This one is so good that I don’t have perspective to add or anything witty to say about it. However that could just be because I’ve only had three hours of sleep and just can’t do any better. Either way, this excerpt of a transcript of an NPR interview is definitely worth reading and pondering. You could also listen to it in it’s entirety HERE.
Author Examines ‘The History Of White People’
Once upon a time, notorious laws in this country defined as black anyone with as much as one drop of black blood. Similar laws struggled with the rights of people of mixed race, octoroons, for example. But nowhere can you find a definition of white people, and as a practical matter, that non-definition has changed. Ethnic groups now regarded as white Irish, Jews, Italians – were once very much on the outside.
These points (are) from Nell Irvin Painter’s new book, “The History of White People,” which traces ideas about color and race from antiquity to the Obama administration.
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. Nell Irvin Painter is our guest…
CONAN: …you conclude at the end of your book, you say the fundamental black-white binary endures even though the category of whiteness or we might say more precisely a category of non-blackness effectively expands. That non-blackness, is that by lack of a definition of whiteness?
Ms. PAINTER: Yeah, that’s about how it goes. There as you noted, there have not been legal definitions of whiteness. It’s kind of what’s leftover from blackness.
CONAN: What isn’t.
Ms. PAINTER: And blackness, there’s the idea of a one-drop rule is an idea. What the states did was say one-fourth, one-eighth, that kind of thing, one grandparent, one great-grandparent. That’s how they decided what one drop was.
I suppose people use the word one drop because actually color disappears very quickly in people. And so you can look functionally white with one black grandparent, which in most places would make you legally black. So what makes you black has been defined and redefined and re-re-redefined. What makes you white is what’s leftover.
CONAN: And in fact, you say that has been, well, ill-defined but redefined and redefined over the years, too.
Ms. PAINTER: Yeah… The whole point of defining races is mostly to put people down, and so those needs change over time. Who do you want to put down? Well, you want to put down, say, Jews and Italians and Slavs 100 years ago, but 150 years ago, you wanted to put down the Irish.
…We think of race as something physical, biological and permanent, but the way people used race in the 19th and 20th centuries and probably still today is that it has to do with temperament, racial temperament. So how people look on the outside is a key to what they’re like on the inside, their temperament. So that had to do with Protestantism, too.
…CONAN: It’s interesting, Nell Irvin Painter, you describe how, in fact, racial laws made a transition in the late part of the 20th century from being used to exclude persons of color to define injustices against persons of color.
Ms. PAINTER: Not persons of color, Negroes, to be exact. The laws were against Negroes. But you’re absolutely right that before desegregation, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all those laws, exclusionary laws, were meant to keep Negroes out. And the counting up was to keep Negroes out.
And after that, particularly after the 1970s, the need to rectify the injustices meant that we had to count people in order to straighten things out. So now we count up racial categories, say, to track mortgage lending, where there’s still a good deal of racial discrimination.
So in the census, the census keeps counting us by race for purposes of undoing racial harm in the past.
Read more (or listen) HERE
I read Painter’s book a couple of months ago, and it was fascinating. It’s a very “scholarly” read though; very exacting in every detail, which made it somewhat difficult to get through. But I don’t think anyone could still cling to their old ideas about “race” after reading what she has to say. At least, I hope not.