Transcript for the Piece Audio version of The Invention of Race


American life is shot through with race. There’s no escaping our painful history … or the divisions and inequalities that we’ve left unaddressed to this day. But how did we get here? Was racism always part of human life … even in the ancient world?

Painter: There was no notion of race! (laughs)

So, who created race … and when … and why? I’m John Biewen … of the podcast Scene on Radio. In this one-hour special … The Invention of Race … we go back … we go deep … and we name names.

Kendi: Though he did not necessarily speak as much about whiteness, he certainly created blackness….

Suzanne: So by 1691, we have constructed race in what becomes the United States.

The story of race. How people built it … and why.

Suzanne: And if we know how we made it, / then we have a better opportunity to deconstruct, to unmake.

The Invention of Race. Coming up. After the news.

Doc open:

Hello, my name is John and I’m a white guy. So … what does that even mean, anyway?
From the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University … this is The Invention of Race.
The story of how we got so-called white people … and black people … and yellow and red … and the other, ever-shifting race labels assigned to human beings … in the first place.
I’m John Biewen. I host the podcast, Scene on Radio. Racially-loaded disputes and shouting matches make headlines day after day, year after year in the United States. It’s a given, in our national discourse … that we’re a society made up of all the “races” and “ethnicities” on the planet … and that we have a painful history of discrimination and exploitation often tied to race. Deep divisions and inequities persist today. What we don’t often consider is … where did all this come from? The very idea of different “races” of human beings? From God? Nature? Or was it man-made? And if people manufactured race … why? And … who did it?
I spoke with leading scholars … who’ve done the most up-to-date and cutting-edge research on the construction of race as we know it. In this hour … how it actually went down – from ancient history … to the founding of the United States as a white man’s country.
Chapter One: The making of “black” and “white.”

Biewen: And maybe, you know, of course your book starts thousands of years ago… (Nell: Yeah.) But here’s a thought I had for a starting point, which is … when I was in high school, in Minnesota in the late 1970s – I can still remember very vividly, in my social studies textbook, the three races of man. (Nell: Oh, yeah. Yeah.) And I can see the images of the Mongoloid, the Caucasoid, and the Negroid. (Nell: Uh-huh.) It was presented as a scientific, biological fact. (Nell: That’s right, that’s right.) Sort of like, you know, there’s certain kinds of rocks and here’s the map of the world and then these are the three races. (Nell: Yeah.) So, um, is it a scientific, biological fact?
Nell Painter: (laughs)


Painter: The three races – in the order usually presented, Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid, Caucasoid at the top – is not a biological fact, and only became science, in the sense of anthropologists said that this is true, in the 1940s.

That’s Nell Irvin Painter … historian, Princeton Professor Emerita … and author of The History of White People. We start our journey into the invention of race by going back -- well, not really to the beginning. Science now tells us that in the beginning of the human story … people evolved in Africa, from one common ancestor, a couple hundred thousand years ago. We’re all kin, and all African, if you just go back far enough. Over time, some people walked out of Africa and spread across the world. The branches of the family that spent thousands of years in colder places without a lot of sun … eventually they lost much of their melanin and turned a bunch of different shades, depending on the conditions where they were. That’s how we became a species ranging from the darkest brown to the lightest, pink-beige, and everything in between … shades of brown with an array of yellowish and reddish tinges.
All that explains why people look different. It does not explain the wildly inconsistent and ever-changing groupings that people have concocted over the last few centuries. It doesn’t explain my high school textbook.

Plihcik: So we believe we need to know how we got this thing called race … if we’re gonna understand racism.

Suzanne Plihcik is with the Racial Equity Institute. The team is based in Greensboro, North Carolina, but travels the country doing antiracism workshops. I recorded Suzanne and her colleagues in Charlotte. REI’s courses are not “diversity training.” Their approach is not kumbaya, let’s get along, let’s “tolerate” one another. Instead, they drop a whole lot of knowledge … especially history, but also sociology, biology….

Suzanne: We know, for example, since the human genome project, that we are what percentage genetically the same as human beings? 99-point-what? Nine. [sound of marker on white board] 99.9 genetically the same. There is more genetic variation in a flock of penguins than there is in the human race. There is more genetic variation within groups that have come to be called races than there is across groups that have come to be called races. Statistically likelier that I am closer to you genetically--

Suzanne, who is White, points at a black man …

…than I am to you –

An then a white woman…

We are one species. / Anthropologists finally say, and it is way past due, that race is anthropological nonsense. /
Is that the same thing as saying it’s not real? No. No, because it’s real. It is powerfully real. It’s politically and socially real. So we need to know how did we get it. And what we say is, we constructed it.

To tell the story of the construction of race … and therefore of Whiteness … let’s go back to the beginnings of Western Civilization. Why? Well, because of course it’s Westerners who would come to call themselves White. But also because Westerners were the inventors … eventually … of race as we know it.

Painter: We go back to the Greeks, even though a lot of it should go back to Egypt and should go back to the Levant. But we go back to Greece because that’s where we think of as our cultural beginnings.

And in ancient Greece, says Nell Painter…

Painter: There was no notion of race! (laughs.) People could look at other people and see some people were lighter and some people were darker, but what did that mean? What did that mean?
Greeks, notably Herodotus, 5th century B.C. – Herotodus traveled. We don’t know that he actually traveled to all the places that he talked about, but he did talk about what was then the known world, his known world. And he did not use the word race, but he talked about how people live. Where people live. The climate. Is the air humid or dry? Is the landscape hilly or flat? Is there a lot of water around? How do the people live? Do they live on horseback, do they walk around? And how do they look.
They could see differences in skin color. So, for instance, “Ethiopian” comes from “burnt skin.” Actually, Herodotus thought that the Ethiopians were the handsomest people in the world – kind of as an aside.

So if race didn’t exist for the Greeks … does that mean they saw all humans as equal? Well, no.

Painter: The ancient Greeks naturally thought that their culture was the best and that they were the civilized people and other people were barbarians.

The Ethiopians to the South, who happened to be darker – good looking or not, they were barbarians. But so were the pasty people to the east.

Painter: The Persians for instance were light-skinned and they were too light-skinned for upper-class Greeks who played their games in the nude and got suntanned. And they would laugh at Persians for spending too much time indoors, and the indication of that was that the Persians were really light-skinned. They didn’t go outside and get suntanned. They were unhealthy.

The Greeks saw lesser humans in every direction -- to the northwest, the Celts. That word, Celt, comes from the Greek name for the Celts -- Keltoi, meaning, roughly, “the strange barbarian people to the west.” And to the northeast of Greece, the Scythians … a loosely-defined term that seems to have applied to people we would now call Slavic but also Asian. The Greeks decided all those non-Greeks were inferior … not because of the color of their skin or anything hereditary … but because of where and how they lived.
Oh, and, yes, in the ancient world … there was a whole lot of slaving going on.

Painter: Slavery is so much bigger – slave trades are so much bigger than our idea of race.

The Greeks … the Romans. The Chinese … the West African kingdoms. They all practiced forms of slavery. The Vikings. All that pillaging they were known for? One of the main things the Vikings pillaged was people. And people of every color got enslaved. Folks in eastern Europe were hauled off into bondage so often and for so many centuries … that the very word, ‘slave,’ derived from their name.

Painter: Yeah! Slav!

But if all that slavery in the ancient world was not about race … because race hadn’t been invented yet … well … who did invent it … and when? Going into this, I did not expect an answer to that question in the form of one person’s name … and the year of the invention. But … here’s a scholar who says ... yeah … I’ll tell you who did it.

Kendi: So, yeah, my name is Ibram Kendi…

Ibram Kendi is a history professor … and founder of the new Antiracist Research and Policy Center … at American University. His book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2016. Before we get to the guy Kendi blames for inventing race, and racism … a little more context that he offers about the ancient world. Yes, he says, people have always had the tendency to see themselves as the very best sort of people. Aristotle built a human hierarchy based on “climate theory” – which claimed that:

Kendi: …the sort of temperate region of the Mediterranean has produced the most superior peoples, while the extreme cold or extreme hot northern or southern climates sort of lead to these inferior peoples.

But Kendi points out that not everybody thought that way ... even back then.

Kendi: Just as you have these notions of human hierarchy in the pre-modern world, in the ancient world, so too did you have individuals like Aristotle’s chief foe in Athens…

He’s talking about a philosopher named Alcidamas.

…who challenged those notions.

Aristotle said nature intended for some people to be enslaved by others. Alcidamas wrote that: “God has left all men free; nature has made no man a slave.” Likewise, Kendi says, some centuries later:

Kendi: Just like you had some Christians using Christianity to justify certain peoples as inferior, so too did you have Saint Augustine and other early Christian fathers who challenged those notions and expressed human equality.

Throughout history, there have always been thinkers who understood that humans are one. And, there have always been people with the capacity to admire cultures and societies different from their own. Kendi points to a man named Ibn Battuta … a Moroccan born in 1304.

Kendi: Yeah, Ibn Battuta, who basically is considered to be the 14th century’s greatest world traveler, and so he traveled all the way over to Asia, up in through Eastern Europe, into the Middle East. He also traveled into sub-Sahara Africa. And he of course wrote about his travels and described sub-Sahara Africa, specifically the Mali empire. / And so he visited Mali and spoke quite glowingly about Mali and how, for instance, that, you know, he traveled many places, but in Mali, he felt safer than anywhere else. He also spoke about sort of the civilization of the people and other things of that sort. And when he went back to Morocco and wrote that, some of the armchair intellectuals thought he must be lying.

Battuta’s claims about the glories of Mali were shouted down as lies for a very practical reason. His Islamic, Moroccan society was busy enslaving people from sub-Sarahan Africa … as well as Slavs from eastern Europe.

Kendi: And so to classify these people as not inferior would have been of course difficult for slave traders, just as, if people didn’t classify the Slavs as inferior, it would have been bad for business as well.

Music …

About a century after Ibn Battuta wrote admiringly about West African kingdoms … a Portuguese man wrote a book. And here we get Ibram Kendi’s culprit. His name was Gomes de Zurara. As Kendi recounts … the king of Portugal had hired Zurara to write a biography of the king’s uncle – Infante Henrique … better known as Prince Henry the Navigator.

Kendi: Who of course was the first major slave trader to exclusively enslave and trade in African people from of course Portugal, in the mid-1400s.

Writing in 1453, Zurara chronicles and glorifies Prince Henry’s historic voyage, a decade before. It was the first time Europeans sailed to sub-Saharan Africa to seize captives directly … rather than buying sub-Saharan slaves from north African middlemen. In describing the resulting slave auction back in Portugal, in 1444 … Zurara lumped together the very different-looking captives – some lighter-skinned Tuareg people, others much darker. He claimed that Prince Henry’s main motive was to bring them to Christianity. So Zurara portrayed slavery as an improvement over freedom in Africa, where, he wrote, “They lived like beasts.” They “had no understanding of good, but only knew how to live in bestial sloth.”

Kendi: And so I basically make the case that he was the first articulator of racist ideas. And in order for him to articulate racist ideas, he had to basically combine all of the different ethnic groups that Prince Henry was enslaving into one people, and then describing that people as inferior.

Though he did not necessarily speak as much about Whiteness, he certainly created Blackness. And Blackness of course cannot really operate without Whiteness.


And, to Kendi, this is crucial: Zurara was not just some independent chronicler, calling them as he saw them. He was hired by the Portuguese king … Prince Henry’s nephew … to write the book.

Kendi: Zurara was also a member of the Military Order of Christ which was like this para sort of military, Christian organization similar to the Knights of Templar. And who was the leader of the military order of Christ? Prince Henry. And when Prince Henry said something and you were a member, you did it, including making him look good for slave trading.

Biewen: So, it’s fair to say literally that slave traders commissioned the invention of this sort of codified racist idea, of Black people and implicitly, then, on the other hand, of White people.

Kendi: Yes.

Zurara’s writings were widely circulated among the elite in Portugal. In the coming years, the Portuguese … and their ideas about Africans … led the way as the African slave trade expanded among countries like Spain, Holland, France, and England.

Kendi: And then by the 1500’s, you had other ideologues expressing similar ideas about African people. So the concept of the beast becomes sort of the way in which, for instance, the first British slave traders described African people.

Biewen: When the British colonists came to the United States, what would become the United States, they were steeped in these ideas, is that fair to say?

Kendi: Yes. And so I make the case and show the pervasiveness of racist ideas in England in the early 1600s, to show the environment that these colonists were brought up in and the racist ideas that were circulating. And how, not only did they bring over bags, they brought over these racist ideas in their minds.


But there was more work to do … to refine so-called blackness and whiteness as we have inherited those concepts in the United States.
Chapter Two: The hardening of race and slavery … in the Colonies.

Gone with the Wind: Mammy: “Oh, now, Miss Scarlett, come on and eat just a little. Scarlett: No! I’m gonna have a good time today.”

We Americans are notorious for not knowing or caring much about history … but most of us do have a general picture in our minds of American-style slavery. Our schools teach it. And the Antebellum South has made recurring appearances in massively popular novels, movies, and TV series.

Roots: Guy: But don’t split up the family, Master. You ain’t never been that kind of man, please, Master!
Master: Mr. Tom Moore owns Kizzy now. Mr. O’Dell will take her away today.
Kizzy crying … mother: Oh God, my baby…

Some of those portrayals have been much more unvarnished than others … more willing to show just how monstrous it all was … for 250 years. The owning and buying and selling of human beings … generation upon generation – all of it justified by stunningly arrogant notions of racial superiority and supremacy. And the inevitable resistance by those human beings held in bondage? White slave owners answered it with waves and waves of violence.

12 Years a Slave: … whipping

The standard American explanation for that brutal society … is to say … well, it was the times … everybody was doing it … the Brits brought it with them. / As we’ve seen … there’s a lot of truth in that. In our hemisphere … Spanish colonists practiced chattel slavery in South America before the English colonists introduced it in the north.


But “our peculiar institution,” as white Southerners charmingly referred to their brand of slavery … was made in what would become the United States. Its totalitarian framework based on rigid notions of race and sex … was constructed on this continent … plank by plank. That process started not too long after the first African people landed in Jamestown on a Dutch ship in 1619 – about twenty people, stolen from Angola. But the project took decades to complete.
As we’ll see … the innovations that built slavery American style are inseparable from the construction of Blackness and Whiteness as we know them today.

Suzanne: And if we know how we made it, if we know how it was constructed, then we have a better opportunity to deconstruct, to unmake.

After the break … we’ll pick up the story of the construction of race in America.
This special is drawn from a 14-part series on our podcast, Scene on Radio. The series is called Seeing White. It takes a deeper dive into the making of racism … what whiteness means … and how it works in the world. You can find Scene on Radio – that’s S-C-E-N-E on Radio … on your favorite podcast app … or at Stay with us.

Break: 1:00 music

Welcome back to The Invention of Race … a documentary special from the Scene on Radio podcast. I’m John Biewen. Here’s Suzanne Plihcik again … of the Racial Equity Institute … leading that workshop for adult professionals in Charlotte.

Suzanne: Let me ask you. When people began to immigrate to this hemisphere from Europe and from Africa in the 1400s, 1500s and early 1600s, did they come identified by race? No. What was a likelier identification? (voices) Religion, a little later in that period, but first of all would have been – (voices) country of origin. So your nationality. So you came as an Englishman or a Dutchman or an African.

Suzanne says, whatever ideas were floating around in early colonial society about African and European people … there were no official distinctions. Some Africans were free … some were indentured servants … same as the English colonists. Historians say indentured servants from Europe outnumbered those from Africa in the colonies until the later 1600s. It took a bunch of steps to get from those relatively loose beginnings all the way to hardcore chattel slavery confining only people of African descent. How did it happen? We’re gonna look at some the key steps through a few noteworthy and revealing stories.
Story One: Punch, the one who tried to get away.

Suzanne: In the colony of Virginia, in 1640, an African indentured servant by the name of John Punch runs away from his servitude. John has figured out that this wasn’t what he imagined it to be. Interestingly, John doesn’t run away alone. He runs away with a Dutchman and a Scotsman. They are all indentured servants; they are all living in identical circumstance. So they band together and run away.

This does not go well. The three men are chased down and caught.

Suzanne: And a very interesting thing is recorded in the Colony of Virginia. The Dutchman and Scotsman are given four additional years of servitude as punishment – one to the master to whom they’re indentured and three to the colony. But the African is given what we see codified for the first time as perpetual servitude.

The judge tells John Punch that unlike the two men from Europe … he will labor for his master for the rest of his days.

Suzanne: What have we rewritten down? Slavery. Slavery.

Some Africans were already effectively enslaved in Virginia by 1640. But the Punch case seems to be the first explicit approval of lifelong servitude – and the first time African and European people were treated differently in the law.

Suzanne: Why was it done?

This is important. Suzanne says … whether the judge consciously intended this or not … his decision was a gift to rich landowners.

Suzanne: The story of race, folks, is the story of labor. They needed a consistent, reliable labor force. And they could not have a consistent, reliable labor force if that labor force was banding together and challenging the authority of the colony.

Colonial America was deeply unequal. Most people … of every color … were poor laborers – farm workers, builders, seamstresses. And those workers were prone to getting restless and pulling out the pitchforks. There were lots of worker uprisings. The disparate sentencing of John Punch was one of the first examples … Plihcik says … of what would become an ongoing practice by the rich landowning class and their political representatives: The practice of giving the poor people who looked like those in power – people of European descent – advantages … usually small advantages … over Africans and Native people.

Suzanne: And what did that do? It switched their allegiance from the people in their same circumstance to the people at the top. It eventually created a multi-class coalition of people who would later come to be called white. It created a multi-class coalition. So this was a divide and conquer strategy. It was completely brilliant.

Story Two: Key, the one who got away.

Kendi: Sure. So, Elizabeth Key was the daughter of a white legislator in Virginia and an unnamed African woman, so she was biracial.

Historian Ibram Kendi. / Elizabeth Key was born in 1630. Her mother … an African … was effectively enslaved. Her father was not only a free white man … but a member of the Virginia legislative assembly, the House of Burgesses.

Kendi: Before his death, her father, her white father, basically asked her slave owner to free her when she became 15. He did not do that. Eventually, she wed an indentured servant who also happened to have some law training in England. They sued for her freedom on the basis that her father was free and also because by then, in the mid-1600s, she had become Christian. And in English common law, you cannot, the paternity or the status of a child derives from the father. And it was also against English common law to enslave a Christian.

So … Elizabeth Key sued on the grounds that she was her English father’s daughter … and that she was a Christian. The colonial court ruled in her favor in 1655 and she was freed. Clearly … this frustrated the ruling elite.

Kendi: So, by the 1660s, Virginia had changed their laws to basically state that the status of a child was derived from the mother …

That is … the child of a negro woman would be free if the mother was free … and a slave if the mother was a slave.

Kendi: And that a Christian slave basically would not have to become free.
Biewen: So that closed a, closed a loophole.
Kendi: Precisely.

These legal changes, of course, expanded the pool of people who could be permanently enslaved: Christians of African descent, and the children fathered by slave-owning men through the rape of the women they held as slaves. These laws enhanced the bottom line for slave owners. But that’s not all that the white men in charge did to advantage themselves.

Kendi: Then they simultaneously passed laws stating that white women could not have biracial, have relations with enslaved or even Native American men. So it then gave white men the ability to basically have intercourse with everyone, but then white women and non-white men could not.


Story Three: The lawmakers.

Suzanne: By 1680 the Virginia House of Burgess (sic) is literally debating what is a white man. Why are we debating what is a white man? What are we giving away? / Land … and rights. We’re basically deciding who is going to be the citizen of this new world.

The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first legislative body in colonial America. In 1682 … the Burgesses passed a law limiting citizenship to Europeans. It made all non-Europeans – “Negroes, Moors, Mollatoes, and Indians,” as the law put it – quote, “slaves to all intents and purposes.” Virginia was giving away land at the time, in 50 acre allotments … but only to Europeans.
Nine years later … in 1691 … the Burgesses passed another law. According to historian Terrance MacMullen, this law included the first documented use in the English-speaking colonies of the word “white” – as opposed to English, European, or Christian – to describe the people considered full citizens. That is, the people who got to remain citizens so long as they didn’t marry outside of their so-called race. The law read, quote: “Whatsoever English or other white man or woman … being free … shall intermarry with a negro, mullato, or Indian man or woman … bond or free … shall within three months after marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever.”

Suzanne: So by 1691, we have a definition of white and we have constructed race in what becomes the United States. It’s important that we see this creation was for the upliftment of white people, primarily to support the white people at the top. Poor and working class whites will get little. They will get just as much as is needed to ensure their allegiance.

Another landmark in the making of White Supremacy in the new world … was passage of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705. The codes officially defined enslaved people of color as real estate and stripped them of most of their rights … made it illegal for black people to employ white people … allowed whites to apprehend any black person they suspected of being a runaway … and effectively permitted slave owners to torture their slaves to death without consequence.
Story Four: Deciding who counts.

Suzanne: So we are gonna skip ahead a hundred years. It is now 1790.

1790 … the year in which the almost new United States of America conducted its first national census.

Painter: Yeah, 1790.

Here’s Nell Irvin Painter. She’s the Princeton history professor emerita and author of The History of White People.

Painter: So the U.S. Census is an instrument of government and it’s meant to sort out the population for purposes of governing. It’s not meant as a scientific classification to sort of float above any policy or material questions. It really, it’s an instrument to be applied. So, let’s count up people in terms that are useful.

And … for the U.S. government of 1790, doing its census under the direction of the Secretary of State, a slave owner by the name of Thomas Jefferson:

Painter: We have three kinds of white people, and then we have slaves and then we have other free people.

To spell that out a bit more: The first U.S. census counted people in these categories: White males 16 years and older. White males under sixteen. White females. All other free persons. And slaves – remember, enslaved people were counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of taxation and representation in Congress.

JB: And, were they assumed to be black?
NP: I. don’t. know. I would assume so, but I don’t know. What I do note is that “free” is added to “white.” It’s not that white by itself means free.
JB: Right, so that suggests that there were unfree white people.
NP: Exactly.

So the U.S. government does not choose to count black people … except as part of other groups – slaves and, presumably, “other free persons.” Nor does it count Native Americans.

Biewen: It also effectively, does it not, defines an American citizen as a white person.
Painter: That comes more clearly with the Naturalization Act of 1790 which says that the only people who can be naturalized are white, and they use the word “white.”

Deena: 1790, we’re seating our first Congress. In the first session, the second act is the Naturalization Act…

Deena Hayes-Greene is Managing Director of the Racial Equity Institute – she works with Suzanne Plihcik and heads up the REI team. At that same workshop in Charlotte, Hayes-Greene picked up the story of the making of race in the U.S. … by talking about the next thing Congress authorized … after that first census.

Deena: The Naturalization Act says only free whites can be naturalized as citizens. What were rights of citizenship in the United States? Hmm? Voting. Land owning. Access and rights to due process. Being able to start a business, sit on a jury. So what we’re saying here, this is the first time that you’re going to see a race, you’re going to see white, written into the documents that speak to our national identity.


Deena: We talk a lot about, you know, race has just been around for a long time. Slavery and oppression have been around for a long time. But we can see specifically that race, the way it’s been institutionalized in the United States, we have a very specific place in our history and in our country where race is showing up as an identity.


So … white supremacy was established firmly and rigidly in the colonies. And the hard truth is that the founding fathers built white dominance into the fabric and the laws of the new United States. Laws that determined who could own land … who got to vote and hold office … who was permitted to marry or have sex with whom … and who could own whom. Suzanne Plihcik of the Racial Equity Institute says, knowing this history, it’s easier to see with clarity what racism is. Put simply, Suzanne says, it’s a system of advantage, based on race.

Suzanne: It is all about power. It revolves on power. It is not prejudice, it is not racial prejudice, it is not bigotry. It is power.

Chapter Three: The United States of Anglo-Saxon America.

Sfx: Obama: Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation.

Here’s Barack Obama, looking so much younger … in that 2004 Democratic Convention speech that propelled him toward the presidency.

Obama: Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over 200 years ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. (Cheer) That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is the true genius of America.

This is the story we tell ourselves: We’re the first nation in the world NOT formed around an ethnic tribe. Our country was built on a revolutionary idea. Yes, there were contradictions, especially early on. Those first laws that basically said, this is a white man’s country. Lots of the founding fathers owned people, and they said all men were created equal except those who were three-fifths of a person … and we used violence and deception to take this land from the Native Americans. And yes, it was ‘all MEN are created equal’ and women didn’t even get to vote for almost 150 years. But… that’s how the world was back then. Look how far we’ve come. That founding idea was genius and we’ve been working things out ever since … striding relentlessly toward that Jeffersonian ideal.


That’s our story … and we’re sticking to it, apparently. But how true is it? /
Of course, right at the start, one man embodied the national contradiction almost ridiculously well all by himself. We know Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration AND owned people. But … turns out, it’s deeper than that.

Painter: Yeah, Jefferson was a Saxonist, an Anglo-Saxonist, that was something I didn’t know until I started my research.

Nell Irvin Painter … the Princeton History Professor emerita. She studied Jefferson’s lesser-known writings … in which he extolled “our Saxon ancestors.” The notion of the Anglo-Saxon people is more popular in America than anywhere else, Painter says. It refers to the English, more or less … but includes other northern Europeans who migrated to Britain before the 5th century. Painter says the British themselves don’t use the term much … and it’s almost never heard in the supposed original homeland of the Saxons.

Painter: This sort of nether-netherworld between the Netherlands and Denmark, kind of in there, or Hannover in Germany. They don’t use those words. They don’t use “Anglo-Saxon.”

Jefferson did. At the Continental Congress of 1776, the very moment when the founders were adopting his stirring Declaration … Jefferson proposed including in the great seal of the United States images of Hengist and Horsa. They were “the Saxon Chiefs from whom *we*,” he said, “claim the honor of being descended.” We? Seems Jefferson was comfortable defining the United States as a Saxon country. The proposal was not approved.
Nell Painter says Jefferson’s notions about his Saxon forebears were romanticized … and just cockamamie.

Painter: He has some strange ideas about British history in which the Romans leave no imprint, not only on the British population, but also on the language. And the Normans leave no imprint on the language or the people, but he wanted purity. Racial purity was really important for Jefferson. As he was in there fornicating! (Laughs)

And fathering six children with the biracial young woman he owned, Sally Hemings. Whatever Jefferson meant by “all men are created equal,” he apparently was not talking about people from Africa. Because on another day he wrote, “The blacks … are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.”

Biewen: So, so I think we often let people off the hook by saying, well, that person was a man of his time and everybody….

That’s me putting a question not to Nell Painter but to Ibram Kendi, the American University historian we’ve been hearing from. He says it’s just not accurate to say that in Jefferson’s time, everybody thought like he did.

Kendi: Jefferson in particular was constantly receiving letters from people in the United States and even in Western Europe who were challenging the ideas, the racist ideas he put forth in his famous Notes on the State of Virginia. I mean, that was almost a regular thing. And he had these stock messages that he would send back to these people. That oh, I’m hoping that one day the races will become equal, or that’s something that I’m looking for, or I do oppose slavery but … because he had to constantly, you know, respond to anti-racists who were challenging him.


But Jefferson couldn’t imagine White and Black people living together as equals. One very telling reason: all the abuse black people had endured at the hands of white people, “the injuries they have sustained,” as he put it. Nell Painter sums up that part of Jefferson’s thinking:

Painter: It’s too hard. I can’t figure out how to get out of this. Jefferson said we have a lion by the ears. A wolf by the ears. You know, we can’t hold on and we can’t let go.

Jefferson could not, or would not, let go of the 130 people who ran things for him at Monticello. / He still owned those people when he died in 1826 … famously, 50 years to the day after the publication of his words about the equality of “all men.”


Thomas Jefferson’s book espousing his ideas about the superiority of White people, and Anglo-Saxons in particular, Notes on the State of Virginia, was *the* most-read nonfiction book in America well into the mid-19th century.


Jefferson was not an outlier among this country’s most elite thinkers. Not by a long shot. The man who was … perhaps … the most towering intellectual figure in American life during the 1800s as a whole … has a more uncomplicated, less tainted reputation than Thomas Jefferson. But maybe he shouldn’t.

Biewen: Now, I, I didn’t know a lot about Ralph Waldo Emerson, I confess,
Painter: Yeah!
Biewen: But that was really, that really stood out for me. I thought wow, he’s the transcendentalist [Painter: Yeah] and he’s kind of a groovy guy….
Painter: Yeah. … [fades under]

In her History of White People, Nell Painter writes at length about Emerson … who is known as a critic of slavery.

Painter: / I did not know about the book English Traits until I started writing the book, as I was trying to figure out what the path was from Blumenbach into American thought.

Meaning … the German scientist, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. / In the late 1700s, Blumenbach theorized five human races … with White people, or “Caucasians,” as he named us, at the top of the heap. Emerson cites Blumenbach by name in his now-mostly-forgotten book dealing with race…which came out in 1856.

Painter: English Traits is a racial tract. It has fallen out of favor and nobody reads it.

But that doesn’t mean its ideas were not spread widely in their time. The book pulled together themes from lectures Emerson gave for decades … lectures with titles like, “Permanent Traits of English National Genius.” For Emerson … the real Americans, and the most admirable by far, were New Englanders of a certain “stock,” as he would have put it.

Painter: Well, the best race was Saxons. Like him. Descendants of the Northmen, the beautiful, virile, vicious Northmen. And then below that were the others, and he didn’t talk about them that much. But it would have been notably the Celts. He takes for granted that the black people are not in the running. He was not viciously anti-black, but he thought, you know, black people are enslaved because basically they’re kind of a slavish race.

Nell Painter traces a parade of elite Americans who trumpeted a romanticized Anglo-Saxon identity. From Jefferson and other Founding Fathers through Emerson … to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the country’s second-best-selling book in the 19th century, after the Bible. To suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Into the 20th Century with Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Ford…

Painter: It’s the idea that this is a Saxon nation or Anglo-Saxon nation, or this is a white man’s country, Manifest Destiny, all bound up with Anglo- Saxons – those were very, very prevalent ideas, to buttress or to explain or even to advance geographical capture. Or to feel good about oneself.


Fast-forward past the twists and turns of race thinking in the 20th century. Eugenics and its downfall … the acceptance of the Irish and Slavs and Italians and Jews into mainstream Whiteness … the Civil Rights Movements. /
Here in the 21st century, it almost seemed for a while there … that these notions of a pure, superior White race had been chased to the nutty and pathetic fringes of society. But … well, here’s one of the hosts of the morning TV show, Fox and Friends, Brian Kilmeade, on the air in 2009.

Kilmeade: We keep marrying other species and other ethnics, and other..
Gretchen Carlson: Are you sure you’re not suffering from some of the causes of dementia right now?
Kilmeade: The problem is, the Swedes have pure genes. Because they marry other Swedes, ‘cause that’s the rule. Finland, Finns marry other Finns so they have a pure society. In America, we marry everybody. So we’ll marry Italians and Irish….

And ... in 2017, Steve King, sitting member of Congress from Iowa … with just one of the many comments he’s made along these lines while being re-elected again and again.

King: You cannot rebuild your civilization with other people’s babies. You’ve got to keep your birthrate up. This Western civilization is a superior civilization…

Given the dominance and persistence of this kind of thinking … is it any wonder that most of us white Americans have found it all so acceptable. Our society’s systemic exploitation and exclusion of people we don’t count as white. And is it any surprise that white identity still figures in American politics … and so much else in American life?

Historians Ibram Kendi and Nell Irvin Painter both say that most of us get something backwards: the cause-and-effect relationship between racist thinking on one hand … and racist actions or policies on the other. I’ll speak for myself -- that’s what I assumed: that, back in history, people had prejudices about the people they found strange and different … and racist actions followed. Nell Painter says … no.

Painter: I don’t think that ideas of themselves cause anything.

Instead, she says, some groups of people exploit and oppress other groups for profit … and because they can.

Painter: And people cast about for explanations. And the ideas are the explanations.

Ideas about people of color being less intelligent … or lazy. White folks cooked up those stories to explain and justify a system of white advantage. In her book, Painter quotes the German sociologist, Max Weber. I had his quote in front of me so I read it back to her.

Biewen: “The fortunate man is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. [Painter: Yeah.] He wants to be convinced that he deserves it and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others. [Painter: Yes!] Good fortune thus wants to be legitimate fortune.”

Painter: Yes. Perfect, isn’t it? (laughs) It’s not enough to come out on top. You have to come out on top because you’re better.

The Invention of Race was adapted from Seeing White … a 14-part series, available now, from the Scene on Radio podcast. That’s S-C-EN-E on radio. Seeing White dives into the history, meaning, and function of whiteness. We look at themes like violence … racial science … and who has really received most of the government benefits in America. In most of the episodes … I have a conversation with my friend Chenjerai Kumanyika … a scholar, activist and podcaster. Chenjerai helps me unpack the stories we tell … and keeps me honest.

Chenjerai: What I want us to try to understand is that, for people who want to, who are about transformative change and giving people equal rights, and black lives matter, what you have to understand is, we’re trying to become something this country has never been.

You can find the series by going to Scene on Radio on your podcast app … or at Scene on
This special was produced by me, John Biewen. The editor was Loretta Williams. Big thanks to the Racial Equity Institute … and Professors Nell Irvin Painter and Ibram Kendi. Music by Blue Dot Sessions, Lee Rosevere, Kevin McCleod, Lina Palera, and Sumtimes Why.
The Invention of Race is a production of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.