In White and Black
Each issue of the Scholar is an opportunity I look forward to because of the likelihood that I will find articles of considerable interest; that changed with the Winter 2021 issue. When I saw the title on the cover of the magazine, “The Problem With Whiteness,” I assumed in light of current affairs that I was in for yet another version of what has been wrong with the country since its founding, this time with an erudite flavor. Instead, I was surprised and impressed with Nancy Isenberg’s exposition of the many historical uses of the term white (“White, Whiteness, Whitewash”) and the reasons why seeing things in black and white is not a useful way to understand the complexities of societal classification and the ways of discrimination among individuals. I congratulate Professor Isenberg for a well-researched and well-written, and indeed erudite, piece, and I apologize to the editor for ever doubting the quality of the editorial selection process.
Nancy Isenberg’s “White, Whiteness, Whitewash” simplistically states, “Whiteness is not a privilege equally enjoyed by all white Americans,” thereby burying the significant truth that whiteness is indeed a privilege enjoyed unequally by all white Americans. The author’s focus on other inequalities, notably class and gender, while important, does readers a disservice by essentially placing racism as less prominent than class (“whiteness relies on the class system,” she states). Further, by lumping together the “unfree” residents of colonial America—such as apprentices, servants, and the landless poor—with Black slaves, as though the slaves were just another group of oppressed people, Isenberg dodges the reality of the unique position of slaves. These were unpaid, brutalized human beings denied personhood, legally considered nothing more than property. Moreover, their labor helped create a significant portion of our nation’s wealth, wealth we all enjoy more or less to this day. It is a debt we still owe and refuse to pay. The stigma created in the debasement of these people underlies the systemic racism that plagues us all.
As I write this, a throng of people, almost exclusively white in appearance, has stormed the U.S. Capitol as part of an unprecedented putsch in support of their defeated presidential candidate. If white Jews had protested similarly outside the Reichstag as Hitler was certified as the leader of Germany, he’d have had them all arrested, and most of them killed. Can you imagine a mostly Black, Hispanic, or Asian riot outside and inside our Capitol today? Nancy Isenberg’s piece does little more than reiterate that someone with white skin is neither by necessity a monster nor affluent, and that a wide range of other personal characteristics needs always be considered to evaluate a person’s worth. Nonetheless, today in our country, a Black man like George Floyd is not allowed to breathe, while a white person whose picture I just saw was allowed to break into a Capitol office and smile for a photo opportunity and live to talk about it.
Los Angeles, California
“Thomas Jefferson had put forth the same aesthetic register, an intuitive means of distinguishing Black from white … the debate centered on what makes someone white and not Black … runaway slaves skillfully exploited the blurred lines between white and Black … authenticity, white or Black, is long since compromised …”
Nancy Isenberg’s “White, Whiteness, Whitewash” was interesting enough, but as a onetime English professor, I found the above so repeatedly a distraction that I could barely get through it. Would someone kindly explain how the word “Black”—noun or adjective—came to earn that distinctive capital letter, while poor disreputable “white” is condemned to lowercase, back-of-the-bus status? Is the author perhaps in need of a refresher course in English; or could it be that this latest excursion into the noble cause of racial justice is owing to the fecklessness or reluctance to make waves (be they white, blue, or Black) on the part of her editors? This couldn’t possibly be an example of what is referred to as “reverse discrimination,” could it? What next? Maybe Female versus male? Anyone for Dog versus cat?
I first noticed the above excrescence in the pages of Time magazine, before dropping my subscription to that onetime conveyor of unbiased intelligence. Is the Scholar, considered by many to be America’s preeminent scholarly journal, headed in the same fateful direction?
Capitalizing Black and not white has become a widely adopted style rule. The word Black signifies the shared culture and history of a diverse group of people with African ancestry, including those who consider themselves African-American and those who do not. The capitalization of Black follows the pattern for Asian and Latino or Latina, terms that refer to a large and diverse range of ethnic identities united by race and geographic origin. We will continue to lowercase white. As The New York Times put it in a note explaining its decision to capitalize Black, white does not “represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does.”—Ed.
Footing the Bill for Art
Government funding for the arts (“Our Revels Now Are Ended,” Joseph Horowitz) is no solution. Does anyone seriously believe that President Biden cares even a whit for the arts? State support for artists, writers, and musicians is a Eurocentric notion.
Republics should not make room for crypto-imperial, -papal, or -royal patronage. Virtually every great artist, significant work of art, and first-rate public art project in the United States succeeded or came about through personal or private initiative, not government largesse: think of the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or the leading American artists of the 20th century, Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney, Andrew Wyeth, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol.
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The stagnation of the arts is a direct result of the loss of humanities in American school curricula. Schools across this nation have dropped classes in art and music to the detriment of a well-rounded education and educated students.
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