Things I Learned from Nell Irvin Painter

I recommend Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People. [wc] It’s a valuable anodyne to all of the racist propaganda I have been ingesting and studying over the last few years. My approach to American racism has been to deconstruct its sources; Painter’s (in this book) is to demonstrate how it was constructed, and its sources. She puts the pieces together so you can see how they were assembled, and its an ugly picture.

A lot of the puzzle pieces are dependent on good old American anti-intellectualism. I have tried to trace a few of them in this blog [stderr] [stderr]- the biggest ingredients are wishful thinking and pseudoscience: Americans had decided that they needed slavery to keep them comfortable and wealthy, and they came up with no end of self-justification. The newly founded science of evolution immediately got perverted into social darwinism and flipped on its head to create book after book of bogus theories about who the “caucasians” were, etc. Any rational person nowadays ought to have concluded that race is a myth (because it is!) and ought to eye any attempt to divide people by race as a trace of the power-structure that supports the oligarchy. Painter traces how “blood line” theories are assembled in books like The Passing of The Great Race [I have a copy I keep meaning to review but it’s hard to even get a grip on that great load of bullshit] and The Kallikak Family [ditto] they reinforce bad ideas because there are so many of them that they appeared to be mainstream science.* We still have a huge body of the population, including our dipshit president, who refer constantly to pseudo-scientific racist tropes that imply that there are genetic predispositions all over populations.

One thing that Painter taught me is the origin of “anglo saxon.” And it’s an important lesson because it demonstrates how American scientific racism operates. We’re all familiar with the term, and most of us probably thought it was an attempt to promote the British as good stock sources of great American bloodlines, etc. [Because the puritans were such stable, great people!] But it wasn’t: “anglo saxon” was adopted specifically to exclude Irish immigrants. Because they’re pale-skinned but we don’t like them, so let’s leave them off the grown-up table. See how that works?

Other things I learned:

In 1911 the US Immigration Commission, under Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont, had issued the Dictionary of Races or Peoples, a handbook intended to clear up the “true racial status” of immigrants, on the basis of Ripley’s Races of Europe and reprinting many of his maps. Like Ripley, Dictionary of Races or Peoples appealed to questionable authorities like Lapouge and his German anthroposocialist colleague Otto Ammon. Like most attempts to codify racial classification, the Dictionary of Races or Peoples tried to reconcile the warring categories of several different experts through lists of “race”, “stock”, “group”, “people”, and Ripley’s and other scholars races. Its mishmash of categories had left open the gap that Brigham tried to fill.

The 1900s was a period when any Tom, Dick, and Carnegie asshole racist could write a sciency-sounding book and get it published, because Americans were eager to have their biases confirmed with comforting bullshit. So it built, layer upon layer. Painter traces that build-up. It’s interesting, in a weird way – the similarities to creationist epistemology and anti-vaxxer belief systems are unmistakable. You have pseudo-authorities being quoted several levels deep, until finally comes a Sam Harris-like “everybody knows that…” By the way, if any of you have noticed a distinct distrust in me for social ‘science’ writers like Steven Pinker and Yuval Harari it’s because waves of these people come and go, each one leaving another non-nacreous layer of bullshit on the great pearl of American pseduo-intellectualism. And since it’s the topic of the day, you can see how a racist like Jeffrey Epstein absorbs this kind of thinking and turns it into “Jeffey Epstein Supremacy” – all the underlying work has been done for him, all that’s left is to conclude that because he’s a rich grifter, he’s the crown of creation. All of these books are basically “[write your name here] is the crown of creation.”

As author of English Traits and a font of themes usually located much later in the 19th century, Emerson qualifies as a full contributor to white race theory. His enormous intellectual strength and prodigious output made him the source of a crucial current of thought, since he enunciated virtually all the salient nineteenth- and early twentieth-century concepts of Anglo-Saxonism. English Traits expressed the views of the most prestigious intellectual in the United States, elevating its formulation into American ideology. The American was the same as the Englishman, who was the same as the Saxon and the Norseman [What, they got their asses kicked by the Romans and the French?] Thus “Saxon” supplied the key word exiling the Celtic Irish – white though they may be – from American identity. Emerson created a white racial ideal that was both virile and handsome. Towering over his age he spoke for an increasingly rich and powerful American ruling class. His thinking, as they say, became hegemonic.

Uh, <plonk>

Kevin Costner stars in “Big Head Waterworld”

Basically, all these clowns were doing was speaking to people’s confirmation biases. And one of America’s greatest turns on that stage is the capitalist doctrine of wealth. Painter does not closely tie the two together, but I will: the idea that people get rich and powerful because they are “self-made men” etc., owes itself to this kind of pseudo-science and watered-down social darwinism. Pseudo-science tomes sold like popeyes chicken sandwiches for decades; there is no quality control on them. Imagine if, instead of Andrew Wakefield publishing a few studies about autism, we had hundreds of media stars from Tom Cruise to Gwyneth Paltrow churning out self-help books based on the stoned imaginings of some hack ghost-writer. Again, Painter does not draw a line between the ancient crop of racist pseudo-intellectuals like Emerson and Alex Jones and INFOWARS, but I do, and I’m pretty sure Richard Hofstadter would, as well.

You’re rich not because you’re lucky and exploitative, you’re rich because you come from a long line of successful blood, and your success is simply the success of Leif Ericsson coming back to the surface. Never mind that Leif Ericsson was what we’d call a “loser” today – banished from Norway he embarked on a dangerous trip that ended up with him discovering a very unpleasant place to live. If he had conquered Constantinople, or invented a high pressure turbopump for liquid oxygen, I’d be impressed.

The whole premise of this stuff is that there is something genetic in white people that makes them special – not something that makes them particularly murderous, exploitative, militant, and genocidal. If we were to step back and ask ourselves today, “what is the characteristic of white people?” we’d have to point at the pathetic white supremacists that wander around the country dressed to LARP, bent under the weight of their guns, wheezing as they haul their pallid meat into the air-conditioned drivers’ seats of their Ford F-150s. From that perspective, I’m pretty happy that my Irish ancestry (even though it’s nordic via Ireland) is not “white.”

Another aspect of all this that Painter laces through the story is: anti-semitism. That causes a big problem for the genetic racists because Jews exist in populations but apart from them, though nobody who understands modern population genetics will stand up and say that there is something special about the bloodline. Except, you know, lots of ignorant assholes, who appear to both hate and admire Jews for their success. Painter rightly illuminates that issue through a lens of class:

With their working-class readership, Italian and Yiddish newspapers came to reflect the anarchist and socialist views of their readers. The earliest Italian and Yiddish newspapers sprang up in New York in 1880, with the left press appearing in the following decade. The anarchist Il Proletario was founded in Hoboken, NJ, in 1902 as the organ of the Italian Socialist Federation, joining the socialist Jewish Daily Forward founded in 1897. Such papers depicted American society quite differently from the tony journals that couched their race theory in quasi-scientific, quasi-historical terms.

Italian anarchists especially heaped scorn on American self-righteous blindness, above all when it came to injustices inflicted on blacks in the South. True, other immigrants had become targets of labor abuse, but Italians had suffered a special wound, the lynching of eleven Italians in 1891. Il Proletario skipped over the idea of white races and stressed the injustices of black Americans at the hands of native-born whites. A blast from Il Proletario in 1902 asked,
“Who do they think they are as a race, these arrogant whites? From where do they think they come? The blacks are at least a race but the whites… how many of them are bastards? How much mixing is in their “pure” blood? And how many kisses have their women asked from their strong and virile black servants? As have they, the white males, desired to enjoy the warm pleasures of the black women of the sensual lips and sinuous body movements? But the white knights care little for the honor and decency of the black women, whom they use and abuse as they please. For these, race hatred is a national duty.”

The establishment’s hatred of Jews owes little to race hatred and a great deal to the association of Marx, Bakunin, Trotsky, Lenin, and countless labor organizers up to and including Saul Alinsky.

This is a fascinating book. It’s very chunky with information and, if you’re like me, you’ll fill it with post-it notes thinking “I could do an entire blog posting on just this one point.” The audiobook is also quite good, if you really want to absorb this material, you may need to leave it on “repeat” for a week.

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* Bad ideas, mainstream science – you may have noticed I have backed off a bit on trying to throw all of psychology under a bus for promoting pseudoscience and racism. It’s not because I think that is wrong, but rather I discovered that my viewpoint might be mistaken for that of a scientologist, since scientologists also attack psychology for those reasons. When you’re walking with scientologists, you’ve probably got something wrong with your approach, so I am re-adjusting.


  1. says

    One thing that Painter taught me is the origin of “anglo saxon.” … “anglo saxon” was adopted specifically to exclude Irish immigrants. Because they’re pale-skinned but we don’t like them, so let’s leave them off the grown-up table. See how that works?

    I didn’t know this fact. It makes sense thought—“white” is too broad a label, too many people have light skin, thus bigots needed narrower labels that allowed excluding some of the “not so good” light-skinned people.

    “[write your name here] is the crown of creation.”

    People have always wanted to imagine themselves better than everybody else due to an accident of birth. Hence the idea that aristocrats have special and better blood. Or that other ethnicities/races are inferior to one’s own. If somebody wasn’t lucky to be born with aristocratic “blue blood” (the highest level of “perfect stock”), they could at least find solace in the fact they were born with “light skin” (a somewhat lower level of “perfect stock,” but still above the masses of, gasp, other ethnicities).

    By the way, that book cover with the oversized head looks incredibly ugly. That’s some really bad art.

  2. says

    Andreas Avester @ 1:

    One thing that Painter taught me is the origin of “anglo saxon.” … “anglo saxon” was adopted specifically to exclude Irish immigrants. Because they’re pale-skinned but we don’t like them, so let’s leave them off the grown-up table. See how that works?

    I didn’t know this fact. It makes sense thought—“white” is too broad a label, too many people have light skin, thus bigots needed narrower labels that allowed excluding some of the “not so good” light-skinned people.

    At one point in Britain and the US, Black people were referred to as “smoked Irish” as a way of denigrating both groups.

    Rather obnoxiously, given this bit of history, right-wing Irish-American organisations in the States have lately been busy spreading memes online about how the indentured servitude experienced by the Irish in the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries was every bit as bad as that experienced by African slaves. This serves two purposes: to ensure the Irish position as Most Oppressed People Ever™ is not infringed; and also as a way of undermining the grievances of African-Americans. As in, “we Irish had it just as bad but you don’t hear us clamoring for reparations like ‘those people’, do you?” Repugnant stuff. While the lot of an Irish indentured labourer in the 1700s was no picnic, it was finite in duration and they were never treated as chattel. So, definitely a difference in kind, not degree. This has not stopped these organisations from carrying out harassment campaigns against Irish historians who call them on this bullshit, often with Irish organisations who ought to know better as accomplices. As it is, our Governments are too craven to call out this nonsense, lest it offend the Irish-American lobby– hell, they won’t even boycott the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade for refusing LGBT participation despite our current Prime Minister being a gay man.

  3. Dunc says

    In the Trioedd Ynys Prydein – the Triads of the Island of Britain – the Saxons are listed as the third of the “three oppressions that came to this island, and not one of them went back”…

  4. cafebabe says

    Race is not a scientific concept, if it has meaning at all it is as a shorthand for the frequency of particular genes in a localised population. Even if you buy this diminished meaning it leaves you with the paradox that an individual cannot have “race” any more than a single gas molecule can have “temperature”.

  5. says

    @Andreas Avester@#1:
    It is one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen. Appropriate for Ericsson, though.

    It’s funny how white supremacists are trying to make nordics and british the elite. It’s so easy to forget that the vikings were viewed with all of the affection we now reserve for herpes, by everyone who dealt with them. Now they are superior? It’s as ahistorical as promoting the Caucasus into the source of civilization – basically ratifying a sexual fetish of Ottoman elites and fusing it with P T Barnum’s sideshow “caucasian beauties” (basically a strip show)

  6. says

    I prefer to say “race is not a scientific concept, it’s a cultural artifact.”

    Painter’s entire book is about where concepts of race come from. Aside from “wow that guy is pale” there is nothing except cultural baggage behind it.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Funny story. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes certainly left a huge linguistic and cultural impression on Britain. Genetically, maybe not so much. Can’t be arsed to look it up now (maybe later), but I remember reading some years ago that, in one of the battles in the West Country, decades after the Germanic incursions, the combatants were basically Britons on one side, and Saxonized Britons on the other side.

    So, yeah. “Anglo-Saxon” essentially means “culturally assimilated Celt”. But the comedy doesn’t end there. “Celtic” was probably a cultural/linguistic imposition by a minority on previously established populations, who are still the main contributors to current British/Irish genetics, and whose language/customs have been largely lost.

    We’re all mongrels. And we should be happy about that.

  8. dangerousbeans says

    Didn’t the Norse raid and settle Ireland too? So there would be a bunch of Norse ancestry in Irish people too?
    All seems like bullshit categories made up to justify social hierarchies :P

  9. says

    Didn’t the Norse raid and settle Ireland too? So there would be a bunch of Norse ancestry in Irish people too?

    They raided and colonized Ireland and England. Legends aside, they were farmers and fishermen, not all ferocious warriors.

    When my mom went to visit some of the McGroders in County Clare, she asked at the pub (it’s a small village) for so-and-so McGroder, and the barkeep replied, “ah, the danes?” Apparently when mom met up with her cousins-somewhat-removed they were all tall and blond. Not that that means anything – population genetics does not respect bloodlines.

  10. Dunc says

    They raided and colonized Ireland and England.

    Scotland too.

    There’s been a great deal of cultural and genetic interchange all around the coasts of northern Europe since time immemorial.

  11. bmiller says

    Too bad they did not have a Glorious Leader to build a wall around the coastal areas, no?

  12. says

    Too bad they did not have a Glorious Leader to build a wall around the coastal areas, no?

    You’re referring obliquely to Hadrian, right?

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