For several decades now, American colleges and universities have been expanding their academic offerings to include courses in different species of identity politics: Women’s Studies, Black (now African-American) Studies, Latino Studies, Queer Studies and more. Whereas traditional academic fields were rooted in some distinct body of knowledge such as chemistry, mathematics, or economics, these new fields are not about transmitting knowledge so much as they’re about transmitting the edgy and often intellectually shaky attitudes of the professors. Women’s Studies, for example, is mostly about trying to inculcate a sense of grievance in young, impressionable women and that is accomplished with the use of some disreputable arguments about the supposedly discriminatory nature of our economic system.
Among the more recent of these new fields is “whiteness studies,” which is built around the notion that being of “the white race” confers power and privilege in society. There is, however, a big difference between “whiteness studies” and the other identity fields. Instead of extolling a specific group as being worthy victims of an unjust society, the apparent aim of “whiteness studies” is to make white students feel that they are responsible for historical injustices; that “their” race is to blame for slavery, oppression and genocide. “Minority” students are supposed to bond in a sense of group victimization, but white students are supposed to bond in a sense of group guilt.
Anyone who follows developments in higher education is aware that many professors in the social sciences have made their careers by trying to explain just about everything in terms of race, class, and gender. Following in that tradition, “whiteness” scholars claim that the white race is actually a “social construct” that has been used for centuries as a rationalization for the privileges enjoyed by some and denied to others. The infamous Harvard professor Noel Ignatiev (infamous for his statement that the white race should be “abolished”) says that “The white race is like a private club based on one huge assumption that all those who look white are, whatever their complaints or reservations, fundamentally loyal to the race.”
Exactly how Ignatiev knows the beliefs of millions of other people is a mystery. My own great-grandfather, for example, was an immigrant from Sweden who worked as a day laborer in Minnesota. Did he feel “loyalty” to his race? No one in my family has any evidence about his views regarding race, politics, or anything else, but Ignatiev seems perfectly comfortable in asserting that he and millions of other European immigrants must have bought into the idea that, as “whites,” they were entitled to a privileged existence in the U.S. That academic careers can be based on such breezy theorizing as that is a testament the sorry state of higher education.
Entire courses on “whiteness” are now taught at some schools. Within the UNC system, “whiteness” is merely a topic included in other courses. For example, at UNC-CH, among the topics covered in the course Religion 156: Ethnicity, Race, and Religion in America is “How do Americans achieve whiteness”?
One of the academicians most associated with “whiteness studies” is University of Illinois professor David Roediger. In a recent article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Whiteness and Its Complications (July 14, 2006; subscriber site), he writes, “The critical study of whiteness emerged, from slave and American Indian traditions forward, from the idea that whiteness is a problem to be investigated and confronted.”
It is undeniably true that in America slaves were held by whites and that Indians were horribly treated at the hands of whites. Does it follow from that those facts that “whiteness” was the cause of slavery, the attacks on Indians, and a litany of other social evils?
We might reflect on some other facts. Some white people held slaves and insisted on the racial inferiority of blacks, but others opposed slavery and denied that any race was superior to others. Some white people courted severe legal trouble by helping escaped slaves get to safety in Canada and large numbers of them died in the fighting in the Civil War. (Most of the Union army’s casualties weren’t motivated by a desire to abolish slavery, but quite a few were.)
With regard to the treatment of Indians, some whites had no compunctions about killing them and driving them away from lands they coveted, but others traded peacefully with Indians and denounced the government’s violence against them.
Furthermore, the Africans who were sold into slavery were usually sold to the slavers by other blacks, and Indian tribes often went to war against other tribes. Violence and oppression were by no means limited to people with light skin.
We are therefore faced with this question: Why ascribe all of these evils to one race? Why not drop the trendy proclivity for analyzing social phenomena in terms of abstractions such as race and merely say that some individuals have always been ready to commit acts of aggression against others? It is not a racial characteristic we’re dealing with, but a personal one. Occam’s Razor counsels us against constructing complicated explanations where simple ones will do and that takes the starch out of the whole business about “the social construction of whiteness.” It isn’t necessary to explain the facts.
Human beings throughout history have devised lots of different phony justifications for oppressing others. Sometimes it has been religion, sometimes adherence to political ideology, sometimes allegiance to a ruler. Individuals of all races have done it and individuals of all races have suffered from it. There is simply no reason to paint any group as pure or impure, just or unjust. Despite Ignatiev’s assertion about racial “loyalty,” people act as individuals, not like schools of fish.
“Whiteness” is a useless explanation for a real problem – the fact that it’s possible for people to use the coercive power of the state to obtain unearned wealth and power for themselves. In modern America, organized interest groups routinely importune politicians for favors and privileges, and race has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Occupational groups, for instance, lobby for anticompetitive regulations that keep newcomers off what they regard as their turf. An inherent weakness in democracy makes it quite feasible for groups of people with mutual economic interests to benefit at the expense of others. In the distant past, race was sometimes used as the excuse for such enactments, but today interest groups rely on different rationales, such as “consumer protection.” The problem to be investigated and confronted is not “whiteness,” but rather what Frederic Bastiat called “legal plunder.”
If professors want to toy around with vaporous theories like “the construction of whiteness,” they should confine their musings to academic journals. To visit such ideas on gullible students adds nothing to their knowledge but irresponsibly contributes to feelings of victimization among non-whites and guilt among whites. It’s educational malpractice.