Was Oregon Built on “Whiteness”?

After several decades on the fringes of academic scholarship and university curricula, critical race theory has become mainstream, and not just in the academy. Although critical race theory likely never entered their consciousness, leaders across every sector of American society have embraced the conclusions of that theory as beyond debate. Systemic racism, white supremacy, and “whiteness” are said to define American history and to require a rethinking of every aspect of American life. Everyone, it seems, has rushed to apologize for their racist past and declare their antiracism.

The near-universal embrace of critical race theory since the death of George Floyd is itself worthy of academic study. How did a largely marginalized, radical, neo-Marxist idea sweep through every nook and cranny of American life in a matter of months? The explanation is that the seeds were planted years ago and have been nurtured through a generation. Although long dismissed by the larger public as academic navel-gazing, critical race theory has been embraced by schools of education across the country. Their graduates have in turn taught their students an American history of oppression and discrimination while constantly reminding them of their differences.

The mantra of diversity, equity, and inclusion is at the heart of primary and secondary school curricula. Given the extreme left-wing bias in most of higher education, the indoctrination of future teachers is sure to continue. But education is not confined to the classroom. Young people learn from many sources including the state and local institutions that exist to preserve the historical record and educate the citizenry. Parents as well as teachers often look to the museums and publications of state and local historical societies for teaching materials and educational opportunities for their children and students. When these public institutions depart from their educational mission by embracing the national rush to understanding American society as one defined by white guilt and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) victimization, they must be challenged.

The theme of the Winter, 2019, issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly is “White Supremacy and Resistance.” The volume consists of essays exploring particular cases of racism in Oregon history. Because the state has a history of discrimination against Native Americans, Blacks, Chinese, Hindus, and others, there is no shortage of stories to tell (the Irish and Italians get no mention, though). Although historical facts are objectively reported, it is apparent that every author felt obliged to fit their story within an overarching theme of “whiteness.”

Shortly after publication of the volume, I submitted to the Quarterly a critique of the introductory essay, drawing on several articles to illustrate the limited understanding one gains from viewing history through the narrow lens of whiteness theory. After peer review, my article was rejected, although I was invited to submit a letter to the editor. I do not begrudge the rejection. That is the prerogative of every editor. But I do believe my critique should see the light of day. If silence is racism, as critical race theorists proclaim, then silence about the inherent racism of their theory is an acceptance of a distortion of Oregon and American history.

On Whiteness

Whiteness, explains guest editor Carmen Thompson in the introductory essay, is the “conscious or otherwise” product of white supremacy, which is “the hierarchical ordering of human beings based on phenotypic, or physical, attributes we call race.” Whiteness is thus derivative of white supremacy founded on laws and customs that advantage white people. It is the inevitable consequence of racism made systemic by those laws and customs.

There is no reason to doubt that Oregon’s history of racial discrimination is reflected in some present-day institutions. Although enormous progress has been made over the last half-century, the laws inspired by the 1960s civil rights revolution have not yet eradicated every trace of racial discrimination from public or private institutions. But Thompson’s essay claims far more than that racial discrimination persists and that people of good will are sometimes unaware of the lingering effects of discrimination and of the advantages they may derive from them. Rather, whiteness as the lens through which we are to look at history leaves no inquiry free from unearthing racist explanations.

Thompson’s description of the concept of whiteness allows for no possibility that any white person might not bear the malicious traits of whiteness. She describes “the American form of Whiteness” as “organic” and “ubiquit[ous].” Organic implies inherent and inborn; ubiquitous implies comprehensive and omnipresent. “Scholars [who] have explored the concept of Whiteness through the field of Critical Whiteness Studies,” says Thompson, investigate “what it means and has meant to be White.” As defined by Thompson, whiteness theory posits that every white individual past, present, and future is complicit in whatever racism persists. Unquestioning acceptance of this theory explains why white people whose lives are unblemished by racist thought or deed find themselves apologizing for their racism.

Through the lens of “whiteness,” we see a nation and a state founded on racism, as if the multitude of other matters of public and private concern debated in 1787 and 1857 (when Oregon became a state) were conscious or unconscious distractions from a single-minded effort to guarantee white supremacy.

History viewed through this all-inclusive lens of pervasive and systemic racism unavoidably ignores the complexity of actual lives lived. Readers of Thompson’s essay are meant to understand the remaining essays with whiteness as an accepted and unquestioned explanation for all historic discrimination and for the current and future condition of Oregon society. It is the simplistic and close-minded approach to history reflected in an assertion by Professor Angela Addae, quoted and seemingly endorsed in an Oregon Historical Society communication of June 10, 2020 titled “We Stand with Black Lives Matter.” At an OHS program on the historical context of race, protest, and law enforcement, Professor Addae stated:

Slavery can be seen as the source, essentially, from which all racial injustice emanates. Mass incarceration: we can point back to slavery. The wealth gap: tied to slavery. Health disparities: tied to slavery. Education gap: slavery. . . . Even further, chattel slavery in the United States taught White people to oppress and dehumanize Black people.

This is the sort of tunnel-vision history “White Supremacy and Resistance” invites. But history is never so simple.

Like Addae, Thompson offers a simplistic and all-inclusive explanation for complicated historical realities. “White supremacy was systematized and expanded geographically,” she claims, “ . . . in order to promote the maintenance of Whiteness, leading the way to centuries of enslavement, colonization, imperialism, globalization, wars, revolutions, and today’s racial inequalities and disparities.” She writes that whiteness was “[i]nitially created by White people of privilege and advantage” leading to “an expectation (sometimes an unconscious expectation) [can expectations be unconscious?] that the government will maintain laws and policies generally benefiting White people.”White people who have struggled against discrimination and privation—Irish and Italians because of their religion, Appalachians because of where they lived, Jews because they were Jewish—would be surprised to learn that being white gave them privilege and advantage. As James Lindsay has observed: “Adherents to Critical Race Theory, for all their claims upon sophistication in analyzing group standing in society and its subtle meanings in terms of power, do not possess the conceptual resources needed to deal with historically oppressed white people . . . .”

No doubt racism has been at work, but so too have many other factors. As Andrew Sullivan has observed:

Social inequalities are extremely complicated things. A huge variety of factors may be in play: class, family structure, education, neighborhood, sex, biology, genetics and culture are some of them. Untangling this empirically in order to figure out what might actually work to improve things is hard work. But when you can simply dismiss all of these factors and cite “structural racism” as the only reason for any racial inequality, and also cover yourself in moral righteousness, you’re home-free.

Because racial traits are often transparent, they are too easily claimed to be indicators of superiority or inferiority in justifying differential treatment in both public and private affairs. But contrary to the assumption of today’s identity politics, being white says little about any individual’s conscious or unconscious preferences and beliefs—any more than does being Black or “of color.” There can be no doubt that racism has contributed to a history of discrimination against Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, Chinese, and other Asians. But it is ahistorical to claim that all economic and social disparities are attributable to something called “whiteness” or that all whites are complicit. From the founding of the nation and the earliest history of Oregon, white individuals played significant roles in combatting racism and religious bias and in building a society in which people of all races have the opportunity to prosper. That many whites were and some still are racists does not mean that all whites are infected with “whiteness” or that the many accomplishments of Oregon’s historically white population must be diminished as the product of racism.

Thompson asserts that the “system . . . which has been effectuated through all institutions that govern American society . . . is White supremacy.” What Thompson labels a “system” is actually a dizzying array of independent public and private institutions ranging from the voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed in the 1830s to federal, state, and a myriad of local governments. She asserts that race is an invention of white supremacy, but the theory of whiteness is itself an invention that requires us to accept that one can fairly attribute to all white individuals a conscious or unconscious embrace of white supremacy. Ironically, the theory of whiteness rests on the racist idea that all whites are racists. It is, in the words of Lindsay, “an intrinsically racist social theory.”

History Simplified

Thompson identifies herself with Critical Whiteness Studies which she describes as a field of academic inquiry employing interdisciplinary and interracial methods “to critique societies and systems of knowledge.” The ideas of interracial methods and varying systems of knowledge have to be puzzling to historians seeking to reveal truths often obscured by the self-interested explanations of the subjects of historical inquiry and of those seeking affirmation or condemnation of the present. Like those who find micro-aggressions in the use of seemingly innocuous words, Thompson contends that the use of words like “planting, possessing, subduing” in the context of European colonization is evidence of “Whiteness.” Such presentist interpretation of historical language only underscores how pervasive the theory of “Whiteness” means to be.

What is most troubling about the Quarterly’s special issue on “White Supremacy and Resistance,” and particularly its introductory essay, is that it was planned and executed to tell a particular story—that racism and white supremacy embedded in whiteness are default explanations for every aspect of Oregon history. The authors, it seems, were not invited to suggest alternative themes or challenge the whiteness paradigm. The approach suffers from the same flaw as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It seeks to tell a complex story through a narrow lens. It is an approach intended to serve a particular ideology or promote a particular cause rather than allowing the facts to tell their own story. The facts recounted in the several articles do tell a story of racism and white supremacy, but if the inquiry had been broader, if the authors had looked through other lenses, the articles would tell more accurately the full, complex stories of Oregon history.

“White Supremacy & Resistance” views Oregon history through the same narrow lens employed by the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” Through that lens, we see a nation and a state both founded on racism rooted in whiteness, as if the multitude of other matters of public and private concern debated in 1787 and 1857 (when Oregon became a state) were conscious or unconscious distractions from a single-minded effort to guarantee white supremacy. More than a year after publication of “The 1619 Project,” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote: “Monocausality—whether it’s the clash of economic classes, the hidden hand of the market, or white supremacy and its consequences—has always been a seductive way of looking at the world. It has always been a simplistic one, too. The world is complex. So are people and their motives.” Stephens was speaking to the responsibilities of journalists, but the same applies to historians. Oregon history, like American history, is too complicated to be viewed through a single lens.

In the epilogue to the volume, Quarterly editor Eliza Canty-Jones describes the project as “emotionally wrenching.” But history told well is a dispassionate, nonjudgmental enterprise. Historians are often inspired by passion to study and record history’s atrocities and triumphs. But if historians prejudge or respond emotionally to the actions and words of the past, if they tell their readers which are the atrocities and which the triumphs, the stories they tell and print will be partly theirs. As Gordon Wood has written, history “ought not be viewed as a story of right and wrong or good and evil from which moral lessons are to be drawn. . . . American History is not a simple morality play: it is a complicated and often ironic story that needs to be explained and understood, not celebrated or condemned.”

An account of the background and timeline for the special issue declares that the project “is not neutral on the subject of White supremacy. There is no disputing that. Authors and editors are seldom neutral in their personal views on the events and people they write about. But they should aspire to neutrality in reporting on those events and people. By telling the stories of history without judgment, they allow their readers to judge for themselves. Objectively and fully told, the stories of racism and white supremacy in Oregon will allow readers to understand people and events in their historical context without the filter of the authors’ or editors’ judgments that unavoidably reflect present-day values.

Like “The 1619 Project,” “White Supremacy and Resistance” is in high demand for use in schools. To meet that demand the volume is now in its third printing. Roughly 85 percent of the Oregon students who will read the volume are white. What they will learn is not just the lamentable history of racism in Oregon, but also that there is really no solution and that they are inextricably at fault. The 15 percent of students who are not white will learn that whatever problems they may face are the responsibility of their white classmates. All of our students deserve a better, more complete education in their state’s and nation’s history.

Comments are closed.