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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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