You just have to read their 9 pages on retiring Chief Justice John Paul Stevens and this:
Beyond the Pale
Is white the new black?
by Kelefa Sanneh April 12, 2010
Glenn Beck excels at expressing adventurous thoughts in memorable language, but he outdid himself when, one morning last summer, he offered a diagnosis of President Obama. He said, “This President, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture. I don’t know what it is.” (The context was one of the summer’s most entertaining reality shows—the one starring the black Harvard professor and the white police officer who arrested him.) In September, Beck sat for an interview with Katie Couric, and she asked him a deceptively simple question, which had been posed by a Twitter user named adrianinflorida: “what did u mean white culture?” Whatever adventurous thoughts this query inspired, Beck did not seem eager to share them. “Um, I, I don’t know,” he said. Finally, after two minutes of temporizing, he arrived at a nonresponsive response that was both honest and sensible: “What is the white culture? I don’t know how to answer that that’s not a trap, you know what I mean?”Often, the most appropriate answer to that question is a joke, or a series of jokes. In 2008, a canny young white Canadian named Christian Lander started a blog called “Stuff White People Like,” which soon became a best-selling book bearing the same title; it listed a hundred and fifty of white people’s favorite things, from recycling to the Red Sox. (This magazine made the list, too, at No. 114.) Lander’s tone is faux-anthropological but wide-eyed: “Bike shops are almost entirely staffed and patronized by white people!”; “After learning that a white person is pregnant, it is a good idea to provide a list of recipes for placenta.” His “white people” are wealthy, urban, youngish, and thoroughly blue—they “hate” Republicans, and although Obama hadn’t yet won the Democratic nomination, he placed eighth on the list. (Coffee was No. 1.)
Which means that Lander isn’t really talking about white people, or, at any rate, not most of them. In fact, he sometimes defines “white people” in opposition to “the wrong kind of white people,” because his true target is a small subset of white people, a white cultural élite. Most white people don’t “hate” Republicans—they have voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1968. A few months ago, a different and more demographically precise portrait of white culture arrived, bearing a fulsome blurb (“Revelatory!”) from Lander himself. The author is a black journalist named Rich Benjamin, and his book, “Searching for Whitopia” (Hyperion; $24.99), chronicles the years he spent in overwhelmingly white enclaves across America, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to Forsyth County, Georgia. The people he meets tend to be politically conservative, and although they talk readily about the urban blight they left behind, they talk much less readily about race. Many in Idaho seem to agree with Helen Chenoweth-Hage, the late congresswoman, who responded to a question about the region’s lack of diversity by means of an ingenious euphemism. “The warm-climate community just hasn’t found the colder climate that attractive,” she said. Benjamin hears many disavowals of racism, and he has to drive an hour north of Coeur d’Alene, to a tiny Christian Identity church, in a town called Sandpoint, just to find someone willing to say, “I’m glad I’m white.” Even that statement, delivered from the pulpit, is swiftly followed by a disclaimer: “The Indian, the Mexican, and the black can be proud of what they are, too.”
Benjamin did most of his research toward the end of the Bush era, and perhaps he now wishes he had waited a few years. Obama’s election was a transformative moment for blacks in America, but it has also proved to be a transformative moment for whites. As a whole, white people voted for Senator McCain, and, with the growth of the anti-Obama backlash, especially in the form of Tea Party protests, the whiteness of the Obama opposition has become a political issue. Keith Olbermann, of MSNBC, called the Tea Party movement “a white people’s party,” and asked, in reference to the various marches and rallies, “Where are the black faces?” (The most adroit response came in the form of a YouTube video highlighting the all-white lineup pictured on the MSNBC Web site.) When Jon Stewart introduced a “Daily Show” segment on the Conservative Political Action Conference, he got a laugh from his studio audience by calling it a “festival of whites.” (Stewart’s show ranked thirty-fifth on Lander’s list.)
The organizers of the Tea Party rallies have made a point of inviting African-American conservatives to address the crowds. But there’s no denying that the Tea Party protesters tend to be white. Should we pretend to be surprised? Judging from exit polls, black voters made up about 1.1 per cent of the McCain electorate, which is lower than the historical average, but not by much. (In 1984, when President Reagan was reëlected in a landslide, black voters accounted for only about 1.5 per cent of his total.) American politics has been segregated for decades; the election of a black President only made that segregation more obvious.
But what of it? Why is it that, from Christian Lander to Jon Stewart, a diagnosis of whiteness is often delivered, and received, as a kind of accusation? The answer is that the diagnosis is often accompanied by an implicit or explicit charge of racism. It’s become customary to suppose that a measure of discrimination is built into whiteness itself, a racial category that has often functioned as a purely negative designation: to be white in America is to be not nonwhite, which is why it was possible, in 1961, for a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii to give birth to a black baby. In a marvellously splenetic essay, “On Being White . . . And Other Lies,” James Baldwin argued that America had, really, “no white community”—only a motley alliance of European immigrants and their descendants, who made a “moral choice” (even if they didn’t realize it) to join a synthetic racial élite. And, in the nineteen-nineties, a cohort of scholars took up Baldwin’s charge, popularizing a field of research that came to be known as whiteness studies. In 1994, the white labor historian David R. Roediger published an incendiary volume, “Towards the Abolition of Whiteness.” Paying special attention to unions and strikes, he traced the unsteady growth of American whiteness, a category that eventually included many previous identities that had once been considered marginal: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish. “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false; it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false,” he wrote. “Whiteness describes, from Little Big Horn to Simi Valley, not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.” In his view, fighting racism wasn’t enough; white people who wanted to oppose oppression would have to do battle with whiteness itself. Nearly two decades later, amid a rancorous debate over our first black President, the idea of abolishing whiteness seems no less tantalizing—and no less remote.
In a wide-ranging new book titled “The History of White People” (Norton; $27.95), Nell Irvin Painter, a black historian of America, starts at the beginning, or near it. Her narrative opens in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates, who published his ethnography of the known world around 400 B.C. In assaying the tribes of Europe, he praised the “ferocity” of the mountain-dwellers, but he was less impressed by tribes who live where there is “a larger proportion of hot than of cold winds”—the warm-climate community, a few millennia ahead of schedule. “They are rather of a dark than of a light complexion,” he wrote, adding that “courage and laborious enterprise are not naturally in them.” In time, “ancients” like Hippocrates were seen as archetypes of racial purity and excellence. Painter quotes the eighteenth-century Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater, who delivered a plaintive verdict: “The Grecian race then was more beautiful than we are; they were better than us—and the present generation is vilely degraded!”
Like many of his contemporaries, Lavater was a devout craniologist, and it was through craniology that whiteness was given scientific validation. In 1793, a German anthropologist named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach received a skull from a colleague which he considered particularly pleasing; it had belonged to a woman from Georgia, in the Caucasus region, and Blumenbach declared that it was typical of the “Caucasian” race, a super-category that came to include most of the peoples of Europe. As Painter explains, Blumenbach was making an argument from beauty, and his belief in Caucasian beauty had a notable pedigree: decades earlier, Kant had noted that “Circassian and Georgian maidens have always been considered extremely pretty by all Europeans who travel through their lands”; the fact that these “maidens” were enslaved by the Ottomans was part of the appeal. The Caucasian race begins with an evocation of bondage, and the skull of a young Georgian woman helped seal the connection between whiteness and weakness. It is a delicate race, always on the verge of being overrun or adulterated, dethroned or debunked. The supposed perfection of whiteness makes it vulnerable: every flaw and quirk, every tangled bloodline and degraded specimen, is seen as an existential threat, poised to undermine the whole project.
In eighteenth-century America, whiteness came to connote the opposite of slavery. Whiteness in America was primarily Anglo-Saxon—Thomas Jefferson argued for American independence by adducing the example of “our Saxon ancestors”—but not exclusively so, and the presence of immigrants from elsewhere in Europe eventually nudged American race theorists toward a more miscellaneous idea of whiteness. In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson published “English Traits,” which includes a strange and suggestive chapter called “Race.” In it, he portrays the essence of whiteness as an elusive spirit. For a time, Norway had it, and Painter notes Emerson’s “affection” for the bloodthirsty old Norse sagas: “A pair of kings, after dinner, will divert themselves by thrusting each his sword through the other’s body, as did Yngve and Alf.” But even these brutes were, in their own way, as delicate as Circassian waifs. Somehow, the glorious moment passed—a few too many “piratical expeditions,” he suspects—and “the power of the race migrated and left Norway permanently exhausted.” Around the same time, in his journal, Emerson was experimenting with a more ambitious theory. “The Atlantic is a sieve through which only or chiefly the liberal adventurous sensitive America-loving part of each city, clan, family, are brought,” he wrote. “It is the light complexion, the blue eyes of Europe that come: the black eyes, the black drop, the Europe of Europe is left.” This is a powerful notion: America as a magical siphon, extracting whiteness from Europe.
Emerson is a high point in “The History of White People.” As the theorists and theories pile up, Painter starts to seem, like nineteenth-century Norway, a bit exhausted. She isn’t helped by the format she has chosen, which divides a long and circuitous story into a textbook-like series of three-page biographical sketches, and she often sounds bored by the now obscure race men she profiles: William Z. Ripley’s 1899 magnum opus, “The Races of Europe,” is “nonsense” that “could not survive a careful reading”; early twentieth-century Anglo-Saxonist theories are “blather.” One needn’t disagree with her judgments to wonder about her strategy: the tone and the format conspire to make these architects of whiteness hard to distinguish, and harder still to care about.
An odd thing about “The History of White People” is that there’s not more history in it: Painter underplays the social and political developments that were far more influential than the grand theories of whiteness. She mentions America’s one-drop rule only in passing. (The rule held—and, for the most part, still holds—that any person of mixed black and white ancestry is black, no matter the mixture.) And readers will have to search the footnotes to learn about the 1790 Naturalization Act, which made citizenship possible for any “free white person” of “good character” who had lived in America for at least two years. Long before it had any sort of coherent cultural or historical identity, whiteness in America was a broad, loosely defined political category, which is precisely why so many scholars knocked themselves out trying to fill in the details.
Painter aims for the conceptual heart of the race, but Roediger, the eminent abolitionist of whiteness, has always been more interested in its margins and boundaries. In 2008, just in time for the dawning Obama age, he compressed his decades of scholarship into a pithy little book, “How Race Survived U.S. History,” which has just been published in paperback (Verso; $19.95). He is alert to the shifting legal status of whiteness, and he underscores the 1691 Virginia law that banned “negroes, mulattos, and Indians” from “intermarrying with English, or other white women.” (Again, one of the defining qualities of whiteness is that it needs protection.) He also tells the story of Charles W. Janson, a British businessman who came to America in 1793 and, sometime during his thirteen-year visit, offended a white domestic worker by asking to speak with her master. “I have no master,” she said, adding, “I’d have you to know, man, that I am no sarvant; none but negers are sarvants.” Janson was shocked by “the arrogance of domestics in this land of republican liberty and equality”—shocked, that is, by a country where even the maids had something to be proud of, and someone to be prouder than.