Leonard Pitts Jr

Leonard Pitts: Race is the stupidest idea in history

On New Year’s Day, it will be 150 years since Abraham Lincoln set black people free from slavery.

And there is no such thing as black people.

The first of those statements is not precisely true; a clarification will be offered momentarily. The second statement is not precisely false. And the clarification begins here:

It is a clarification needed not simply because it helps us to better understand the milestone of history we commemorate this week, but also because it helps us to better understand America right here in the tumultuous now. The Republican Party, to take an example not quite at random, enters the new year still nursing its wounds after an election debacle most observers laid upon its inability to sway Hispanics, young voters and, yes, black people. Then there is the Trayvon Martin shooting, the mass incarceration phenomenon, the birther foolishness.

A century and a half later, in other words, race is still a story. Black people are still a story.

How can that be, if there is no such thing as black people?

Granted, most of us think otherwise. The average 18-year-old American kid, says historian Matt Wray, thinks of race “as a set of facts about who people are, which is somehow tied to blood and biology and ancestry.”

But that kid is wrong. If you doubt that, try a simple challenge: Define “black people.”

Maybe you think of it as African ancestry. But Africa is a place on a map — not a bloodline. And, as the example of Charlize Theron, the fair-skinned, blond actress from South Africa, amply illustrates, it is entirely possible to come from there, yet not be what we think of as “black.” Indeed, Theron, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008, is by definition an African American. Yet, she fits no one’s conception of that term, either.

Or, you might define “black people” by physical appearance: i.e., people with dark skin and coarse hair. If so, consider Gregory Howard Williams, a pale-skinned American educator and author of the memoir Life On The Color Line, who did not learn he was “black” until he was 10. Or consider Walter White, the former executive secretary of the NAACP, whose 1948 autobiography begins: “I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond.” Consider the people from India who have dark skin or the ones from Asia, the Middle East or Latin America who have coarse hair.

And perhaps here, you are tempted to throw up your hands and paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who famously said of pornography that he might not be able to define it, “but I know it when I see it.”

The difference is that pornography, at least, exists. But there is no such thing as black people. Or white people. Or Asians. Or Indians.

What is my point? It’s simply this: Race is the stupidest idea in history.

Or, as Wray puts it, “race was a big mistake.”

To which Nell Irwin Painter adds the observation that a decade of research and writing on the subject taught her “that if you try to consider race as a real thing, it makes no sense.”

Wray, a Temple University professor and the author of Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, and Painter, a former professor at Princeton and the author of The History of White People, are leading lights in a burgeoning field of study whose aim is nothing less that the deconstruction of race. It seeks to answer the question of when, how, and why we ever got it into our heads there is such a thing as race; when, how, and why we decided we could divide human beings into subgroups whose members all shared similar traits and that those subgroups could be ranked, superior to inferior.

The “when,” as it turns out, is pretty easy to answer, though the answer is surprising, in light of how conditioned we are to think of race as something that always was and always will be. The concept of race, says Painter, dates from about the mid-18th Century. It is less than 300 years old.

Though there were always a few people, she says, who attempted to impute character or worth from a stranger’s color, it was more likely in that era for people to make those judgments based upon a stranger’s religion or wealth. “So if you were a light-skinned person and you met a dark-skinned person in rags, and you weren’t [in rags], you’d feel superior,” says Painter. “But if you were in rags and that other person was in rags, you’d be trying to figure if that person had something that you could get.”

Then came race — that which would allow one person in rags to feel superior to another person in rags. Early on, it was defined not by appearance but as a function of climate. Greek scholars believed people from places where the seasons do not change were placid. Those from places of dramatic seasonal shifts were wild and unsociable. Those from hot places were impulsive and hot-tempered. Those from cooler climes were stiff and intellectual.

Race was also defined geographically. Hippocrates, the great Greek physician, thought people who lived in low-lying areas tended to be dark-skinned, fat, cowardly, ill-spoken and lazy. Those who lived in flat, windy places would be large in stature, “but their minds will be rather unmanly and gentle.”

And then, there were those who decided the key to race lay in measuring the size and shape of people’s skulls.

“American scientists and anthropologists get ahold of this concept by the early 1800s,” says Wray. “For the whole of the 19th Century, they’re refining and tweaking their models to really give scientific weight and authority to the notion that these racial differences can be empirically verified. In other words, they’re out there in the world. We just have to figure out whether it’s the distance between the eye sockets and the bridge of the nose, or some combination of measurements from the back of the skull to the chin divided by the circumference of the head that will give us the kind of golden ratio we’re looking for — in other words, the one that will enable us to definitively say, this person is African, this person is Caucasian and so forth.”

The great Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston was fascinated by this thinking. She was known to stand on New York City street corners with a pair of calipers, asking passersby for permission to measure their skulls.

In 1895, D.B. Brinton, an American anthropologist, published a complicated chart purporting to categorize all the races of humankind. He ended up with more than a hundred kinds of Caucasian alone.

Brinton and Hurston were never able to quantify race. No one was. And yet, the nation — indeed, the world — was never able to give it up. Race was, and is, too useful.

Says Wray, “It has enabled in the United States for us to justify and legitimate the conquest of Indian land and the near genocide of Native American tribes. It enabled us for such a long time to justify slavery and when we got done with that justification, when people called B.S. on that, we said, ‘Well, this is how we can explain Jim Crow.’ When the Civil Rights Movement happens in the 1950s and ’60s, when African Americans rise up and say, ‘Enough Jim Crow,’ then we use it to justify mass incarceration of black Americans. We find the idea of race and inherent racial differences and the idea that some people are frankly, just better than others, to be indispensible.”

It is worth remembering that when newcomers from Europe flocked to these shores in search of opportunity, they did not automatically see themselves as white. They were French, English, Scottish, Spanish or German, and far from having some identity in common, they were often in contention for the riches of this land. Whiteness was something that had to be learned and earned, particularly for those — Jews, Poles, southern Italians, Hungarians, the Irish — who were regarded as congenitally inferior. They were seen as white, says Painter, but it was a sort of defective whiteness. They were “off white” for want of a better term, and as such, a threat to American values and traditions. And they were mistreated accordingly until, over the passage of generations of assimilation, they achieved full whiteness.

University of Illinois history professor David R. Roediger recounts a telling episode in his book, Working Toward Whiteness. It seems David, a Russian Jew, has come to America seeking refuge from anti-Semitic persecution. He arrives in Georgia and begins working with his cousins as a peddler. But soon there is a problem. His cousins complain that he is too friendly with his black customers. “The schvarters here are like we are in Russia,” they explain. To treat them too well is to risk his own acceptance.

David replies that he cannot bring himself to treat the blacks as he himself was treated in Russia. “It is easy,” he tells his cousin, “for you to forget how to feel and what it is like to be hurt and stepped on when you think of yourself as white today and forget what it was like being a Jew yesterday.”

As Jon Stewart noted recently on The Daily Show, that history is what lends a certain pungent edge to some of the post-election hand wringing among conservatives. Surely, the gods of irony laughed aloud when a television personality named O’Reilly (Bill) and a guest named Goldberg (Bernie) lamented how newcomers were changing “traditional America.”

As whiteness was invented, so was blackness. When Africans were gathered on the shores of that continent to be packed into the reeking holds of slave ships for the voyage to this country, they saw themselves as Taureg, Mandinkan, Fulani, Mende or Songhay — not black. As Noel Ingnatiev, author of How The Irish Became White, has observed, those Africans did not become slaves because they were black. They “became” black because they were enslaved.

But though blackness and whiteness were invented they still, to a remarkable degree, govern perception — and thus, destiny.

Some months ago, my wife Marilyn and I were at dinner with two other couples and somehow, we all got talking about identity. One couple, brown-skinned like Marilyn and me, saw themselves, like Marilyn and me, as black or African American. The other, fair-skinned couple, pointedly declined to define themselves as white. She said she saw herself as Jewish; he defined himself as a first-generation Polish American.

It struck me, not simply because it underlined the ultimate falsity of these identities, white and black, but also because it highlighted what has always struck me as the problematic nature of one of them in particular: white. I’ve often thought the word “white” had a tendency to discomfit the people to whom it is applied, to carry some hint of accusation that is no less real for being unspoken. In my experience, white people are often ill at ease with being referred to as white people.

There is, I think, a reason for that. “Black” and “white” are equally artificial, but black fairly quickly took on the contours of a real culture. The people to whom it was applied, after all, were required to live in close proximity to one another, sharing the same often-squalid circumstances, the same mistreatment and oppression, conditions that no degree of personal excellence or achievement could mitigate or help them escape. These pressures shaped them, drew them together.

“White,” on the other hand, was held together only by the single condition of being not black, being a member of the advantaged class. It has little existence apart from that.

As illustration, try a mind experiment. If someone says to you that she enjoys black literature, what do you interpret her to be saying? Likely that she reads Ernest Gaines, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. But what is “white literature?” What is “white music?” What is “white art?” How often, in media, does one even see “white” used — physical descriptions of crime suspects aside — where it is not positioned as a counterpoint to “black?”

This is the thing that is often misunderstood by people who try to impute some sinister double standard to things like the Miss Black America Pageant. “If there was a Miss White America Pageant,” they are fond of saying, “black people would have a fit.”

But there is a Miss Italia USA pageant. And a Miss German America pageant. And a Little Miss Irish Princess contest. And a Miss Russian California.

So the problem isn’t black people having a fit. It is white people recognizing, if only viscerally and instinctively, that “white” is a problematic word to be avoided when possible.

What, then, do we do with this history? Where does it take us as the future dawns?

Some would say it takes us nowhere. Some would say the best thing we can do with race is leave it alone. If I had a dollar for every person who has ever told me that talking about race causes racism, or even half that much for every person who has ever told me the “hyphenated Americanism” of African Americans causes racism, I’d never have to buy another Powerball ticket in life.

But such people are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. People embrace hyphenated Americanism because no other Americanism has been available to them. And if we stopped talking about race tomorrow, racism would persist; all we would lose is the language by which we frame and confront it.

You don’t end race by silence, nor do you end it by blaming it on the people it has been used against.

Again, race persists because race is useful. If you want to end race, stop allowing race to be useful. Consider some of the political debates of the recent past and note how issues with no obvious racial component soon end up being about race.

“I think you see it with health care now,” says the historian, Roediger. “Very quickly, something that’s kind of a fundamental human right, it’ll end up being talked about as if it were a racialized entitlement. The achievement of the right in making the word ‘welfare,’ which means good, sound like a bad thing, is so connected with the way they can pull on race.”

But Roediger does sense that a change is afoot, that perhaps the utility of race has peaked. The election, he says, showed “that this kind of Republican refrain of ‘food stamp president’ doesn’t work quite as well when so many white people are on food stamps and know people who they know are trying to get jobs and can’t get jobs.”

As a result, he says, the GOP, which has, for generations been able to “take advantage of race,” now faces a race problem of its own. “I think there are fewer whites who respond to these kind of dog whistle, coded appeals, partly because they have misery in their own families, partly because anti-racism has made some progress.”

There is no such thing as black people.

Except, of course, that there is — even if we have to use what might be dubbed the Justice Potter Stewart standard to define them.

Race is the stupidest idea in history. It is also, arguably, the most powerful. It determines who goes to jail and who goes to college, who gets loans and who gets rejections, who gets the job and who gets the unemployment check. It determines the life you live and the assumptions that are made about you.

For example, Gregory Howard Williams, the man who did not know he was “black” until he was 10, once told the story of how, when he became dean of his law school, a white woman congratulated him on this well-deserved achievement. “Then,” said Williams, “she found out that I was black, and her first response — not to me, but to someone else — was, ‘Did he get the job because he was black?’ When she looked at me and assumed I was white, she assumed that I was qualified for the job. When she discovered I was black, she assumed that I was unqualified for the job.”

Then there is Walter White, the “Negro” with blond hair and blue eyes, who was, as a child, cornered in his house with his father, a mail carrier, by a white mob intent on violence. “There’s where that nigger mail carrier lives!” they cried. “Let’s burn it down! It’s too nice for a nigger to live in!”

Back in 2000, a group of scientists announced that, after mapping the genetic codes of five people, self-identified as African American, Caucasian, Asian and Hispanic, they had been unable to tell them apart. As one researcher put it, “The concept of race has no scientific basis.”

That same week, I was in New York City where I stood on 44th Street with my hand raised, watching empty cab after empty cab pass me by. The irony was pointed. Science could not define “black,” but a New York City cab driver certainly could.

This is the reality to which our history delivers us, one in which these artificial designations — “black,” “white,” “Asian,” etc. — are considered to have all these inborn markers for intelligence, criminality, athleticism, honesty, cleanliness, and we accept it without question, accept it like sunshine and air, as a thing that simply is. And it seems beyond us to look into the face of that other person who sits on the other side of that artificial designation and see reflected in his or her eyes, our own tears, our own laughter, our own self.

A century and a half ago Tuesday, the first Republican president issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. Except that, as most historians will tell you, it didn’t actually free anybody; it applied only to slaves in states like Florida and Mississippi, which were then in rebellion and no longer recognized U.S. authority, while ignoring those in states like Maryland and Kentucky, which remained in the Union. As the movie Lincoln shows, it actually took the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.

But the one thing Abraham Lincoln’s document did do was challenge a nation’s understanding of its fundamental social order, its comprehension of the way things were and were meant to be. At a time when the very humanity of “black” people was in controversy and any suggestion that they might actually be equal to whites was met with scornful laughter, this homely country lawyer put the idea of freedom on the table and forced the nation for the very first time to grapple with that which it had previously accepted without question, like sunshine and air.

Getting the nation to think seriously about the concept of black people, free, was, as much as anything, a triumph of imagination.

One hundred fifty years later, getting the nation to understand that there is no such thing as black people will require a similar jolt to hidebound thinking. If and when it comes, perhaps a nation that once freed itself from slavery will finally free itself from race, as well.