The idea of “whiteness” as a strict racial category superior to others is an invention of Europeans, who needed to legitimate and normalize a system of white on black chattel slavery, global empire, and colonialism as being preordained by nature and God.
Yet the “common sense” belief that the racial ideology known as Whiteness has always existed is one of the greatest tricks in human history.
In all, Whiteness is a new invention. The ways in which it has been naturalized signals to its powerful role in an American society that was built upon a foundation of white supremacy, and that continues to maintain institutionalized systems of white advantage over people of color in the 21st century.
Of course, all white people do not benefit in the same way from the racial ideology known as Whiteness: class, gender, sexual orientation hugely impact their lives, among many other identities.
However, as a group, all white people benefit from Whiteness relative to non-whites.
But if Whiteness is a type of invention, then who created it? And to whose advantage does Whiteness continue to work for and serve in the present?
Writing at Metro, Quinn Morton offers the following helpful observation about America’s early history.
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.
As of the 18th century whites could not be permanently enslaved as they sometimes had been before, and black slaves could never work their way to freedom.
This has resulted in a system where centuries later race is still how class is lived in America.
The bargains that created Whiteness in the 17th century continue into the 21st as race continues to over-determine a given person’s life chances and economic class status.
For example, decades of housing segregation—the result of racially discriminatory federal programs in the post World War 2 era such as the Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration home loan programs—created wealth opportunities for whites that were denied to black and brown Americans. Those policies had a profound impact on America’s racial wealth gap where in the 21st century whites now possessat least 10 times the wealth of blacks and Latinos.
Research by New York University economist Edward Wolff suggests that the racial wealth gap could be even more extreme, with whites actually possessing almost seventy times more wealth than African-Americans. Social scientists have documented persistent patterns of racial discrimination against people of color in the American labor market: White men with a high school degree are just as likely to receive an interview for the same job as African-Americans with a college degree. White men with felonies are just as, if not more likely, to receive an interview for the same position as a black man who does not have a criminal record.
In one particularly troubling experiment, researchers at the University of Chicago documented how job seekers with “black sounding” names were significantly less likely to receive job interviews than white applicants with similar resumes and qualifications for the same job.
This discrimination is of great cost to the United States economy with conservative estimates suggesting that at least 1 trillion dollars is lost annually to the “market inefficiencies” caused by white racism.
People of color, in particular African-Americans, were and are profoundly disadvantaged in terms of life chances because of the arbitrary distinctions that demarcate “race” along the colorline and deem black Americans to be at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.
In this way, Whiteness and white privilege are types of societal sins that hurt the Common Good. Historically, White racial group membership was the basement below which no white person could fall in America. Here, the “lowest” white person was elevated over the most accomplished, intelligent, and successful person of color.
What Quinn describes as “white exceptionalism” elevates mediocre and under-achieving white people over non-whites by virtue of perceived racial group membership. Ironically, white exceptionalism has in fact cultivated a type of mediocrity among white people.
Whiteness and white privilege have also compromised the morality and ethics of White America.
White America has for most of its history, chosen to embrace white supremacy and white identity politics as the glue with which to connect a diversity of interests, peoples, and beliefs under the broad umbrella of Whiteness.
In the United States, Whiteness (and the privileges that would come with it) united disparate groups of European immigrants with the hope of being elevated over non-whites.
For most of United States history, Whiteness has often trumped human dignity and the country’s (supposed) founding principles of freedom, democracy, and liberty for all.
As philosopher Charles Mills, and historian Edmond Morgan have incisively argued, anti-black sentiment was the glue that tied together the White democratic project at the time of the United States’ founding because freedom for whites was defined precisely in juxtaposition to slavery and oppression for black slaves and other non-whites.
It is important to reiterate that not all white people benefit the same way from Whiteness and white privilege. Whiteness may pay white people a type of psychological wage in an American society that has historically been structured around maintaining, perpetuating, and protecting the power and dominance of white people over people of color…but, class still matters.
Whiteness is a strategic invention of White elites that the white poor and working classes also bought into.
In that role, Whiteness has worked for centuries to disadvantage working class and poor white people by convincing them to sacrifice the promises and hopes of alliances across lines of race in the service of shared economic interests on the twin altars of white racial tribalism and white exceptionalism.
American history is littered with many such lost opportunities.
During the 17th century, race and Whiteness in America were created in the crucible known as “Bacon’s Rebellion.” White and black indentured servants and other laborers were united together in common interest against the landed elite. But, white elites were able to utilize the tactic of divide and conquer by granting white indentured servants land, guns, and money at the end of their term of service. This elevated poor whites over their former black allies because the same white elites in turn mandated that chattel slavery was a permanent and unique type of punishment and servitude exclusive to black people.
After the American Civil War, the South briefly entered into a radically democratic transformative political moment known as Reconstruction. Former freed slaves and their white allies began to introduce political and social changes such as more access to schools for the poor, improving public works, giving more negotiating power to agrarian laborers, and creating a government that was more responsive to the people instead of the quasi feudal system of governance that dominated the antebellum South.
White racial terrorism in the form of the KKK and other armed paramilitary groups, the white planter class, and white Southerners across lines of class resisted and fought back against the democratic experiment led by African-Americans during the Reconstruction era.
Many of the changes proposed and enacted by African-American elected officials in the postbellum South would have been to the advantage of all working class and poor whites. Instead, white identity politics, (first with the Black Codes and then Jim and Crow), the withdrawal of Northern support for Reconstruction, and inventing the lie of a noble Southern “Lost Cause”, one that was later reinforced in the white popular imagination by viciously racist popular culture such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, defeated that nascent experiment in American democracy.
During the late 19th century, the American Populist movement worked to raise the living standards for all Americans in the Gilded Age of robber baron capitalism, violence, and rampant abuse against the poor and working farmers and other workers. Concentrated primarily in the South and West, Populists struggled to create a more democratically inclusive government and fair economy.
In the South, Populist leaders tried to rally both white and black farmers against white bankers and others elites who held them economically hostage. In his famous 1892 Georgia speech, Tom Watson made the following appeal for an alliance across lines of race in the interest of shared class struggles:
“You are made to hate each other because on that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded because you do not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system that beggars you both. The colored tenant is in the same boat as the white tenant, the colored laborer with the white laborer and that the accident of color can make no difference in the interests of farmers, croppers and laborers.”
But again, the manipulation of white racial animus and anxiety helped to break the movement as white elites used terrorism and white supremacist appeals to break the intraracial alliances at the heart of the Populist movement.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Black Freedom Struggle in the United States reached its height with policy successes such as the Voting and Civil Rights acts, desegregation the United States military, other laws striking down Jim and Jane Crow, events such as the Freedom Rides, as well as the March on Washington. While the Civil Rights Movement had its primary focus on the full enfranchisement of Black Americans by securing their full citizenship as both a matter of day-to-day practice and also under the law, it was also focused on economic justice as well.
The iconic March on Washington and its speech by American hero and titan Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was actually called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has been robbed of all of his radicalism by the American mythmaking apparatus, his message—and that of many of his peers—was one that was anti-war, for full employment, that sought a more fair tax system, and wanted to ensure that the poor and working classes in America had an equal opportunity to succeed. Dr. King would be assassinated while working in Memphis, Tennessee on a campaign in support of sanitation workers.
Dr. King’s radically democratic and inclusive vision for improving American society would meet great resistance when he turned his attention to racism and white supremacy in America’s northern cities. White northerners were very resistant to his efforts to expand fair housing and to end segregation. The media and political elites turned on Dr. King, where by the time of his death he was viewed by white Americans as one of the country’s most unpopular public figures.
Dr. King’s broadly humanistic and radical vision would have improved the lives of white and working class—and yes, even middle class—Americans across the colorline. But, white racial resentment and hostility to his dream cut short the full potential of the Civil Rights Movement as what some historians have come to describe as a type of third American founding and rebirth.
Whiteness as an anti-democratic and exclusionary identity and racial ideology could not expand to include Dr. King and the movement’s humanistic dreaming.
The rise of Reagan and the White Right in the post civil rights era is an additional moment when Whiteness and white identity politics would hurt white people. The “new” Republican Party is masterful in its ability to manipulate white racial animus and resentment against African-Americans and other people of color to serve its agenda. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Republican Party developed what came to be known as “the Southern Strategy” where by giving poverty a black and brown face, exaggerating black criminality, and playing on white fears of “affirmative action” and “reverse racism”, they would be able to win over white male working class voters across the Midwest and Northeast, as well as white Southerners.
By distorting and misrepresenting crime and poverty as cultural pathologies exclusive to black Americans, the White Right and the Republican Party are able to attack a broad range of social safety net programs such as support for poor children, food assistance programs, unemployment insurance, and the broader idea that there should be federal assistance and aid for Americans in their time of economic hardship. Cuts to these programs are in turn used to subsidize global corporations that outsource American jobs, destroy the middle class, and give further tax cuts to the plutocrats and the 1 percent.
The way that the Republican Party (and some of their “centrist” neoliberal allies in the Democratic Party) has racialized poverty causes great harm to poor and working class white people because they are the largest recipients of government poverty subsidies and other forms of aid. This is especially true in Red State America, where anti-black and brown animus by white elites is used to legitimate efforts to remove aid and assistance for the poor in a part of the country that is disproportionately dependent on such programs.
Ultimately, a possessive investment in Whiteness can be easily manipulated by Right-wing elites and others toward the end goal of serving the interests of financial and economic elites at the expense of the vast majority of the white public.
Voters make decisions based on a number of factors. Not all of them are economic or financial. The White Right and the Republican Party are able to advance their agenda because many members of the white public believe that they are punishing black and brown people when in fact they are also hurting themselves. The psychological wages of Whiteness often damage the economic interests of White America as a whole. This is an old story in America.
In the Age of Obama, Whiteness and white exceptionalism are in the midst of a type of crisis, a type of schizophrenia and derangement.
In this America, narratives about “the browning of America” create a sense of peril and fear. Yet, American history demonstrates how Whiteness expands to include new groups as a way of maintaining its dominance.
White racial paranoiac thinking excuse-makes for and legitimates the repeated killing of unarmed black people by America’s police and other such abuses. But, the militarization of police, the rise of the surveillance society, and how thug cops routinely abuse and violate the civil rights of the public (usually without any consequences) should be a concern for all Americans—this is especially true for white people because in absolute numbers they are the ones subjected to the most police violence.
America twice elected a President of the United States who happens to be black. However, Obama’s elections have been responded to by overt white racism, white conspiranoid thinking such as Birtherism, a rise in hate groups, Herrenvolk white identity organizations such as The Tea Party, and a Republican Party that now fully embraces its role as the United States’ premier white identity organization.
America’s popular culture is heavily influenced by African-Americans and other people of color. Moreover, young people in America appear to be more racially tolerant and embracing of racial and social justice. But “backstage” and “colorblind” racism are now the norm, and new data even suggests that contrary to popular belief, white “Millennials” are almost as racist as their parents and grandparents.
In the post civil rights era, the United States transformed into a neoliberal, multicultural corporate democracy. As a function of this arrangement, social and racial justice is superficial and made secondary to profit maximizing and the transfer of wealth and resources from the people up to a parasitic financial elite class. Whiteness still pays dividends. But, those dividends are not the same or as great as they once were.
Quinn Norton brilliantly explains this reality:
White exceptionalism, and even the elitism of old, finds their end in this age of global troubles. There is no sanity in maintaining these standards of difference. All our children share one destiny — to live their lives at the bottom of the same polluted gravity well, trying, and usually failing, to get their needs met as the acid seas encroach the land and the great variety of life dies before us.
Race still matters. And one must also be weary of surrendering to crude appeals which insist that “class is more important than race”. No. Race and class work together in a complex relationship that sustains social inequality and injustice. Both variables—in addition to gender, sexuality, and other identities—must be understood if the Common Good is to be served in the shadow of the neoliberal age.
Income inequality is one of the great challenges of America in the 21st century, in many ways the foundations for such a socially deleterious state of affairs was laid hundreds of years ago:
As the illuminating map generated by that study shows, children born in some regions—Salt Lake City and San Jose, Calif., for example—have a reasonable shot of moving up the social ladder. By contrast, many parts of the former Confederacy, it seems, are now the places where the American dream goes to die.
Why is that true? At first blush, you might guess race could explain the variation. When the study’s authors crunched the data, they found that the larger the black population in any given county, the lower the overall social mobility. But there was more to the story than blacks unable to break the cycle of poverty. In a passing comment, Chetty and his co-authors observed that “both blacks and whites living in areas with large African-American populations have lower rates of upward income mobility.” Far from being divergent, the fates of poor blacks and poor whites in these regions are curiously, inextricably, intertwined…
Instead of chalking it up to race, recent research points toward a more startling and somewhat controversial explanation: When we see broad areas of inequality in America today, what we are actually seeing is the lingering stain of slavery. Since 2002, with increasing refinement in the years since, economic historians have argued that the “peculiar institution,” as it was once called, is dead but not gone. Today, in the 21st century, it still casts an economic shadow over both blacks and whites: “Slavery,” writes Harvard economist Nathan Nunn, “had a long-term effect on inequality as well as income.”
His work is representative of a new, more historical direction within economics.
Its proponents believe that institutions devised centuries ago tend to persist, structuring economic reality in the 21st century in ways that are largely invisible. Their hope is that, by tracing these connections between past and present, they may be able to point the way toward more effective solutions to today’s seemingly intractable economic problems.
Reflecting on the meaning of Whiteness in this “age of global troubles”, white people have many choices to make. Two of them are as follows.
In the spirit of a classic metaphor from antiquity such as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, to a more recent blockbuster film such asThe Matrix, or an auteur b-movie classic like They Live, do white people choose to see the complexities and realities of Whiteness for what it is or do they retreat back to the comforting ignorance of “white exceptionalism?”
This is a foundational moral, ethical, and philosophical question for white people as they evaluate their relationship to Whiteness.
Is it possible for white people to live a fully ethical and humane life while still clinging to Whiteness in this “age of global troubles?” As resource scarcity, neoliberalism, Austerity, and the Culture of Cruelty grind down the working classes, the middle classes, and the poor on both sides of the global colorline, that question will need to be imminently answered.
Chauncey DeVega, a pseudonym, is editor and founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes. His essays on race, popular culture and politics have been published in various books and Web sites. He can be reached email@example.com.