Unease, angst, and discomfort — the symptoms of our political and social frictions. I agonize over the state of my beloved United States. I could blame this all on the cumulative effect of the election cycle, COVID, and post-George Floyd discord. But I recall feeling a similar way during the Obama years when distress in Ferguson ignited unrest across the country. I recall feeling this way in the ‘90s when Three Strikes laws swept the nation, and in the ‘80s when The War On Drugs felt like a war on Black people. Racial discord has been constant throughout my life. Racial tension has chafed our nation and caused me pain. I know I am not the victim, but racism is the issue that cuts the deepest wounds in our nation’s character.
I have been studying the history and current thinking on race for the past 18 months. Reading. Listening. Researching. I have been taking a deep dive so that I can both understand and share. I have found some compelling truths about those of us who have been the beneficiaries of racial and social hierarchy. More and more, I see why white, successful people who generally live in comfort are also experiencing the distress of racial inequity. I am not talking about guilt for past privilege or a hidden prejudice against people of color. Rather, I am talking about systemic problems that have created class divides and left those on top more vulnerable than we may consciously realize. There are fundamental problems with the way we have achieved whiteness and ways in which we experience whiteness today. Recognizing those problems can help each of us to live more complete lives and can ultimately uplift people of all colors. That is the goal.
I invite you to join me on a tour through the history of whiteness, culminating with an exploration of new paths forward. We will begin in the late 1700s, where the erotic nature of Greek statues and the skull of a beautiful woman helped define our whiteness. We will then visit the 1920s and ‘30s to examine documents that formed the basis for Nazi Germany; sing along with beloved Paul Robeson in a ballad that captured American hearts; and see how Italians, Jews, and other immigrants became “white.” Finally, we will focus on the year 2020, where we discover new ways to view our social structures, unearth sources of venom in our social media, and pave a path toward social reconciliation and prosperity.
The source materials that I have read and studied are included at the end of this paper. Many references include links that you can follow and investigate.
Caucasian: The American Version of Whiteness
Racial categories were born around the same time as our nation. Carl Linnaeus published the first racial taxonomy in the mid-1700s. The work was not scientific by today’s standards. Rather, race was defined to support social norms. By the end of the century, the new United States took to the term Caucasian as a way to distinguish and elevate white people. Research into that word, Caucasian, reveals an intriguing and curious chain of events that took place between 1764 and 1795 in Germany. Thirty-one years of elite, intellectual trends gave rise to the American classification of white people. For those of us who identify as being white, learning how this all unfolded may serve as a valuable eye-opener, offering new insights into how we can make changes today to uplift ourselves and others throughout our national spectrum. I learned much of this story by reading A History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter, Ph.D. I conducted follow-up research that revealed this fascinating thread.
When Whiteness Became Important. White skin was not always supreme. Early on in Europe, many people with white skin were regarded as lowly and some were even enslaved. One famous example was St. Patrick who, in the 5th century, served as a slave before rising to sainthood. Over hundreds of years, most European slaves were white, with many coming through Slavic trade routes. The word slave came from these origins and described people whose skin was not dark. Venice was a center for slave trade as well. Thousands of white people were sold in the Venetian slave market in the years before America became a nation.
When Black slaves first arrived in the colonies in 1619, their skin color was disparaged, but whiteness itself was not regarded as a rarified treasure. Just one year prior, in 1618, the Virginia Company and the City of London entered into an agreement to import white vagrant children and sell them as “Duty boys.” Exactly 100 years later in 1718, Parliament passed the Transportation Act, which allowed for tens of thousands of white convicts, seen as scarcely human and routinely labeled “scum and dregs,” to be transported to North American colonies. So, while Blacks from Africa were regarded in completely inhumane ways, whiteness itself was not held as an ideal as of the early 1700s in the colonies. This leads us to the trend-setters of Germany, and of Europe’s high society, after 1750.
Erotic Art and Whiteness. Europe’s first art historian, with eyes for the erotic, propelled whiteness into the realm of perfection. In 1764, Johann Joachim Winckelmann published what is widely regarded as the first art history book ever: Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (History of the Art of Antiquity). His work made a big impact on educated people throughout Europe. Winckelmann, a curator of antiquities in the Vatican, wrote about art in sensual and expansive terms. A friend of Casanova and other romantics of the era, Winckelmann was deeply attracted to the male anatomy and his writing made a strong impact on others.
“I have observed that those who are only aware of beauty in the female sex and are hardly or not at all affected by beauty in our sex, have little innate feeling for beauty in art in a general and vital sense.” (italics from manuscript)
– Essay on the Beautiful in Art, Winckelmann, 1763
Winckelmann was particularly drawn to Greek statues of men, including their musculature and their pure white color. But the white appearance was the result of worn-away antique paint. Winckelmann was studying Roman copies of ancient Greek statues, as we do today, and was not aware that the originals were very colorful. With his misconception intact, Winckelmann promoted the “white” Greek statues as the quintessential representation of human magnificence. He declared the Vatican statue of Apollo Belvedere, already the most famous statue in Europe, as the embodiment of perfect human beauty. Other leading influencers of the time, like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, admired Winckelmann’s all-new approach to art curation and carried Greek whiteness to an elevated status in Germany through the late 1700s.
How a Statue Became a Scientific Reference Point. Apollo Belvedere was revered not only for its musculature and whiteness, but some admired another feature: its skull. True, statues do not really have skulls. But the study of skulls to support ideas about racial groupings was active in scientific and pseudo-scientific circles in the late 1700s. Since Apollo Belvedere was put on a pedestal, (literally), its imagined skull was deemed supreme. Petrus Camper (1722–1789) created many of the drawings that influenced this thinking. Born next door to Germany in the Netherlands, he was a physician, zoologist, and naturalist. He was particularly interested in making correlations between the angles in different faces to intelligence, publishing elaborate collections of illustrations for both artists and natural scientists. Given his zoological background, it was natural for Camper to compare animal skulls to human skulls. Things got strange when Camper’s adoration of Greek beauty led him to compare skulls of humans to the fancied skull of a statue.
One of Camper’s famous drawings, published in 1792, is shown below. The chart has Camper’s original handwork in the middle. It shows a collection of skulls in the top row, matched with corresponding faces in the bottom row. Faint lines indicate measurements. I have annotated Camper’s work, adding labels along with a photo of Apollo Belvedere’s head. On the far left is a chimpanzee, directly adjacent to a “Negro.” On the far right is Apollo Belvedere, directly adjacent to a “European.” This is the type of evidence presented by European scientists in the 1790s that Europeans were the ascendant race.
The Perfect European. The question remained, who were the perfect Europeans? Europe was a large region inhabited by many different and disparate groups. Some of the scientists of the day were driven to determine the subset of Europeans that could claim ultimate racial dominance. The result of this perfect European contest casts aspersions on the value of being labeled as Caucasian.
Europeans had a long infatuation with women from the Caucasus region of Euro-Asia, a mountainous area between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea near what is now the country of Georgia. Women from this area were labeled as Circassian Beauties, Circassia being a region within the Caucasus, and were traded and sold as concubines and sex slaves within both the Ottoman Empire and Europe. Two of the most treasured physical characteristics in these females were their translucent, white skin and the shapely form of their faces and heads.
The term “Circassian” was part of colonial popular culture in the 1700s, used to advertise European cosmetic products that claimed to contain substances used by these women. In 1734, Voltaire wrote about their beauty, monetary value, and erotic training in his Letters on the English. The adoration with Circassian Beauties would continue for a long time. In 1819, Lord Byron wrote about them in his epic poem, Don Juan, referring to “slaves to sell off in the capital . . . [including]. . . Circassians, Bought up for different purposes and passions.” P.T. Barnum made Circassian Beauties a regular feature in his circuses starting in the 1860s. Would these women, concubines and sex objects, become scientists’ measuring sticks for the ideal “race”?
The Skull of a Sex Slave. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the man who gave us the term Caucasian, was determined to categorize the races of the world. He measured and studied his collection of 60 skulls and he longed for the skull that would come closest to Apollo Belvedere. If he could find that perfect European skull, he could name the highest of the world’s races. He knew what skull he really wanted – the skull of a Circassian beauty!
Blumenbach (1752–1840) was a German physician, naturalist, physiologist, anthropologist, and a member of the Göttingen School of History. Influenced by Winckelmann, Goethe, and Camper, he was fascinated by the connection between beauty and race. Mesmerized by Circassian women, he wrote effusively about their beauty, intermingling three labels: Georgian, Circassian, and Caucasian.
“Nature has there lavished upon the women beauties which are not to be seen elsewhere. I consider it to be impossible to look at them without loving them. It would be impossible to paint more charming visages, or better figures, than those of the Georgians.”
(Blumenbach, Anthropological Treatises, 269).
Getting access to a Circassian skull was no easy feat. One of Blumenbach’s benefactors, Georg Thomas Baron Von Asch, came through. Asch had secured a medical degree in Göttingen, where Blumenbach worked and had worked in Russia’s medical service as a scientist. He recovered a pristine skull of an adolescent female from the Caucasus who had been taken captive by Russian military forces and brought to Moscow, where she died of venereal disease. It is highly likely that she was a sex slave for Russian soldiers. Her young skull, featuring a complete set of teeth, was quite intact when placed in Blumenbach’s hands as a treasured prize.
Blumenbach proclaimed this to be the “Beautiful Skull of a Female Georgian.” He was ready to proclaim the most elevated race in the world, and name that race after the skull of this unfortunate, enslaved woman. Blumenbach had an eye on how his work would be employed in the US. Georgia had recently become the name of a new American state (in 1788). Perhaps this is why Blumenbach chose not to name the race Georgian. Instead, he settled on Caucasian, a term that was being used in the Göttingen School. This race had a name at last! He was the first leading anthropological scientist to use Caucasian to encompass white people from Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa.
Caucasian: The American Version. Blumenbach’s racial term, Caucasian, caught on in the US. Interestingly, America did not take up his additional racial categories of Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American (or “red”). Perhaps more significantly, Americans did not use Caucasian in the way that Blumenbach intended. He saw Caucasian as a word to describe people from Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa. In the US, Caucasian was adopted solely to describe people originating from Northern and Western Europe. This is because Anglo-Saxons were the most appreciated people in the new country and other Europeans were not yet fully welcomed. So, we whites were given a label resulting from a narrow interpretation resulting from the combined adoration of a Greek statue and a Circassian skull. Caucasian — a dubious pedigree.
Jewish . . . Italian . . . Caucasian?
I am a third-generation Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. In 1800, I would not have been considered Caucasian and may not have been allowed to enter the United States. The same is true for Italians, Poles, Armenians (who are actually from the Caucasus area), Greeks (even though their statues were so revered!), and many others. Most of us white people are of immigrant descent and understanding how we became included as Caucasians and citizens is essential to address questions about our path forward. To find answers, we need to jump to 1920.
Immigrants: The Other White People. As the 1920s began, the Civil War still loomed large in the rear-view mirror and Jim Crow laws dominated the Southern legal landscape where racism was severe. In 1921, a mob in Tulsa leveled “Black Wall Street,” killing 300 people while burning a Black banking and insurance hub to the ground. There was a national average of one Black lynching per week, largely permitted by local authorities and sometimes even chronicled in published postcards. Most states had anti-miscegenation laws that made it illegal for consenting adults to have mixed-race sexual relations, let alone marry. Whites were separated from Blacks.
At the same time, the country was grappling with an influx of people who were not Black. Between 1890 and 1920, 4 million Italians and 2 million European Jews entered the United States. Foreigners were immigrating to the United States at a rate of about 1 million per year. The Immigration Act of 1924, known as the Johnson-Reed Act, placed strict country-by-country limits, declaring that 85% of immigrants could arrive from Northern and Western Europe (Anglo-Saxons) and only 15% from Eastern and Southern Europe. This supported earlier views of who was and who was not Caucasian. The new Italian quota was just 4,000 per year, well over a 90% reduction. The Russian quota, accounting for most immigrating Jews, was under 3,000. Greeks — only 100 per year! After the law was passed, more Italians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Poles, Portuguese, Romanians, Spaniards, Chinese, and Japanese exited the United States than entered as immigrants. Whites sought to separate from whites!
A Sikh vs The United States. In 1923, The US Supreme Court heard an illuminating case in which a Sikh man from India sought to become a citizen. As a person dedicated to meditation and spiritual lifestyle, I have taken on a Sikh name, enjoy playing the music of the Sikh tradition, and gravitated to this story when I first learned about it on the Seeing White podcast. It illuminates the potential for people to compromise their values in search of privilege.
Bhagat Singh Thind (1892–1967) was born in the Indian state of Punjab and came to America in 1913, having recently been awarded a bachelor’s degree in his home country. His father was a spiritual teacher in India, and Bhagat Singh’s US intentions were to obtain an advanced college degree and to write and teach in the mold of Emerson and Thoreau, whom he greatly admired. He enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley, working summer jobs in an Oregon lumber mill. He enlisted in the US Army and served during World War I.
Bhagat Singh was initially awarded citizenship in 1920, as were others from India. But his ruling was challenged by a naturalization examiner and his case made its way to the highest court in the land. The chief obstacle was in the language employed in the Naturalization Act of 1790 declaring that naturalization (citizenship for immigrants) was limited to “free white person[s] . . . of good character.” The Act was amended in 1906 to require that immigrants speak English.
Legal Arguments. Bhagat Singh’s lawyer, Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, had gained citizenship in 1914 and practiced law in California. His defense began by stating that Thind’s skin color was not too dark and that Thind spoke English quite well. Pandit further argued that Bhagat Singh was a true Caucasian, citing anthropological documents describing Thind’s ancestors as the original Aryans who traveled from the Caucasus Mountains of Eurasia to Northwest India, extending the Aryan Race to that region. As evidence, the language group in the state of Punjab, Thind’s home, was regarded as Indo-Aryan. Thind was both Aryan and Caucasian.
The lawyer further stated that Bhagat Singh was born to a high caste in India and had a revulsion to marrying a woman of a lower caste. He explained, “The high-caste Hindu [the term Hindu was applied to Thind in these proceedings] regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the Negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint.” Thind would therefore uphold the unique and extreme anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.
The Supreme Court declared that Thind would win if he could prove his whiteness. “If the applicant is a white person within the meaning of this section he is entitled to naturalization; otherwise not.” The court also ruled that white, Aryan, and Caucasian could all be seen as synonymous in this case. But the court argued that the local caste system in the State of Punjab was not 100% pure. Chief Justice Sutherland wrote that in the history of India “intermarriages did occur producing an intermingling of the two and destroying to a greater or less degree the purity of the ‘Aryan’ blood.” Thind could not prove that he was a pure Aryan.
The court then delivered the fatal blow to the case, as stated in Justice Sutherland’s majority opinion, worthy of reading word-for-word: “… Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.” In other words, anyone could tell that Thind was not really white or Caucasian. Bhagat Singh lost and some 50 Indians had their US citizenship revoked.
The Disconnect. Thind compromised his values in an attempt to become a citizen. As a Sikh scholar, and not a Hindu as labeled in the trial, he personally repudiated the caste system. The Sikh lifestyle — which includes a popular tradition of feeding all who visit any temple seated on the floor, side by side, everyone equal — is specifically designed to counteract caste. Thind went on to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy and to become a well-known lecturer and author who wrote 15 books on metaphysics, spirituality, and religion. He married a Christian woman in a Presbyterian church and wrote about the intrinsic value of every person. But, in an effort to gain citizenship, he was willing to compromise his values.
This is where I pause and ask: Do I compromise my values to gain the benefits of being white? I am not conscious of doing so. But it is possible, even likely, that I could do more to use my influence and power to resolve the racial crises that cause me ongoing discomfort. More about this later.
Anti-Immigrant Push-Back. During the 1920s, there was significant opposition to immigration, much of it on the basis of white purity. In a disturbing theme, there were the ongoing attempts to gain legal acceptance for eugenics, sterilization of “lessor” whites. Madison Grant, author of the book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916), was a leading voice for promoting eugenics, restricting immigration, and anti-miscegenation laws. His influence was to reach all the way to Hitler, some 20 years after he published the book. Push-back against immigration rose during the Great Depression when jobs grew scarce. Between 1929 and 1936, some 400,000 Mexican Americans were repatriated to Mexico, expelled from the United States, and over half of these were citizens. They were not as white as the European immigrants who were allowed to remain.
Some of the world’s most famous people exhibited ugly, anti-immigrant behaviors. Henry Ford was strongly anti-Semitic, and he used his vast business empire to spread his ideas. He blamed Jewish people for inciting World War I, held them responsible for stoking union flames in his manufacturing plants, and aligned himself with people who held extreme views about the Jews’ place in the world. To spread his philosophy, Ford included a copy of a newspaper that he published, The Dearborn Independent, in every Model T sold. Beginning in 1920, the newspaper ran a series of articles under the banner: The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. These articles were translated into 16 languages and circulated internationally with German support.
Charles Lindberg achieved international notoriety with his cross-Atlantic flight in 1927. Lindberg was notorious for his White supremacist views, linking anti-immigrant sentiment to calls for white purity. As late as 1939, with the rise of Nazism at its peak, Lindberg published a biting article in Reader’s Digest that stated: “We, the heirs of European culture, are on the verge of a disastrous war, a war within our own family of nations, a war which will reduce the strength and destroy the treasures of the White race. . . . [I]t is time to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again.”
Where It All Went Too Far. American extremism in the 1920s helped shape the Nazi genocide, and some American leaders were part of Hitler’s personal support group. Take a look at the table created by a trendsetting American historian, journalist, and political scientist. It ranks people’s percentage of superiority based upon their national origin. English people are granted a 19.7% superiority rating while Poles rank at 0.5%. The Russians listed herein primarily represent Jews — 2.7%. This work carried horrific implications.
Theodore Lothrop Stoddard created this chart for his 1922 book release, The Revolt Against Civilization, which followed his prior title, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. He attacked immigrant groups and contributed to millions of deaths in World War II.
Stoddard’s work was required reading for those involved in forming the Nazi regime. We know this through formal, written records analyzed in 2017 by legal scholar James Q. Whitman for the Princeton University Press. When a committee of Nazi bureaucrats met in the late spring of 1934 to begin creating what would be known as the Nuremberg Laws, they kept careful records of their meetings to legitimize the results and encourage investment from outside groups. In their opening session, they articulated their admiration for the ways in which the United States had managed to uphold racial and class superiority and purity. American anti-miscegenation laws were unique and stricter than any similar laws in other caste-driven countries like India and South Africa. The Nazis assigned Stoddard’s work as standard reading for their Reich’s school curriculum. They adopted the Stoddard term Untermensch (“subhuman”) into the Nazi lexicon. By the end of their reign, the Third Reich would kill 6 million Jews and 6 million Poles. Neither classified as Aryan.
Hitler personally and publicly acknowledged his American supporters. He gave Stoddard a private audience in 1939 and wrote a personal note to Madison Grant, the eugenics author, stating that “The book is my Bible.” Both Henry Ford and Chares Lindberg received the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle in 1938. Hitler had personally created this award and it was granted to only 12 people, including leaders of the Fascist party in Italy. Many American citizens were aware of the connection between these cultural leaders and Hitler’s Germany. For them, the anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant movements were going too far.
The Pendulum Swings, and Leaders Lead. Radio was the internet of the 1930s. By the decade’s end, 83% of US households owned one. In 1933, Roosevelt delivered his first fireside chat in which he proclaimed that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As the decade unfolded, his federal government worked with artists and activists to promote ethnic inclusion. Starting in 1938, CBS broadcast a 26-episode program called Americans All, Immigrants All. Written with input from W.E.B. DuBois, the African-American sociologist who co-founded the NAACP, the programs were produced through the New Deal’s WPA, Department of the Interior Office of Education. The title came from a speech by President Roosevelt in which he declared, “We are all immigrants.” The content was educational in nature and shared in schools across the country. You can listen to the episodes on today’s WNYC website, the home of public radio in New York City. Our nation’s citizens were hearing about the contributions of specific immigrant groups to the well-being of our country.
Paul Robeson, whose performance of Ol’ Man River in the 1936 film Show Boat imprinted his voice on audiences worldwide, recorded a stirring song about immigrant acceptance and racial unity three years later. In the Ballad for Americans, a chorus asks Robeson who he is. Robeson, a lawyer and civil rights activist ahead of his time, answers resoundingly, “I’m just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian, French and English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Polish, Scotch, Hungarian, Litvak, Swedish, Finnish, Canadian, Greek and Turk, and Czech and double Czech American.” His ultimate message: I am America.
The performance was funded through the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project, and it reflected a governmental effort that both mirrored and influenced national sentiment. The song was a huge success, selling a then-impressive 40,000 records within the first year. It was selected as the theme song for the 1940 Republican National Convention; you can still listen to it today on your favorite streaming service.
The White Tent Gets Bigger. Public sentiment towards immigrants had begun to make noticeable shifts in the spring of 1933 when FDR was inaugurated, using his first 100 days to stabilize the economy and galvanize the nation, and when international news coverage of Nazi attacks on German Jews was beginning. Over time, Americans felt more confident about their financial future, more willing to share work with immigrants, and more horrified by what they were learning about discrimination in Germany. In 1933 alone, 500-plus organizations in the US spoke out directly in opposition to the German treatment of Jews and tens of thousands of people participated in protest rallies in cities across the country. As the Nazi movement grew in strength, leading towards war in 1939, Americans more greatly embraced immigrants. This acceptance grew substantially during and after World War II, as soldiers of different ethnic backgrounds fought side by side as Americans. Upon returning home, their experiences fostered a greatly different tone about acceptance.
The definition of whiteness began to substantially change in 1940. The Immigration Act of 1940 incorporated new, vague language that allowed administrators to “liberalize a restrictive policy” through “administrative practice.” Immigration officials could use their own judgment to deem a person to be white and grant citizenship. The 1940 census form had removed restrictions on people from Mexico, allowing them to check the box for “white,” and paving the way for people to return to the US. In 1942 and 1943, eleven different bills were introduced to Congress proposing the elimination of racial barriers to naturalization. Even Bhagat Singh Thind was finally awarded citizenship due to legislative changes within the state of New York, where he had moved.
The official and unofficial categorizations of whiteness shifted in a more inclusive direction over a period of many years, leading to The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which carried a tone more consistent with the President, Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed it. The act effectively removed discrimination against Southern and Eastern Europeans, Asians, and other non-Northwestern European ethnic groups. Over time, our grandparents and parents were woven into the Caucasian cloth.
20th Century White Privilege. Three of my four Jewish immigrant grandparents arrived in the United States around the year 1900. Over time, they started their own businesses and acquired beautiful homes for themselves and their children, my parents included. My friends’ grandparents moved into Levittown, benefitting from Federal Housing Authority (FHA) loans which were initiated in 1934 to promote homeownership. In the 1940s, my father went to college under the GI Bill, as did many Jewish, Italian, Polish, and other immigrants who served in the war.
Blacks did not have the same government support. The FHA refused to insure mortgages in and near Black neighborhoods — a policy known as “redlining” — and subsidized builders with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to Black people. Not any of the 82,000 inhabitants of Levittown were Black, nor were the residents of Orange County’s Sunkist Gardens depicted in the photo. Richard Rothstein, in The Color of Law, describes the FHA program as a “state-sponsored system of segregation.” As late as the 1940 census, 45% of the Black-owned homes were reported as “dilapidated” and 35% lacked hot water.
Less than 10% of Black high-school-aged teens were enrolled in school in the 1920s. Years later, GI Bill funds were largely controlled by US Representative John Rankin from Mississippi, who famously distributed them to the disfavor of the Black soldiers who had served our country. Blacks simply were not permitted to attend many universities. My father’s alma mater, Purdue University, had only 145 Black students in a student body of 25,000 as recently as 1965. The Ohio State University, the largest in the northern states, only began allowing Black students to live on campus in 1950. The Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) lacked the funding and infrastructure to accommodate the new students. Black GIs were directed to vocational programs instead of degree-earning colleges. In these ways, our government played a significant role in supporting white achievement and withholding privileges for Blacks.
Caste: A New Point of View
I am grateful that my parents and grandparents were able to succeed in the United States. Had my grandparents remained in Eastern Europe, they may well have perished in the Holocaust, as was the fate of my great great aunt who died in Auschwitz. Many immigrants benefitted greatly from becoming included in the Caucasian world in the 20th century. But Blacks were left out. Why? The answer to this question provides important clues about our ongoing state of national unease.
Why would our country make strides to benefit people from all around the world and yet deny those same benefits to descendants of slaves who helped build this nation? Isabel Wilkerson addresses this question in her remarkable new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020). She explains that our country has an organized and established caste system. She compares the US with India and with Nazi Germany. We are all aware that India has a caste system; Wilkerson proffers that Nazi Germany was a short-lived caste system derived, in part, through lessons learned from the US. Wilkerson explains that one driving purpose for accepting immigrants into “whiteness” has been to ensure that Blacks remain as our lowest caste. By uplifting all immigrants to a higher status, we ensured that none would join forces with Blacks to upend a caste system that requires our prior slaves to remain on the bottom rung. Her book is very thorough, highly informative, and a compelling read.
This way of looking upon our society is new and uncomfortable, but it seems that there are some American caste categories upon which we can all agree. Certain Caucasians are on top, Hispanics are lower, and Blacks who descend from slaves are at the bottom. That is a starting point in describing our caste system. It is horrible to think about, hard for me to write about, and painful to admit. But it is also self-evident. And it is this caste system which turns those of us who are winners into losers. As her title states, this is the origin of our discontents. Everyone who lives within a caste system suffers in some way.
What are some of the adverse consequences for those of us who perceive ourselves to be on the upper half of the caste system ladder? I perceive that the agitation and discomfort I experience is common among my friends, family, and colleagues. Certainly, the current election cycle elevates uneasiness for many privileged whites. We regret our inability to create a level playing field for Black people. We also fear that some white people are stripping our country of the core principle of equal treatment and equal opportunity regardless of race, religion, or country of origin.
There is tension between different classes of white people. Shannon Sullivan, Ph.D., dissects these tensions in her book, Good White People. She describes the “Good White People,” who see themselves towards the top of the class system, and other white people that include Southern whites, working-class whites, “white trash,” and more. These “lower” groups, she explains, are well aware of how they are viewed by northern and coastal whites. They feel put down and held down. She further explains that upper-middle-class white people tend to place the blame of racism on whites whom they perceive as being lower class. The current election season has amplified this white divide.
The 2020 Election Cycle. The book Caste digs into this year’s election cycle by explaining how important it is for all of those above the lowest caste to maintain their superiority over Black people. She addresses the ascension of Barack Obama, a man who is brilliant, articulate, erudite, compassionate, and a highly qualified leader. She explains that these very qualities made him a huge threat to millions. By rising up, he was breaking a sacred caste barrier.
Wilkerson calls our attention to Donald Trump’s desperate work to debase Obama through the birther movement, a myth that Obama was not born in the US and therefore unqualified for President. After being elected President, Obama needed to be held down. The caste system demanded this, and Trump was the leading voice. Years after Obama provided his birth certificate based on Trump’s pressure, Donald Trump was not done. He was constant and relentless in his efforts to debase the Black man in the White House. Three of his sample tweets from years ago are included to remind us that those tweetstorms did not start yesterday.
This is the same Donald Trump who publicly and fallaciously condemned the Central Park Five. In 1989, he ran advertisements in New York newspapers calling for the death penalty for five young, Black men who had not yet been tried on a rape charge. His highly influential ads included the incendiary language: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers [note: no murder took place]. They should be forced to suffer. . . . Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will.” In 2001, a convicted serial rapist named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and provided an account that made his guilt quite clear. Trump’s public lynching was reversed, but not until the five innocent young men had each spent between 6 and 10 years in jail. Trump has never apologized, failing to do so when asked as recently as June of 2019.
Recently, President Trump has resurfaced his diatribe against dark-skinned, Somalia-born congressional representative Ilhan Omar. “She’s telling us how to run our country. How did you do where you came from? How’s your country doing? She’s going to tell us — she’s telling us how to run our country.” His statements remind us of our country before our immigration renaissance of the 1940s. The 2020s sound like the 1920s.
How did we come to this? Isabel Wilkerson explains that many people desperately cling to Trump’s leadership even in the face of his personal short fallings because his administration helps millions of people to remain above the African American caste. While this is not the only force driving his popularity, maintaining caste is one aspect of Donald Trump’s strong appeal. The problem is this: While other political issues will come and go, the deep-seated forces of caste will not disappear after this election is won or lost. A political victory for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be a great relief for upper-middle-class whites, should it take place. But, further changes in the path of whiteness will be necessary in order to guide us to a more secure future.
A Path Forward
Most people who read this paper will self-identify as white and will regard themselves as middle class or higher. Furthermore, most will be politically liberal and will bear little to no conscious animus towards people of color. Many will have devoted personal energy to the civil rights movement and to careers in socially uplifting work that have been aimed at creating equity among all races. All these endeavors have laid the groundwork for further progress. I suggest additional efforts as a path forward.
Whether we use the term caste system or class hierarchy, we live in the upper half. We are part of the hierarchy. We benefit from the hierarchy. We control many of the systems that regulate the hierarchy. While we may point a finger at other white people for creating a climate of ill-ease, we must take more steps to unravel the hierarchy.
Areas of Systemic Change. Schools. Health care. Voting rights. Government. Corporate governance. Control of media. Leadership in technology. Banking and investments. Homeownership. The judicial system. Law enforcement. These are all areas where upper-half-of-the-ladder white people are in command. We can share the power and authority over these systems and flatten the hierarchy. Sharing this power and authority with Black people is the most important starting place. Let us see how this initiative can advance by addressing the first three examples: schools, health care, and voting rights.
Public Schools. The governance of school districts is an excellent place to make changes. The historic Brown vs Board of Education ruling in 1954 gave us a starting point. But, 10 years later, 98% of Black students were still attending all-Black schools. The “system” simply was not ready to budge. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to large shifts in the distribution of students, but not in school governance. Over the following years leading up to 1972, most Black students in the South were sent to schools controlled by whites. While this improved classroom integration, it also cost the jobs of 39,000 Black teachers who were fired because they were not welcomed into the white-controlled schools. Many of these teachers held master’s degrees since school teaching was regarded as an esteemed and achievable career for Blacks, making them better qualified than their white counterparts. The system held on to white leadership and the Black students lost their role models.
Today, 90% of school district superintendents in the US are white and 90% of Black children are taught by white teachers. Blacks make up 16% of the nation’s student body but less than 10% of the teachers, principals, and superintendents. In urban areas where nine-tenths of students are Black, only half the teachers are Black. The pipeline for African American educators offers little hope, as documented in the recent State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce Report. As you can see, this is an area ripe for change.
Creating the right balance of Black leadership in schools is one example of eliminating systemic racism and breaking down the class and caste system that makes us ill at ease. There will be tangible changes for whites on the upper half of the ladder. Our children will have an increased likelihood to be in a classroom with a Black teacher. Our school districts will have more Black leaders. Black youngsters will have enhanced educational experiences in which their teachers will more capably serve as role models. Better educated Black adults will have increased earning power and greater means to contribute to our society.
Health Care. Leadership in health care is another excellent place to make changes. A simple web search reveals many analyses of racial bias in health care. The examples given here demonstrate the biases on a systemic level as opposed to issues of personal prejudice at the doctor’s office.
Black people are underrepresented in the medical care industry, especially at the higher levels of service. Blacks comprise 13% of our nation’s population but only 5% of our nation’s doctors are Black. The American Association of Medical Colleges reports that the pipeline for new Black doctors, especially males, is not improving. Nine percent of hospital CEOs are Black. These numbers are simply too low.
This racial disparity affects health care for Blacks. A 2019 study showed that people who self-identify as Black were assigned lower risk scores than equally sick white people. An algorithm used by hospitals and insurers to assign risk for 200 million patients each year was faulty. Instead of using medical diagnoses to determine health risk, it used historical, per-person, race-based spending. When this model was applied to a computer-generated set of white and Black patients with the same symptoms, it revealed that Black patients would be 62% less likely to be referred for necessary extra care than their white counterparts. This is an example of baked-in racism, classism, and “caste-ism.”
Given that leadership in the health care industry is dominated by whites on the upper half of the class and caste ladder, we can and must make changes to dismantle the ladder and create a level playing field. As this transformation takes place, we will find ourselves more frequently receiving medical treatment from Black MDs. More of our hospitals and health clinics will be led by people of color. The Black patients in the waiting room chair next to us will receive the same care that we receive. A higher percentage of people of color will be healthy and better able to contribute to our collective well-being. More Black people will thrive.
Voting Rights. Blacks technically earned the right to vote in 1870 with the passage of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution. But many systemic barriers were put in place to prevent Blacks from voting, especially in the Southern United States. In the mid-1960s, the 24th Amendment made poll taxes illegal and the Voting Rights Act protected voter registration and access to the polls.
While voting rights progress was blatant in the 1960s, voting rights restrictions are still prevalent in the 2020s. Gerrymandering follows on from the redlining in housing previously established by the FHA by manipulating electoral boundaries to disfavor Blacks. It has been used aggressively over the past 10 years, especially in North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. By creating oddly shaped districts to divide the Black vote, congressional and state government elections can minimize Black voter influence. Currently, 10% of our national legislators are Black, and the number is lower for state legislators. There are no Black governors at this time.
There are several geographic areas where the Black vote is being suppressed. One is Georgia. In the 2018 election, 53,000 voter registrations were held in pending, non-voting, status. Eighty percent of these were from voters of color. More than 100,000 votes went missing, primarily in Black neighborhoods, because of faulty voting machines. Many thousands of voters had to wait in long lines, for hours and hours. Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, was running for Governor against Stacey Abrams, a Black woman. Kemp oversaw the election process. He won by only 54,723 votes, far less than those that went missing or were never allowed to be cast.
We need to reshape electoral districts so that they fairly represent the electorate. One way is by supporting initiatives like All On The Line, started by Eric Holder and Barack Obama. Another is by playing an active role in government or electing leaders who will reverse the prior gerrymandering. We can support voter initiatives like Fair Fight, started by Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, to promote fair access to the polls by Black people. Once Black people have equal access to voting and are not silenced through gerrymandering, we will live in a country where the Black vote has greater power. We will likely have more Black legislators and our future elections will better represent the will of the people, making our governments more responsive to the needs of our citizens.
Picture the Result. We do not need to use our whiteness to control society. It is not making us happier. Instead, we can use our experience and leadership to level the playing field and create a more balanced, healthy society. We need to end the policies and practices that prohibit Black people from having access to our country’s benefits. This is an important place to focus, and should also lead to thoughtful structural revisions for other sub-groups that have limited rights within our class and caste hierarchy. If you are already involved in promoting systemic change, please keep up the good work and see what more you can do. If you are not yet involved, please consider how you might be able to pitch in.
We need to rebuild our systems so that race is no longer pre-determinant for success. People pursue different paths as they strive for happiness and fulfillment. Some will excel, others will struggle, and most will fall somewhere in the middle. There will always be some sense of class differentiation: who is wealthier, who is healthier, who has a better job, who has a nicer house or a better car, who has more friends or more grandchildren. As we reduce class and caste hierarchies by building systems to support Black people, we will have more success stories and a more fulfilled citizenry.
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I want to thank Dalbir Khalsa, Dr. Kevin Feldman, Ryan Janos, and Dr. Gary Smithson for their feedback in helping me to craft this paper.
Please post your own comments below so that we can move this conversation forward.
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Source Material / References
I read, listened to, and studied many materials in my pursuit of understanding the history and future of whiteness. I am listing the resources that meant the most to me. I am providing links for your convenience rather than emphasizing standard citation protocols.
The Books That Form the Backbone of This Work, In Order of Their Impact on Me
– Isabel Wilkerson. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.
– Nell Irvin Painter, Ph.D. The History of White People.
– Shannon Sullivan, Ph.D. Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism.
– Jodi Picoult. Small Great Things. (A novel that touched me and opened my eyes a bit more.)
This podcast led me to many of the topics and source materials in this paper.
– Seeing White. www.sceneonradio.org. 2017.
Erotic Art and Whiteness
David Irwin. Winckelmann: Writings on Art. Phaidon, 1972.
Gay and Lesbian Review. The Love Letters of J. J. Winckelmann.
The Perfect European.
Wikipedia: Circassian beauties.
The Skull of a Sex Slave.
Discover Magazine. The Geometer of Race.
Mirror of Race. A Freakish Whiteness: The Circassian Lady and the Caucasian Fantasy.
National Institutes of Health. US National Library of Medicine. The beautiful skull and Blumenbach’s errors: the birth of the scientific concept of race.
The University of Chicago. The beautiful skulls of Schiller and the Georgian girl.
Caucasian: The American Version.
Carol C. Mukhopadhyay. Getting Rid of the Word “Caucasian”.
Wikipedia: Caucasian Race
Immigrants: The Other White People.
National Park Service. Closing the Door on Immigration.
The National Archives. Race, Nationality, and Reality, Parts 1-3.
United States Statutes at Large (68th Cong., Sess. I, Chp. 190, p. 153-169). Immigration Act of 1924.
US Department of State, Office of the Historian. The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act).
A Sikh vs The United States.
Cornell Law School. The United States vs Bhagat Singh Thind.
Public Broadcasting Service. Bhagat Singh Thind.
U.S. World War One Centennial Commission. Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind.
Wikipedia: Indo-Aryan migrations
Wikipedia: Naturalization Act of 1790
Wikipedia: Naturalization Act of 1906
The Ugly Push-Back Against Immigrants.
Where It All Went Too Far.
Facing History. The Science of Race: The Holocaust and Human Behavior.
James Q. Whitman. Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton University Press. 2017.
Wikipedia: Anti-miscegenation laws.
Wikipedia: Lothrop Stoddard.
The Pendulum Swings, And Leaders Lead.
American RadioWorks. Radio: The Internet of the 1930s.
New York Public Radio. Americans All Immigrants All. Listen to original broadcasts!
Portside. Paul Robeson — Ballad for Americans. Listen to this amazing song!
Russia Beyond. The African-American ‘psychopath’ who sang the Soviet anthem and was crucified for it. (Paul Robeson photo)
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The United States and the Nazi Threat: 1933-37.
The White Tent Gets Bigger.
20th Century White Privilege.
Erenow and the USC Digital Library. Photo of Sunkist Housing Development. Version 1. Version 2.
Military Times. The GI Bill should’ve been race neutral, politicos made sure it wasn’t.
National Public Radio. A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America.
Purdue University. Celebrating Black History Month: Firsts by Purdue African-American Students and Alumni.
Caste: A New Way of Seeing American Whiteness
City Journal. Pogo Cartoon.
The 2020 Election Cycle.
Wikipedia: Central Park Jogger Case.
Pew Research Center. America’s public school teachers are far less racially and ethnically diverse than their students.
Tyack et al. Beacon Press. 2001. School: The Story of American Public Education.
US Department of Education. The State of Racial Diversity in the Education Workforce.
Forbes. Why Are Black Male Doctors Still So Scarce In America?
Modern Healthcare. Racism still a problem in healthcare’s C-suite.
Nature. Millions of black people affected by racial bias in health-care algorithms.
The American Association of Medical Colleges. Diversity in Medicine: Facts and Figures 2019.
The New England Journal of Medicine. Diagnosing and Treating Systemic Racism.
Fair Fight. Why We Fight.