Nell Irvin Painter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In trying to understand why this world is the way it is it’s occasionally necessary, for me at least, to find a new way of looking at human history. The History of White People by historian Nell Irvin Painter has succeeded in giving me a completely different perspective on both the present and the past, not to mention my own variegated background.
For a while now, having delved deeper into the history of European settlement of the Americas and the virtual genocide of the indigenous peoples who lived there I’ve been struggling to understand just what kind of people could be capable of committing such vast acts of inhumanity across the span of so many centuries. What was it that drove them, enabling them to not only justify their ferocity as necessary, inevitable, even heroic, but also to effectively remove the truth from the forefront of general knowledge and marginalise those who spoke of it? The answer, unpalatable as it may be, comes back at you relentlessly from the pages of this book in clear, unemotional prose and thorough, irrefutable documentation: the white (mostly) Anglo Saxon (mostly) Protestant.
Having early on convinced himself of his own racial and evolutionary superiority (although an intellectual structure – a science – wasn’t put into place until the 18thcentury) this Nordic superman created the perfect justification for imposing his brand of civilization on “inferior” beings wherever he found them in the world.
The Rhodes Colossus
It would be naïve to think that somewhere, on the periphery of our consciousness we white northern Europeans aren’t already well aware of this shadow. We’ve learnt about the rapacity of the European colonising countries, the history of African slavery in the Americas, and the British Empire in India. If we dig deep enough we might even discover the history of a country such as Haiti, so thoroughly raped and stripped of its natural resources by a procession of colonising powers that it could easily stand as a metaphor for the entire process of European colonisation. We’ve also learnt to hold our hands up and say, in the manner of politicians everywhere: “Sorry, but it wasn’t us. Those who came before us knew no better. The lessons of history have now been learned”. But this accommodation becomes much trickier when such barely acknowledged truth is laid out for you so objectively, rather like having to reluctantly admit that you have an evil twin who has spent a lifetime committing dreadful acts, often in your name.
The History of White People is not a conventional narrative in which the major events are lined up neatly in a row to be studied. Rather it’s an intellectual history about the invention and development of white racial consciousness and racialist theory from the time of the ancient Greeks to the present, particularly as it relates to America’s transition from colonial outpost, to melting pot, to multiracial superpower.
It’s essential to understand that the history of racism isn’t just the story of white against black. In the pyramid of racialist theory Nordic White and African Black were simply the two extremes of the spectrum, the top and bottom of the pyramid. In between were the Celts, assorted Catholics, Eastern Europeans and Slavs, degenerate whites, “Alpines”, the Italians and other Mediterranean types, and, of course, the Jews. Asians were seen as being so low on the evolutionary scale that they were often overlooked entirely in this theoretical construct. Indigenous populations such as the Native Americans and Native Australians were believed to have gone the way of the dinosaur, overtaken and made non-existent by natural selection. Inferior, “beaten” races were obviously not equipped by nature with the means to compete with those who believed themselves to be at the apex of evolution. Such relentless identification of “inferiors” based on a philosophy of racial superiority could only ever lead to conflict, war, and genocide, which, of course, it did.
principal varieties of mankind
Given the long and “distinguished” history of racial theory it was a small step from the increasingly populist scientific teachings of Anglo-Saxon racialist theoreticians of the early 20th century to the philosophical driving force behind the Third Reich. Selective breeding, forced sterilization, racial cleansing, and the demonization of particular racial groups were not new concepts specific to the Germany of the 1930’s, but had been envisioned, expounded, and widely broadcast by a prestigious and vocal posse of individuals in both the US and Europe since the 18thcentury. Powerful and influential figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Carlyle, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and many other lesser known, but in their time highly respected figures are extensively quoted in the book regarding their views on race, and can consequently be judged by their own words.
When race theory was deemed an insufficiently rigorous way of categorising a population then the concept of inherent social class was brought to bear. Clearly it was a scientific fact that some were born to be at the bottom of the social pile, while others (guess who) were born with the innate abilities to lead, govern, and prosper. The notion of “racial purity” therefore facilitated society’s development along lines of social class. In this worldview these were structures that could not be changed. Environment, individual variation, even individual wealth counted for nothing – the natural order was genetically ordained, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. And so society was and remains divided and sub-divided, each segment encouraged to fear and mistrust other social or racial groups. These divisions were, and are routinely exploited by those pulling the strings for whatever purpose is at hand.
The Melting Pot
The science of racialist theory went into decline and discredit following the raw shock of the Second World War. Having seen the inevitable, horrific consequences of its teachings most scientists, anthropologists, sociologists and other academics turned to other ways of explaining the human condition. Environment and culture were increasingly seen as being more influential in determining an individual’s development than heredity. Racism however, along with other methods of identifying “inferior” groups and cultures has flourished, and seems so deeply ingrained in the human psyche, white Anglo-Saxon or otherwise, that one wonders just what kind of evolutionary shock will be necessary to force us to move beyond it.
Despite its complex and difficult subject matter The History of White People is a very readable book, written not just as a reference for academics and students of history, but accessible to anyone with sufficient curiosity. Reading it has opened up a broad new window for me to look through and has grounded my understanding, not only of why it is that racism lies so deep in our mentality, but also of how and why the pyramid of industrial capitalism has evolved into the behemoth we’re all gripped by today. It’s said that history is written by the victors. But sooner or later, history tells us, the truth will out, even if it is sometimes a very bitter pill to swallow.
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