Normally, I write book reviews in the third person, eschewing the second person as intellectually unrigorous and the first person as, well, too personal. When I occasionally set aside my normal practice, it is usually when a book is about sex or race—two extremely personal, sensitive topics. The third-person voice in those reviews seems, well, too impersonal.
So, as I shift to the first-person and second-person voices for the duration of this review, let’s get something clear right away: If you plan to read Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People” (W.W. Norton, $27.95, 496 pages) rigorously—and there seems to be no alternative given the intellectually challenging nature of the book—you must surrender the conventional wisdom that race is a fact of life. If you believe that blacks are a separate race, easily distinguishable from whites, and if that belief cannot be shaken, reading historian Nell Irvin Painter’s book is quite likely a waste of your time. Painter, a Princeton University professor with whitish hair and blackish skin, will tell you that race is an idea, and a demonstrably mistaken idea at that.
The book carries significant implications for Jews, implications dealt with by Painter throughout the learned text. We’ll return to the ideas about Jews later in this review.
The author of seven previous books, all about race in one way or another, Painter knows altering long-held conceptions will be difficult. She knows she is writing against the grain: “American history offers up a large bounty of commentary on what it means to be nonwhite, moving easily between alternations in the meaning of race as color, from ‘colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Afro-American’ to ‘black’ to ‘African-American,’ always associating the idea of blackness with slavery.”
That narrowness is absurd when examined across the sweep of human history. Painter notes that “little attention has been paid to history’s equally confused and flexible discourses on the white races and the old, old slave trade from eastern Europe.”
Yes, white races, plural. Why? Painter explains “for most of the past centuries…educated Americans firmly believed in the existence of more than one European race. It is possible, and important, to investigate the other side of history without trivializing the history we already know so well.”
Believing in more than one European race is Painter’s verbal shorthand for showing that the rulers have often felt it is important to demonize and thus treat poorly those people slightly different from themselves. As a result, in Europe those who could be called—and often called themselves—Irish Catholics would find themselves classified as genetically inferior to those who called themselves Saxons within the British Isles and on the European continent. Those classifications—unfounded generalizations, really—carried profound negative consequences for the oppressed. For the oppressors, too, but they did not grasp the concept right away. They rarely do.
Most of the book consists of Painter moving from one misguided theorist to the next, as she exposes each for his deeply felt and widely accepted but profoundly flawed racialized theorizing. Among the theorists gaining attention in the United States after the Revolutionary War was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Anybody who has studied Emerson’s writings carefully understands that his smug superiority is built on a foundation of racialized thinking, and yet his name is invoked regularly during discussions of genius. Painter brings down Emerson convincingly. But she does so with gentle words and sentences. She is artful at unmasking fools but interpreting them according to the prevailing mores of their eras.
Near the end of the book, Painter delivers the punch line. It is a punch line that many, probably most, educated individuals know. Yet it is a punch line regularly forgotten during heated discussions about race. The punch line goes like this: genetic scientists have shown through DNA research that everybody evolved from the same tribes starting in Africa, that 99.99 percent of human genetic material does not vary from body to body. In other words, racial distinctions are not scientifically valid. Rather, they are social concepts.
Oh yeah, the Jews. In generation after generation, the so-called big thinkers, non-Jewish branches, have racialized Jews as part of “the other.” Exactly what other, the race theorists have been unable to agree. An influential race theorist, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), delivered as scientific fact the outsider status of Jews residing in Europe. Despite their long residence among Gentiles,
Blumenbach said, “the Jewish race presents the most notorious and least deceptive [example], which can easily be recognized everywhere by their eyes alone, which breathe of the East.” Later race theorists would focus on Jewish noses or some other anatomical characteristic while passing off prejudice as science.
Painter is not certain when the misguided thinking will end, if ever. But the historic panorama does change, even if imperceptibly during a single lifetime. Maybe five generations from now, a yet unborn historian will write how Painter helped lead the way to a new understanding.
Steve Weinberg’s most recent book is “Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.”