The Magazine



In the orbit of academic research, books tend to fall into two broad categories: the landmark synthesis, a carefully argued, meticulous masterpiece that reflects years, even decades, of research and distilled analysis; and the ideological tract, the slipshod collection of essays that rests on a flimsy mix of distortions, omissions, dubious conjectures, and questionable use of secondary sources, which passes for scholarship in contemporary academe.

Examples of the former, with regard to racial and genetic questions, include Edward Wilson's Sociobiology, J. Philippe Rushton's Race, Evolution, and Behavior, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's Bell Curve, Arthur Jensen's The g Factor, John B. Carroll's Human Cognitive Abilities, and Michael Levin's Why Race Matters. These works reflect the authors' painstaking diligence in analyzing a confluence of corroborating research.

With the exception of The Bell Curve, books in the former category have fallen outside the conventional distribution outlets of the mass-market book trade (Border's, Barnes & Noble, etc.). And unfortunately, many titles in the later category have been showcased in retail outlets with prominent displays and glitzy advertisements, along with the book-of-the-month selections from "mainstream" publishing houses and Oprah's latest reading list. 

Nell Irvin Painter's recent book The History of White People exemplifies the later. It is the latest in a steady flow of dubious titles that rejects the biological reality of race. The gist of the author's thesis is that race is an erroneous classification created by whites to oppress nonwhites. The book's inside jacket flap summarizes the author's view: "A mind-expanding and myth-destroying exploration of notions of the white race -- not merely a skin color but also a signal of power, prestige, and beauty to be withheld and granted selectively."

Here's a more apt summary: "A mind-contracting and myth-making exploration of inaccurate assumptions of the white race....

Her concluding paragraph reveals the author's overall warped perspective:

The fundamental black/white binary endures, even though the category of whiteness -- or we might say more precisely, a category of nonblackness -- effectively expands. As before, the black poor remain outside the concept of the American as an "alien race" of "degenerate families." A multicultural middle class may diversify the suburbs and college campuses, but the face of poor, segregated inner cities remains black. For quite some time, many observers have held that money and interracial sex would solve the race problem, and, indeed, in some cases they have. Nonetheless, poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness, driven by age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior.

Implicit in Painter's arguments are common syllogistic fallacies about race that Dwight Ingle foreshadowed in Human Variation: The Biopsychology of Age, Race, and Sex, edited by R. Travis Osborne, Clyde E. Noble, and Nathaniel Weyl. Painter relies on what Ingle noted as the "fallacy of sophistic refutations ... to pooh-pooh an idea as a 'myth,' to exaggerate what someone has asserted, to attack a 'straw-man,' and to allege what has not been denied."

For example, in a two-page account of Carleton Coon's Races of Europe, first published by Macmillan in 1939, Painter describes the landmark 755-page work as "a weird undertaking" and "ridiculous." According to Painter, the book "remains an embarrassing, old timey artifact." In an effort to discredit Coon, Painter claims that Macmillan "tried unsuccessfully to suppress it before publication" and references Coon's autobiography Adventures and Discoveries as the source of this information.

Coon's actual account of what took place differs from Painter's negative spin. Coon had received a letter mistakenly sent to him by the editor, intended for another recipient, which outlined a scheme to replace him as author just as he was finishing the manuscript. Coon called the editor and promptly put him on notice. He was able to thwart his critics and intervened before the editor could replace him as author. Coon's account suggests that there was more to this episode than Painter's flippant interpretation reveals. It seems that Coon's critics might have attempted to undermine his arrangement with his publisher on political or ideological grounds, not over the soundness of his scholarship. 

Painter's account gives the reader the mistaken impression that Coon was some rogue academic and that Macmillan, his publisher, tried to remove him because his work was shoddy. As the author or editor of more than 20 books in his field, Coon's career included a position as professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He also served as president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Overall, The History of White People is a rambling, error-marred, slapdash book. The book begins discussing the "whiteness," or lack thereof, of Grecian, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic civilization. It awkwardly ends with the author struggling to make sense of contemporary scientific discoveries in genetics and the racial implications of these unraveling breakthroughs in the human genome. Along the way, Painter tiptoes around entire fields of scholarly research that would unravel her selective narrative.

The bulk of the text rambles from one so-called American race theorist to another, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ripley, David Starr Jordan, William McDougall, Henry Goddard, Charles Davenport, Madison Grant, Lothrop Stoddard, Edward A. Ross, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Charles Lindbergh, and Henry Ford among others. Painter refers to "Francis Giddings [sic] of Columbia" as "the pioneering political scientist." Franklin Henry Giddings was professor of sociology at Columbia (he was appointed "lecturer" in political science at Bryn Mawr College in 1888) and was the author of several sociology textbooks.

Painter suffers from the limitations of her self-delusional ideological blinders. The author dwells in the muck and mire of the "powerful" and "powerless" -- a worldview that exposes modern racial classification as nothing more than oppressors enslaving the oppressed. She states in a matter-of-fact tone,

Today, however, biologists and geneticists (not to mention literary critics) no longer believe in the physical existence of races -- though they recognize the continuing power of racism (the belief that races exist, and that some are better than others). It took some two centuries to reach this conclusion, after countless racial schemes had spun out countless different numbers of races, even of white races, and attempts at classification produced frustration.

Denying that races exist is the equivalent of claiming that breeds of dogs, cats, horses, or cattle are figments of the imagination. Her sweeping assertions include, among others, that mental testing, measuring "innate intelligence," is an "obviously absurd" claim. Painter states this as fact without attempting to address or refute any research findings put forth by leading contemporary scholars in the field. It is comparable to claiming that the sun actually travels across the sky and ignoring Newton and Kepler's discoveries demonstrating why the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun.

John Baker addresses the "meaning of race" in his thorough treatment of the subject in his 1974 book, Race, published by Oxford University Press:

It is sometimes claimed that the existence of intermediates makes races unreal. It scarcely needs to be pointed out, however, that in other matters no one questions the reality of categories between which intermediates exist. There is every gradation, for instance, between green and blue, but no one denies that these words should be used. In the same way the existence of youths and human hermaphrodites does not cause anyone to disallow the use of the words "boy," "man," or "woman." It is particularly unjustifiable to cite intermediates as contradicting the reality of races, for the existence of intermediates is one of the distinguishing characters of the race: if there are no intermediates, there are no races.

Vincent Sarich and Frank Miele, in their 2004 book Race: The Reality of Human Differences, refute the specious arguments that Painter invokes throughout The History of White People. As Sarich and Miele point out,

The Key concept here is variation. Human races are not, and never were, distinct, mutually exclusive, Platonic entities into which every living person, unearthed skull, or set of bones could be pigeonholed. Races represent variations on the basic human theme, each containing its own subthemes, that mix and intertwine over the course of time. It is only by using a select set of morphological characteristics or 50-100 genetic markers that one gets anything approaching clear-cut separations. Those markers are also important because they measure the tempo of the theme of human evolution. But just as we can recognize themes and subthemes without performing an analysis of a musical score -- or even knowing how to perform one -- so too ancient non-European civilizations and contemporaneous hunter-gatherer societies sorted humans into groups that correspond with those revealed by the latest DNA studies. So could we contemporary humans -- at least until propagandized by colleges, universities, or PBS. And so too could a visitor from another planet should one ever arrive. The attempts to prove that race is not a biological reality but a mere social construction, even when penned by such authorities in their respective fields as Jared Diamond (evolutionary biology), Alan Goodman (physical anthropology), Richard Lewontin (population genetics), or the late Stephen Jay Gould (paleontology), simply do not hold up when one examines the converging lines of evidence detailed in this book.

If Painter's publisher, Norton, had any interest in releasing an accurate assessment of the biological and anthropological facts about race and racial differences, it would have solicited the input of leading population geneticists, evolutionary psychologists, physical anthropologists, and behavior geneticists, to determine the reliability of Painter's claims.  But apparently, major publishers don't want to let the facts get in the way of churning out socially uplifting scholarship.