A Brief History of Whiteness

We invented Whiteness for power and profit, and then forgot we did that.

Photo by the author.

(Click here to read the companion essay, The White That Binds)

Each time the idea began to crumble along its obvious flaws, each time the profits based on the idea were threatened, it was shored up and re-plastered and reinforced and buttressed, until it has become a hulking exoskeleton of beliefs that sucks all the air out of a room and occupies all the space.

Whiteness is a fiction, a construct.

The creation of whiteness-based hierarchy is one of the most heinous frauds ever perpetrated in human history.

“White” is a word we assigned to an arbitrary collection of insignificant, superficial variations between humans that aren’t inherently any more meaningful than all the other superficial variations between us that we don’t ascribe to racial classification.

The genetic differences between “races” are so tiny, and so blurry, that two people of European descent may be more genetically similar to an Asian person than they are to each other (“Race Is A Social Construct, Scientists Argue” Scientific American, 2016).

We are a single species whose superficial characteristics adapted to different geographies, diets, and climates.

That’s all.

The idea of Whiteness, and all the meaning we assigned to it, was a marketing campaign — an evil, gross, and very effective marketing campaign — created to facilitate a false hierarchy among human beings.

We used to believe in the divine right of kings. Why? What’s in it for the peasant?

Nothing. It’s a con. And because it’s a con, it has to be enforced, with brainwashing, manipulation, and violence.

Believing in kings allows the king to collect money from all the peasants. One person who takes resources from a lot of other people results in one very wealthy person and a lot of poor people.

Equality doesn’t pay like hierarchy does.

Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies in their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.

Racial discrimination → racist ideas → ignorance/hate: this is the causal relationship driving America’s history of race relations.

— Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Racial discrimination → racist ideas → ignorance & hate.

Product → marketing → going viral.

In the 19th century, abolitionists actually had great arguments for why slavery was morally wrong and should end immediately.

I mean, can you think of a single moral defense for buying, selling, and enslaving human beings?

Well, the people who owned slaves did. They realized they could hang on to the cash-cow of having people work for free if they could sell the story that human beings from the African continent were somehow not the same as human beings from the European continent.

So, they made up a story about how “white” people were better, in a whole mess of ways, and every time that story was challenged, they just made up something new, because the whole point of the story was to protect the fantastic profits they were making from unpaid labor.

When slavery was abolished, the point of the story became to protect their control over all the cash, food, land, political and social power that profits from slavery had bought.

The long-con of Whiteness and Blackness should be nominated for the Most Effective and Longest-Lasting Pyramid Scheme Award, at the upcoming Colonizers Gala (a thing that does not exist, unless it is the G12).

Every single racist idea you have ever heard had a dollar sign in front of it the day it was born.

Perhaps a useful metaphor for gay rights — not useful for racist policies.

But it is pie. When it comes to Whiteness, it has always been pie. Equal rights is just another way of saying equal access to resources, and resources = pie.

Wealthy “white” people created Whiteness as THE criteria for being allowed to have pie, so that they would not have to share the pie with all the people they had enslaved.

When the passage of the 13th Amendment freed enslaved people, the free population of Southern states almost doubled overnight. Lots of white people knew that they would have to share jobs, land, resources, and governing power with newly freed slaves, and they did not want to share.

So, they did everything they could to thwart Reconstruction, and when they succeeded in doing that, they instituted peonage, the Black Codes, and convict leasing (which basically recreated slavery using made-up “crimes” like vagrancy), and when that wasn’t enough, they created Jim Crow laws and Segregation, and when that finally became unmanageable (because Black people revolted in unquelled protest after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.), they relied on the continued legacy of redlining, the nonsensical and punitive War on Drugs, and persistent disfranchisement.

When Black people tried to bake their own pie, by creating a thriving Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1920s, white people slaughtered them and burned it to the ground.

What do you imagine city budget allocations for Black schools were, in the South, during Segregation? Were they equal to white schools? 50% of white schools? 10% of white schools?

Pie.

We’ve been taught that racism is primarily a moral failure; in reality, it is primarily an economic success.

Certainly, racism is immoral, and people can be evil, ignorant, or both, but —

The reason racist ideas persist is because racist policies continue to be useful to white people. Our entire socio-political and economic fabric, from the era of slavery to this moment, elevates white people precisely because it oppresses Black people.

Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried [white] boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between The World And Me)

There is no elevation without subjugation.

Unfortunately, trying to enforce equality after having created hierarchy makes the people who were once elevated feel like they are losing something, because they are.

They had more pie, and now they will have less, because the only reason they had as much pie as they did was because they were eating other people’s pie.

The poorest white people, second-tier from the bottom, still get something for nothing. It’s worth something to feel like you’re better than someone else, even if you’re not actually any better off — if it wasn’t worth something, the history of the working class might look a lot less segregated. Poor white people still collect the wage of Whiteness, as W.E.B. Dubois explained. They’ve been duped by the people at the top into selling something that doesn’t exist, while all the money goes straight up — classic pyramid scheme.

The primary wage of Whiteness is the diffuse experience of a world that generally abides by its own stated rules, and is not specifically biased against us before it even meets us, which only seems like ‘privilege’ if you are looking at it from a Black person’s point of view.

Americans Who Believe They Are White have a hard time understanding white privilege, because they don’t feel any particular “special treatment.” What they feel is reasonable treatment, that any person should expect.

It is the treatment any person should expect, and yet decades of research and an ocean of Black voices tell us that it is decidedly not the treatment Black people experience.

Nixon framed his campaign, as a close advisor explained, to allow a potential supporter to ‘avoid admitting to himself that he was attracted by [the] “racist appeal.”

How would he do that?

Easy. Demean Black people, and praise White people, without ever saying Black people or White people.

A Nixon television advertisement shrieked frightening music and frightening images of violent and bloodied activists. A deep voiceover says, “I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.”

— Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

In that Nixon TV ad, what did the word order refer to? Was it the innocence of simple orderly conduct, contrasted with civil disobedience? Or was it the more insidious social order of newly departed Segregation, of white above Black?

During his 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon deployed the “southern strategy,” a deliberate attempt to mobilize white Southerners sympathetic to racist ideas without using obviously racist language. It worked stupidly well — well enough to get someone with the personality of a waterlogged onion elected to the presidency.

That chair in the Oval Office is a pretty big slice of pie.

Critics of this perspective like to point to Nixon’s record on desegregation and civil rights, as some kind of evidence that Nixon himself “couldn’t have been” racist, as though Nixon’s personal feelings are at all relevant to the GOP’s cynical manipulation of racist sentiment to collect disaffected voters.

White people like to focus on this, on thoughts and feelings, on whether someone actually is a racist. This is a blustering distraction.

Whiteness is used by people to gain and keep power; like the plea for understanding from a chronic domestic abuser, the thoughts and feelings are beside the point.

In the 1980s, Reagan escalated the “War on Drugs” into an all-out assault on Black and Latinx communities, in spite of the fact that only 2% of the American public at the time believed that drug use was a serious issue. (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness)

In the year 2000, the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. was 7 TIMES HIGHER than it was in 1980, even though the overall crime rate during that period actually decreased.

Research tells us that young white people are more likely to use and sell drugs than any other race or demographic, but 75% of the people incarcerated for drug offenses in the U.S. are Black or Latinx.

Police brutality, at the forefront of the news right now, is only the most recent iteration in a legacy of brutality used to control people who weren’t designated “white” since the Colonial era.

An unarmed Black person in 2015 was 5 TIMES more likely to be killed by police than an unarmed white person.

The median wealth of white households is 10 TIMES that of Black households. Economists Darrick Hamilton and Sandy Darity conclude that inheritances and other intergenerational transfers “account for more of the racial wealth gap than any other demographic and socioeconomic indicators.”

By keeping Black people mostly enslaved, then segregated, then incarcerated and disfranchised, people who believe in their own Whiteness have taken a bigger share of all kinds of pie, from good jobs, to school budgets, to neighborhood infrastructure improvements, to state power in the form of elected offices, to literal wealth — in the form of accumulated assets that are handed down to one’s children (to jump-start the pie-hoard of our white progeny).

White people with power wield Whiteness, while pretending our laws and institutions are “color blind,” because it serves them.

Systemic anti-Black racism concentrates white wealth and power.

The only reason they have been able to pull this off, decade after decade, is because all the rest of us white people have been swallowing the con whole, and reaping the benefits.

The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free.

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between The World And Me)

You cannot actually learn history by osmosis (by absorbing the things you hear from other people, politicians, or the news). You cannot learn about the Dream from dreaming.

If you want to awaken from this insidious fraud, if you would rather live free, you are going to have to invest time in your own education, and countenance some very unpleasant emotions. Books by real historians and scholars are the bulk of the remedy, but the best primer I have ever watched is the Netflix movie 13TH, now available to watch free on YouTube.

My learning has cured me of any curiosity I might have had regarding popular conspiracy theories.

The creation of Whiteness, and the continued weaponization of it for white self-interest, is the most incredible conspiracy I have ever read, and it is still happening, right in front of us; what’s more, we are participants, and all that is required in order to continue this monstrous parade is that we simply do nothing to stop it.

No, it isn’t.

It is necessary, but not sufficient.

In order to change systemic and institutional racism in the United States, we must change policy — that means laws, practices, priorities and budgets. We read and learn in order to understand why we must do this, and what exactly must be done, but the doing of it still remains.

Simply understanding the con of Whiteness doesn’t dismantle it. It’s just the first step. “Sharing the pie” requires an uncomfortable degree of effort. It requires grinding every bloated float in the parade to a shuddering halt.

I can see that my state and local government has collected pie from all of us, in the form of taxpayer money, resources, and governing power. I can see that majority-white neighborhoods get more of it than Black neighborhoods do.

I can see, via public records and research, how many Black people own their homes in my city, and I should assume my local banks bear some responsibility for that number.

I can also see how much of my city’s police resources are used to cruise around, “crime shopping,” in Black neighborhoods. I can see how much of the state’s budget is being consumed by the prosecution of nonviolent drug crime, and I can use my voice to encourage that money to be allocated elsewhere.

I can see whether or not ex-felons are allowed to exercise their right to vote (I can see that many ex-felons should never have been made into felons in the first place). I can see whether or not my state government engages in voter suppression via disingenuous voter ID laws and other methods.

I can see whether my city criminalizes house-less-ness, or creates housing.

If I open my eyes, I can see the pie, and how it gets divided.

Once I see it, it’s my responsibility to use my voice and my vote to change the way the pie is shared, one slice at a time.

A.M. Carter earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. She writes about philosophy, science, politics and current events.

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