Jon Harrison Sims, American Renaissance, July 2010
Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People, W.W. Norton, 2010, 496 pp.
Nell Painter, a professor of American history at Princeton, has written something she calls The History of White People, but it is not really history. The Greek word historia means an inquiry or narrative into the events of the past. Instead, Prof. Painter has written a deconstruction of what she considers the false and oppressive “social construct” of race, which was invented “by dominant peoples to justify their domination of others.” She starts with ancient Europe, where she asserts there was no such thing as white people because no one thought in terms of race. She admits that some people had lighter skin than others, but that no one attached any meaning to it. Then she skips to the Enlightenment, where, she claims, race and whiteness were invented, and devotes most of the book to what she considers the crackpot science of race that flourished from about 1780 to 1930.
Professor Painter also denies that there is any such thing as white history, white culture, or white civilization. “Whiteness,” she tells us, “is merely a “category of non-blackness,” “the leavings of what is not black” — in other words, pure negation. Prof. Painter’s goal is to make whites a non-people by denying their existence and erasing their history. Needless to say, The History of White People has been respectfully reviewed rather than denounced as a breathtaking dismissal of an entire people.
Prof. Painter writes that her book belongs to the new field of “white studies,” which was established in the 1990s. It is more cult than academic discipline, and is based on denial of the obvious. “Today,” Prof. Painter announces, “biologists and geneticists . . . no longer believe in the physical existence of races — though they recognize the continuing power of racism (the belief that races exist, and that some are better than others).” She also writes that “each person shares 99.9 percent of the genetic material of every other human being,” and dismisses skin color as a superficial adaptation to the strength of the sun. Having disposed of both science and common sense in just a few sentences, she warns that we must retain the “category” of race only long enough “to strike down patterns of discrimination.” Race is a myth but “racism” is real.
Prof. Painter begins her “history” with the ancient world, “thousands of years before the invention of the concept of race.” “Ancient Greeks did not think in terms of race,” she says with authority. Nor did the Romans. They could not have been white because “neither the idea of race nor the idea of ‘white’ people had been invented.” She complains that “not a few Westerners have attempted to racialize antiquity, making ancient history into white race history.”
Prof. Painter is wrong; the concept of race is of ancient lineage. Both the Greeks and Romans had several words equivalent to our word, “race.” The word “ethnic,” meaning origin by birth or descent rather than by present nationality, is derived from the ancient Greek ethnos, which meant the same thing in ancient times. If she read ancient literature Prof. Painter would find that classical scholars translate ethnos as people, nation, or race, depending on context.
Nationality in the ancient world was defined by birth and descent. Thus, when the Hellenic historian Herodotus, the father of history, wrote of the Ellenikon (Hellenic) ethnos, acceptable translations would be Greek people, Greek nation, or Greek race. During the Persian invasion of 480-479 BC, the Athenians assured their Spartan allies that they would not betray fellow Greeks: “we are one in blood and one in language, and we worship the same gods.” Plato observed that “the Hellenic race is united by ties of blood and friendship.”
The Greeks were not unified politically until the time of Alexander (356-323 BC). Before that, their city states often fought each other, but they always recognized that, whatever their city or tribe, they belonged to the same nation or race. They called non-Greeks barbaroi, and resident foreigners metics. The latter were not normally eligible for citizenship. When Pericles (495-429 BC), the Athenian statesman and democrat, proposed a law to deny citizenship to anyone not born of both an Athenian mother and father it easily passed the assembly and became law.
The Greeks also drew clear ethnic distinctions between peoples. Homer used the figurative phrase “sun-burnt races” for brown-skinned Asiatics [and Africans] because Greeks and Europeans were lighter-skinned. Aristotle believed that “barbarians were more servile in character than Hellenes, and Asiatics more so than Europeans, for Asiatics submit without murmuring to despotic government.” Aristotle urged his pupil Alexander to maintain sharp distinctions between Greeks and their eastern enemies, and to treat conquered peoples “like plants and animals.” Prof. Painter quotes the Greek physician Hippocrates, who noted of the Scythians that “it is the cold which burns their white skin and turns it ruddy.” Prof. Painter does not seem to have noticed the words “white skin” in this passage.
As for the Romans, there is even clearer evidence that they thought in terms of common descent and physical differences. Their words genus and generis were almost an exact equivalent to our word “race.” Cassell’s Latin Dictionary defines them as meaning “race, stock, family,” also “birth, descent, origin,” and in its broadest sense, “kind.” Our word genocide comes from it. Romans had a related word, gens, gentis, which meant “clan,” but more generally, “people, tribe, nation.” It was derived from the verb gigno or geno, meaning “to beget, bear, bring forth.” The words natio and nationis meant “being born, birth,” but could also mean “tribe, race, or people.” Natio was the Roman goddess of birth, and our word nation comes from her name.
Clearly the Romans, like the Greeks, regarded a nation as a group with a common ancestry, in other words an ethnic group or race. The Roman historian Suetonius recorded that “[Emperor] Augustus thought it very important not to let the native Roman stock be tainted with foreign or servile blood, and was therefore unwilling to create new Roman citizens, or permit the manumission of more than a limited number of slaves.” The poet Juvenal railed against “Easterners” (Egyptians, Syrians, Jews) who were flooding into Rome, complaining that the Orontes, a river in Syria, “has poured its sewage into our native Tiber.” He called one upstart Egyptian “silt washed down by the Nile.” Romans never spoke of fellow Europeans — Thracians, Germans, Gauls, Iberians — in such insulting terms, except for the Greeks, for whom they appear to have held some special enmity. Juvenal even warned one Roman administrator that while it was safe to plunder the eastern provinces, not so the western: “But steer clear of rugged Spain, give a very wide berth to Gaul and the coast of Illyria.”
The Romans were clearly struck by the physical appearance of the Celtic and Germanic tribes to their north. Prof. Painter does not include a single physical description of the Gauls by a Roman, but there are many. Diodorus Sicilus (1st century BC) described “the Gauls as tall of body, with rippling muscles, and white of skin, and their hair is blond . . .” Ammianus Marcellinus, the late imperial Roman historian (4th century AD), wrote that “almost all Gauls are tall and fair-skinned with reddish hair.” Virgil described the Gauls who sacked Rome in 390 BC as having “golden hair, striped cloaks, white necks entwined with gold.” The Roman historian Cassius Dio (c. 150-c. 230 AD) described Queen Boudicca, who led the Gallic revolt against Roman rule in 61 AD, as being tall with long-flowing “tawny hair.” Prof. Painter does manage to quote Tacitus, who described the Germans as “tall” with “fierce blue eyes and red hair.” (Tacitus used the word rutilus, which meant “red, golden, auburn.”)
It is clear, therefore, that even if they did not use the word, the Romans thought of their northern neighbors as white, and some suffered from what might be called “blond envy.” Having lost some of the fair features of their ancestors, later Romans wanted to look more like the Gauls and Germans. The Christian author Tertullian (160-225 AD) complained that “some women dye their hair blond by using saffron. They are even ashamed of their country, sorry that they were not born in Germany or in Gaul.” Juvenal records that the Emperor Claudius’ wife Messalina kept her “black hair hidden under an ash-blonde wig.” Prof. Painter claims that the ideal of white beauty arose as part of the Eastern European slave trade. She is off by about 1,500 years.
The Romans not only noticed physical differences, they thought of them in racial terms. When Tacitus found the same physical features (“red hair and tall stature”) among the people of Caledonia (Scotland), he assumed that they were of “Germanic origin,” meaning that they belonged to the same race. When he noticed that the Silures living nearby had “swarthy faces and curly hair,” he assumed they were of Iberian origin. Iberians had the same features and could have sailed from Spain to Britain. Tacitus was not sure whether heredity or climate was the stronger influence on physical appearance, but Prof. Painter assures us that the ancients thought it was all due to climate.
Prof. Painter mentions the peoples of northern and western Europe — whom the Greeks knew as Keltoi and Skythai and the Romans as Celtae, Galli, and Germani — only to tell us that they did not think of themselves as white. “Rather than as ‘white’ people, northern Europeans were known by vague tribal names: Scythians and Celts, then Gauls and Germani.” Prof. Painter is wrong. Those were national, not tribal names. The Germans knew themselves by such tribal names as Marsi, Suebi, or Alemanni. It was the Gauls, and then the Romans, who gave them the national name Germani. Likewise, the Celts called themselves by their tribal names, such as the Helvetii of what is now Switzerland, and the Iceni of eastern Britain, but they were aware that they belonged to a family of tribes related by kinship, religion, language, and mores.
Like all good anti-racists, Prof. Painter thinks “pure racial ancestry” is “nonsense.” Yet how do we explain the close resemblance between Gauls and Germans, on the one hand, and their descendants in those places that have seen little non-white immigration: Iceland, Scandinavia, Scotland, Nova Scotia, New Zealand? These people kept their physical characteristics because generations of whites married other whites. Even the Romans assumed that Nordics could not mix with darker people without losing their fair features. Tacitus concluded that the blond people of Germania were “a pure race unmixed by intermarriage with other races,” partly because of their northern isolation but also because they looked so similar to each other. Adamantius, the Alexandrian physician (4th century AD), made the same point about the Greeks of his time: wherever the Hellenic race “has been kept pure” it retained the light features of its ancestors.
Prof. Painter confuses the recessive traits of whites with some kind of natural variability. “Anyone in a mixed-race family knows of the impermanence of parental skin color, for the sex act immediately affects the very next generation.” That simply proves what she denies: features that have persisted for millennia can disappear in a single generation when whites marry outside their race. Whites — but apparently only whites — are evil if they take pride in their appearance and want to perpetuate it in future generations: “Nowadays, only white supremacists and Nazis fetishize white racial purity.”
The modern era
Prof. Painter devotes many chapters to “scientific racism,” the systematic study of anthropological differences that began in the late 18th century. “Scientific racism” in this context is an anachronism because the word “racism” did not appear until the 1930s and had no ancient, medieval, or early modern counterpart. The concept behind it — that it is morally wrong to discriminate on the basis of race — is a mid-20th century invention.
Because she has decreed that there is no such thing as race, Prof. Painter regards any attempt to study it as pseudo-science. She explains that 19th-century “European anthropologists were typically both provincial and arrogant. They operated from two basic assumptions: the natural superiority of white peoples and the infallibility of modern science.” It is she, however, who is guided by unproven articles of faith: the non-existence of race, the equality of all people, and the decisive power of environment. Her sole criterion for judging earlier anthropologists is the extent to which they anticipate her globalist views.
The modern use of the word “race” to describe the divisions of mankind dates to about 1775, with the publication of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s On the Natural Variety of Mankind. Blumenbach, a German anthropologist, was the first to classify whites as Caucasian. In the 1795 edition of his book, he proposed five racial types: Caucasian (white); Malayan (brown); Mongolian (yellow); Negro (black); American (red). Prof. Painter likes him because he believed that climate determined skin color, and because he classified so many non-Europeans — North Africans, Middle Easterners, South Asians — as Caucasian and therefore white. Blumenbach’s expansive classification of whiteness was never generally accepted; most people simply do not think of Tunisians and Frenchmen as the same race.
Prof. Painter also likes Franz Boas (1858-1942), the influential Columbia anthropologist who believed that environment, not genes, “shaped people’s bodies and psyches.” He claimed to have conducted an inter-generational study that found that the longer eastern and southern European immigrant women lived in America, the more their children’s head shapes came to resemble those of the northern European founding stock. “These findings were nothing short of revolutionary,” writes Prof. Painter. In fact, a reexamination of the data found they were nothing short of bogus.
Prof. Painter devotes three chapters to Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she despises for the pride he had in his own people. Emerson was “the most prestigious intellectual in the United States,” and thus gave further respectability and weight to the racialism of his time. Emerson may have been a progressive, a pantheist, and an antislavery man, but he also believed in the reality of race, the hierarchy of race, and the superiority of Anglo-Saxons.
Emerson believed that race was destiny. In other words, that the genetic endowments of a people largely determined their fate. Some races were capable of great things, others (Africans, for instance) were not. Environment, he thought, had little influence. “If the race is good, so is the place.” In his view, no race was greater than the English, and he considered his fellow New Englanders to be of pure English descent. In his widely read and celebrated English Traits(1856), he argued that the English were derived from the Celts, the Saxons, and the Northmen. All three were great races, and this union had created a people of genius, unsurpassed in beauty, valor, energy, and intellect. How else had this island nation conquered or settled most of the world, contributed so much to science, and produced so much great literature? The Saxons he considered to belong to the southern, Germanic branch of the formidable “Scandinavian race,” the Northmen (Norwegians, Swedes, Danes) to the northern branch. “Both branches . . . are distinguished for beauty.” It is easy to see why Professor Painter thinks Emerson was a dangerous figure.
As for Alexis de Tocqueville, Prof. Painter approvingly summarizes his critical comments about American slavery, but claims that he “minimizes one of the core issues in American politics and culture.” Not so. Tocqueville devoted a chapter of Democracy in America to race. Far from minimizing it he speculated that “the most formidable evil threatening the future of the United States is the presence of the blacks on their soil.” Tocqueville realized that even if slavery were abolished, racial differences that were “physical and permanent” would remain. Freed blacks would be jealous and resentful of their former masters and ashamed of their servile past. “Memories of slavery disgrace the race, and race perpetuates memories of slavery.”
Whites, on the other hand, would want nothing to do with former slaves. Tocqueville noticed that “race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists,” and thought one reason was the fear of miscegenation. “Of all Europeans,” he wrote, “the English have least mingled their blood with that of the Negroes.” Why not? “The white man in the United States is proud of his race and proud of himself.” As a result, “the freer the whites in America are, the more they will seek to isolate themselves.” Only a “despot subjecting the Americans and their former slaves beneath the same yoke” could “force the races to mingle,” Tocqueville wrote, but “while American democracy remains at the head of affairs, no one would dare any such thing.” Perhaps Tocqueville was too prescient for Prof. Painter’s liking.
Prof. Painter points out that many of the most important American racialist thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were from old and distinguished New England families. Thus, American Nordicist Madison Grant was a “quintessential patrician racist.” Grant wrote the bestselling and widely influential The Passing of the Great Race (1916). He was a leading conservationist and was friends with Theodore Roosevelt, who read and praised his work. Prof. Painter finds this quite shocking.
Another important racial thinker, whose work Prof. Painter dismisses as a “frenzied contribution to white race theory,” was Lothrop Stoddard (1883-1950). Stoddard, who was a protégé of Grant, had a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, and wrote The Rising Tide of Color in 1920. It sold well and even had a cover blurb from Warren G. Harding, who was elected President of the United States that fall. Prof. Painter does not discuss the contents of the book — again, it was perhaps too prescient. Stoddard warned his white brethren of the dangers of racial infighting (he opposed both world wars), and predicted the breakup of the European colonial empires. He foresaw the rise of fundamentalist Islam, the emergence of brown nationalism, as well as mass migration of non-whites into white homelands.
Of course, for Prof. Painter, anyone past or present who thinks whites are worth preserving as a distinct people with a distinct destiny is a vicious bigot, and if she has her way, whites will be displaced and outbred. The preposterous idea that race does not exist is only the most recent argument meant to overcome what faint resistance whites may yet have to oblivion. After all, if there is no such thing as race and we are 99.9 percent identical, we are only being replaced by ourselves.
Prof. Painter is black, and it is rare for blacks to claim to believe that race is a myth. Most blacks have such a vivid sense of race that they see this whites-only-believe-it foolishness for what it is. Everybody knows races exist, that they have distinct features, and that when members of different races mate they produce hybrids. What else is there to know? There is very little prattle from blacks about race as a “social construct,” so perhaps it is fitting that Prof. Painter, who claims she wants to obliterate race, mouths trendy nonsense that usually fools only whites.
Blacks will largely ignore her book, but The History of White People was the subject of the main review in the New York Times Book Review of March 28, 2010, and it was treated respectfully in The New Yorker of April 12, 2010. However, even The New Yorker found “something reductive” in Prof. Painter’s insistence “that whiteness . . . isn’t real.” “Perhaps it’s time we start viewing it,” the article went on, “as the slow birth of a people.” Substitute rebirth for birth and The New Yorker is on to something. As for “white studies,” it is a redundant field. We already have it. It’s called European history and Western Civilization.