I finished Timothy Snyder's masterful study, Bloodlands, last night. Most of it anyway. I'm still picking my way through the conclusion. At any rate, I want to focus today on one of the minor, but gripping, themes running through Bloodlands--power and social invention. Whenever American racism enters our field of discussion, it's fairly common for liberals, like me, to point out that our concept of race is a social construct. I've tried to unpack the logic behind this before, but I think this is the sort of thing said so much, and perhaps sometimes said in such a flip manner, that it's become cliché. I think it's important to say that our modern construct of race isn't just a "social construct," but that it is--itself--a racist construct, and as such has always depended less on ancestry, then the naked exercise of power.
When Frederick Douglass died, his wife Helen wrote:
It is easy to say, as has been carelessly said by some in commenting
upon Mr. Douglass' life and career, that the intellectual power, the
ambition, the talent which he displayed, were inheritances from his
white father; that the colored strain disappeared except as it gave the
hue to his skin ; and that to all intents and purposes Frederick
Douglass was a white man.
That America was full of black people, like Douglass, with white parents did nothing to dissuade. The point was to make Douglass, and his many accomplishments, accord comfortably with the dictates of the day. When Hermann Goring needed to justify the service of "The Jew Nazi" Erhard Milch he asserted, "I decide who is a Jew and who is Aryan." Goring was echoing the words of Austrian anti-Semite Karl Lueger who'd denounced Budapest as "Judapest," then turned around and justified his many friendships with Jews by claiming, "I decide who is a Jew."