[For needed context, please see the previous posts, “Correcting (my own) Normativity of Whiteness: 1. From the Arrival of the First African Slaves to ‘Partus Sequitur Ventrem’” and “Correcting (my own) Normativity of Whiteness: 2. From Bacon’s Rebellion to ‘White Men’ and ‘White Women’.”]
Thus far, we have witnessed the movement from a disparate group of indentured servants—originating from various European and African nations, working side by side in the English Colonies—into a bifurcation of (1) “white men” and “white women” and (2) “Negroes, Mulattos, and Indians.” Through the developing legal code, we have also seen the class “white” receive legal protections and privileges while the class “Negro and Mulatto” alone became subjects of life-long chattel slavery—they and their children.
As stated at the end of the last post, the only element lacking in the construction of the “white race” by 1723 was the concept of “race” itself. We will now briefly turn to this, though with an eye to our purposes rather than the details of the “science” itself, its definitions, etc. We will then move on to the post-Revolutionary era and conclude with some application.
1758 – Scientific Racism and “Racial Biology”
Carolus Linnaeus, a pioneer of the pseudo-science of “racial biology,” published the first edition of his Systema Naturae in 1758. Linnaeus posited four “races” of humanity: Americanus, Europeanus, Asiaticus, and Africanus, adding also Monstrosus (a fictional race) in a later addition. His “human taxonomy” seems to have been largely based on general observation and categorization of phenotypes. It should be noted that, while obviously based on unacceptable stereotypes, Linnaeus did not provide much evidence that his taxonomy included any clear hierarchy of superiority. But this hierarchy would soon be added, particularly through the work of Comte de Buffon (1707 – 1788) and Johann Friederich Blumenbach (1752 – 1840). The latter published his On the Natural Variety of Mankind in 1775, a work that set the stage for ever more attempts to prove the superiority of the white man and the inferiority of the black.
Through the study of human cadavers, Blumenbach asserted in 1779 that there were five races, but in his case, we have the Caucasian race, the Mongolian race, the Malayan race, the Ethiopian race, and the American race. In addition, for Buffon and Blumenbach, each “race” also had a corresponding “Biblical” history supposedly verifying the “natural” history. Blumenbach concluded that the “original” race, the race of Adam and Eve, was Caucasian (i.e., the “white” race) and all others were presumed to be historical degenerations from this God created archetype. He wrote, “I have allotted the first place to the Caucasian for the reasons stated … which make me esteem it the primeval one.”
These scientists’ conclusions became ever more elevating of the “white race” and condemning of the “black race” as time went on. Benjamin Rush (1745 – 1813) would write of the skin disease “negroidism” and Christof Meiners (1747 – 1810) of the “beautiful white race” and the “ugly black race.” But the greatest bifurcations, consistent with the history we have outlined thus far, would come from American authors, presumably intent on justifying the exploitation of the “black race” by the supposed biologically superior “white race.” In fact, Quaker turned Episcopalian Samuel Morton (1791 – 1851) would claim definitively that “Caucasians” had the largest brains while “Negros” (Ethiopian/Black) had the smallest, evidently demonstrating the superiority of the former and inferiority of the latter. (And beware, this junk science has reared its ugly head again in our own day.)
1781 – Notes on the State of Virginia
In keeping with the “racial biology” of the 18th century, we read also the following considerations on the “black race” in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia:
Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one [black] could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. …[N]ever yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.
To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.
Just as with the construction of the class “Christian,” and later the class “white,” so these biological notions of white superiority did not just exist in academic labs, but were believed and taught by the very founders of our nation and the framers of our social and political institutions. This is evident the very first laws passed by the then newly formed United States government.
1790 – “An act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization”
When we began this short series, we justified the use of Virginia as reasonably representative of the legal development of the American Colonies, though toward the end of the 18th century, Northern colonies began to wind down the practice of slavery, even outlawing it. But, as is well known, Virginia would still remain quite important, especially in the formation of the new National government following the Revolution. Not only was Virginia the residence of many founders, fathers, and presidents of the United States—including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, etc.—but its General Assembly, House of Burgesses, and gubernatorial office were considered the first functioning system of self-government in North America and the newly formed Federal government was in many ways fashioned on this model.
But even more importantly, there is no doubt that ideas of “whiteness” and “blackness,” with their attendant statuses, privileges, or lack thereof, were built into the U.S. legal code from its very inception.
As the 1787 Constitution had not clarified the meaning of “Naturalized Citizen,” the very first act of the very first U.S. Congress was to offer such clarification—a Congress that included many of those who had signed the Declaration of Independence. We read,
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof …. And the children of such person so naturalized, dwelling within the United States, being under the age of twenty one years at the time of such naturalization, shall also be considered as citizens of the United States. (March 26, 1790)
For all intents and purposes, the United States of America was a nation for white people—a people literally constructed by legal fiat over the preceding hundred years, a people created from disparate tribes, nations, and tongues, for the very sake of supremacy. By 1790, we could reasonably consider this walk through the history and formation of the “white race” complete, if not for one more major component: the Church.
1830’s – The Curse of Ham
We know that, for example, Cotton Mather (1163 – 1728), George Whitefield (1714 – 1770), Robert Dabney (1820 – 1898), James Thornwell (1812 – 1862), and other notable churchmen advocated slavery, arguing that the African was fit by God to work the soil, that God had providentially determined their lot, and that slavery was ultimately for the African’s own good and consistent with the Bible. In fact, the whole history we have covered was forged in the Church and “justified” from the Bible just as much as it was from politics and economics. But for our purposes, the Curse of Ham “exegesis,” more so than any other so-called “Biblical” support for slavery, carved up the “races” in a way perfectly confirming the legal and historical demarcations that had developed since 1619.
Though first alluded to in reference to blacks by George Best in 1578, the Curse of Ham justification reached its heyday in 1830’s America. The fiction is based on the Biblical narrative found in Genesis 9:18-29:
When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”
In order to justify white superiority and the subjugation of African peoples, it was argued that Shem is the father of the Jewish race, Japheth the father of the white race, and Canaan by Ham the black race. As such, the black race was to be forever the servant of the white race. Though Robert Boyle had already destroyed this argument in his 1664, Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours, the argument was again popularized for the sake of American race-based chattel slavery, particularly among Southern intellectuals. Benjamin M. Palmer (1818 – 1902), a Presbyterian minister and Southern religious leader, tirelessly pressed this argument throughout the States, arguing that Southern planters should see themselves as Noah-like figures, sowing and reaping from the earth as had Noah, with Ham’s descendants laboring beneath them as Noah had prescribed thousands of years ago.
Not only was the constructed “white race” a legally protected class, granted rights and privileges of superiority over all others, and a now a biological class, but it was also deemed to accord with God’s revealed will; it had been the ordained pattern for humanity from the time of the Great Flood, to their own day, and would be on into perpetuity.
Series Conclusion, 1619 – 2018
In conclusion, and in keeping with the stated purpose of this series, I think three observations are in order. First, knowing this history ought to make perfectly clear why this nation has taken the course it has. Knowing how and why the white race was constructed, it should be of no wonder that, for example, the United States Supreme Court would rule against Dred Scott, declaring him property with no civil rights. Chief Justice Roger Taney makes the point for us in his 1857 decision:
In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument. … They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics which no one thought of disputing or supposed to be open to dispute, and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.
Further, given this history of “whiteness,” it ought to come as no surprise that the seceding Confederate States, would make arguments like the following, found in Texas’ “Declaration of Causes” (1861):
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
And in the 20th century and beyond, it ought come as no surprise that men like Takao Ozawa (Japanese) and Bhagat Singh Thind (East Indian) would have to prove their “whiteness” in federal court in order to receive citizenship—and no wonder that both were denied, on contradictory grounds. Ozawa had adopted Christianity, was light skinned, and spoke only English, but was denied because he was not Caucasian; Thind proved that he was Caucasian, but was denied the very next year based on religion and skin color (see Takao Ozawa v. U.S.  and U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind ). And last, it ought come as no surprise that at this very moment the clearest lines of disparity in wealth, wages, education, home-ownership, and incarceration are along the very same historically created “color-line” as we have seen constructed in these posts.
Second, this history is important to properly understand what exactly “white supremacy” is. It is not those few other guys in that one other place waving the Nazi flag and wearing white hoods. Given the construction, nature, and history of the “white race,” supremacy must be understood in broader terms. We ought to understand “white supremacy” more along the lines of Frances Lee Ansley, as
a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings. (“The Language of White Supremacy“)
“Whiteness” itself didn’t just happen to happen in America; it was created for a purpose and the legacy of the “racial” bifurcation discussed in these posts is as real today as is my consciousness that I sit here writing as a white man—something unheard of in 1619.
Last, to return to where we began in this series, this history ought to completely obliterate any claim to the “normativity of whiteness”—a normativity I acknowledge I have unconsciously enjoyed since first becoming aware of differences between myself and those of other hues. Michael O. Emerson describes “White Normativity” as,
…the normalization of whites’ cultural practices, ideologies, and location within the racial hierarchy such that how whites do things, their understandings about life, society, and the world, and their dominant social location over other racial groups are accepted as just how things are. Anything that diverges from this norm is deviant. Whites are privileged because, unlike nonwhites, they do not need to justify their way of doing or being. Instead, the burden for change is placed on the perceived deviants. Although white culture has many variations (compare for example a rural, Republican, NASCAR-loving, catfish-eat’n southern white and a wealthy, Democrat, opera-loving, quiche-eating Bostonian white), there remains an overarching normativity, a “configuration of [racial] practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of legitimacy of [whiteness]…that secures the dominant position of whites.” That is, whites uphold practices and beliefs that sustain their dominant position in the racial hierarchy. Thus the practices and understandings of whites are normalized, and their interests affirmed. (p. 14)
Sure, it is natural as a child to believe that what is seen in the mirror, enjoyed in the home, absorbed from familial culture is substantively and definitionally “normal.” But, in the words of the Apostle Paul, we “must put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11) and realize that there is nothing inherently or objectively normal about “whiteness,” any more than there is about “blackness” or “brown-ness.” To be clear, we must begin to see the social construct “whiteness” for what it truly is, viz., a historical category created for the extension of generational privileges, forged in the fires of race-based exploitation, and not just an approximate skin color.
For more (much more!) on this topic, please see the following: