The Invention of Whiteness (Revisited)

Invention of Whiteness (Revisited)

In the fall of 2017, I spoke with James Carroll, renowned author of dozens of books including Constantine’s Sword, the definitive history of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church; House of War, which won the first PEN-John Kenneth Galbraith Award; and Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World.

We spoke about racism, anti-Semitism, and their interconnections in the age of Trump, which was relatively young at the time. That two-part interview, “The Invention of Whiteness” (October 27, 2017) and “The Disadvantages of Decency” (November 1, 2017), is well worth revisiting in the here and now. A condensed version follows.


JIM CARROLL: 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.”

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.


THE KING’S NECKTIE: Obviously, you’ve written at length about this in Constantine’s Sword, 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: To this idea of whiteness as an artificial and fluid construct: my understanding is that in 19th century America, 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—Mizrahi is more precise, I suppose. She’s an architect who grew up in Connecticut, but her parents are first generation immigrants who came here from Palestine and Lebanon. She told me she was in a meeting recently and somebody turned to her 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.”


TKN: As you know, I grew up in the South because of being a military brat, like you, but I’m not a Southerner and I was very aware of not being a Southerner when I lived there. So when I came up north to go to college, in 1981, I expected to find no racism whatsoever. And I was shocked at the amount of racism in the North. I’m not going to say it’s worse in the North, because it certainly isn’t worse, but it’s more insidious, because in the South, no matter how racist you are, you have to deal with “the Other.” But up north there’s incredible segregation that foments a different sort of racism.

I always think of that Randy Newman song “Rednecks” which is an indictment of Northern racism written from the perspective of an unreconstructed Southerner, and it’s right on the money.

JC: I grew up, as you did, as the son of a military man, but I spent a good bit of my childhood in Virginia, in suburban Washington, but in my youth that was still very much the Old South. I grew up in a radically segregated world—radically. The old world of separate schools and separate water fountains and separate benches in the bus stations. And when I moved to Boston, like you, I was astonished at the blatant character of white racism in Boston, where the School Committee was aggressively protecting segregated schools—white schools and black schools—which led to the court-imposed busing crisis in Boston, which was a nightmare to live through, a nightmare especially for African-Americans.

I was a bus monitor, one of a corps of volunteers who—representing the federal judge— rode the buses to report to the judge how the process was going. I saw up close what these black children were subjected to. It made me deeply ashamed, I have to say. Even having said that, I also learned not to exempt myself from the broad indictment of white culture because I have internalized in my DNA an element of so-called “white supremacy” that I have had to reckon with, confront, and work to purge from myself.

TKN: We all have that in us, but many people are unwilling to recognize it. When I talk to Trump supporters—and even just Trump sympathizers, let’s call them—except for that Bannonite / Charlottesville contingent that openly embraces the swastika and the white hood, the worst thing you could say to one of these people is “You’re a racist”….or more politely, “Don’t you think there’s a racial component to your hostility to Barack Obama?” They get so offended. It’s like you insulted their mother.

JC: But that’s personal racism. The racism that is most insidious is systemic racism: the ways in which the structures of our economy, and our politics, are still ordered to protect white supremacy. One of the most blatant manifestations of that is “elite education,” where people of color are still vastly under represented. There are high achieving people of color in elite education, but they continue to be exceptional and they function as a way in which the powers that be in the culture of elite education can salute themselves for not being racist. But that’s the pinnacle of the racist culture in American life. And so a lot of resentment against the so-called elites is right on.

One of the things that’s interesting of course is the white resentment of the “elites” has become so violent and so self-justifying and so nihilistic, while resentment of the elites on the part of African-Americans and other people of color has never led to the embrace of a nihilist like Trump. So that’s instructive, that where whites with a grievance embrace a figure like Trump, the other story in America is that African-Americans and the other people of color have embraced figures like Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, cultural figures like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and more recently Ta-Nehisi Coates. Who speaks the grievances of African-Americans? It’s never been a hateful, fearmongering, deceitful character like Trump. That’s a creation of white grievance and should cause all of us who are associated as whites to ask why is this and where is it coming from.

TKN: Well I can’t remember who said it—it might have been Richard Pryor, and he said it in a joking way but it was really true—if you’re a poor white person you’ve really got no excuse. You’ve got no one to blame for your failures because your people haven’t been kept down over centuries. So if you can’t make it in this culture with all of the advantages of being white, no wonder you’re mad. Now that’s flippant for sure, and there’s all kinds of class and economic factors in play, but it might be a part of the resentment you’re talking about.

The other ironic thing is, as you say, despite the systemic discrimination in our society favoring white people, that’s the very thing that the conservative movement denies. They deny it completely and in fact say it’s the opposite. Which is batshit crazy.

JC: Yeah, and that’s a good example of the totalitarian deceitfulness of the conservative movement: the blatant denial of what’s obviously true.


JC: The way I think of it is that there’s a bug in the software of Western culture. Just as so many of us are totally ignorant of what the software on which we depend consists of, God forbid there should be a bug in it, and how we should deal with it. It’s that deeply impended in the life we live. There’s a bug in the software of Western culture and it just pops up on our screens without our knowing where it came from, what it means, what it’s doing, how to deal with it. And the swastika is a manifestation of it, and so are other things. The N-word is a manifestation of it. The ways in which women can be blatantly treated as sex objects and reduced to their sexuality, that’s a manifestation of it.

Another way to think about it is that there’s a corrupted gene in our DNA and it’s way deep in our makeup as a people. We have a kind of cancer that hasn’t maybe shown symptoms yet, but every once in a while there’s a mole on our skin. Well, the swastika that that person drew is like a mole on our skin. And if you biopsy it you find out that there’s a vast amount of cancer in the body politic.

What is the meaning of human suffering? And that problem is at the heart of human experience. Christianity offered an answer. Not that suffering could be made meaningful or good in any way, but that when we suffer we don’t suffer alone. The good news is simple and it’s that when you suffer God suffers with you.

And it’s a beautiful story. And that’s why in ancient Rome the people who embraced the story of Jesus were slaves, the lower classes. The amazing thing is not that Jesus was raised from the dead in three days. The amazing thing is that the message of Jesus spread across the Roman Empire in three decades. Before social media, before mass media, before there were easy and potent methods of communication. In the lifetime of people who knew Jesus personally, the Jesus movement took off in Rome itself, a vast distance from this obscure backwater in Palestine where he lived and died as a nobody. How did this nobody from Galilee who was probably illiterate, impoverished, how did his message change the world? It wasn’t because it was demonic or anti-Jewish. It spread because it was something beautiful and powerful, which is why I’m a Christian, why I’m still a Catholic, why I’m spending as much energy as I do trying to help this tradition change and be worthy of its founder, who was a Jew by the way. And if Christians hadn’t forgotten that, the history of the last 2000 years would be very different.


Photo: Beheaded statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Waterfront Park, Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

James Carroll

Novelist, author, and long-time columnist for The Boston GlobeJames Carroll is among the most versatile and accomplished American writers of his generation. He is the author of twelve novels—most recently The Cloister (Nan Talese/Doubleday)—and numerous works of non-fiction including An American Requiem (winner of the National Book Award), House of War (winner of the PEN/Galbraith Award), and the forthcoming The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost its Soul (Random House).

Selected articles by James Carroll in The Atlantic and The New Yorker:

Abolish the Priesthood

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?


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