What is Leukophobia?
By • 9/27/08
Last February, I invented the term “leukophobia”—from leukos, the Greek word for “white” or “fair-colored”—to describe the fear and loathing of white people that is at the heart of contemporary culture. Although the term has been controversial, I am still convinced of the need for it, as there is no equivalent word already in existence and I cannot think of a better one. However, my brief, initial definition left “leukophobia” a frustratingly vague and undefined concept.
Here I would like to define the term more comprehensively and precisely. The basis for this definition will be A People’s History of the United States by University of Boston professor Howard Zinn. This book is ideal for the task because it epitomizes the leukophobic perspective on American history, as I argued in Get Howard Zinn Out of Our Schools. Moreover, the success of A People’s History, which is among the most popular American history books of all times and is regularly used in high school and college history classes, indicates that Zinn’s ideas are not marginal or extremist, but shared by a large swath, and perhaps a majority, of the American population, including a significant portion of the education profession. The book is thus a window into Americans’ beliefs about race.
The purpose of this article is not to debunk A People’s History, a task that many others, including myself, have already performed. Rather, I will use Zinn’s history as an illustration of the widely held stereotypes about white people that together make up the phenomenon of leukophobia.
At the heart of Zinn’s leukophobia is his belief that white people are motivated by a distinctive greed, which originates in the capitalist economic system. This greed divorces white people from the principle of community, sharing, and non-possessiveness that characterizes non-white societies. Greed causes white people to form authoritarian, hierarchical, exploitative, and violent societies and destroys the balance between the human and natural worlds that non-white societies enjoy.
This perspective results in a blatantly biased interpretation of American history that universally casts whites as villains and non-whites as victims. Injustice flows in one direction only—from whites to non-whites—and never the other way around. Furthermore, non-whites’ problems are never their own responsibility, but due solely to oppression by whites. White peoples’ relation to non-whites is exclusively one of exploitation, as whites’ greed makes them incapable of treating non-whites generously.
This set of assumptions underlies almost all of the encounters between whites and non-whites that Zinn describes A People’s History. Whites’ relationships with American Indians, with blacks both in Africa and in America, and with the natives during the Philippine and Vietnam Wars—all of these are cast in the leukophobic mould.
Fundamental to Zinn’s vision is the discredited myth of the Noble Savage, which posits that men originally lived in a harmonious “a state of nature,” and that competition and conflict arise out of the invention of private property. Indeed, with a few alterations, Zinn could very well have written the following passage from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher who based his social theory on the concept of the Noble Savage:
The example of savages, most of whom have been found in this state [of nature], seems to prove that men were meant to remain in it, that it is the real youth of the world, and that all subsequent advances have been apparently so many steps towards the perfection of the individual, but in reality towards the decrepitude of the species.1
Zinn’s leukophobia is thus an expression of his distaste for capitalist modernity, to which non-white Noble Savages represent the Utopian counterpart.
Stereotype #1: Whites are greedy; non-whites are communal and generous
A dominant theme of Zinn’s book is that Western culture is based on greed, whereas non-white cultures are based on sharing and community. Western greed takes the form of an overriding desire for wealth in the form of money and property that causes whites to mistreat each other and to slaughter, enslave, and dispossess non-whites. Zinn repeatedly uses terms suggesting madness, such as “frenzy,” to describe this desire.
This distinction is evident on the first page of A People’s History, in which Zinn describes the difference between Western and American Indian culture, as represented by Christopher Columbus and the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean.
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable… for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.2
According to a Spanish observer quoted by Zinn, the Arawaks live in:
large communal bell-shaped buildings … They lack all manner of commerce, neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the possessions of their friends and expect the same degree of liberality.3
What is the origin of Western greed? Zinn blames capitalism, which, in his view, is the origin of the concept of private property:
Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private property.4
Correspondingly, the basis of non-whites’ communal, sharing nature is their freedom from the concept of private property:
The concept of private ownership of land and homes was foreign to the Iroquois. A French Jesuit priest who encountered them in the 1650s wrote: “No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers…. Their kindness, humility, and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common.”5
Community and generosity also characterize the West African societies from which Americans draw their slaves. Zinn says, “In Africa, tribal life was still powerful, and some of its better features—a communal spirit, more kindness in law and punishment—still existed.” Africans of the 17th century are, according to a contemporary commentator, “very civil and good-natured… and very ready to return double the presents we make them.”6
Even after they are taken to America, blacks continue to be communal. “Slaves recently from Africa, still holding on to the heritage of their communal society, would run away in groups and try to establish villages of runaways out in the wilderness, on the frontier.”7
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s is also presented as a rebellion against private property and capitalism in the interests of community. Zinn quotes with approval a black writer who maintained that “black business must be treated and operated as social property, belonging to the general black community, not operated as the private property of individual or limited groups.”8
Stereotype #2: Whites are hierarchical and authoritarian; non-whites are egalitarian and libertarian
Whites’ greed leads them to be hierarchical and authoritarian. Hence, in the passage quoted above, the “frenzy for money” is accompanied by the “government of kings” and the “religion of popes.”
Greed is the origin of the class society that is the primary focus of A People’s History. Zinn views American history as a struggle between the interests of the “Establishment,” the one percent of Americans at the top, and “the people,” who are forced to serve a system that keeps them poor and powerless. A metaphor Zinn uses to describe his theory of American history emphasizes the authoritarian and violent nature of class relations. The Establishment is cast as military commanders who order their minions to keep the majority out of the charmed circle of the middle class through violent means. American society:
is like a circle of covered wagons on the western plain, from inside of which the white, slightly privileged American could shoot to kill the enemy outside—Indians or blacks or foreigners or other whites too wretched to be allowed inside the circle. The managers of the caravan watched at a safe distance, and when the battle was over and the field strewn with dead on both sides, they would take over the land, and prepare another expedition, for another territory.9
By contrast, Zinn casts non-whites as egalitarian and libertarian. Comparing Indian and white cultures, Zinn writes that the idea of male dominance did not exist among the Iroquois. Furthermore, children in Iroquois society were “taught to be independent, not to submit to overbearing authority” and “equality in status and the sharing of possessions.” Neither was harsh punishment used on children, who were “gradually allowed to learn self-care.” The Pilgrims, however, created “a society of rich and poor, controlled by priests, by governors, by male heads of families.” They advocated punishment of children in order to break down what one pastor called their “stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride.”10
Repression of the natural instincts doesn’t end with the Puritans, but is an enduring fact of American life. Even in the 20th century, Americans are the victims of “oppressive, artificial… ways of living.” Consequently, Zinn sees the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s as a healthy, but incomplete, rebellion against the repressions imposed by authoritarian, capitalist society.11
Zinn also presents the communist movements in Southeast Asia that the US fought during the Vietnam War period as egalitarian and anti-authoritarian. According to a female Laotian memoirist quoted by Zinn, the communists “said that women should have the same education as men and they gave us equal privileges…. And they changed the lives of the very poor…. For they shared the land of those who had many rice fields with those who had none.”12
Stereotype #3: Whites are violent; non-whites are peaceful
Western greed leads whites to wage war and commit other forms of violence in order to increase their store of property and goods. Zinn regularly contrasts the violence of white societies with the peacefulness of non-white ones. According to a observer of the early Spanish settlement of the Caribbean:
Endless testimonies… prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives… But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, and destroy.13
Zinn quotes a scholar who wrote of the Indian spirit: “Could we make it our own, there would be an eternally inexhaustible earth and a forever lasting peace.”14
Similarly, the violence of white societies is contrasted with the more peaceable African societies from which whites drew slaves:
In … European countries, where the idea of private property was becoming powerful, theft was punished brutally. In England, even as late as 1740, a child could be hanged for stealing a rag of cotton. But in the Congo, communal life persisted, the idea of private property was a strange one, and thefts were punished with fines or various degrees of servitude. A Congolese leader, told of Portuguese legal codes, as a Portuguese once, teasingly: ‘What is the penalty in Portugal for putting your feet on the ground?’15
Moreover, Zinn provides frequent, graphic descriptions of acts of violence committed by whites. For example, Zinn quotes this description of casualties in the Vietnam War:
There is a woman who has both arms burned off by napalm and her eyelids so badly burned that she cannot close them. When it is time for her to sleep her family puts a blanket over her head. The woman had two of her children killed in the airstrike that maimed her.16
Of course, there is the obligatory description of the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade: “packed aboard the slave ships, in spaces not much bigger than coffins, chained together in the dark, wet slime of the ship’s bottom, choking in the stench of their own excrement.”17
On the Indian relocations:
Starvation and sickness began to cause large numbers of deaths. ‘The passage of the exiles could be distinguished from afar by the howling of trailing wolf packs and the circling flocks of buzzards.’18
Zinn devotes no such attention to acts of violence committed by non-whites against whites; indeed, they generally pass unmentioned. Since some such acts are too salient to ignore, Zinn does acknowledge that they took place, but passes them over with a brief mention. Thus, in his account of conflicts between the American colonists and Indians, Zinn mentions that “massacres took place on both sides,”19 but only describes those committed by the colonists.
Stereotype #4: Non-whites live in harmony with the natural world; whites exploit and destroy it
The Indians’ rejection of greed and private property leads them to live in harmony with nature, as one sees in this passage quoted by Zinn:
[The Indian] had never fully grasped the principle establishing private ownership of land as any more rational than private ownership of the air. But he loved the land with a deeper emotion than could any proprietor. He felt himself as much a part of it as the rocks and trees, the animals and birds. His homeland was holy ground, sanctified for him as the resting place of the bones of his ancestors and the natural shrine of his religion. He conceived its waterfalls and ridges, its clouds and mists, its glens and meadows, to be inhabited by the myriad of spirits with whom he held daily communion.20
Zinn describes pre-Columbian America as a place:
where the culture was complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world… They paid careful attention… to their partnership with one another and with nature.21
The Southeast Asian peasants who got caught up in the Vietnam War also live in harmony with nature. Zinn quotes one:
I was at one with the earth, the air, the upland fields, the paddy and the seedbeds of my village. Each day and each night in the light of the moon I and my friends from the village would wander, calling out and singing, through forest and field, amidst the cries of the birds.22
Whites, on the other hand, destroy nature just as they do non-white societies. Of course, the serene natural life of the Laotian memoirist just quoted is shattered by the falling of American bombs. Whites’ pollution of the environment is a minor theme in A People’s History. In one passage, an Indian contrasts whites’ poisoning of the Cuyahoga River with the Indians’ wiser stewardship of the land.23
Stereotype #5: The white establishment is unwaveringly racist and has never behaved generously towards non-whites
For Zinn, the Establishment, or the one or two percent at the top, has, from the days of the Pilgrims right up until the present, felt an unwavering racist hostility towards non-whites that has prevented the races from living on terms of equality. In fact, as much as it may appear otherwise, the Establishment has never treated non-whites with genuine generosity or altruism.
One can see this principle at work in Zinn’s description of the Lyndon Johnson administration, which not only promoted and passed civil rights legislation banning racial discrimination, but also enacted the first affirmative action policies. It would seem impossible to deny that these were acts of generosity towards American non-whites that were sincerely meant to bring about socioeconomic equality among the races.
However, as was noted in Get Howard Zinn Out of Our Schools, Zinn sees no generous motive here. Rather, civil rights legislation was a devious ruse that the Establishment used to derail the revolution preached by the Black Power movement, which Zinn whole-heartedly endorses.
As for affirmative action, it goes almost unmentioned in Zinn’s book. He devotes one third of a sentence to it, and the location of the sentence is illuminating. In his section on the 1980s, he remarks that the Supreme Court of this period rolled back or weakened liberal policies, including affirmative action, that had been upheld by the court in the 1960s and 1970s.24 Since Zinn must portray the Establishment as unalterably racist, Zinn cannot mention affirmative action when it is first enacted, but only when it is weakened.
Unlike the white Establishment, the white majority is capable of overcoming racism. Zinn notes, for example, interracial cooperation in the early 20th century labor movement.25 In fact, Zinn believes that racism is the product of a class society and, like other forms of group conflict, is forced upon the white majority from the Establishment above:
One percent of the nation owns a third of wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled.26
Stereotype #6: Injustice flows in one direction only—from whites to non-whites
As we have seen above, Zinn devotes detailed and harrowing descriptions to white acts of injustice towards non-whites, such as the Atlantic slave trade and Indian massacres. Zinn also presents as injustices actions that many reasonable people view as defensible or even laudable, such as the Vietnam War and the police suppression of black riots in the 1960s. However, in Zinn’s world, non-whites virtually never commit acts of injustice against whites—such acts are either ignored or presented as justifiable.
For example, Zinn describes minority crime in recent decades, which has harmed many white people, as though it were a morally defensible rebellion against the racist, capitalist Establishment:
In the seventies, eighties, and early nineties there was a dramatic, frightening increase in the number of crimes. It was not hard to understand, when one walked through any big city. There were the contrasts of wealth and poverty, the culture of possession, the frantic advertising. There was the fierce economic competition, in which the legal violence of the state and the legal robbery by the corporations were accompanied by the illegal crimes of the poor. Most crimes by far involved theft. A disproportionate number of prisoners in American jails were poor and non-white, with little education. Half were unemployed in the month prior to their arrest.27
Where are the heartrending descriptions of the devastation that black crime has caused white robbery and assault victims? Don’t the sufferings of white people deserve at least some of the attention devoted to Vietnamese peasants and black slaves?
Similarly, blatant acts of aggression against Americans abroad, such the taking of hostages in Iran in 1979, are portrayed as legitimate responses to American support of tyrants. Zinn introduces his account of the hostage crisis with a great deal of material on cruelties perpetrated by the American-supported Shah and CIA skullduggery in the country.28 The lesson is clear: the US had it coming.
Zinn’s attempts to justify acts of injustice against whites is not only unfair, but dangerous. As I said in Get Howard Zinn Out of Our Schools, Zinn’s glamorization of the Black Power movement, which preached violence and racial hatred, comes dangerously close to endorsing crime against whites. Similarly, Zinn encourages Islamic terrorism by presenting it as justifiable.
Stereotype #7: All of non-whites’ problems are due to whites
The last quotation about crime reveals another peculiarity of Zinn’s perspective. It seems to most that high crime rates among minorities are, at least to some degree, their own fault, and are to be explained by problems inherent to minority communities, such as low education rates, unstable families, or even a biological disposition towards irresponsible behavior. However, the passage from Zinn does not mention any reason internal to minority communities for high crime rates. Rather the blame is put on the white Establishment and the “culture of possession” and “economic competition” that it has created. Thus it always is for Zinn: you will not find a single passage in which he blames minorities themselves for their problems, but always whites.
Stereotype #8: Western culture has not resulted in any positive achievement
America has an extraordinary record of achievement. We are the most technologically innovative nation in history, and 20th century Americans created a society of unprecedented prosperity and freedom.
However, you would never know any of this from A People’s History. For example, Zinn ignores the life-improving technologies invented by Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such electronic appliances and lighting, the telephone, the automobile, and the radio. Rather, all he sees is the undeniable poverty of workers at that time and the “back-breaking, unhealthful, and dangerous work” they were forced to perform.29 Thus, we get endless descriptions of child labor, unsafe working conditions, and other forms of misery. Moreover, Zinn does not tell his readers how much labor conditions had improved by the middle of the 20th century America. If all one read was Zinn, one would think that workers were treated as poorly today as they were at the turn of the 19th century.
Similarly, Zinn puts a negative spin on Americans’ accomplishments. The public education system that Americans developed in the 19th and 20th centuries was a triumph of civilization, enabling even the poorest children to free themselves from the trammels of ignorance and improve their condition. While Zinn notices the growth of public schooling in this period, he refuses to see it as a positive achievement. Rather, education is a mere means of class exploitation and control:
The spread of public education enabled the learning of writing, reading, and arithmetic for a whole generation of workers, skilled and semiskilled, who would be the literate labor force of the new industrial age. It was important that these people learn obedience to authority. “The unkindly spirit of the teacher is strikingly apparent; the pupils, being completely subjugated to her will, are silent and motionless, the spiritual of the classroom is damp and chilly.30
When Zinn does mention America’s technological achievements, he casts them as a negative force, at one point urging Americans to revolt against the reign of “doomsday technology.”31 Prominent mentions of technology include protests against nuclear power plants32 and atomic weapons.33.
The Exception of World War II Japan
It should be noted that there is one non-white people that Zinn does not romanticize: the Japanese of the World War II period. In describing this conflict, Zinn for once does not portray the non-white side as a victim exploited by a villainous United States. Rather, both sides are villains. Zinn mentions Japanese military attacks on China and calls the Pearl Harbor bombing “immoral.” While this assessment of Pearl Harbor might seem obvious, it is remarkable in the context of A People’s History because it is the only time that Zinn acknowledges that it is possible for non-whites to treat whites unjustly. Zinn also calls Japan a member of the “imperial club of Great Powers,” thus bringing it into the circle of Western evil.34
The Japanese lose the patina of moral superiority that otherwise universally attaches to non-whites by becoming a modern military power similar to the Western nations. This exception demonstrates that Zinn’s bugbear is modernity rather than whites per se. Whites are evil not because of some inherent racial essence, but because they are the race that invented modernity and that has most widely adopted this style of living. That said, Zinn does not dwell on the sins of the Japanese as he does on those of whites. Zinn follows his brief discussion of Japanese wartime actions with a page explaining the ways in which American imperialism provoked Pearl Harbor.
It may be difficult to believe that such a crudely negative view of whites as Zinn’s is indicative of widespread stereotypes, as I argued in the introduction. However, the portrait of whites drawn by A People’s History is broadly consistent with those of the news media, American history textbooks, and popular culture. It seems likely then that Zinn’s book is an accurate reflection of the dominant perception of whites in American, and perhaps world, culture.
A People’s History not only helps to define leukophobia, but to discern its causes. Zinn’s leukophobia is a product of his revulsion against modernity, particularly capitalist societies characterized by class inequalities. Even more deeply, leukophobia is motivated by disgust at greed and war, evils for which Zinn holds modernity responsible. It may be that the best way of correcting leukophobia is by defending capitalism and attacking the Rousseauist myth of the Noble Savage.
In any case, I hope that this article will help convince people that hostile stereotypes about whites exist and are a real problem. In Get Howard Zinn Out of Our Schools, I argued that some sections of A People’s History could actually be read as endorsements of violence against white people. More broadly, the myth that they are uniquely greedy, violent, authoritarian, repressed, and so forth deprives white people of the moral legitimacy they need to defend their way of life.