Reading a book called The History of White People on the subway is a disorienting experience. Each time I look up, I encounter a spectrum of skin colors, from pasty winter white to deep African black—with numerous shades in between. Nell Irvin Painter’s insightful new book may remind us that in reality, there is no such thing as racial difference. But as I glance around the N train, it’s hard to avoid seeing distinctions in hue without thinking that they reveal something innate about each person; such a habit of mind is ingrained in American culture (and we are by no means exceptional). It’s even more troubling that in 2010, Brooklyn remains so residentially segregated that one can likely guess pretty accurately where each person lives. As to the question of whether Obamaland can become a post-racial society, color me a skeptic.
Painter’s approach brings forth the strengths and weaknesses of old-fashioned intellectual history. In assessing how leading thinkers from antiquity through the present created dubious racial hierarchies, Painter creates a coherent narrative based around innumerable incoherent ideas. There’s more than a bit of dark humor to be found in the writings of figures such as the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), who once insisted that Turks (by which he was referring to Persians) were “originally a hideous race, [but they] improved their appearance, and rendered themselves more agreeable, when handsomer nations became servants to them.” Painter seems to take particular delight in detailing the many idiotic racial observations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, still a towering giant in American thought. Like Jefferson before him, Emerson worshipped the Saxon “race,” at one point maintaining that as opposed to the innate “despotism” of the Normans, the “Saxon seed carries an instinct for liberty.” As history all-too frequently reminds us, yesterday’s windbag will be tomorrow’s laughingstock.
How much the leading thinkers of any era represent popularly held views is another story. Long before mass education and mass culture, those considered “white” in America held very clear ideas about their alleged superiority. And the books from which those ideas sprang were full of statutes, not intellectual inquiry. I could go on at length about how in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, Virginia elites created legal separation of blacks and whites—see the classic works of Winthrop D. Jordan (White Over Black) and Edmund S. Morgan (American Slavery, American Freedom). But I’ve reached my stop, and I’m sure to get back on the subway another day.