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The History of White People – a review

Nell Irvin Painter is an Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University. She is the author of seven books.

Painter begins in ancient times, with the Greeks, when "...[N]either the idea of race nor the idea of 'white' people had been invented."

Indeed, to depart from Painter's history, humanity from prehistory categorized their fellow humans without an agreed upon understanding as to who was human and who was beast. Small societies of people described themselves as "people" and others as something else.

Painter discusses the culture of slavery among the ancient Greeks, including the commonality of parents selling their children. That is in her first chapter. Next she discusses the Romans and Celts. In Chapter Four she is already in the 17th century. And soon at the beginning of the 20th century, she is writing about what academics and others had in mind when they thought of "white" people.

From the 18th century, European academics were defining their preference for whiteness. There was the father of art history, Johann Joachim Winkelmann (1717-68), who passed along "assumptions on the ideal form and color of human beauty that inspired much eighteenth and nineteenth century racial theorizing." Then came the academician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who went from comparative anatomy, including skull shapes, to the classification of what he called races, of which he determined five. He saw it as, in Painter's words, "necessary to rank skin color hierarchically, beginning, not surprisingly, with white. Believing it to be the oldest variety of man, he puts it in 'the first place'."

Chapters 10, 11 and 12 are critical of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Chapter 4, Painter praises the dissent of anthropologist Franz Boas. She writes that "Late nineteenth 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 elite modern science." She adds that in studying the Inuit people, Boas concluded that 'We have no right to look down on them,' This, Painter writes was a "heretical thought at the time." She describes Boas further:

Downplaying anatomical differences between the races, Boas looked to environment and culture rather than to race as shapers of people's bodies and psyches. (p. 231)

Boas differentiated between the average faculty of a people and individuals who were well above average, mitigating against common whites who liked to polish their ego by associating themselves with genius just because they are of the same "race."

In 1906, Boas delivered a commencement address at Atlanta University and, according to Painter, delivered a message of encouragement for young [Black] people about to enter a hostile America. She continues,

In these Atlanta remarks, Boas draws intriguing parallels. For instance, he links the differences between European Jews and Gentiles to imagined racial differences between European nobles and peasants. At this time French authors like Gobineau and Lapouge, along with many other European writers, considered France's nobility Teutonic and the common people Celts, a supposedly different and inferior race.

Painter discusses the racist attitudes rampant in the U.S. in the early 1900s that drew lines between people of a "Teutonic heritage," including the genius of Anglo-Saxon Protestants, uniquely suited racially for self-government, and other Europeans. "Race suicide" was being talked about by Teddy Roosevelt and others. This suicide was seen as a result of superior people mixing with degenerate poor white families and immigrant workers from southern and eastern Europe. African Americans, Painter writes, "hardly figured in this discussion, as prominent race thinkers had convinced themselves that the Negro was dying out, unfitted as he was to live outside of slavery." (p. 250)

Painter discusses Francis Amasa Walker, (1840-97) "the most admired American economist and statistician of his time." He wrote in an 1896 issue of Atlantic Monthly comments critical of whites deemed not sufficiently Germanic:

They have none of the inherited instincts and tendencies which made it comparatively easy to deal with the immigration of the olden time. They are beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence... They have none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take readily and easily the problems of self-care and self-government, such as belong to those who are descended from the tribes that met under the oak-trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains.

Painter discusses another anthropologist: Ruth Benedict – mentored by Boas. Benedict, Painter writes, sorted out the differences between race and racism. Benedict described culture as not race dependent and that Italians, Jews and the British were not races.

In Painter's last three chapters – 26, 27 and 28 – she describes the advances in thoughts about race among white Americans, Black nationalism and some hanging on to past confusions among others. She is still writing about concepts of racial differences and adds to this the impact of knowledge about genetics, with a short discussion of the environment affecting skin color development.

Her last two sentences read:

For quite some time, many observers have held that money and interracial sex would solve the race problem, and, indeed, in some cases they have. Nonetheless, poverty 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.

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A reader on Amazon.com describes as false Painter's claim that a one drop [of Black blood] rule forced onto predominantly white people the categorization of Black. He writes of the "latest research showing" otherwise. His comments are here. Scroll down to his title, "A Distorted History of Whiteness." Forty-eight of fifty-eight Amazon readers found his comments helpful, and four people commented on his comments, creating a lively discussion.

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The writer and associate professor of history at the College of Charleston, W. Scott Poole, describes Painter's work here.