The Invention of Whiteness: A Conversation with James Carroll

Jim C portrait (edited)

Novelist, author, playwright, poet, and journalist, James Carroll is among the most versatile and accomplished American writers of his generation. He is the author of twelve novels, including the forthcoming The Cloister (Nan Talese/Doubleday), and numerous works of non-fiction including An American Requiem (winner of the National Book Award), House of War, Constantine’s Sword, Christ Actually, and Practicing Catholic, among many others.

Formerly a Roman Catholic priest, chaplain at Boston University, and longtime columnist for the Boston Globe, Carroll is regarded as one of the most important American critics of the Catholic Church—of which he remains a practicing member—as well as one of the most astute commentators on politics, the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, and US defense policy, topics to which he brings the power of his astonishing family history.

Born into an Irish-American family in Chicago in 1943, Jim Carroll was the second of five sons of Mary and Joseph Carroll. His father rose from poverty and the stockyards to law school and the FBI as a gun-toting G-man in the gangster-fighting glory days of J. Edgar Hoover. In 1947 Joe was personally detailed by Hoover to the newly independent US Air Force to set up its security and intelligence arm, the OSI, and directly commissioned as a one-star general despite having never even been in an airplane, let alone flown one. He quickly rose to earn three-stars and became the first head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a key figure in planning and prosecuting the relentless air war in Vietnam.

In the early Sixties Jim delighted his parents by becoming a priest, but in a supreme irony, grew into the last kind they wanted: a radical anti-war one. His memoir An American Requiem powerfully documents the battle between father and son—the general and the priest—locked in combat across the family dinner table over the bombing of Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and other flashpoints of that tumultuous era, each convinced of the righteousness of his cause. It was also a battle that eventually led Jim to leave the priesthood for what would become an illustrious life of letters.

Jim and I met ten years ago when I adapted his searing history of the arms race, House of War, as a miniseries for HBO. (Sadly, it never went into production.) He and I are currently at work on a feature film adaptation of An American Requiem. Jim—who apparently does not need to sleep—is also finishing up a new play about James Forrestal, the anguished first US Secretary of Defense, called Midnight Ride.


THE KING’S NECKTIE: I appreciate you taking the time to talk, Jim, I know you’re busy.

JAMES CARROLL: I’m thrilled to be supportive of your column. I know about the priest entrails, I’m not sure about the ex-priest entrails….(laughing)

TKN: (laughing) I’m sorry about that….

JC: (laughing) No, no. I don’t take it personally. 

(NB: The epigram for this website is from the French priest and philosopher Jean Meslier [1664-1729]: “Man will never be free until the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”)  

TKN: First of all, I think it’s great that a couple of goyim like us are sitting around discussing anti-Semitism.

JC: (laughs) Yeah, of course. Acknowledging that irony.

TKN: The conversation we had at your house in August began with a discussion of the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement early on in this administration, which left out any mention of the Jewish people. Which struck most people as outrageous, of course. But the counter-argument from some quarters was, “Well, that’s the correct way to describe it, because you always hear about the six million Jews, but what about the other six million? What’s wrong with saying ‘12 million killed including 6 million Jews?’” It’s framed as something positive—as inclusiveness. But of course, they didn’t say that; they just left out any mention of Jews altogether.

JC: Well, World War II killed somewhere between 70 million and 100 million people, depending on how you count and what regions you count. So the scale of death in the middle of the 20th century is beyond our imagining. So it’s a great question: why should we be so obsessing about six million people? Well, there’s a difference between the mortality rate of what was in effect a kind of civilizational act of suicide and a very particular program aimed at eliminating one relatively small community in Europe. A program of elimination that wasn’t just run of the mill imperialist expansion or even run of the mill ethnic cleansing. It was a deliberate act of vast murder that was coming right out of and explicitly justified by the most sacred central tradition of Western civilization: Christianity.

That’s what makes the Holocaust different and why we have to always emphasize the difference. There have been many genocides and there are even genocides underway in our own time. It’s not that the anti-Jewish genocide by Nazis was quote “worse” unquote in terms of human suffering. We don’t want to be in a competition of victimhood here. But the point is that Europe—European culture, Christian culture—has to look much more directly at this violent perversion that came not out of gutter bigotry but out of sacred attitudes. That’s the reason the Holocaust is important.

It’s also the reason why it’s important to have some fuller sense of the history of anti-Semitism and its relationship to white racism, colonialism, and European imperialism, because all of those things are quite related. There’s no surprise to me in the shocking revelation that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia six weeks ago when white supremacists just instinctively began to chant anti-Semitic assaults against Jewish people, because white supremacy and anti-Semitism are in a way what you might call twins. They come from the same place, and that’s the late medieval perversion that took place in Europe—in Spain, but not only Spain—at the very beginning of the modern era. I wrote a column that was in the New that succinctly makes this argument called “What Trump Doesn’t Understand About Anti-Semitism.”


JC: The key is 1492. Everybody remembers 1492 as the year of Christopher Columbus, and some people even remember that 1492 was the year that Spain expelled the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. But it’s very important to see those two events as not just simultaneous but as totally related to each other. Christopher Columbus was in effect the beginning of European adventurism in what becomes the colonial worlds of Africa and the Americas and even Asia: Europeans heading out in their—as we used to say— caravels, those sweet little boats that the Portuguese sailed the seas on. Remember Henry the Navigator figuring out how to get Portuguese ships down the coast of Africa and around the horn? Those ships and the conquistadors they carried basically began this cultural tradition not just of colonial imperialism but of white supremacy, because Christian Europeans right at that moment were inventing the notion of whiteness….and they did it not first in relationship to people of color but in relationship to Jews.

What I’m talking about is what preceded 1492 in Spain. Beginning in the 1300s the Christian Church aggressively began to press Jews to convert, to accept baptism. It’s a complicated story, and there are reasons why that took place, but the point is that the Church began to aggressively force Jews to undergo baptism. And so in the late 1300s through the 1400s more and more Jews in Spain began to accept baptism. But guess what: you can’t trust a forced conversion, and the Church began to realize that some Jews, maybe most, were pretending to be good Christians as a way of protecting their property or protecting their lives or protecting their children, and they were practicing Judaism in secret. They were having their quiet Shabbat meals on Friday evening even before going to Mass on Sunday morning. And the Church began in a very paranoid fashion to suspect the conversions of Jews. They were called conversos, and conversos were all of a sudden treated as a people apart.

It used to be that if you accepted baptism you became a full member of the community. But no more. Now if you were a Jew who accepted baptism you were suspected of being a liar. You were suspected of being a secret Jew. You were suspected of being a heretic. It hadn’t been heresy to be a Jew, but once you’re baptized and still practicing Judaism, that’s heresy. And the Church in Spain established an institution to investigate the conversion of Jews, and that was called the Inquisition.

Everybody remembers kind of romantically that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were the sponsors of Christopher Columbus. It’s not emphasized so much that Ferdinand and Isabella were the sponsors of the Inquisition. And the great notorious Grand Inquisitor Torquemada was the person who convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to expel Jews from Spain, the reason being the presence of Jews was taken to be a kind of virus that was infecting conversos and inevitably condemning them to this secret life. So the way to get rid of the secret, treasonous Jews who were regarded as a kind of parasite on the kingdom was to expel the Jews who were still in Spain and then to aggressively prosecute the secret Jews who had accepted baptism.

This established a new idea which was blood purity. That is to say, if you were a Jew or if your father was a Jew or if your grandfather was a Jew or if your great grandfather was a Jew, there was something in your blood. You inherited this characteristic that made you suspect. And suddenly the old, religious anti-Judaism— contempt for Jewish religion—was transformed in this period into racial anti-Semitism…. not contempt for Jewish religion but contempt for people who were Jewish or of Jewish descent.

It’s no accident, in fact it’s a powerful synchrony, that this happened just when Europeans looked outside the continent of Europe to the rest of the world and began to arrive with their guns on the coasts of Africa and North and South America, encountering a whole new class of people who were not baptized, who might have just been regarded as quote “pagans” unquote. But the Europeans in this moment of arrival had a new category, a new structure of imagination: blood purity, the notion of biological inferiority. This is the beginning of racism. It’s the invention of whiteness because finally what it all was boiled down to was, “We’re white and they’re not.”

And this anti-Semitism generating racism is what prepared Europeans for their massive acts of genocide against native peoples everywhere they went…..obviously in the Americas, but also in Africa and Asia. And the thing about the Holocaust that is in a way a jolt for the European imagination is that what Europeans had been doing for three centuries elsewhere on the planet they turned around and did in the heart of Europe. So having committed genocide against native peoples in Africa and North America and South America—genocide that included the genocidal activity of slavery—Europeans did the same in the heart of Europe under Hitler. And the point for us is to see the way in which all of this has its roots in something basic to the Christian imagination.

TKN: Obviously, you’ve written at length about this in Constantine’s Sword, which is the definitive history of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church, and which was made into a great documentary by Oren Jacoby, with you as onscreen guide. In our present moment, I think it speaks to something that’s confusing to many people, which is the alliance between racism and anti-Semitism. When you look at Charlottesville, people will often talk about Klansmen as one distinct group and neo-Nazis as another….but what you’re saying is that the two are inextricably connected. Is that correct?

JC: Yes, white supremacy is a claim to biological distinction. “I’m better than you are based on the makeup of my genes and my body. My DNA is superior to your DNA.” It’s a basic notion of pseudo-Darwinian science. It’s not Darwinian science, it’s pseudo- Darwinian. But this is what in the 19th century was used to justify what by then was a quite blatant tradition of racist colonialism. So the notion of eugenics—which is not accidentally a word that includes the word gene in it—is this 19th century pseudo-science that justified the white race’s claim not just to superiority over other races but the right to exploit them and punish them and ultimately to kill them, just as human beings claimed the right to exploit and kill other species. So this is a modern phenomenon.

Now it’s not true that slavery is modern. There have been slaves since recorded history began, only in the old days the slaves were not defined biologically. You became a slave in the Roman Empire if you were unlucky enough to be one of the defeated peoples when the Roman legions swept through Palestine or through Egypt or through Asia Minor, or up into the northern regions of the European continent, what we now call Germany.

When they defeated those tribal peoples they imprisoned them. They enslaved them. They brought them back to Rome and treated them as slaves. Maybe a third of the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus was enslaved. But it wasn’t a racial definition. You could be freed from slavery and assume a kind of full membership in Roman society. As a Roman citizen you had rights. You had a kind of equality. What I’m talking about is a lack of equality for Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe.

And obviously the tradition of white racism in the United States in relationship to African-Americans suggests that even the ending of slavery did not end white supremacy. We only have to look at incarceration rates to see that: the New Jim Crow, so-called. You could also say incarceration of African-Americans is the new slavery. It’s because there’s something deeply flawed in the Western and therefore the American imagination that goes to this notion of one group of people being biologically, intellectually, culturally, inevitably superior to another group of people. And we call that being white.

Being white, of course, is a cultural invention. There’s really no such race as “the white race.” Skin pigmentation is an accident of human makeup. But in Europe in the early modern period, skin pigmentation and origins in Europe, especially the north of Europe, became defined as a kind of a claim to innate superiority. And “the white man’s burden” enabled the white man to, on the one hand, savagely exploit and murder native peoples everywhere, and on the other hand, in a condescending kind of benign colonial practice—when they weren’t savagely murdering them—to quote “treat those people well” unquote. But always understanding them as “those people” and never forgetting that we the whites are by God-given blessing superior.

TKN: This issue of whiteness as an artificial and fluid construct is interesting. My understanding is that in the 19th century in the US even Italians and Irish people were not considered white.

JC: Sure. I mean once you buy into this eugenics notion that there’s a hierarchy of being, a hierarchy of human superiority, one group of human beings over another, and that it’s biologically defined, there’s an endless process of breaking down the hierarchy. Somebody is always under somebody else. And the most blatant form of the hierarchy has gone to skin color and those physical characteristics that evolved over eons based on how human beings responded or adapted to the climate in the southern and tropical parts of the planet versus the northern parts. Because it was in those northern reaches of the planet that the Industrial Revolution effectively introduced the gun, which was the instrument by which northern peoples imposed themselves on southern peoples.

TKN: It’s almost a joke with Jewish friends of mine—who are mostly Ashkenazi, though not all—who will say with a straight face, “We’re not white.” And we kind of argue about it, laughingly, because they say it as a sort of badge of honor, even if it‘s only half-serious. Like, “Don’t lump us in with those dorky crackers; we’re exotic and oppressed,” and all the cultural street cred that brings. And they have a point, no doubt. I totally acknowledge that they don’t get all the benefits of whiteness that a WASP like me gets, and they suffer under the anti-Semitism in our culture. But at the same time, to the extent that it’s a serious claim, to me they’re usurping the non-whiteness of truly non-white people and what they endure. When my secular Jewish friends walk down the street they don’t get immediately treated differently because of the way they look. It’s not the same instant categorization you get when you’re black, which you can’t hide.

JC: The first and most blatant break is between white and black, but among white people the break continues. I’m Irish. Poor people. There’s a wonderful movie called The Commitments, based on a Roddy Doyle novel, in which one of the characters says the Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and Dubliners who live in his part of Dublin are the blacks of Dublin. And he said this as a justification for his love of R&B. So it’s endless. Once you start to accept this division of the human species by hierarchy, it’s endless.

The impulse to make sure that we understand who’s above us and who’s below us leads to northern Europeans condescending and having ethnic stereotypes against southern Europeans. So Italian and Slavic people, Arabs—what Edward Said calls Orientalism—white European condescension and oppression aimed at Arab peoples…. there’s an endless way of making sure that we know who’s above and who’s below. And all of this, of course, becomes blatant and revealed for what it is with Hitler, who idolizes the so-called Aryan race, and regards people who are not Aryan as biologically, socially, culturally, politically inferior, able to be exploited and even killed. So he could not just murder six million Jews but he could also murder millions of Polish people. Why? Because they were Slavic, a category that enabled him to believe that they were lesser human beings.

TKN: The flip side of my friends’ claim to “non-whiteness” is a Sephardic friend of mine, a woman who’s an architect who grew up in a well-to-do family in Connecticut, but her parents are first generation immigrants who came here in the Sixties, from Palestine and Lebanon. Anyway, she told us she was in a meeting recently, and apropos of some issue or another, somebody turned to her out of the blue and said, “Well as a woman of color, what do you think?” And she was dumbfounded because she never ever thought of herself as a person of color. She thought of herself as a white Jewish girl from Connecticut. But suddenly she was put in that position, which carried with it a certain power, but kind of tokenized at the same time.

JC: Well, all of that shows that these are very fluid categories and they float around and surface when some kind of issue of power comes up. If someone was to assert their power and they can find a way to do it in racial terms or in terms of color, it seems instinctive. Instinctively we’re ready to do it—we meaning “we human beings.”

And this is so deep in us that it has come back explicitly and with great power even in this great liberal democracy of the United States of America. Donald Trump has made all of this so explicit that it’s undeniable now. We’re stunned as a people by the explicit return of white supremacy, even if implicitly it actually never went away. That’s the revelation. But Donald Trump isn’t the crime, he’s the evidence. The crime is white supremacy and he’s the evidence that it never went away, because people in power have insufficiently reckoned with it. And mostly that means what we now call we “white people.”


Next week on The King’s Necktie, part two of this conversation as James discusses how to fight back against Trump and the perils inherent in doing so, the descent of the Republican Party, and the war for the soul of Christianity…..

Website, including bibliography: James

Selected recent New Yorker articles by James Carroll:

Pope Francis Is the Anti-Trump

What Trump Doesn’t Understand About Anti-Semitism

Daniel Berrigan, My Dangerous Friend

The True Nature of John McCain’s Heroism 

Who Am I To Judge?

Transcription: Sherry Alwell /

Photo: Patricia Pingree

9 thoughts on “The Invention of Whiteness: A Conversation with James Carroll

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s