Early uses of the word “white” in American law were, unsurprisingly, about slavery — in particular, sparing white indentured servants from the prohibitions that barred black slaves from owning property or weapons or learning to read and write. (“The slave codes created whiteness in the United States,” Lee Bebout, an English professor at Arizona State University, said when I spoke to him by phone.) Many subsequent uses have been about immigration. The country’s first Naturalization Act, in 1790, decreed that only a foreigner who was a “free white person” could become a citizen — laying the foundation for the 1882 act that barred laborers from China (later expanded to encompass other parts of Asia). In 1923, the Supreme Court had to decide whether the category of a “free white person” included Bhagat Singh Thind, a “high caste” Indian man who was technically as “Caucasian” as the justices hearing his case, according to the 18th-century pseudoscience that defined such categories. (They rejected him on the grounds that in the “common understanding,” white meant something narrower.) In the 1940s, the census started lumping together everyone with Spanish last names as “Hispanic” — but the category Hispanic/Latino, now self-reported, has remained as an ethnicity rather than a race, which is why the census calls white people “non-Hispanic whites.”
Even as the “common understanding” of whiteness remained porous and inconsistent, those included within it often treated it as a kind of noble calling — the “white man’s burden,” a mission to civilize the globe’s others, perhaps even by divine right. These beliefs are now recognized as objectionable; they’ve been replaced, ostensibly, by an acceptance of pluralism and diversity — though not a deep commitment to integration. And yet as long as white people continue to see ourselves as the norm and the neutral, we haven’t replaced as much as we might imagine. We continue to act as racial managers, clinging to the job of setting the culture’s terms and measuring everyone else’s otherness against those terms.
People of color have described the darkness at the heart of whiteness each step of the way — as the poet and lawyer James Weldon Johnson observed a century ago, “the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.” In an 1829 tract, David Walker, who wrote for the country’s first black-owned newspaper, argued that the central feature of white identity was murder; today Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it plunder. In “The Fire Next Time,” his stunning book of 1963, James Baldwin wrote that white people could resolve their position only by looking inward. “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other,” he wrote, “and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
The growing self-recognition among white people, prodded into being by demographic change and broader conversations about how racial identity works, could certainly lead toward self-acceptance and harmony, sure. The Parkland student activists, for example, have seemed almost intuitively savvy about such things, finding ways to interweave their goals and share their stage with kids of color who had, as one put it, “always stared down the barrel of a gun.” But we’re also staring at copious evidence of this self-recognition swinging in the other direction. When white Americans burrow into their group identity, the switch that Painter described often flips, from nothingness to awfulness. Some of us fixate on maintaining racial dominance, conjuring ethnonationalist states or a magical immigration formula that somehow imports half of Scandinavia. A majority of white Americans currently believe that their own race is discriminated against. News accounts fill with white resentment and torch-lit white-power marches. White Americans, who “seem lost,” are searching for something important: how to see ourselves without turning awful in the process.