On Whoopi Goldberg’s Comments and the Origins of Racism

I try to stay away from most hot-button cultural controversies, and that was my plan for the recent contretemps over Whoopi Goldberg’s comments concerning the Holocaust on “The View.” But there’s been some great commentary on it, and I thought I would make a few observations as well.

If you missed Goldberg’s comments, here is the gist: On Monday, while discussing the Tennessee school board that voted to remove Art Spiegelman’s serialized graphic novel “Maus” from its eighth-grade curriculum, Goldberg claimed that the Holocaust “was not about race” and, in a subsequent appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” said that “the Nazis were white people, and most of the people they were attacking were white people.”

Writing for The Atlantic, my friend Adam Serwer argues that Goldberg’s comments weren’t an act of antisemitism as much as they were an instance of ignorance and American parochialism about race. “I regard her remarks not as malicious,” he writes, “but as an ignorant projection of that American conception onto circumstances to which it does not apply.”

What is true, Serwer says, is that “the Nazi Holocaust in Europe and slavery and Jim Crow in the United States are outgrowths of the same ideology — the belief that human beings can be delineated into categories that share immutable biological traits distinguishing them from one another and determining their potential and behavior.” Nazi antisemitism may not have been based on a “color line” like the one that defined anti-Black racism in the United States, but it was based on a racial conception of humanity all the same.

From there, Serwer uses the work of the scholars Barbara and Karen Fields to give a succinct and compelling account of what race is:

I think this is right. I also think it’s worth saying a little about the history and purpose of race, meaning its function in the modern world. For this, I’m going to draw from Cedric Robinson, a political theorist who wrote extensively (and influentially) on the historical development of race and racism. In his 1983 book, “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition,” Robinson makes two claims that are relevant to our analysis.

The first concerns the development of capitalism in early modern Europe: “The bourgeoisie that led the development of capitalism were drawn from particular ethnic and cultural groups; the European proletariats and the mercenaries of the leading states from others; its peasants from still other cultures; and its slaves from entirely different worlds.”

Robinson continues:

The second claim is related to the first. “The contrasts of wealth and power between labor, capital, and the middle classes had become too stark to sustain the continued maintenance of privileged classes at home and the support of the engines of capitalist domination abroad,” Robinson writes. “Race became largely the rationalization for the domination, exploitation, and/or extermination of non-‘Europeans’ (including Slavs and Jews).”

The basic point, in short, is that the ideology of race emerges out of a prior, feudal world of European “racialism,” in which exploited laborers were assigned a lower order of humanity. (The paradigmatic example, for Robinson, is the subjugation and colonization of Ireland by the English ruling classes.) Meant to make existing hierarchies and social organizations seem natural, this racialism takes on new shape, and attains new function, in the context of European encounters with Indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans by way of capital accumulation in the “New World.” There, it evolves into racism and an ideology of “race,” as skin color and phenotype replace religion and national origin as differences that can be weaponized for the sake of theft, exploitation and expropriation.

If race is so persistent a concept, if it’s so malleable and adaptable over time, it’s because it still serves its original purpose: to naturalize inequality and the domination of one group, or one class, over another. Exposure to the worst aspects of capitalist inequality — pollution, poverty, state violence and premature death — are still mediated by race and become fuel, in turn, for the continuing reproduction of racial thinking.

This is all quite a ways away from Whoopi Goldberg, but that is what this newsletter is for: to go on tangents and make a few points that don’t necessarily fit in the column. And, I should say, I’m not done thinking about the history of race and its relationship to capitalism. Consider this, then, a bit of brainstorming for something to come. Eventually.

What I Wrote

The Supreme Court hasn’t always been an elite, meritocratic institution, and in my Tuesday column, I used the history of the court to show what this meant in practice. The larger point is that the most important qualifications for the court have traditionally had more to do with public service and political office than with judicial experience and legal acumen:

In my Friday column, I used the concluding chapter of W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction” to critique the wave of anti-“critical race theory” bills that have swept through Republican-controlled state legislatures:

And if you’re keeping up with my podcast on the political thrillers of the 1990s, my co-host and I, John Ganz, just watched the film “Hidden Agenda,” starring Brian Cox and Frances McDormand. It’s a good movie and we had a great conversation. Subscribe and take a listen.

Now Reading

Anna Holmes on Margaret Wise Brown for The New Yorker.

Erik Baker on “deaths of despair” in The Drift magazine.

Benjamin Morse on the “anti-oligarchy” Constitution in Jacobin magazine.

Sam Bowman, John Myers and Ben Southwood on how housing costs explain everything for Works in Progress magazine.

Molly Minta on Mississippi’s only class on critical race theory for Mississippi Today.

Feedback If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please consider recommending it to your friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week’s newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at [email protected]. You can follow me on Twitter (@jbouie) and Instagram.

Photo of the Week

Credit…Jamelle Bouie

I’ve been pretty unhappy with my recent photos, so instead of picking something new to share I scrolled through my archives for anything that might be interesting. I found this photo from five years ago, when I attended a Revolutionary War re-enactment just outside of Richmond, Va. I used a 1940s-vintage Graflex press camera and a sheet of Kodak film. I still have that camera and maybe, once the weather improves, I’ll take it out for a spin.

Now Eating: Olive Oil-Orange Sugar Cookies

These are absolutely incredible and if I had a little less self-control I would have eaten all of them. I have no tips, other than to say that you should make these immediately. Recipe comes from King Arthur Baking.


For the dough

  • ½ cup (99g) olive oil

  • 8 tablespoons (113g) unsalted butter, softened

  • ½ cup (57g) confectioners’ sugar, sifted if lumpy

  • ½ cup (99g) granulated sugar

  • zest (grated rind) of 1 large or 2 small oranges

  • 1 large egg

  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg

  • ¼ teaspoon cloves

  • ¼ teaspoon cardamom

  • ½ teaspoon turmeric

  • ⅛ teaspoon baking soda

  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • 2 cups (240g) all-purpose flour

For the coating

  • ½ cup (99g) granulated sugar

  • ¼ teaspoon cardamom

  • ¼ teaspoon turmeric

  • zest (grated rind) of 1 large or 2 small oranges


In a large bowl, combine the oil, butter, sugars and zest; beat until combined. (Avoid overmixing at this stage; if the butter is creamed until light and fluffy, the cookies will have a dome shape instead of being flat and crackly on the top.)

Add the egg, vanilla and spices, beating until smooth.

Add the baking soda, baking powder, salt and flour; mix until smooth. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough for at least 2 hours, until it’s stiff enough to scoop easily and hold its shape; overnight is fine.

To assemble and bake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease two baking sheets or line with parchment.

Put the sugar, zest and spices in a food processor and pulse until thoroughly combined.

Scoop the chilled dough by the tablespoonful and roll in the sugar to coat.

Place the balls of dough on the prepared baking sheets, leaving 1½ inches between them.

Bake the cookies for 12 to 15 minutes, until the edges just begin to brown. Remove them from the oven and let them cool on the pan for 10 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.

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