What is “whiteness”? Specifically, what is “whiteness” in America?
Superficially, relatively pale European skin color (in its diversity) may be the result of the interplay between melanin, Vitamin D and folate/folic acid. Melanin impedes Vitamin D production, but aids the production/retention of folic acid, both of which affect human development even prenatally. Environments with little sun (high latitudes) put the ability to produce Vitamin D at a premium, so a lack of melanin is especially helpful in the north. On the other hand in sunnier latitudes, where production of melanin is less critical, melanin aids in protecting folic acid production from the damage of the sun’s radiation. Accordingly, northern climes in northern Europe tend to be habitats of fairer-skinned people, the opposite near the Equator. The palest people on earth are clustered near the Baltic Sea. The arctic Sami in the Nordic countries are darker than, say, Lithuanians or Estonians to the south. Some have conjectured that the Gulf Stream and adaptation to agriculture led to a reduction to Vitamin D exposure, promoting over time even paler skin on the Baltic shores.
But we don’t care about “whiteness” primarily out of curiosity about fetal development, anthropology or evolutionary scientific hypotheses. “Whiteness” is at core about sociology and power politics, not the detail of skin color. White people do not lose their caste status as white people after a week of bronzing at the beach.
“Whiteness” got invented in multiple places where Europeans exploited people who were not and didn’t look European. It represented a sort of cartel between uneasy competitors. Like many cartels, sometimes the membership isn’t so stable. “Whiteness” was enshrined into the laws of the American colonies, and in the first Naturalization Act passed by the first U.S. Congress, barring “non-whites” from citizenship by naturalization. Legal “Whiteness” protected the early caste system of the United States that operated not only in “slave” states but allegedly “free” ones as well.
If you go visit the 1800s records of Germany or Italy, for example (those countries did not have those names politically in 1840) for evidence of “whiteness” in the records of the towns, you won’t find it. Those folks, including my German ancestors, identified themselves by birthplace, language, region, religion and social class. Their descendants came here, and became “white people” while giving up, to greater or lesser extents, their cultural heritages and identities, almost completely by the fourth generation (for German-Americans, often by the second generation.)
The important point about American whiteness as an identity is that it has essentially no substance that unites white people reliably AND distinguishes them reliably from designed non-whites, other than the “badges and incidents” of white privilege itself. “White people” aren’t a people with a culture; they are a caste. There’s no “white food”, “white music” (a few genres are much more popular with whites, but more on this later), “white religion.” There is no “white accent”, as one can tell by listening to Senators Ben Cardin (MD), Lindsay Graham (SC) and the late Ted Kennedy (MA) on YouTube and realize that these senators are of different religions, different regions, different accents but the same white caste in this country.
Some people might suggest that a few cultural artifacts, like hockey or country music or trips to Prague, are predominantly white entertainment or recreation, forming some basis for some “white culture.” The minor premises are true: marketing professionals will confirm that some cultural and non-cultural products are overwhelmingly white-bought/used/attended in the United States. But these artifacts are, in essentially every instance, sharply limited by class, subculture or region. One finds few hockey fans in Georgia, few country music buffs in New England and Long Island and Washington State, few aficionados of trendy European travel among blue-collar white people, even among those who might afford a longer, more expensive trip to Hawaii. Other cultural artifacts particularly popular among white-caste people have similar other limits.
What did Pee Wee Herman, Evel Knievel, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Hillary Clinton, Flo from the 1970’s sit-com “Alice”, a white college student at the University of Washington, David Letterman, Klansman and neo-Nazi David Duke, Theodore Roosevelt and the author of this blog post have in common? All are “white by law” and de facto white by caste, the caste created before the founding to this Republic and reinforced by centuries of law, custom and individual and collective practice. All benefit from the violence, plunder, depraved indifference and hypocrisy of what some people call “white privilege.”
I don’t particularly like the term “white privilege” – the most common term for the peculiar institutions of white caste of this country, going back to 1650. “Privilege” is a semi-nice word. “I feel privileged to be here” is not a gripe but a statement of gratitude. In my law practice, I take pains to protect “attorney-client privilege.” The Constitution protects some “privileges and immunities.” It’s perhaps better than nothing, but the word “privilege” isn’t nasty enough to describe the nasty reality.
Theodore Roosevelt (may his name be blotted out) attacked corporations for collusion against the public in price-fixing, and declared war on them through enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Teddy Roosevelt never had the moral insight or character to declare war on white collusion against black American citizens in the U.S. South or elsewhere. Indeed, Teddy Roosevelt was an open and unapologetic advocate of explicit “race wars” by whites in America against Native Americans (expressing rough approval of the idea that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian”) and Filipinos. Roosevelt told black audiences that the “rapists and criminals” among them “did more harm to their race than any white man can possibly do them.” Roosevelt explicitly advocated that white people outbreed non-whites as a means of conquest so as to promote among whites “a clear instinct for racial selfishness.” White racist pathology, organized into the structure of an entire government and society, was the first “price-fixer”, and Roosevelt was among its bigger “big sticks”.
For his advocacy of criminality, war and injustice and the expansion of American empire, Roosevelt’s graven image appears for white people’s reverence carved at enormous expense into the side of Mt. Rushmore. May his name be blotted out by all who fear Justice.
A better term for the 350 years of white caste in this country is “white pathology.” People talk about “black socio-pathology” because of high crime rates and other admittedly serious social problems in many impoverished black neighborhoods. Yet what is more pathological than making peace with a history of murder, enslavement, sundown towns, theft, redlining, racist exclusion from unions, professional associations, licenses, housing, jobs, credit? What is more pathological than taxing people to make a monument to someone as atrocious, as hideous as Teddy Roosevelt? The answer, of course, is that white America sociopathically felt almost no guilt about its sociopathology or the conditions of black Americans even 40 years after emancipation. White people are not generally sociopaths, but white caste and white power have operated under a sociopathic model, and most white people don’t particularly give a damn about it.
The terms “white-race sociopathology” or “white American sociopathic politics” are clumsy but get the job done better than “white privilege.” Professor Robin DiAngelo has suggested the term “white fragility.” Lots of people who benefit from white caste don’t look particularly privileged materially. Many whites are broke and REALLY hurting, and have been hurting for many years. But broke white people can count on knowing that America was built for them, for their caste and their children, for people who look like them, a few decades of civil rights statutes and economic growth in Black America notwithstanding. When white people hear “This Land is Your Land”, a folk anthem by self-described communist Woody Guthrie decrying inequality in the United States, white people aren’t generally thinking about non-whites.
White people got offered a fairly tough bargain: drop the culture of your parents and buy into American culture including America’s peculiar institutions of white sociopathy and you too can eventually enjoy white caste. White caste was not always fully open to all Europeans at all times. Many might be surprised to learn that at different times and places in the US, Hungarians, Irish, Sicilians, Greeks, Arabs from the Levant and even perhaps surprisingly Swedes were distinguished from “white people” and excluded, at least partially, from white caste. I refer the reader to the scholarship of Noel Ignatiev and Robin D.G. Kelley for some of the history details.
White caste was fully open to Germans in Maryland. My German (and, elsewhere, non-German) ancestors came here and eventually they and their descendants became white-caste Americans, retaining little more than the name “Rupp” from the old country. America made a hard bargain but it was in the end a bargain. Germans, white by US law, came and became white-caste Americans by the millions, both before and after the US Civil War.
My ancestors’ experience – coming into the port of Baltimore, meeting other German-Americans, buying a little farm land, starting businesses, becoming white-caste American people – was quite different from that of my friend and college roommate Professor Anton Treuer of Bemidji State University. His father escaped Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria by a few days, came to America and married Tony’s mother, an Ojibwe from a reservation near Bemidji MN. Tony’s father got white privilege here but spent much of his life undermining that privilege as a journalist and socialist activist. The Ojibwe and other native nations on this continent did not get white caste. Even the U.S. citizenship of Native Americans was in legal doubt for centuries.
There is much more to say about the history of white caste and Native Americans than what I, unstudied, am qualified to say. I would refer the reader to Anton Treuer’s extensive scholarship. Tony’s life’s work has involved unwinding what violence and cultural extermination white sociopathology and its institutions infliction to the Ojibwe and other Native American nations. Specifically Tony’s work involved preserving and promoting the Ojibwe language in immersion schools, scholarship, history, dictionaries, recordings and also in common parlance and commerce in Bemidji among Ojibwe and non-Ojibwe alike. In other words, his work involves the direct rollback of aspects of white caste power, which was particularly oppressive against the Ojibwe of northern Minnesota.
Getting back to white caste. One of the effects of the size and wealth of the country’s white caste is the ability to live inside its boundary lines, economically, culturally, socially. The same white American folks who know a lot about Prague (today, perhaps, Warsaw, Istanbul, Bucharest) and wander its streets will often die knowing not a damn thing about Black American life. You can see it in my hometown Baltimore. When you saw the maps of the locations of the “riots” (some of which were bona fide riots, some of which were crimes short of riot and some were no crimes whatsoever), you saw clusters in west and northwest Baltimore and others on the east side, in a shape that looks roughly like a bow-tie. The MTA and mayor shut several metro stations down in NW Baltimore, turned them into “ghost stations” like those that existed in East Berlin after the Wall was built over the tunnels and split the city. Transit service on the largely white Light Rail, running north-south linking to predominantly white suburbs and skirting some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, was unaffected. There were a few demonstrations in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods like Hampden, where white demonstrators challenged the City’s curfew. The Baltimore City police were much more polite in Hampden, in deference to white caste, than they were at overwhelming black Penn-North, where more direct and violent policing methods were employed. But most white people could avoid the “bow-tie” or “butterfly” entirely.
A personal, though perhaps trivial (you decide) example of living in a white bubble, was a comment that I made to a black friend in law school. He and I were coming out of the law school and we were discussing television. I mentioned that “Seinfeld” was a dominant program on Thursday night TV and a touchstone for the country. My friend patiently informed me that “Living Single” was much more popular among black Americans at the time, that “Seinfeld” was not particularly popular among black Americans. I then realized to my embarrassment that “Seinfeld” was set in New York, a city where white people were a minority, but on the show there were essentially nothing but white people. Even in New York, perhaps especially in New York, white people often live in a white cocoon. So can white law students in a city that’s 65% black.
One of the annoying things about white pathology is that white people tend to think of “racism” as something to do with a personal outlook. “I’m not racist,” comes the reply. That’s nice, and irrelevant. If the only contact that white people have with the peculiar race-caste institutions of this Republic is the opportunity to disavow “impure thoughts”, they prove rather than challenge the general point. “Racism” becomes a personal disavowal, like removing gluten from one’s diet: might be nice for your digestive tract but it doesn’t move the needle for the rest of the human race.
Black Americans (and others burned by white caste pathology in this society) aren’t trying to get validation and warm fuzzies from you or me or your or my racist uncle. By and large, Black Americans are trying to design, build, operate and maintain their lives in a society that for most of its history has made doing all of the above very difficult or impossible. Many white people have maintained the conceit that they have a right not to be made uncomfortable about such discussions, not to have their consciences challenged. CS Lewis once wrote that the one sin that the devil could not make popular was cowardice, but the American white caste has proved him wrong. Life involves conflict, and believe oneself to be exempt from the discomfort of conflict is, historically speaking, pretty peculiar.
Some will say that I am “bad-mouthing” America, and on the eve of Memorial Day, no less. I shrug my shoulders and invite critics to correct my errors and check my math. Some will suggest that America has been far less bad than many other societies in history. This might be true; our species does have a poor track record. The Byzantine emperor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, upon defeating an enemy army of Bulgars, blinded 99% of the survivors and plucked one eye each out of the other 1%, leaving them to lead the other 99% back home to their king. Empire after empire in history has inflicted cruelty and mass killings,. The Romans, Phoenicians, British, French, Chinese, Japanese, the Greek-speaking “Romanoi” of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, the Songhai, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Axum empire in Ethiopia, the Babylonians, Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, the Aztecs, the Third Reich, the Russian Empire and its successor Soviet empire. Perhaps others can grade the American Empire on the curve.
To its merit, the US has been more protective (though not absolutely so) of free speech and assembly than most of the societies named above, allowing for some better hope of civic remedies short of revolution, The US, at times, has ruthlessly suppressed free speech and assembly through, for example, COINTELPRO, the suppression of Native American languages and religion even by violence, FBI infiltration of political organizations, the bugging of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Even when we get a little bit exceptional, we find that we are not exceptionally exceptional.
Back to the central question: What is “whiteness”? The answer, counter-intuitive as it seems to people, is that American whiteness is as artificial as a silicone implant. It is as artificial as being “British” was in Philadelphia on the eve of Independence. It is as artificial as the Klingon language spoken on “Star Trek”. American whiteness got invented to protect the power and assuage the greed of slaveholders, who learned that they could not safely enslave Africans and others merely on the basis of being “infidels” (non-Christians.) Race and racial caste came to define life-time chattel enslavement in Virginia, my beautiful and beloved Maryland and elsewhere. White caste sociology and pathology remain to this day in the explicit political consciousness of some white-caste Americans (Rush Limbaugh, Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, Lee Atwater, David Duke, Chuck C Johnson come to mind (Author note: 2019 examples would include Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, Professor Amy Wax and occasional CNN commentator Richard Spencer) and in the implicit world views of perhaps most white-caste Americans, replete with some level of cognitive dissonance.
White-caste Americans should, if they actually believe the words of the Hebrew Bible “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof“, reject as a criminal conspiracy, as illegitimate, what white-caste politics, sociology and institutions have done on this continent. We should be more fearless than were those who rejected British identity in Philadelphia, even at the cost of our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor. Five million “taxed without representation” Americans resided in the colonies on Independence Day. 36 million black Americans, most the descendants of enslaved inhabitants of this continent, of persons taxed without the right to vote throughout the Jim Crow south, are better moral claimants for a moral revolution than were British subjects who shot hot lead into the bellies of British regulars in the American Revolution.
Who is a traitor, and who is a revolutionary? We generally do not call George Washington a “traitor”, though had the British Crown defeated the Continental Army there is a good chance that Washington would not have received from the British Crown the mercy that the United States showed to its enemies Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Washington and his army, with some key help, prevailed. Washington’s face is on Mount Rushmore next to Teddy Roosevelt’s. Winning helps. What I advocate is unapologetic treason to what American history and present society has constituted as the American white caste – in a certain sense, “race treason” as an ethical obligation.
Caste/race treason requires white caste people in this country to face the fact that this country, like the fields and villages and shtetls of Eastern Europe, like the plains where Basil the Bulgar-Slayer plucked out 20,000 eyeballs of his enemies, is to some extent a crime scene. America is hardly unique in being a crime scene. The human race has been horrible in its history. A small example with which to end: If you drive up Troyer Road (pronounced like the surname of my friend Anton Treuer mentioned above, but Anglicized by one of my fellow German-American white caste members or an immigration clerk) in northern Baltimore County near the PA line, you will pass by a crime scene. It won’t look like a crime scene, but a black American of my acquaintance lives on Troyer Road. He enjoyed success in business and other professional life, and purchased the specific parcel of land on which white caste pathology enslaved his very own ancestors, just below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Yet it doesn’t look like a crime scene. It looks like a rather nice-looking fenced piece of rural property in northern Baltimore County, 25 minutes away from the nearest police station. Americans, including especially self-congratulatory white-caste Americans, are not exceptions to human nature in wanting not to face reality.
Unlike the Byzantine soldiers under Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, we seem at times to have plucked out our own eyes. It’s time to start seeing clearly, and to address with moral courage the aftermath of our bloody, or to admit honestly that we – those whose ancestors’ fateful choice to join the white American caste – in fact do not and never will give a damn about justice. Either we can choose to see, or we can keep pretending that we have no eyes.