Glenn Beck excels at expressing adventurous thoughts in memorable language, but he outdid himself when, one morning last summer, he offered a diagnosis of President Obama. He said, “This President, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture. I don’t know what it is.” (The context was one of the summer’s most entertaining reality shows—the one starring the black Harvard professor and the white police officer who arrested him.) In September, Beck sat for an interview with Katie Couric, and she asked him a deceptively simple question, which had been posed by a Twitter user named adrianinflorida: “what did u mean white culture?” Whatever adventurous thoughts this query inspired, Beck did not seem eager to share them. “Um, I, I don’t know,” he said. Finally, after two minutes of temporizing, he arrived at a nonresponsive response that was both honest and sensible: “What is the white culture? I don’t know how to answer that that’s not a trap, you know what I mean?”
Often, the most appropriate answer to that question is a joke, or a series of jokes. In 2008, a canny young white Canadian named Christian Lander started a blog called “Stuff White People Like,” which soon became a best-selling book bearing the same title; it listed a hundred and fifty of white people’s favorite things, from recycling to the Red Sox. (This magazine made the list, too, at No. 114.) Lander’s tone is faux-anthropological but wide-eyed: “Bike shops are almost entirely staffed and patronized by white people!”; “After learning that a white person is pregnant, it is a good idea to provide a list of recipes for placenta.” His “white people” are wealthy, urban, youngish, and thoroughly blue—they “hate” Republicans, and although Obama hadn’t yet won the Democratic nomination, he placed eighth on the list. (Coffee was No. 1.)
Which means that Lander isn’t really talking about white people, or, at any rate, not most of them. In fact, he sometimes defines “white people” in opposition to “the wrong kind of white people,” because his true target is a small subset of white people, a white cultural élite. Most white people don’t “hate” Republicans—they have voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1968. A few months ago, a different and more demographically precise portrait of white culture arrived, bearing a fulsome blurb (“Revelatory!”) from Lander himself. The author is a black journalist named Rich Benjamin, and his book, “Searching for Whitopia” (Hyperion; $24.99), chronicles the years he spent in overwhelmingly white enclaves across America, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to Forsyth County, Georgia. The people he meets tend to be politically conservative, and although they talk readily about the urban blight they left behind, they talk much less readily about race. Many in Idaho seem to agree with Helen Chenoweth-Hage, the late congresswoman, who responded to a question about the region’s lack of diversity by means of an ingenious euphemism. “The warm-climate community just hasn’t found the colder climate that attractive,” she said. Benjamin hears many disavowals of racism, and he has to drive an hour north of Coeur d’Alene, to a tiny Christian Identity church, in a town called Sandpoint, just to find someone willing to say, “I’m glad I’m white.” Even that statement, delivered from the pulpit, is swiftly followed by a disclaimer: “The Indian, the Mexican, and the black can be proud of what they are, too.”
Benjamin did most of his research toward the end of the Bush era, and perhaps he now wishes he had waited a few years. Obama’s election was a transformative moment for blacks in America, but it has also proved to be a transformative moment for whites. As a whole, white people voted for Senator McCain, and, with the growth of the anti-Obama backlash, especially in the form of Tea Party protests, the whiteness of the Obama opposition has become a political issue. Keith Olbermann, of MSNBC, called the Tea Party movement “a white people’s party,” and asked, in reference to the various marches and rallies, “Where are the black faces?” (The most adroit response came in the form of a YouTube video highlighting the all-white lineup pictured on the MSNBC Web site.) When Jon Stewart introduced a “Daily Show” segment on the Conservative Political Action Conference, he got a laugh from his studio audience by calling it a “festival of whites.” (Stewart’s show ranked thirty-fifth on Lander’s list.)
The organizers of the Tea Party rallies have made a point of inviting African-American conservatives to address the crowds. But there’s no denying that the Tea Party protesters tend to be white. Should we pretend to be surprised? Judging from exit polls, black voters made up about 1.1 per cent of the McCain electorate, which is lower than the historical average, but not by much. (In 1984, when President Reagan was reëlected in a landslide, black voters accounted for only about 1.5 per cent of his total.) American politics has been segregated for decades; the election of a black President only made that segregation more obvious.
But what of it? Why is it that, from Christian Lander to Jon Stewart, a diagnosis of whiteness is often delivered, and received, as a kind of accusation? The answer is that the diagnosis is often accompanied by an implicit or explicit charge of racism. It’s become customary to suppose that a measure of discrimination is built into whiteness itself, a racial category that has often functioned as a purely negative designation: to be white in America is to be not nonwhite, which is why it was possible, in 1961, for a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii to give birth to a black baby. In a marvellously splenetic essay, “On Being White . . . And Other Lies,” James Baldwin argued that America had, really, “no white community”—only a motley alliance of European immigrants and their descendants, who made a “moral choice” (even if they didn’t realize it) to join a synthetic racial élite. And, in the nineteen-nineties, a cohort of scholars took up Baldwin’s charge, popularizing a field of research that came to be known as whiteness studies. In 1994, the white labor historian David R. Roediger published an incendiary volume, “Towards the Abolition of Whiteness.” Paying special attention to unions and strikes, he traced the unsteady growth of American whiteness, a category that eventually included many previous identities that had once been considered marginal: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish. “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false; it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false,” he wrote. “Whiteness describes, from Little Big Horn to Simi Valley, not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.” In his view, fighting racism wasn’t enough; white people who wanted to oppose oppression would have to do battle with whiteness itself. Nearly two decades later, amid a rancorous debate over our first black President, the idea of abolishing whiteness seems no less tantalizing—and no less remote.
In a wide-ranging new book titled “The History of White People” (Norton; $27.95), Nell Irvin Painter, a black historian of America, starts at the beginning, or near it. Her narrative opens in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates, who published his ethnography of the known world around 400 B.C. In assaying the tribes of Europe, he praised the “ferocity” of the mountain-dwellers, but he was less impressed by tribes who live where there is “a larger proportion of hot than of cold winds”—the warm-climate community, a few millennia ahead of schedule. “They are rather of a dark than of a light complexion,” he wrote, adding that “courage and laborious enterprise are not naturally in them.” In time, “ancients” like Hippocrates were seen as archetypes of racial purity and excellence. Painter quotes the eighteenth-century Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater, who delivered a plaintive verdict: “The Grecian race then was more beautiful than we are; they were better than us—and the present generation is vilely degraded!”
Like many of his contemporaries, Lavater was a devout craniologist, and it was through craniology that whiteness was given scientific validation. In 1793, a German anthropologist named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach received a skull from a colleague which he considered particularly pleasing; it had belonged to a woman from Georgia, in the Caucasus region, and Blumenbach declared that it was typical of the “Caucasian” race, a super-category that came to include most of the peoples of Europe. As Painter explains, Blumenbach was making an argument from beauty, and his belief in Caucasian beauty had a notable pedigree: decades earlier, Kant had noted that “Circassian and Georgian maidens have always been considered extremely pretty by all Europeans who travel through their lands”; the fact that these “maidens” were enslaved by the Ottomans was part of the appeal. The Caucasian race begins with an evocation of bondage, and the skull of a young Georgian woman helped seal the connection between whiteness and weakness. It is a delicate race, always on the verge of being overrun or adulterated, dethroned or debunked. The supposed perfection of whiteness makes it vulnerable: every flaw and quirk, every tangled bloodline and degraded specimen, is seen as an existential threat, poised to undermine the whole project.
In eighteenth-century America, whiteness came to connote the opposite of slavery. Whiteness in America was primarily Anglo-Saxon—Thomas Jefferson argued for American independence by adducing the example of “our Saxon ancestors”—but not exclusively so, and the presence of immigrants from elsewhere in Europe eventually nudged American race theorists toward a more miscellaneous idea of whiteness. In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson published “English Traits,” which includes a strange and suggestive chapter called “Race.” In it, he portrays the essence of whiteness as an elusive spirit. For a time, Norway had it, and Painter notes Emerson’s “affection” for the bloodthirsty old Norse sagas: “A pair of kings, after dinner, will divert themselves by thrusting each his sword through the other’s body, as did Yngve and Alf.” But even these brutes were, in their own way, as delicate as Circassian waifs. Somehow, the glorious moment passed—a few too many “piratical expeditions,” he suspects—and “the power of the race migrated and left Norway permanently exhausted.” Around the same time, in his journal, Emerson was experimenting with a more ambitious theory. “The Atlantic is a sieve through which only or chiefly the liberal adventurous sensitive America-loving part of each city, clan, family, are brought,” he wrote. “It is the light complexion, the blue eyes of Europe that come: the black eyes, the black drop, the Europe of Europe is left.” This is a powerful notion: America as a magical siphon, extracting whiteness from Europe.
Emerson is a high point in “The History of White People.” As the theorists and theories pile up, Painter starts to seem, like nineteenth-century Norway, a bit exhausted. She isn’t helped by the format she has chosen, which divides a long and circuitous story into a textbook-like series of three-page biographical sketches, and she often sounds bored by the now obscure race men she profiles: William Z. Ripley’s 1899 magnum opus, “The Races of Europe,” is “nonsense” that “could not survive a careful reading”; early twentieth-century Anglo-Saxonist theories are “blather.” One needn’t disagree with her judgments to wonder about her strategy: the tone and the format conspire to make these architects of whiteness hard to distinguish, and harder still to care about.
An odd thing about “The History of White People” is that there’s not more history in it: Painter underplays the social and political developments that were far more influential than the grand theories of whiteness. She mentions America’s one-drop rule only in passing. (The rule held—and, for the most part, still holds—that any person of mixed black and white ancestry is black, no matter the mixture.) And readers will have to search the footnotes to learn about the 1790 Naturalization Act, which made citizenship possible for any “free white person” of “good character” who had lived in America for at least two years. Long before it had any sort of coherent cultural or historical identity, whiteness in America was a broad, loosely defined political category, which is precisely why so many scholars knocked themselves out trying to fill in the details.
Painter aims for the conceptual heart of the race, but Roediger, the eminent abolitionist of whiteness, has always been more interested in its margins and boundaries. In 2008, just in time for the dawning Obama age, he compressed his decades of scholarship into a pithy little book, “How Race Survived U.S. History,” which has just been published in paperback (Verso; $19.95). He is alert to the shifting legal status of whiteness, and he underscores the 1691 Virginia law that banned “negroes, mulattos, and Indians” from “intermarrying with English, or other white women.” (Again, one of the defining qualities of whiteness is that it needs protection.) He also tells the story of Charles W. Janson, a British businessman who came to America in 1793 and, sometime during his thirteen-year visit, offended a white domestic worker by asking to speak with her master. “I have no master,” she said, adding, “I’d have you to know, man, that I am no sarvant; none but negers are sarvants.” Janson was shocked by “the arrogance of domestics in this land of republican liberty and equality”—shocked, that is, by a country where even the maids had something to be proud of, and someone to be prouder than.
The end of the Civil War was a perilous moment for whiteness. Roediger writes that, in America, “scientific racism”—the sort of grand theorizing that Painter chronicles—emerged “in the context of the pro-slavery argument and as a response to abolitionism.” Whiteness survived emancipation by becoming more muscular and more self-referential: where once whiteness offered a specific legal benefit—it meant that you were unenslavable, a non-“sarvant”—now whiteness had to be its own reward. Roediger writes that some poor white laborers in the South started wearing brimless wool hats, to distinguish themselves from ex-slaves, who customarily wore straw hats. (According to one contested etymology, the sunburn such laborers suffered gave rise to the term “redneck,” which conflates race and class.) And he tracks the insurgent whiteness of the Ku Klux Klan, founded after the end of the war and revived in 1915, the year of D. W. Griffith’s blockbuster “The Birth of a Nation,” which portrayed Klansmen as heroic defenders of white virtue. (The pivotal scene involves a white woman on a cliff, who tells her black pursuer, “Stay away or I’ll jump!” He doesn’t; she does.) “The Birth of a Nation” included intertitles with brief history lessons from President Woodrow Wilson, and Roediger quotes the most famous card, which marks the transition from war to Reconstruction: “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
That astonishing sentence comes from Wilson’s “History of the American People,” but it’s not really a sentence at all: the ellipsis marks the removal of nearly seven hundred words. In Wilson’s original, the apologia for the Klan is meant to echo the eighteenth-century argument for American independence:
The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers: governments whose incredible debts were incurred that thieves might be enriched, whose increasing loans and taxes went to no public use but into the pockets of party managers and corrupt contractors.
The film depicts a clash between whites and blacks (one of the main villains is an ambitious mulatto politician), but, in this passage, “ignorant negroes” are a secondary concern, a mere symptom of a greater problem. In Wilson’s telling, Klan violence serves to defend white rights against “adventurers” from the North—that is, against other white people.
In the twentieth century, the struggle to define and defend whiteness was often presented this way, as an intra-racial struggle—white people against “the wrong kind of white people.” The race theorist Lothrop Stoddard warned against “racial impoverishment,” and enumerated the “alien stocks” that were taking over Rhode Island: “Poles, Polish and Russian Jews, South Italians, and French-Canadians.” Because of the legal tradition begun by the 1790 Naturalization Act, courts were often asked to judge the whiteness of immigrants from all over the world— Afghans and Armenians, Persians and Portuguese—and judges appealed to common sense, or to the anthropological entity known as the Caucasian race. But who counts as Caucasian? Madison Grant, in “The Passing of the Great Race,” a supremely pessimistic work of race theory first published in 1916, admitted defeat: “The term ‘Caucasian race’ has ceased to have any meaning, except where it is used, in the United States, to contrast white populations with Negroes or Indians or in the Old World with Mongols.” Grant was right that the putatively scientific term “Caucasian” was becoming interchangeable with its colloquial counterpart, “white”; both referred to a category that was growing simultaneously more inclusive (of Europeans) and more exclusive (of “Negroes” and “Mongols” and others).
But the borders of whiteness were never quite defined, let alone sealed. In an immigration report from 1911, a government commission declared that an “Arabian” was by definition Caucasian, a judgment that some of today’s politicians might want to appeal. The boundaries of whiteness have often reflected the imperatives of U.S. foreign policy. And there remains something particularly fraught about the whiteness of Italian-Americans, which has been contested for centuries. Roediger notes that “ ‘Guineas,’ an old marker for African Americans originally signaling their origins on the West African slaving coast, came to be applied widely and pejoratively to Italian Americans.” Now, of course, “guinea” has given way to “guido,” an anti-Italian-American slur that has been co-opted by its targets. The instructive MTV reality show “Jersey Shore” followed a group of self-described “guidos” and “guidettes” living in a beach house in New Jersey. In this tribe, the bond between skin color and identity had been decisively severed (with help from a nearby tanning salon), and it was discovered that not all the stars were of pure Italian heritage. One of them, known as Jwoww, posted a clarification on her Twitter page: “I’ve said a billion times I’m a spanish/irish!! Its a life style not an ethnicity or race the term ‘guidette’!!”
In current debates about whiteness, no identity is more destabilizing than “Hispanic.” The 2010 census explains that “Hispanic origins are not races,” and yet in America the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” indicate a population that is often viewed as a racial minority. (When Anglos in America think of the Latino “race,” they are often thinking of the identity known in much of Central and South America as mestizo, which refers to mixed-race descendants of Europeans and various indigenous groups.) In “Searching for Whitopia,” Rich Benjamin is surprised to find himself drawn into conversations with white residents about illegal immigration, especially from Mexico. “For the first time in my life, I am treated like an innocent bystander to the ‘scourge’ of race and poverty,” he writes. “Latinos now take the heat.”
In 1963, when George Wallace was inaugurated as the governor of Alabama, he told the crowd that he was standing in the “heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland,” and he issued his famous rallying cry: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But when Wallace campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he stated his case more circumspectly, saying, “This civil-rights bill will wind up putting a homeowner in jail, because he doesn’t sell his home to someone that some bureaucrat thinks he ought to sell it to.” Wallace professed to be defending the common “homeowner,” presumably white, against the faceless “bureaucrat,” also presumably white. It was possible for Wallace to portray himself as a defender of the white race without mentioning race at all.
This was not a new strategy. Throughout history, the power of whiteness has often been linked to its invisibility: white supremacy lurked in seemingly race-neutral language, unmentioned and therefore incontestable. (Think of the Constitution, which tacitly condoned slavery—“importation” of “persons”—without mentioning race.) The success of the civil-rights movement had the paradoxical effect of strengthening this pernicious tradition by making white pride taboo; white politicians had to rely on increasingly subtle forms of coded speech. Roediger is impressed and disturbed by President Reagan’s appeal to working-class white voters, which stemmed, he says, from a “sure command of divisive code words such as ‘state’s rights,’ ‘welfare moms,’ ‘quotas,’ and ‘reverse racism.’ ”
The problem with a fixation on “code words” is that you can start to see them everywhere. At one point, Roediger analyzes the politics of America in the nineteen-seventies through the prism of “such racial ‘code words’ as crime, busing, welfare, and taxes.” Taxes! Is there any hotly debated political topic that couldn’t be considered, in some context, a code word? (Glenn Beck recently argued that “social justice” and “economic justice” are “Marxist code words”; it would be hard to prove that they aren’t or never have been.) And is there any way for a white politician to criticize a black President in front of a disproportionately white audience and be certain that he or she isn’t, however inadvertently, appealing to a sense of racial solidarity?
These are the questions that liberals have been asking of the Tea Party movement, a decentralized libertarian-influenced conservative movement that has cast its opposition to President Obama as an opposition to runaway government spending, runaway public debt, runaway taxation. (The movement’s unofficial motto turns “tea” into an acronym: Taxed Enough Already.) There have been race-related controversies. A white activist in Houston was photographed holding a sign that said, “Congress = Slave Owner. Taxpayer = Niggar”; he was swiftly disavowed by the Houston Tea Party Society (even though, strictly, he was calling himself a “niggar”). At the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, the former congressman Tom Tancredo voiced his regret that “we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country,” which reminded some commentators of the schemes that disenfranchised black voters during Reconstruction. (Tancredo declined to apologize, saying that he wanted only to combat “civic ignorance.”) And two African-American congressmen say that they heard someone shout a racial slur during the recent Capitol Hill rally against the health-care bill.
More often, though, the Tea Party movement has been relatively disciplined in its focus on spending and taxing. Conceivably, arguments about health-care reform have been advanced in bad faith, in the hope of stoking white racial resentment. But the other possibility is more unsettling: maybe health-care reform is merely one more topic on which Americans’ opinions correlate, however loosely, with race. Certainly it’s hard to assess the protests without also assessing the politics. Those aggrieved (mainly) white folks look a lot different if you think they’re speaking out against fiscal malpractice.
Because explicit formulations of white-identity politics are taboo, we have no non-pejorative way to talk about the disproportionate whiteness of the Tea Parties. (We don’t even have a good way to measure it. Keith Olbermann included “Hispanics” on the list of people he didn’t see represented in Tea Party crowds, but, really, how could he tell?) Supporters of the Tea Parties can’t decide whether they should refuse this identity, by highlighting black speakers and attendees, or defend it, by suggesting, as Beck did, that anti-white racism is a serious worry. In fact, Beck’s slippery concern with racism—outrage over false charges of anti-black racism, combined with outrage over anti-white racism—seems central to a certain kind of white-identity politics. This professedly anti-racist argument is about as close as anyone comes to articulating a mainstream political agenda that is explicitly pro-white.
In the Warner Bros. movie “The Blind Side,” Quinton Aaron plays Michael Oher, a black football prodigy who is adopted by Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white materfamilias, played by Sandra Bullock. Early on, Michael explains why his new surroundings feel so strange. “I look, and I see white everywhere,” he says. “White walls, white floors, and lots of white people.” They—the white people—are the film’s true subject; Michael remains a sweet but silent cipher. (The real Michael Oher is now a lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, and before the movie’s release he told the Baltimore Sun that he was “not in a hurry to see it.”) The Tuohys’ whiteness is expressed as a series of red-state signifiers: they are Republican and Christian and they live in Tennessee; Leigh Anne’s husband is played by the country star Tim McGraw. There is even a reference to anti-white racism: when the cute young son, known as S.J., complains that a “Chinese” kid was picked, instead of him, to play the Indian chief in the school play, he wonders whether “multicultural bias” might have been at work.
At times, the movie seems to be building toward the familiar moment when the whites atone for the past by confronting their unexamined racism, but that moment never arrives. Instead, a climactic scene has Leigh Anne facing off against a black thug from Michael’s old neighborhood. He insults her with a racial slur (the “s” word—“snowflake”), and threatens her family; she responds by threatening him right back. “You so much as cross into downtown, you will be sorry,” she says, adding that she knows the district attorney and belongs to the National Rifle Association. This kind of threat, a Southern white woman telling a black man to stay in his own neighborhood, has a long and dismal history, but Bullock delivers it with verve, and without a trace of self-consciousness. (No doubt the scene helped her win her Academy Award.) Leigh Anne is refreshing, because there’s no trace of anxiety in her white identity—for her, it’s neither something to live down nor something to live up to.
Is white identity shifting? Painter thinks so. She argues that “being white these days is not what it used to be,” partly because a number of nonwhites have joined the cultural and (more important) economic élite. But she concludes pessimistically, reminding readers that “poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness.” It might be more accurate to say that “poverty in a dark skin” is one of the opposites of whiteness, because, as Roediger’s book demonstrates, the white-identity project has often been conceived in populist terms, as a defense of scruffy local values against the wealthy alien élite. This form of white-identity politics, far from being undermined by the election of President Obama, was strengthened by it. Apparently, a black President born to a white mother can represent the opposite of whiteness, too.
A tension between élitism and anti-élitism is central to white identity, and always has been. The old race theorists couldn’t decide whether the spirit of whiteness was best reflected in the noble refinement of royalty or in the rude vitality of laborers and soldiers. Often, white identity has reflected both traditions at once, as with Emerson’s beloved Scandinavian kings, who conducted themselves like drunken brigands. The “white people” in Lander’s book are rich snobs who view themselves as rebels, resisting the culture of corporate greed in vague solidarity with the world’s poor. The “whitopians” in Benjamin’s book consider themselves “folksy” salt-of-the-earth types, no matter how much money they have accumulated. And “The Blind Side” is a perfect distillation of white identity as anti-élitist élitism: Leigh Anne’s husband owns nearly a hundred fast-food franchises; he’s white-collar, in a blue-collar kind of way.
Roediger and Painter are right to remind us that whiteness was built over centuries on a foundation of deceit and confusion and disguised political imperatives. But neither seems fully to grasp the ways in which this artificial category has, over the years, come haltingly to life. Yes, whiteness is a social construct, and not (as race scientists used to think) a biological essence—but then so, too, is every collective identity. It’s getting easier to talk about “white culture,” maybe even white politics, without knee-jerk sarcasm or, for that matter, knee-jerk sympathy. And it’s getting easier to imagine an American whiteness that is less exceptional, less dominant, less imperial, and more conspicuous, an ethnicity more like the others. In the Obama era—the Tea Party era—whiteness is easier to see than ever before, which means it’s less readily taken for granted. If invisibility is power, then whiteness is a little less powerful than it used to be.
Demographers predict that, sometime before the middle of this century, non-Hispanic white people will cease to be a majority in America. This doesn’t mean that there will be a white “minority”—whites will continue to be the country’s most populous racial group for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t mean that white is the new black—the two races have never been symmetrical, and never will be. And it doesn’t mean that whiteness is innocent of history—you can’t tell the story of whiteness (or, for that matter, blackness) without talking about racism. But, if the old race theory was brutally reductive, there is something reductive, too, about the idea that whiteness, for all its paradoxes, isn’t real. The history of human culture is the history of forgeries that become genuine, categories that people make and cannot simply unmake. So we should probably stop thinking of whiteness as an error, and start thinking of it, instead, as a work in progress. Historians have sometimes framed the treacherous history of whiteness as the slow death of an idea. Perhaps it’s time we start viewing it, instead, as the slow birth of a people. ♦
“Though the slavery question is settled, its impact is not. The question will be with us always. It is in our politics, our courts, on our highways, in our manner, and in our thoughts all the day, every day.” – Cornelius Holmes
As a historian, I know slavery has left a deep scar on America. The reasons are many. I have found wisdom in the words of Cornelius Holmes, a former slave, interviewed in 1939, a man who saw brutality and separation of families. Holmes shared the dreams and melodies before freedom and then witnessed the reality of freedom.
One reason for my current retrospection is the fine essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June issue ofthe Atlantic arguing that reparations are deserved and long overdue. He has gathered an amazing array of facts about racism, economics, violence and the role of the U.S. government, implicit and explicit. With pinpoint clarity, Coates has focused a scholarly light that shines into all the dark corners of this shameful chapter in our history.
The debate over reparations—a payment for slavery, segregation and unequal lives—has a beginning, but it seems no end. Our forefathers spoke of the promise of 40 acres and a mule. Our leaders cried out, few as eloquently as Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. more than 50 years ago: “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check—a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation.”
While the conversation with scholars and ordinary citizens often centers on financial payment, I’m emphasizing that the moral debt is more important. While fairness would dictate that the descendants of the Tulsa Riots of 1921 to see the goal of their reparations campaign be finalized with some remunerations. Yet the moral debate is equally owed.
The current discussion of reparations has made me consider how relevant the question remains, given the success and prosperity of the 21st Century. Honestly, we are still grappling with one of the unsolved issues that started the day a handful of Africans stepped onto the shores of Jamestown in 1619. How can America repay those bent backs and calloused hands for their slave labor, and satisfy the descendants that all the chatteled years have value?
In his essay, Coates presents us with a clear roadmap on how we got to this point. Maya Angelou, the wise writer, bequeathed us this philosophy: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, however, if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” In so many ways, the American experience is the African American experience. In every development of our country’s history, every step that has made America better is tied to African American lives, patriotism and sacrifice. Indeed, profits from slavery provided a reservoir of capital that allowed America to grow into a world power. The image of America as a just society is stained by the lack of moral reparations and fair treatment for a group of its earliest and most loyal laborers and residents.
What we will have in the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a place for dialogue and the exploration of historical movements. We can facilitate a discussion of what reparations really mean, providing a key to the debate. The exhibitions will show how segregation—a direct outgrowth of enslavement—and its shadows shaped the country for so long and how African Americans were treated, both legally and informally. For example, one of our key artifacts, the guard tower from Louisiana’s Angola prison, will show how the prison systems were repurposed plantations and populated by black men exploited as free labor through convict leases.
That is why the moral debt is what most concerns me. African Americans helped force America to live up to its stated ideals. This nation’s sense of citizenship, its notion of liberty, its understanding of justice for all owes a debt to the African American; these are the people who believed in the promise of America, and who, by their struggles, helped make that promise more accessible to all.
How does a nation repay its moral debt? The greatest repayment would be to ensure that African Americans now and generations from now, have access to quality education, affordable health care and neighborhoods that are safe. That would make all those who once suffered smile, because they didn’t suffer in vain.
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About Lonnie Bunch
Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is the author of more than a dozen books on history, race and museum scholarship.Read more from this author