The History of White People: A Book Review: Part Three
Militarized "White" Identity Politics
Here is what I mean by the use of the term "militarized white identity politics" (the term is not mine originally, but one I heard used by a historian called Dr. Gerald Horne).
If you were the ruler of a country in Europe where 95-96-97 or more, percent of the population was "white-skinned" like you, a good way to see who was with you and who was against you---come to think of it---was the implementation of, say, a religious litmus test.
Now then, in a more phenotypically diverse place like America, not only do you not need to apply a religious litmus test, you should not do it. In fact, it would be dangerous for you to do so, because it would put you at a strategic disadvantage against groups like Africans, slave and free, and the various Indigenous nations.
"United we stand, divided we fall," and all that.
What you need to do, for you strategic safety, in the new, diverse, American environment is to organize yourselves on the basis of being commonly European, of being "fellow Christians,"---never mind denomination---and realizing that there is a plain physical marker which can signal all of this: that is, skin color, "whiteness."
This allows you to have maximum strategic strength against the Indigenous and Africans.
Dr. Painter's book does not go into this. However, it is good to know; because, that way, it becomes quite clear as to how the American system was able to ideologically, culturally, and politically scrub---several European groups that had been relegated into third-class status, by virtue of being southern and eastern Europeans---into the first-class status of American "whiteness."
The American system, then, indicated that "whiteness" was merely a state of mind, after all, rather than a matter of strict genetic integrity.
Now then, in her book, The History of White People, Dr. Painter calls this process the four "enlargements of American whiteness." If you were willing to do the work, as it were, you might be "cleansed" and "whitened." Let me just quote something Dr. Painter said about what was originally meant by American "races."
Nell Irvin Painter:
"From St. Jean de Crevecoeur in 1782 to Horace Kallen in 1915 and into the late 1930s, to speak of American 'races' was to speak of Americans of Jewish, Slavic, Italian, Irish, German, and even, 'Anglo-Saxon' and "Teutonic' background, identities assumed to be more or less permanent. Black people were relegated to a separate and lower racial compartment along with Native American Indians and Asians, not entirely American, if not completely alien. The American was a figure of European heritage" (1).
At any rate, that is how we move from "Anglo-Saxon chauvinism" or favoritism to the idea of "whiteness"---a term and a concept that did not exist until it was created in America, in the late seventeenth-early eighteenth century. The chapters you'll want for that discussion are: Nine: "The First Alien Wave"; Fourteen: "The Second Enlargement of American Whiteness"; Twenty-Six: "The Third Enlargement of American Whiteness"; and Twenty-Eight: "The Fourth Enlargement of American Whiteness."
Dr. Painter is good enough to give us a hint about how this process worked---a modality of it, anyway. She writes:
"With real American identity coded according to race, being a real American often meant joining antiblack racism and seeing oneself as white against the blacks. Looking back to the war years, an Italian American recalled a tempting invitation to take sides during the Harlem riot of 1943: 'I remember standing on a corner, a guy would throw the door open and say, "Come on down." They were goin' to Harlem to get in the riot. They'd say, "Let's beat up some niggers." It was wonderful. It was new. The Italo-Americans stopped being Italo and started becoming Americans. We joined the group. Now we're like you guys, right?' (2).
Malcolm X and Toni Morrison famously said that the first English word out of the mouths of European immigrants was frequently "nigger." Morrison said that it was second after "okay" (3).
From there we can talk about "The White Beauty Ideal As Science," which is chapter five of Dr. Painters book. The most important name and biography there belongs to Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), widely believed by historians to be the father of art history.
While he "did not contribute directly to theories of race," writes Dr. Painter, "he does play a large role in this story by passing along assumptions on the ideal form and color of human beauty that inspired much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racial theorizing" (4).
The other important name, in this area of the white beauty ideal as science, is that of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Indeed, it is this scientist, according to Dr. Painter, who gave the name "Caucasian" to white people. That is the title of chapter six: "Johann Friedrich Blumenbach Names White People Caucasian."
We are talking about a whole range of work which, among other things, dealt with the comparative measurement of various skulls, which was supposed to "proof" of intelligence as well as beauty. Many well respected scientists had taken out a franchise on this kind of thing.
The last two chapters I'll just mention as important to what we're talking about, are chapter 18: "The Discovery of Degenerate Families" and chapter 19: "From Degenerate Families To Sterilization."
I'll just say that you have to remember the eugenics movement the United States had in the 1920s and 1930s; and how, interestingly enough, it was deployed by a segment of "white" people (Anglo-Saxon chauvinists, seeing themselves as derived from northern and western European stock) against another segment of "whites" (those of southern and eastern European origin).
Thank you for reading. That will do it.
1. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. (paperback). 356-357
2. ibid, 363
4. ibid, 59
More by this Author
We are doing a non-fiction book review of a work of cultural history by Dr. Nell Irvin Painter: "The History of White People."
Welcome to part ten of this series, in which we are holding a "textual-dialogue" with a book by independent scholar, Susan Jacoby: "The Age of American Unreason."
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