the ugliest racial politics, and the best parts of “The History of White People’’ manage to both soberly assess the damage and almost gleefully highlight the craziness behind it. It’s shocking that a book about such ugliness should be such fun to read. Avoiding the dense thickets of academic jargon and the cinematic-uplifting tone of so many history books, Painter maintains a calm, ironic, almost bemused tone — a wise choice, when the material speaks for itself in such bizarre voices. Another good call was the generous use of illustrations; it’s one thing to read about a chart mapping the angles of faces from the chimpanzee to the Apollo Belvedere, another to see the array of cartoonish stereotyping.

After diving deeply into the German and American scholarly taxonomies of race, Painter races almost too quickly through the 20th century, as immigrant groups assimilated into the WASP mainstream, a story already well told by Noel Ignatiev, David Roediger, and others. Painter elegantly distills the crucial, depressing story: “being a real American often meant joining antiblack racism and seeing oneself as white against the blacks.’’ The final chapter, too, feels cramped, lumping together innovations in the census, the rise of multiracial identity, and the race implications of the mapping of the human genome. I wish the book had been longer, to allow Painter more time to tease out these threads; for just as she writes that new census classifications acknowledge “the impermanence of race,’’ her important new book illustrates the dismal permanence of racism.

Kate Tuttle is a writer and editor who lives in Belmont.


Norton, 496 pp., illustrated, $27.95