I would like everyone to read this wonderful twist in perspective on American history — I think this kind of thing ought to be taught in public schools. The United States of America is exceptional: in the ferment of the 18th century, we invented both an inspiring political document, our constitution, and we invented white people. Not the people themselves, but the abstract distinction that set up “whiteness” as a mark of a privileged class. It was brilliant: it was a strategy that immediately divided those lower class rabble rousers who were screaming for equality, and set them to fighting among themselves, and half of them fighting for the wealthy upper class.
As time went on, the labor needs of the land holders continued to grow, and desperate to cultivate the land, they were loathe to let go of their bond servants and the bondsmen and bondswomen’s children (whom they kept in bondage for a legally defined time as well). In the mean time, a growing American peasantry was proving as difficult to govern as the European peasantry back home, periodically rising up in riot and rebellion, light skinned and dark skinned together. The political leaders of the Virginia colony struck upon an answer to all these problems, an answer which plagues us to this day.
The Virginians legislated a new class of people into existence: the whites. They gave the whites certain rights, and took other rights from blacks. White, as a language of race, appears in Virginia around the 1680s, and seems to first appear in Virginia law in 1691. And thus whiteness, and to a degree as well blackness, was born in the mind of America.
This plan worked gorgeously. It broke all efforts of the majority of people, African or European, to fight for civil and political rights in America against a landed class that literally ruled everything. It reduced a portion of the people to the status of the negro slave, and gave the poor but now white people a precious and entitled inch to stand above the permanently enslaved on the social ladder. The next thing the politicians did sealed the deal: they paid poor whites a bounty for runaway slaves, and often made them overseers for slaves, turning every poor white in America into a prison guard against the people who had once been their neighbors and allies.
Look at American history through that lens, and suddenly a lot of things make sense. It also stands as our American contribution to world-wide colonialism. It was a master stroke, taking a trivial genetic difference and promoting it as a tool to divide people into classes — an evil version of the Sorting Hat.
As the aristocrats and their successors traveled around the world through the colonial age, Europeans all over would find or define a group within the colonial territory and elevate it above the other groups, give it some privileges, though never enough to challenge the intruding rulers. In exchange for this slightly elevated status, the rulers would make those people do the colonial dirty work, and usually keep them slightly more well off than their fellows. Over time, these slightly elevated people often tried to keep their European masters in power even after the people realized how evil colonialism was, maintaining the system both to keep above their fellows and out of fear of retaliation for the dirty work they’d done. The most familiar contemporary case of this practice people will recognize is the Belgian categorization of Tutsis and Hutus, and the tragedy that still hangs over that arrangement over a century later. But really, the idea started in Virginia.
The funny thing about this incredibly successful tactic is that it doesn’t make people happier, safer, or richer overall (obviously, a few people get a lot richer). We end up pushing down a majority to maintain a minority.
There is a simple truth to American history for the majority of people who have ever been American: the worse the black experience, the worse everyone else’s experience, including whites. Driving down (or eliminating) black wages, while always agreeable to whites, drove white pay lower than their European counterparts for most of our history. The labor movement that got its start in America took longer to make progress here, especially in terms of hours and working conditions, largely because employers pitted whites against black or immigrant labor, splitting the movement. Civil and political rights in America only ever had to be better for whites than they were for blacks, preserving that furious inch of superiority that was the defining quality of whites. To this day poor whites are the most intransigent racists — left by an exploitative and violent system without education, access to food and medical care, or even the basic necessities of life in the developed world. In this state their only precious possession is the idea of whiteness Virginian aristocracy blessed them with hundreds of years ago.
There is all the wasted potential.
We’ve spent the last few hundred years throwing out every Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein or Jonas Salk or Tim Berners-Lee who didn’t happen to be white, and didn’t happen to be a man. That’s a terrible thing to have done to those brilliant and now lost people. It’s a much worse thing to have done to the rest of humanity, including our white selves. When I think, “why don’t I have a jet car and live in Alpha Centuri by now?” I think this is because the people that would have invented sky cars and interstellar travel were born black in Detroit, or in rural India or in the medina in Algiers in the 1950s, and spent too much time figuring out how to eat and not get killed to invent my dammed skycar.
And, as the author notes, for some strange reason the people most likely to commit suicide under this system are all white and male — that somehow the privilege of color and sex don’t translate into greater satisfaction with our lives. Why? Because they’re invented and in many ways arbitrary. Skin pigmentation and penises are real, of course, but they correspond to nothing that contributes specially to your sense of worth or your ability to make the world a better place — all the things that matter are independent of melanin and genitals.
But there is hope.
The very happiest white men I know are those actively working towards ending racism and sexism, not necessarily professional, but in all the small ways they learn to. Like people who work on space programs or meditate on rejoining the wonder of their conception of God, I believe an enduring and deep form of happiness arises from imagining a future that is better than the present, and feeling like you have the power to move the world towards it. Hope for the future is not only a good way to be happy, it is the best form of happiness, the most enduring, the most resistant. White people have been told they have it the best it can be had, they are told by power structures, the media, and the people disadvantaged by a global system where overwhelmingly the poorest are not considered white. Thankfully, this pernicious and alienating thought is untrue — a world without our present power structures is one of amazing possibilities, with art and play and dreams of space and life made wondrous beyond imagining.
Except there is a problem: this is a path to happiness, but it doesn’t take you to a state of sublime smugness. We tend to value that impressive aura of oblivious Smug in our politicians and leaders of other movements, and happy, productive people tend to be aware of other people’s concerns, as well as their own. The virtue of whiteness as a marker is that it makes it easy for ignorant people to make decisions. Bad decisions, but they’re still deciding.