A Half History of Race Science

I recently finished Nell Irvin Painter’s A History of White People. I’d been looking forward to it for sometime but was ultimately disappointed in what I read.

Painter’s book is one of the seminal texts of a cross-disciplinary field called whiteness studies, which focuses on the meaning of the racial category ‘white.’ So when I picked up A History of White People I was looking for a compliment to my recent studies of blackness. Instead, her book – almost exclusively a history of white ‘race science’ – had little say about whiteness in relation to blackness or about the broader American experience. This narrow approach (in a sprawling, richly researched work) thus neglected at least half the story of what it has meant to be white in America.


Painter begins her work in antiquity, carefully exploring the (lack) of racial thinking among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Necessarily, she relies here a great deal on the major thinkers/writers of the period, focusing therefore on an intellectual history of these ideas which relies heavily on biography and summaries of major works. From this approach she develops some of her most intriguing arguments:

  • That though we’ve learned to think of a unified “white” race, the concept of race did not exist in the classical or medieval worlds, but is the product of Enlightenment race science, itself closely linked to ideals of beauty that were borrowed from ancient Greece by way of Roman misconceptions and reinforced by the white slave trade. In other words, the idea that ‘white people’ have been aware of their status as ‘white people’ since antiquity arose from a historically contingent mis-reading of classical texts and art.
  • That ideas about whiteness, racial ideals, and racial purity are all tied to the white slave trade, as hinted at by the name “Caucasian.” I really didn’t know anything about this white slave trade, it’s geopolitical determinants, and the way in the trade in ‘exotic’ white sex slaves from the Black Sea region shaped ideas about the ideal white type. Put simply, as the market for white slaves shifted to focus more exclusively on beautiful women, Western Europeans developed an idea that these slaves were representative of all women from the Caucuses region and thus of the best of the racial stock source.


What I found disappointing was that these insights are followed by a continuing focus on the intellectual history of race science – first European and then American. Here I take issue with three interrelated elements of Painter’s study.

First, by continuing her focus on intellectual history, she provides little evidence for the broad reception of these ideas in the populace. The intellectual history itself is useful in explaining the rise of eugenics, forced sterilization, intelligence testing, and the specifics of immigration policy. In other words, the race scientists at the center of her book are closely tied to racist practices that involved ‘experts’ overseeing bureaucratic programs. But the approach sacrifices attention to the broader cultural work done in these same areas by non-experts, work in entertainment, popular politics, literature, news stories, satirical images, etc. These broader cultural practices were responsible for shaping the race-based violence that continues in the United States. Especially considering recent events, the disconnect from everyday racism and violence was conspicuous.

Second, because she sticks closely to this intellectual history, she turns her attention to the United States only beginning in the 19th century. This is centuries after Americans had begun to fashion their own ideas of whiteness, directly in response to their newly-forming ideas about blackness (and, to a lesser-extent, redness). In fact, almost all of the slave period is passed over (along with its inherent violence) except as it appeared in retrospective discussions of the impact of slave holding on the racial stock of white Southerners. (To be fair, Painter does give space for a few critical voices of race scientists who condemned slavery.)

Third, as a result of all of this, A History of White People tells a story of the meaning of whiteness almost entirely unconnected from the presence of people of African descent (or of Native American or Asian descent). In fact, in discussing the late-1930s (at the conclusion of chapter 25 out of 28) she writes that “The two racial systems – one for the races of Europe and the “alien” races, one for the black/white dichotomy – were beginning to collide.” If it were possible that these two had not already ‘collided’ in race science long before this period, it was certainly not the case on a popular level. When the race science ideas that she traces crossed the Atlantic in the 19th century, they joined a story very much in progress in which ‘white’ meant first and foremost ‘not black.’ Leaving out that history gives a remarkably skewed and unconvincing portrait of the development of whiteness as an American racial category.



As a bonus, I’ll recommend the following works:

Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson does a much better job, from my perspective, by giving a cultural history the development of racial concepts in the post-Civil War period.

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand covers some of the same pivotal race scientists that Painter discusses, but with a broader focus on the totality of their thinking beyond the (future) ‘white’ races.

And, of course, W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin developed early critiques of whiteness long before it as an academic field. In this regard, I highly recommend The Fire Next Time, which I finished last month but am still coming to grips with. Look for a future review on that stirring argument.

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