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Nell Irvin Painter's Note to On Point: Race and NYTimes' Ross Douthat

We had a debate today over emerging issues of race, class, and anxiety for whites in 21st century America. (Audio is available here.) New York Times columnist Ross Douthat got the discussion going this week with his column, “The Roots of White Anxiety.”

One of our guests, Nell Irvin Painter, author of “The History of White People” and a longtime Princeton professor, took on some of Douthat’s ideas on air today. And she wrote in after our show to share more thoughts. We post her note here:

To the On Point Blog, from Nell Painter, 21 July 2010:

Today’s program left me wishing I had been able to say more about the historical context of comments like Ross Douthat’s (remember Michael Novak?). And more about the spurious opposition of race versus class.

Issues of race and class, though not the same, aren’t mutually exclusive. Both forces can be operating at the same time, even though race and class are different aspects of an individual or a family’s identity. I feel strongly that the economic status of a college applicant’s family should be taken into account, say through needbased scholarships, because it’s harder to achieve a strong grade-point average if you have to work full-time than if your finances aren’t precarious. An institution like Metropolitan College (formerly Audrey Cohen College) in New York City shows what working adults can do with support. There should be more like it.

Now, as for history: the theme of tracing the anxieties of white Americans to the supposed advantages of other people, especially black people, is far older than affirmative action. Before the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant complained that he couldn’t get ahead because German immigrants hogged all the “privileges.” In the early twentieth century, Ivy League institutions like Harvard instituted affirmative action for Midwestern Christians in order to hold down the number of Jews. In terms of African Americans, the tradition of resentment goes back to nineteenth-century emancipation and Reconstruction, when the formerly superior race lost the advantages of freedom and the vote.

Even before affirmative action for African Americans had altered the demographics of higher education, Michael Novak’s “Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics” (1972) became the national anthem of lower middle-class white grievance. According to Novak, ethnic whites knew they were smarter and harder working than black people and tougher than the college crowd. He deplored the “bigotry” he saw in Protestant and Jewish intellectuals who were so prejudiced against the ethnics and so in awe of black militants. Then as now, it was all too easy to overlook the structural basis of real economic distress and turn resentment toward black people rather than examine tax structures and the loss of labor unions.

Barbara Ehrenreich [fellow On Point guest] was right to point out that African Americans have not fared better than whites in the current economic crisis, quite the opposite. So to make black people the focus of white resentment is simply short sighted or worse. Black people have lost their jobs and had their hours cut at a much higher rate than others, especially whites. According to Pew Research, 42 percent of black people have had fewer work hours on account of the recession, compared with 22 percent of whites and 40 percent of Latinos. Ten percent of whites, 19 percent of blacks, and 16 percent of whites have had to take unpaid leave. And while 9 percent of whites, already a large number, have had to switch from full-time to part-time employment, the number for blacks is a staggering 17 percent, similarly, 14 percent for Latinos. According to these and other indices like job loss, minorities have endured a great depression while whites experience a great recession.

The economy is bad enough for white Americans, but worse for the targets of Ross Douthat’s white resentment. Would that the poor and working-class would interpret the hard times they share as a call for policies that would help them, instead, say, of extending tax breaks for the rich! What about looking at the tax-paying habits of people whom Theodore Roosevelt called the “malefactors of great wealth”?

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  • abdul

    Brilliant rebuttal from Professor Painter. One of the main problems (of the many) I had with Douthat’s article is that it presented the issue as if the policies he was critical of began when President Obama took office, thus creating an environment for the racist vitriol we see from the likes of the tea party and the far right (both one and the same).

    White anxiety, which as Professor Painter so perfectly pointed out has existed for more than a century (and can also be aptly named majority anxiety) now just has a very obvious target in the form of an African American president. The irony of it all is this President has done more (though many would argue still not enough) to help the cause of those most anxious (the poor) than any of the White Presidents in the past 6 decades.

    For Douthat to cloak and victimize racism is unfortunate.

  • http://www.affirmativeaction.org Shirley J. Wilcher

    As I commented online when I saw the article, Douthat and others (Richard Kahlenberg) erroneously pit race based affirmative action against affirmative action for other reasons including economic status. This suggests that the two efforts are mutually exclusive, which they are not. The University of Michigan was sued for having race based affirmative action programs, when they also gave points for socio-economic status, graduating from feeder schools, athletics, being the son or daughter of an alumnus, and geography (living in the mostly white Upper Peninsula of Michigan.) Several of these factors benefited white applicants but none received the vitriol and legal attack as did the race criterion. Why? There is clearly a feeling of entitlement by Douthat and others; that those who are white are inherently better students and superior, so they should always go to the head of the line. There is room for outreach and recruitment for many groups. One criterion should not displace the other. Moreover, as Professor Goodwin Liu argued in 2003, white applicants are generally competing against each other because there are far more whites applying to colleges than there are blacks and Hispanics. It was more likely that the plaintiffs in the Michigan cases were displaced by sons and daughters of alumni, or students who went to prep schools or many of the other factors. It is untrue that the handful of minority students are displacing whites, yet the perception that exists is that the few successful black or Hispanic applicants are taking their slots.

    I am surprised and disappointed that the New York Times published this article. It is important, however, to know how those of the right wing are thinking. It shows how far we have to go to bridge the racial divide.

    Shirley J. Wilcher
    American Association for
    Affirmative Action

  • Nicolas Hajjar

    Class is the defining area of conflict for people within societies, and reacism is nothing more than an excuse used by the elite, on all sides to cloud the feeling of uncomfort one feels when in the presence of people of a different social class.

    In Canada, with our lower institutional and inherent run to race for every issue of inequality there is; you will often find many who are grouped across race, rarely are they across class.

    But for the governing elite, race is an easy thing to send as fodder; they are the wealthy, seeking to divert the attention of the less wealthy from imroving their own lives, less the system be rebalanced.

    Accepting discussion about race automatically empowers that factors and removes class, just as intented.

    The real question is why is the fury of poor whites is not directed at the impossiblity of going to top schools in America because of the inaccesibility of tuition, and instead directed at their brothers in need.

    That is why it is incomprehensible to most of the world that socialism is so reviled in the USA; to most of the planet, it is they way you ensure progression of the lower classes. Progression, not mobility, is how you ensure happinness for future generations.

    No princes and no paupers…

  • peaceout

    Most blacks and liberal whites viewed Douthat’s piece as an assault on affirmative action. I didn’t. I read that the elite don’t value the cultural experiences of working class white people when they are outside the East Coast mainstream. That’s why leadership in ROTC or Future Farmers’ worked against the kids in the study. Rich people want the poor to fight their wars for them, but they don’t respect them enough to have dinner with them. It’s too bad black Americans don’t see that reality. My belief has always been that class divides American society much more than race does. It’s the black elite who deny this. In the working class neighborhoods, inter-racial couples are common place–usually a white woman and a black man with biracial children; even that is changing now, as more white men marry black women.

  • still working in Michigan

    I like to work in real numbers not ratios. There are 228.2 million whites in the US, and 37.6 million Blacks. 42 percent of 37.6 is 15.7 million. 22 percent of 228.2 million is 50.2 million.

  • Tim

    I listen to On Point every day on my way home from work. Today’s subject was “elitist” in fact that all you seemed concerned about was poor white people being able to go to Ivy League schools such as Harvard. Well let me tell you. I am a 50+ year old hard working white guy. I earn between $60-70,000 per year and I cannot afford to send my son (who has had a 4.0+ GPA all of his schooling life) to San Diego State let alone an Ivy League school. He ended up going to Jr. College for two years and then transferring to San Diego State and graduated with his usual 4.0 GPA with $10,000 of debt for me and $50,000 of debt for him. I have a younger son that is a computer whiz kid. He wants to go a Technical School such as ITT Tech. Well do you think he or I can afford that too? NO! I am in debt up to my @#$ because I am trying to live this so called “American Dream” that I am $60,000 upside down on. We don’t qualify for any government loans because I am supposedly a rich white guy. Nor do I qualify for any of the government mortgage restructuring programs. My point is…forget that “elitist” Harvard BS. What about just going to a state college or a trade school? As a society we seem to think that everyone has to go to Ivy League school. We still need auto mechanics, computer technicians, plumbers, electricians, and yes dentist, doctors, and scientist. The last thing this county needs is more disconnected “elitist”. We need to make it affordable for EVERYONE no matter what creed or race to go to any college or trade school they want.

  • Michael Drew

    What it seems to me needs to be said is that you can’t simultaneously hold the position that admissions preferences should exist and be about class not race or culture, AND ALSO have a preference about the race or culture of those receiving a boost due to their class/financial situation. If a college is admitting enough people from economically disadvantaged households to meet you standard in that area, and yet you still have a problem with the composition of those receiving help for that reason, then by definition, yours is not a class complaint, but one related to whatever way you want to reshuffle the preferences (race, religion, gender, etc.) I don’t see Douthat expressing a general statement that the Ivy League is not admitting enough people from lower income families, so then by definition his isn’t a class complaint, and he can’t claim class is most important, because what he wants to about who receives preferences is their race, religion, geographic origin, and (I was astounded that he openly admitted this — and he did do so) the likely political orientation of them and their families.

  • peaceout

    Mr. Drew –

    The status quo–affirmative action–does consider race and class already, as Douthat said. It helps to be low income AND hispanic or black, but race works against you if you’re low income AND white. Clearly, that’s racist.

    Btw, I doubt very much that it’s inner city black kids helping elite schools meet their numbers. Affirmative action already created a black professional class, and their kids are those moving up the social ladder.

    In addition, affirmative action was never meant to be permanent: low income white people would have to be satisfied with stepping aside so that wealthy whites, and low-income minorities of every color could move ahead. That’s unfair, especially when illegal aliens are included in the mix.

    I’ve read that college admissions officers want to provide access to a whole range of low-income people; i.e., they’ll include whites. It’s the least they can do. Their schools receive huge tax breaks and their endowments can easily cover the costs, if they choose to do so.

  • John in Gloucester

    Good show and discussion of race and class.

    And nice follow-up from Prof. Painter – but even in her response she resorts to the typical “whites as a monolithic group” versus minorities and discussions of history.

    The key question remains unanswered – that is, how does the impact of the recession on whites OF A GIVEN INCOME LEVEL compare to the impact on blacks (or any other minority group you choose)WITH THE SAME INCOME LEVEL?

    Almost all (but certainly not every) income, health, etc. statistical differences between whites and minority groups melt away when the figures are adjusted for income or education status (class). The next time you see a statistic pointing to “the white advantage”, ask yourself the question “is this really a race effect or could it be an underlying class issue?

    And by the way, if someone does have the recession impact statistics by race adjusted for income, please share them – and if they show “white advantage” that will be illuminating to the discussion.

  • C Casey

    I completely agree with Nicolas and John. Class is the issue but Americans prefer to talk about race. The power elites have successfully used race to divide poor people to the extent that poor whites will vote against their own self interest. Talk about being BAMBOOZLED.
    As far as statistical differences are concerned, John is absolutely spot on. Most of the statistics showing that blacks fare less well on health indicators, etc can be attributed to CLASS, not race. I also question the often-repeated claim that blacks are more impacted by this recession. If adjusted for income, I think the statistics would paint a different picture.

  • AC

    C. Casey,

    You said, ” I also question the often-repeated claim that blacks are more impacted by this recession. If adjusted for income, I think the statistics would paint a different picture.”

    “If adjusted for income”???? What in the world do you mean by that? Sounds like obfuscation to me!

    The part of North America that became the United States has been racist as an overall society when you consider not only the social mores but ALSO THE LAWS ON THE BOOKS OF THE COLONIES, and later THE STATES, of the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, and based on many, many, many rulings by the courts including the U.S. Supreme Court. These racist laws covered about a four hundred year time frame. Affirmative Action comes into play in the 1960′s — a mere fifty years ago — and SUDDENLY some people start to say “it’s not about Race; it’s about Class.” Please! Read your history; it’s a lot longer and even more perverse than your grievances against the supposed “advantages” of people of color take into account! Thanks!

    Thank you, Dr. Painter, for your contribution here and for adding your learned scholarship to the discussion!

  • Seltzer

    Really good commentary by Professor Painter and some well-informed comments following that. As a white man, I am consistently disappointed to see others of my gender and shade of skin excuse the bigots and racists among us, as if there was some plot by “liberal elites” to victimize poor whites. Real liberals have consistently favored policies that promote the interests of the working class, regardless of color. Sadly, conservatives have done a great job over the past generation using Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy” to stoke the flames of white resentment. It really is amazing how well the whole narrative has worked to the advantage of the wealthy and powerful. How else could you get poor whites to vote for Republicans who give huge tax breaks to their rich supporters and send the children of poor whites off to kill and die in foreign wars? What’s the matter with Kansas indeed.

  • Nicolas Hajjar

    The point of class and race is not that America is racist, its that racism is not going away in america. It is insane to justify that the racism of previous centuries is equivalent or explains the one today. In Canada, there was racism as well, the ruling class is the same (british) and yet the cycle has not lasted for two centuries.

    Do not fool yourselves, people are pushing racism to keep it alive in America. Ask yourself who is helped by dividing the poor between black, white, brown, yellow, etc..DIVIDE AND CONTROL.

  • John in Gloucester

    Regarding AC’s comment….

    AC, what I mean by “if adjusted for income” is comapre whites who earned $30K or less before the recession to blacks who earned less that $30K before the recession. Choose whatever cutoff point you want, but make it the same for both groups. If you do I suspect the impacts will be similar.

    Racisism is a part of our history – I’m not denying that – enslavement of blacks and extermination of native americans are probably the most dispicable. But there is more going on that is instuctive to how we deal with things going forward. I recently visited New Orleans and have read a bit about its history. I learned that the canals were dug by Irish immigrants (most slave owners would not allow their slaves to do that work since most workers died from malaria). I also learned that in the Civil War several hundred “free men of color” who were wealthy slave owners fought for the Confederate Army. I’m not trying to equate the scale of these with slavery, but they illustrate what’s going on.

    And think about it politically – the country has ridden the affirmative action horse as far as it can take us. Whites are on the way to being a minority in the next decade or so. We have a black president and a political system that has done very little to advance the cause of poor people, black or white.

    The bankers, lawyers, unions all have too much $ and access so they get what they want (and by the way President Obama’s Chief White House Legal Counsel left his position about a year ago and is now lobbying on behalf of Goldman Sachs!).

    Just have a look at the mash that was made of the finacial reform – at the end of the big banks can still take virtually unlimited bets on derivatives (as long as the activity is in a subsidiary) and the tax payer is on the hook.

    Perhaps if we refocus the debate on class impacts (as opposed racism) we can get a lot more folks interested in doing something about the issue since it reflects the injustice they see in everyday life today.

    But is so easy to fall back on the racisism issue – as others have said those in power see it as a way to divide and for the academics who have spent their careers writing about racisism it is their source of notoriety and power.

    But if you dig a little deeper, there is more going on than meets the eye. My recent trip to New Orleans and study of its history Study the history of newhat happened to irish immigrants in New Orleans

    The point is not what

  • AC

    John in Gloucester,

    You say, “I also learned that in the Civil War several hundred “free men of color” who were wealthy slave owners fought for the Confederate Army. I’m not trying to equate the scale of these with slavery, but they illustrate what’s going on.”

    John, the SCALE of things is CRITICAL to understanding history! Some researchers claim that 65,000 Blacks (slaves and Free People of Color) served in the Confederate forces; others say only 1,000 Blacks served. So many records were burned by both the Union & rebel armies that the truth will be indeed hard to pin down. But, there are OTHER structural reasons why an exact figure is so hard to get at.

    1) Some slaves were forced to serve with their masters. Neither Southern nor Northern Whites liked to arm Blacks OR Mulattoes. Many Blacks serving in either army may have not been “soldiering” per se. Since they were not considered citizens, often we don’t even know their names let alone what job they had. As the Confederacy saw that it needed more military manpower, it seems to have allowed more Blacks to serve.

    2) Some slaves may have been offered their “freedom” if they fought, because keeping slaves was not always profitable in all areas of the South thruout the entire antebellum period. If a Southerner was willing to fight for secession, he may nevertheless have been at a financial point in his own life where offering freedom to his slaves would have helped him help his “cause” while also ridding him of the expense of keeping his slaves. In parts of Virginia, where farming tobacco had long since lost its financial rewards, some Whites who inherited slaves had been manumitting them for decades before the Civil War because it was just too costly to keep them, and sometimes there was enough humanity in the owner (or shared blood with the children) for the owner to not easily “sell the slaves South” for the profit. But sign them up for K.P. duty or take them along as valets…that seems to have been done in cases that can be documented.

    3) Yes, some African-Americans owned slaves. One major category of Black slave owners, however, is that of the Blacks who purchased their own relatives so that they would NOT be “sold South”, thus breaking up the Black family. In some states, there was a requirement that any slave who was manumitted (given his/her freedom by a private owner, not by government decree) HAD to leave the State within less than a year, or they could be re-enslaved by anyone. To prevent that breakup of families, some people with longer-standing freedom bought their relatives and called them slaves to prevent them being re-enslaved by an entirely new owner because of this law.

    4) Free People of Color were NOT the equivalent of free whites. In many states they had to register yearly, when they were described like livestock would be. You can read the Registries of FPOC and see for yourself. They were required to carry these certificates of registration; and, of course, there were many, many things they were NOT allowed to do; and there were many harsh penalties waiting to trap them. The list is too long for here. In most areas of the South they were deeply distrusted by the Whites who feared the FPOC would help the Blacks rise up in insurrections. Sometimes hoping to run the FPOC out of town, Whites got permission from their State governments to work out schemes to do so. Nevertheless, the status of FPOC varied State to State and the Blacks of New Orleans had a situation with unique characteristics not seen in other States, or not seen to an iota of the degree seen in NOLA. One cannot generalize State to State, especially when Louisiana is one of the States.

    5) Some Free People of Color did indeed think they were of a higher social class than enslaved Blacks; while other Free People of Color did NOT share that belief and instead helped plan slave insurrections and helped as stationmasters on the Underground Railroad; some bravely authored pamphlets urging the abolition of freedom. Nevertheless, FPOC were Free People of Color, not Free Citizens of Color. Some were able to start their own businesses, while others had an almost impossible time getting work and therefore risked being designated vagrants. FPOC were NOT treated like Whites by the law nor by the White society.

    6) I am afraid your anecdotal description of one true, but small and multivalenced aspect of race relations during the antebellum and Civil War periods does NOT AT ALL illustrate what WAS going on, nor does it “illustrate what’s going on”.


  • Ellen Dibble

    Broadly speaking, it looks like Americans’ expectations exceed reality (debt, micro and macro, for one thing; global challenges another), and under the circumstances the factors of human exploitation and privilege get churned up. Exploitation is almost part of the definition of capitalism. Someone posted at Onpoint that Jefferson (et al, I presume) pushed for American independence in order to preserve the wealth he was beginning to accrue (his plantation, his slaves). British taxation would be affecting the rich mostly; the common tax-drinking potter or blacksmith wouldn’t see great differences, but apparently it mattered enough to muster with those wealthier.
    So exploitation. How many have a choice not to be exploited? There are the tredding and the trodden, and once you’ve hurt someone, you pretty much have to excuse it by scorning them. And to justify that, you pretty much have to fortify your sense of privilege by creating barriers, of perception if not in reality.
    So privilege, next to exploitation. Hello humanity.
    And times of retrenchment: terribly dangerous in terms of redistribution (jobs, savings, home values) and emotional energies of injustice and of blame flying around. Obvious differences like race: easy pickings. It seems to me the more any identifiable group is maligned, abused, exploited, the more the dangers of misperceiving, bigotry, severance of interests versus making common cause…
    I think that’s where Painter was starting off, that it’s too bad people find themselves pitted against each other rather than making common cause, all differences notwithstanding. But the exploiting sorts would see that differently and would celebrate the possibilities of divide and control (if not conquer).

  • Ellen Dibble

    I should define my terms. When I say “exploitation,” I mean the kind of degradation that reduces human potential. If one is expending a workforce by letting them catch malaria, then that workforce had better not be owned investments; but if they are owned, then you might want to make sure they are about ready to die at the age when brains had better be replacing brawn, i.e., if they are all smokers, that might be a 20% advantage or whatever it is. You can also degrade the personality in all sorts of ways, depending on the age in question. And when we talk about education, we give tacit acknowledgment to this. But at any age, people can be either “drawn out” (strengths identified and encouraged) or suppressed, by cultural (familial?) expectations or by laws or by employers.
    If there is a limit to the pie to be divided, do you give your secrets of successful approach to rivals? America has had an unlimited pie model forever, yet we still do rivalry.

  • John in Gloucester


    Thanks for the history lesson. That’s why I qualified my statement.

    I guess we just disagree on how to move forward. I really don’t believe studying the past to death is the way to do it – again, I am not a racist trying to run away from the past.

    I think it is the same with the holicost or the budding efforts around a “truth commission” for forced busing in Boston.

    Whether is was six million or 8 million jews by the Nazis, 20 or 25 million chinese by the Japanese, or 65,000 or 100,000 slaves in the US – sure this is a need to abhore every injustice, accept and build monuments in the hopes that reminders of past atrocities will prevent future ones…

    …but in terms of moving forward and making the world a better place, we need to think analytically about how to change things for the better. I never intended my comment to fully address what WAS going on (and I qualified it for that reason) but I do believe it does reflect what IS going on – that people will act in their own self interest – and that you are much more likely to get others into the fight if the story reflects what they see in their daily lives today, as opposed to retreading history which they know and acknowledge.

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