The History of White People
nolead ends nolead begins By Nell Irvin Painter

W.W. Norton, 496 pp., $27.95.

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Reviewed by Alan Nadel

'Ocular proof' - Othello demanded but never received it from Iago, accepting instead the circumstantial evidence of a purloined handkerchief. Ironically, part of the play's tragedy is that Iago felt that he, not Othello, had incriminating visual evidence: the color of Othello's skin. In The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter stunningly chronicles the logic of ocular proof that has rendered complexion a form of evidence inextricably linked to historically convenient notions of race.

Specifically, she looks at the "white" race, from its dubious origins in antiquity through successive appropriations and modifications, attending especially to how whiteness has colored interpretations of what it means to be an American. In Western culture, as in Othello, ocular proof was not proof at all, but rather a set of optical illusions employed to manipulate power.

Make no mistake: This book is not a history of white people because, as Painter convincingly shows, they do not exist. The term white people has had no more geographical, biological, anthropological stability than any of its synonyms, such as Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon, or Aryan.

Painter, a distinguished historian, deft at covering large topics with clarity and verve, presents no groundbreaking research or archival discoveries; almost everything in The History of White People is available in well-known documents, standard history texts, and biographies. Nor does she examine theoretically, as does Richard Dyer's White, "whiteness" and the iconography that has supported it. Rather, Painter provides a compelling, energetic, highly readable engagement with centuries of documents, scholars, and public figures who lent authority to the ocular illusion of whiteness that has sustained sundry political, national, economic, or disciplinary interests.

The term white people, Painter proves, is performative: It doesn't constitute a category, but rather it can be handy in the service of specific aims and goals. If you can connect difference - say, racial differences - to certain powerful, unavoidable causes, you can give your favored human classifications authority and heft. Hippocrates found, for example, that the fierce Greek/European temperament in mountainous places explained "Greek imperial domination as well as manly Greek/European beauty." Both ancients and moderns have tried to associate physique - head shape, bodily proportions, complexion - with greater or lesser degrees of beauty, intelligence, virility, or courage. That tendency is as consistent throughout history as the traits it comprised were varied.

One important turn is the association of freedom with whiteness. This racial connection has shaped the writing of history: Scholars have done much work on black slaves but have devoted comparatively little, for instance, to the fact that Vikings were "preeminent slavers" or that more than half of "all early white immigrants to the British Colonies in the Western Hemisphere came as unfree laborers."

If whiteness clearly suggested a genetic claim to freedom, it was less clear who could claim to be white. Debate parsed and reassembled European physical and geographical types, with help from Thomas Jefferson and even more from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nineteenth-century thought in America gravitated toward the idea that true whites were of "Anglo-Saxon" derivation, adopting a history of admiration for Germanic people that turned Anglo-Saxon into a race, in a logic that anticipated the later racial politics of National Socialism.

Abetted by the growing authority of science, Anglo-Saxon purity became a moral and social template: Civilization arose from the virtues of this white race, it was argued, and racial dilution thus portended civilization's decline. In later 19th- and early 20th-century America, questionable studies linking intelligence or criminality or beauty to specific gene pools marshaled popular support for immigration policies that, to preserve whiteness, would halt infusions of Jews, Italians, Celts, and Eastern Europeans.

Perversions of Darwinian theories of evolution, coupled with such influential works as William Z. Ripley's Races of Europe (providing an index of head shape and size, replete with measurements and charts), fueled notions of white purity. These, in turn, were popularized with the help of such figures as Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Ford, and George Horace Lorimer, the publisher of the Saturday Evening Post.

Creating this ersatz scientific explanation for racial differences, and thus for the assumed superiority or inferiority of those in the various races, served, as well, the interests of the emerging fields of sociology and anthropology, despite the emphasis placed on environment rather than race from such pioneers in modern anthropology as Frank Boas and Ruth Benedict. As Painter consistently emphasizes, myriad redefinitions of the relationship between race and culture have worked to obscure the significance of class as a factor in social change.

Although Painter pursues her history to the present day, her focus on the post-World War II period is somewhat diffuse, in part because it fails to account for the way mass media replace scholars and thinkers in shaping whiteness. She might also have benefited from attending to the degree that, since World War II, lifestyle has supplanted biology as a significant marker of American identity.

The last chapters notwithstanding, Painter provides a fascinating and important contribution to the intellectual project proscribed by Roland Barthes when he expressed his resentment "at seeing History and Nature confused at every turn."