(Mwangi Gatheca)

‘The History of White People’ and Their Mixed Legacies

“People with light skin certainly existed well before our own times. But did anyone think they were ‘white’; or that their character related to their color? No, for neither the idea of race nor the idea of ‘white’ people had been invented, and people’s skin color did not carry useful meaning.” So begins Nell Irvin Painter’s history concerning the social construction of race in the United States. She traces whiteness from ancient Greece, through the foundational racial theorists years of the nineteenth century, to its culmination with the progressive-era eugenicists, to what she refers to as the Fourth Enlargement of American Whiteness, which occurred in the past 50 years—and continues today.

Why We Need ‘The History of White People’

At the tail-end of an illustrious career, which includes stays at Harvard and Princeton, Nell Irvin Painter delivers a new addition to the ever-growing list of books “every American must read.” The History of White People does a great service, restoring color to the whitewashed history indoctrinated into us by our government-run schools. Painter fills huge gaps in the thoroughly racist history of the West, specifically the United States, layering major events with the dark motivations underpinning historical movements. Racial thinking was so endemic to politics, culture, and science during the past three centuries that it’s rather profound how divorced the legacies of western civilization’s most eminent individuals have been from it.

The premise of the book isn’t all that obscure today—for one can read a plethora of articles articulating why “Race is a Social Construct,” “Racism is Real, Race is Not,” or declarations that “There’s No Scientific Basis for Race”—but its breadth and readability are a treasure to behold. Painter does for racial history what Thomas Sowell did for political philosophy in his volume A Conflict of Visions. She provides a gentle gateway through which those unfamiliar with race theory may study whiteness. In her own review of the book, Linda Gordon asserts, “It has something to teach everyone, including whiteness experts, but it is accessible and breezy, its coverage broad and therefore necessarily superficial.”

The History of White People is replete with substance sufficient enough to agitate any social justice activist or cultural critic. If somebody was a prominent figure in the nineteenth or early-twentieth century, odds are, they were a racialist—one who believes humanity is biologically divided into different races—and almost as likely, a constructor of racial theory. Painter includes numerous lesser known contributors, alongside others whose legacies have better than most weathered the pox of prejudice.

If somebody was a prominent figure in the nineteenth or early-twentieth century, odds are, they were a racialist—one who believes humanity is biologically divided into different races—and almost as likely, a constructor of racial theory.

We can use this dizzying volume to identify some of the roots of inequality we see today, to rectify the bewildering degree to which antiquated “science” and certain cultural values limit human potentials, and we absolutely should; additionally, this book implies a question that has found parallels during the #Metoo and #Timesup debates—how do we judge the life or contributions made by a person whose gifts to humanity include racial chauvinism or blatant disregard for the personal freedom and human dignity of others?   

Meet the Racialists

Fans of the popular musical The Greatest Showman, who are less familiar with the film’s protagonist, will meet disappointment. While discussing the early melding of whiteness with beauty, as attributed to the Circassians, Painter points out that “P.T. Barnum, never one to ignore a commercial opportunity, took note of this purported glut of white slaves, and in 1864, as the Civil War raged, directed his European agent to find ‘a beautiful Circassian girl’ or girls to exhibit in Barnum’s New York Museum on Broadway as ‘the purest example of the white race.'”

Some ground has been covered before, as with American President and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. While progenitor of American ideals of republicanism, Jefferson’s criticisms of slavery focus more on the impact the institution has on whites than on the enslaved. (Keep in mind that at this time Irish, Celts, light-skinned indentured servants or slaves, and Catholics weren’t seen as “white” by the advantaged classes.) Jefferson worried slave-owning children would take after their parents’ calloused behavior toward enslaved peoples, thus developing coarse character, harming the virtues of American society.

Painter even takes swings at Alexis de Tocqueville, the French evangelizer of American democracy. Arguably the most quoted piece of French writing in the United States, Democracy in America has also contributed to racial theory. In his tour of America, in the 1840s, he praises the new country for the virtuous character of its people and the egalitarian nature of its associations. However, he does little to address the plight of non-Whites. Painter notes,

“The specter of race war ‘constantly haunts the imaginations of Americans like a nightmare,’ but Tocqueville leaves his fears with that. Pursuing this line of thought would distort his egalitarian image of the United States. In truth, Tocqueville does not know what to do with the problem of Slavery or how to integrate the South into his depiction of the United States . . . . He solves his conundrum by cutting the South, slavery, and black people [and non-whites] out of his theory, admitting, in a footnote in volume 2 that only Americans living in the free states conform to his image of a democratic, egalitarian society.”

Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth-century satirist and philosopher whose ideas greatly informed socialism and fascism, viewed the Irish as a people bred to be dominated. Himself Scottish, he highlighted his Saxon heritage in contrast with the perceived inferiority of Celtic Scots. Carlyle’s friend and American icon of New Englander intellect, Ralph Waldo Emerson, also derided the Irish and Catholics, placing them near the bottom of the racial hierarchy, just above Africans, casting them as incompetent races.

Provided Emerson’s unrivaled influence on the American mind during the mid-nineteenth century—and continued today in most literature classes—Painter dedicates the greater part of three chapters to him. She refers to him as the “philosopher king of American white race theory.” She contends that he wrote one of the earliest and most-complete statements of a belief system that would later be referred to as Anglo-Saxonism. Central to it was the notion that the highest of human ideals in temperament and stature started in the Greco-Roman world, later manifesting in breeds of strong Norse Men who inhabited the Northern regions of present-day Germany and Denmark. These tribes, known as the Angles and Saxons invaded England, eventually spawning the Anglo-Saxons who established the United States.

The “City on a Hill” wasn’t merely a spiritual example to the world, but a land of racial paragons, a reminder to all non-white races that they would never be able to share this inherited endowment, gifted to whites by God (or nature).

Known as the Father of Transcendentalism—the American version of romanticism—it is rare these days for somebody to mention Emerson’s Anglo-Saxonist book, English Traits. In it, he argues that the Anglo-Saxons are the permanent masters of the world. He reveres them (both English and American varieties) for their complexion, blond hair, blue eyes, tall stature, and ferocious manhood. Painter underlines the contradictions in this strain of thought; “Emerson ignored particularities of geography and lumped together Norsemen, Jutes, and Saxons as marvelous Scandinavian pirates, ‘a rude race, all masculine, with brutish strength . . . . Let Buffalo gore buffalo, and the pasture to the strongest!’” He continues by arguing that Anglo-Saxons or Norsemen have a homeland that actually resides in present-day Norway. Painter corrects Emerson’s Anglo-Saxon-philia by noting that “Scandinavia might work as the ancestral home of northern whiteness, but Scandinavia of the 1850s created a dilemma: it was backward and really quite poor—a little nothing beside the British behemoth.”

Known as the Father of Transcendentalism—the American version of romanticism—it is rare these days for somebody to mention Emerson’s Anglo-Saxonist book, English Traits. In it he argues that the Anglo-Saxons are the permanent masters of the world.

To reconcile Scandinavian obscurity with British world dominance, Emerson resorted to a favorite fruit metaphor, arguing that Scandinavia lost its greatest men during the Dark Ages. They conquered England, endowing it with greatness, and never returning home. The North countries never recovered. Emerson said,

“The continued draught of the best men in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark to their piratical expeditions exhausted those countries, like a tree which bears much fruit when young, and these have been second-rate powers ever since. The power of the race migrated and left Norway permanently exhausted.”

Painter admits that Emerson barely leans on this theory, granting that he infrequently uses it to undermine the occasional criticisms of his Anglo-Saxonism.

Still, she spares no chance to diminish Emerson’s work, to the point that her disparagements begin to read more like personal-vendetta than scholarly observation: “A shared fascination with Englishness allowed Emerson and his readers to overlook a lot of nonsense in his ideas.”

English Traits, though overlooked (if not rejected, thankfully) by Transcendentalists and Emerson-readers today, must be acknowledged for the vitality it gave to racial chauvinists the century since. It’s nothing short of devastating that “English Traits expressed the views of the most prestigious intellectual in the United States, elevating its formulation into American ideology. The American was the same as the Englishman, who was the same as the Saxon and the Norseman. Thus ‘Saxon’ supplied the keyword exiling the Celtic Irish—white though they may be—from American identity.”

A minor stain to her scholarship, Painter rarely contextualizes the figures she analyzes. She offers a small salve to his admirers, conceding that Ralph Waldo Emerson was conscious of the virulent racial thinking of the era and renounces the worst of it. At the heart, Emerson is an individualist, beckoning others to repudiate collectivism—the polluting soil that gave us racism—choosing, instead, self-sufficiency and autonomy, his personal life an example of a “live and let live” philosophy. He famously wrote,

“The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion . . . . Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist . . . . I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions . . . . It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

It’s a sad turn of fate that he didn’t also use this principle of self-reliance to reject the racism of “large societies,” and the “dead institutions” of slavery and government-enforced racial theories, for he could have truly become “the great man” he implored others to be.

Racist Founders of Anthropology, Statistics, and Progressivism

Robert Knox, Samuel Morton, Louis Agassiz, leading figures in the founding of the American school of anthropology, were all polygenesists—believing that God created the races separately at the very beginning. All prominent anthropologists (and many of their students) at the time presumed that brain size and head-shape correlated with intelligence. Sir Francis Galton who identified the statistical concept of correlation and promoted the regression toward the mean, was the most famous statistician of his time. Inspired by his studies in genetic variations in human populations, he became both the father of eugenics and statistics. He invented the term eugenics, blending the Greek words for “good” and “inheritance.”

Inspired by his studies in genetic variations in human populations, he became both the father of eugenics and statistics. He invented the term eugenics, blending the Greek words for ‘good’ and ‘inheritance.’

During the progressive era, few scholars loomed as large as Willam Z. Ripley. An advocate for government regulation and champion of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, he authored the well-received book, The Races of Europe. There he divides Europe into three separate races with distinct biological temperaments: Teutonic, Alpine, Mediterranean. As one might guess, he placed Teutonics (later modified by others to ‘Nordic’) on top, followed by Alpines (including Celtics) and Mediterraneans (largely south and eastern Europeans). In a time when hysteria accompanied the massive influx of a “new type of immigrants” flooding into the United States, Ripley provided common racialists with a scientific justification for their nativism. This way of thinking had recently been accepted by Catholic Irish and Germans who had finally become “old” immigrants during the Second Enlargement of American Whiteness.

Progressive hero and exponent of the National Parks system, Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th president of the United States. Painter contends that during his political career he “never lost sight of race as the driving force of human history, especially of his “American race.” Similar to Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, he venerated Norse Vikings. She draws attention to how much he revels in the “hideous brutality” against Native Americans, saying, “Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for virile violence knows few bounds. Intrepid Americans who take over Texas merge into . . . Norsemen as ‘Norse sea-rovers,’ ‘a ship-load of Knut’s followers.’ Roosevelt pictures Sam Houston as an ‘old world Viking’ whose life as a whole emerges ‘as picturesque and romantic as that of Harold Hardrada himself.’” While initially exclusionary toward Irish immigrants, Roosevelt softened his views on them as his Irish American constituents increased in numbers.

Roosevelt preached about “race suicide” in frequent homilies to white Americans. He worried that his race was being watered-down. The influx of degenerate immigrants was making it burdensome to “prevent the higher races from losing their nobler traits and from being overwhelmed by the lower races.” To avoid any ambiguity about his political priorities, he went so far as to say that racial preservation stood, according to Painter, as a concern “fundamentally infinitely more important than any other question in this country.”

Roosevelt preached about ‘race suicide’ in frequent homilies to white Americans. He worried that his race was being watered-down.

Edward A. Ross, the founder of sociology in American universities, wrote The Causes of Racial Superiority,” a treatise on racial temperament and racial superiority. He coined the term “race suicide,” which Roosevelt popularized. Roosevelt would later refrain, “If all our nice friends in [white neighborhoods] have one child, or no child at all, while all the Finnegans, Hooligans, Antonios, Mandelbaums, and Rabinskis have eight, or nine, or ten—it’s simply a question of the multiplication table. How are you going to get away from it?”

Madison Grant, another outdoors enthusiast, can claim a great deal of responsibility for establishing Glacier National Park, Everglades National Park, and Olympic National Park. He can also take credit for fostering racialist thinking and eugenics. In his book, The Passing of the Great Race, he denounces the notion of America as a melting pot, embracing polygenesis, calling for whites to preserve the best of their stock. He hoped to remove inferior racial types so that “the most vital and intellectual strains” could ultimately “carry on the race.” Painter comments, “Grant and other eugenicists envisioned negative eugenics [a system for preventing a group from reproducing] as the glorious future of evolution. If this sounds Nazi-like, it most certainly was, and Nazis in Germany took lessons from Grant.”

Dissidents, or at least, partial non-conformists would soon arise. Frank Boaz, Ruth Fulton Benedict, and Margaret Meade, giants of the early days of anthropology, challenged the biological inheritance of racial temperament. They separated it from learned behavior of culture, eventually turning anthropology into a stalwart defender of environment as a large factor in the expression of culture and human development. Lending a rare bit of context and forgiveness to these historical characters, Painter acknowledges that Benedict is also a creature of her time. Benedict didn’t reject racial theory outright. She accepted as a given that Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans existed, and that the Nordics were the white race. She modified Ripley’s taxonomy, making these three into “subdivisions” of the Caucasian race, mentioning “Mongoloid and Negroid” as the other races. As Painter puts it, “She was trying to dig out of a very deep race hole, and she could get only halfway into clarity, as befit the confusions of her era.”

The Decline of the Racialists

Racial Theorists reached the peak of their influence in the 1920s, when Ku Klux Klan membership surged (marching in parades across the country), and progressive-era policies forcibly sterilized the “feeble-minded, epileptic,” and members of “degenerate families.” The aggressive enforcement of eugenics, taken to its logical extreme in Nazi Germany awakened scientific racists and social scientists to the import of their work. They were able to see their achievements less as objective science and more as prejudice cloaked in science.

The aggressive enforcement of eugenics, taken to its logical extreme in Nazi Germany awakened scientific racists and social scientists to the import of their work.

Painter concludes her book recounting how American identity has been, in many ways, expanded to include Asians, south and eastern Europeans, and Hispanics. Some members of these groups have been welcomed into white America, but many remained marginalized. Notably absent are African-Americans, Arab Americans, and Native Americans. This narrative structure is intentional, to evoke a sense that there is still work to be done. Painter suggests that whiteness must either continue to expand or be rejected altogether, understood as a social construct which can be used to overcome racial disparity in American society—remove the category of non-whiteness or use it as a tool to identify social injustices.

Are They Only Racialists?

Nell Irvin Painter writes, with a surprising non-partisan voice, to provoke readers to action. “The fundamental black/white binary endures,” she says, “even though the category of whiteness—or we might say more precisely, a category of non-blackness—effectively expands . . . . [P]overty 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.”

She is right to arouse a sense of injustice from us, that we don’t live in a post-racial society.

In addition to actions that can spur social change, we’re left wondering what is to be done with the other works and accomplishments of the aforementioned culprits. History shows we should reject their racialist theories and racism, but do we reduce the whole of their works, or even their personality, to that? Can or should we compartmentalize their legacies?

Whether we can compartmentalize a person’s achievements, as Ceri James Charlton, an acquaintance, once suggested to me, depends on our moral code and concept of redemption.  

If we believe that people (or their legacies) are either good or evil, based on the sum-total of their actions (and writings), then we should condemn Theodore Roosevelt for establishing the National Parks system in the same breath that we decry his talk of “race suicide.” And, we should vilify Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to expand religious freedom in Virginia (and the rest of his legacy) just as we denounce him for being a slave owner, as Shaun King proposes.

If we hold that every act (or literary work) is an isolated element, independent from everything else the person has done (or will do), each having its own unique moral value, then we embrace a more nuanced moral framework. This demands more from us as intelligent students of history (or any field), and prescient discerners of moral character. We can’t rely on knee-jerk reactions in response to others. We must learn to be comfortable with the gray spaces if we are to eradicate the lines between whites and non-whites.

We can dismiss the parts of Ralph Waldo Emerson which smack of English Traits and still maintain that his genius is on full display in his essays ‘Nature’ or ‘Self-reliance.’

We can dismiss the parts of Ralph Waldo Emerson which smack of English Traits and still maintain that his genius is on full display in his essays “Nature” or “Self-reliance.” Washingtonians can pay respect to Madison Grant for helping create Olympic National Park while disdaining his polygenism. We can appreciate the work Margaret Sanger did—who is conspicuously absent from History of White People—through her founding of Planned Parenthood, despite her advocacy of eugenics.

And, dare I say, when it comes to that place where we encounter reality in the most real way, within our personal relationships, that we ought to know how to appraise some elements of a person while criticizing and calling out their destructive parts. Love requires that we always keep in sight the humanity of the person in front of us, regardless of social constructs, just as wisdom demands that we continually pursue knowledge about the world around us.

Otherwise, we rob ourselves—and our fellow humans—of nearly every single act of beauty, mercy, justice, kindness, and enlightenment.  

Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey is Founder and Editor of Erraticus. He also serves as Director of Communications and Marketing at Effectiveness Institute, a training firm dedicated to helping organizations strengthen the emotional intelligence of their team members. He is a former mental health professional and educator. He covers education, philosophy, psychology, and religion. He resides in Cascadia.

6 thoughts on “‘The History of White People’ and Their Mixed Legacies

  • Great review of the book. Awesome job!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Justin.

  • Great article and summary of the book Jeffrey!

    You’d probably be fascinated to know that Nell Irvin Painters work on Emerson completely ignores his support for the abolitionists and antislavery lectures. You can see Len Gougeons book called Virtues Hero if you’d like a detailed account of those things!

    In general, Painter mangles Emerson to fit her story.

    Emersons theories on race, while more than occasionally disappointing today, are not half as cartoonishly evil as Painter makes him out. Emerson flatly states in English Traits that ‘race’ is a conceptually murky category which he only intends to use for want of a better term to talk about characterisitcs it seems like groups share. At times he even argues the best races are mixtures, though his thinking is muddled here. Still, these are progressive opinions and doubts in an era of straightforward phrenological scientific racism. Emersons views on are remarkably similar to Fredrick Douglass’s, (Douglass read and enjoyed Emerson) and noone would be foolish to call Douglass a philosopher king of white supremacy. Douglass also had doubts about the Irish and Catholics. To oversimplify, he also thought the Irish and Catholics would be wiped out if they couldn’t – let’s say “modernize.” A grim but common view at the time. Clearly Emerson has more complicated and progressive views on race than Painter allows, whether or not they were as modern as we’d like.

    Furthermore, Painter’s summary of English Traits ignores the purpose of the work. It doesnt exist to glorify the Anglo-Saxon race, if anything it worries negative traits of Anglo-Saxons could be the future. Emerson spends most of that ponderous tome implicitly and explicitly comparing England and America, worried that America might adopt what he sees as the rampant materialism and skepticism of the British about morality. This same skepticism and materialism is what Emerson criticized in both Self Reliance and his antislavery lectures. Painters ommision of these critical facts about Emerson makes me doubt how well researched the rest of her book is given how heavily she leans on Emerson to prove her points. If she can’t get him right…

    Again, thanks for the good read. You did a great job with Painters work! Don’t take my criticisms of Painter as criticisms of the post, I just like Emerson being praised and criticized for the right reasons. All too often he seems to act as a lightning rod for scholars and pundits trying to diagnose what they see as the origin of the moral and intellectual corruption of modern American society. Whether it’s Painter calling him the phisopher king of white supremacy or the APA listing ‘self reliance’ as a potential form of mental illness, Emerson often can’t catch a break these days. Emerson has his flaws to be sure, but it would be nice if people stopped inventing new ones.

    • Your clarifications are much appreciated.

      I’d have to revisit Painter’s discussion about Emerson’s involvement with the abolitionists. I recall her framing it in a way which advanced her narrative: that he perfectly reflects a rationalists mindset, as if everything he saw was through a rigid, racial lens aimed to reify racial hierarchies.

      • You seemed to be frustrated with what you perceived as her animus against Emerson, so I figured you’d appreciate knowing just how poorly researched her work on Emerson is.

        There is no doubt that Emerson more than occasionally saw the world in terms of racial hierarchies and sometimes worried some races might be doomed, but that he also became a consistent antislavery advocate criticized precisely because he imagined that it was possible for slaves to disprove the rigidity of the “scientific” racial hierarchies.

        Emerson’s theoretical philosophy of race is definitely muddled, but on a whole, it mostly undermines the idea of racial purity as a reality or desirable goal. Furthermore, it perhaps matters more what he did than said. Emerson supporting the abolitionists and declaring in his lectures on the subject that slavery was based on nothing more than prejudice, custom, materialism, and skepticism about the value of humanity and morality. Too bad Painter leaves all this out.

        Len Gougeon summarizes the problems with Painter’s coverage of Emerson well:

        “Painter contends that ‘Emerson had little to say about black people’ despite his numerous antislavery addresses in which he celebrated, defended, and encouraged them. She also implies that Emerson’s racial views were similar to those of his racist friend Thomas Carlyle, but the private and public record shows them to be diametrically opposed. She also claims that Emerson never advocated suffrage ‘for either white women or black people of any sex’, while the public record, as indicated above, clearly shows he did both.

        Better informed scholars who have written on Emerson and race have concluded that he was actually staunchly opposed to the racist theories of his day, on both moral and scientific grounds. The notion of a fixed and determinate reality that denied the possibilities of human development and growth ran against most of his fundamental beliefs. As indicated in his early essay “Circles” (1841), Emerson always insisted, ‘There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile’. Recognizing this, his fundamental goal was always to challenge conventional beliefs that sought to stifle this progressive flow. His ultimate desires was to ‘unsettle all things.’ The universe, he believed, is moral at its core. Thus, any theory of law or science that attempts to visit upon any group of people a damning determinism is clearly out of sync with that moral law. Like slavery itself, theories of deterministic racial inferiority are simply inconsistent ‘with the principles on which the world is built’. Those principles constitute a divine and ‘Higher Law’, hence his declaration, noted earlier, that the deterministic racism expressed in the word ‘Niggers’ is a ‘damnable atheism’.”

        -Taken from Len Gougeon’s Essay “Pragmatist Idealist in Action, 1850-1865” in Mr. Emerson’s Revolution, Edited by Jean McClure Mudge, 2015.

        I could go on quoting Gougeon, but the basic facts of just how woefully wrong Painter is on race and Emerson should be clear by now. I have no idea how Painter could portray Emerson as a “rationalist,” given how central identifying one’s true impulses and following them is to Emerson. Especially because he always was suspicious of conventional rationality acting as a cover for vice. Perhaps Painter didn’t bother to read him or his works in context, or with an open mind, and cherry picked the worst examples she could find in English Traits. In any case, it’s shoddy scholarship.

        Regardless of all this, you were right to observe, that even if everything Painter said were true about Emerson, that that would not diminish our ability to admire what is great about him. After all, Emerson merely called himself an “experimenter” in “Circles,” he expects, even demands us to criticize, improve upon, and flatly go beyond the limits of his ideas. Anything less would be the kind of “imitation” that Emerson thought lead to moral and intellectual “suicide” in “Self Reliance.”

        Again, great article Jeffrey.

        I think you found the right takeaway in spite of Painter, which is a credit to your reading of both Emerson and Painter. We can and should learn from the good and bad in each other and the people of the past. Otherwise we merely rob ourselves, as you wisely noted.

  • Emerson wrote in his journal “…all the European tribes–of the Africans and the Polynesians, will construct a new race..” Emerson in His Journals, ed. Joel Porte (Cambridge, 1982 ), 341. Hardly a racist! Our identity problems will be ended when we all marry one another. Love will win.


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