In 2000, the Human Genome Project finally answered one of the most fundamental questions about race: What, if anything, is the genetic difference between people of different skin colors — black, white, Hispanic, Asian? The answer: nearly nothing. As it turns out, we all share 99.99 percent of the same genetic code — no matter our race — a fact that, geneticist J. Craig Venter claimed, proves that race is a “social concept, not a scientific one.” But as Nell Irvin Painter explains in “The History of White People,” her exhaustive and fascinating new look at the history of the idea of the white race, it's a social construct that goes back much further and is much more complicated than many people think. In the book, Painter, a professor of American history at Princeton, chronicles the evolution of the concept of whiteness from ancient Rome — where, she points out, the slaves were largely white — to the 21st century America and explains how, in the era of Obama, our once-narrow concept of whiteness has become at once far broader and less important than ever before.
The elevation of some ethnic groups — Germans and Scandinavians — as “whiter” than others can largely be tied to a small number of scientists who shared an obsession with both measuring people's skulls and pinpointing the world's “most beautiful” people. As Painter writes, a number of social and demographic upheavals (which she dubs “enlargements of whiteness”) over the last two centuries have gradually thrown many of those assumptions into question. Salon spoke to Painter over the phone, about the meaning of “Caucasian,” America's obsession with racial difference, and the real meaning of Stuff White People Like.