Report: White Supremacy and the Past and Future of Classics Roundtable

“The heartbeat of racism is denial. The heartbeat of anti-racism is confession.” -Ibram X. Kendi

Twenty classical scholars gathered at the 2020 Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting to brainstorm a list of ways that the discipline of Classics has been and continues to be complicit in white supremacy. Participants included graduate students, high school teachers, and college professors of all ranks. Nearly all were white.

As such, the function of the round table was something like a discipline-specific version (minus the expert facilitator) of the “White Fragility” workshop on the first day of the conference, where Robin DiAngelo invited participants to reflect on how our socialization into white supremacy “renders us racially illiterate” and to take “the first step” of “let[ting] go of our racial certitude and reach[ing] for humility.” One quote from that workshop that encapsulated the motivation and aims for this roundtable came from an essay by Ijeoma Oluo: “Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance. The dominant culture does not have to see itself to survive because culture will shift to fit its needs.”

In order to overcome this ignorance of how our discipline perpetuates racial inequality, we asked ourselves three specific questions about Classics, derived from a definition of white supremacy articulated by Critical Race Theorist Francis Lee Ansley:

  1. How has Classics contributed to the establishment and maintenance of “a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources?”
  2. How has Classics helped make widespread “conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement?”
  3. How has Classics “enacted…relations of white dominance and non-white subordination?”

Participants were then invited to produce as many answers to these questions as possible in the time available. What follows is a summary of suggestions, synthesized into an essay-like format but attempting to capture all the ideas raised in our conversation. Even so it is only a partial list of what could have been said, and even what is listed would benefit from further elaboration. And as the abundance of links to relevant discussions is intended to show, very little that we discussed was new. But it is hoped that gathering all this together in one piece may provide a resource for self-reflection and discovery among those who seek a more just and inclusive discipline.

Public Figures, Public Monuments

On the most basic level, Classical scholars have used their prestige and research to legitimize white supremacist ideologies. Some of this history has been studied in the case of German Classicists who supported Hitler’s regime through their participation in Himmler’s “ancestral heritage” organization or those who pursued research that contributed to Italian fascism’s claims of continuity with ancient Rome. In the U.S. Basil Gildersleeve, probably the most prominent American Classical scholar of the 19th century, was an apologist for slavery; Gildersleeve’s successor at Johns Hopkins Tenney Frank is still cited on white supremacist websites for his article arguing that “race mixture” contributed to the decline of Roman state power. And lest we assume explicitly racist Classical scholarship was a feature of a less enlightened age, Pharos documented Revilo Oliver‘s position as an intellectual mentor to 20th century white supremacists during the height of the civil rights movement.

Under this heading could be included men who received a Classical education and then worked in other academic disciplines to promote white supremacy. One example of this that has recieved increasing attention recently is the use of classical texts by proponents of scientific racism in the colonial period, but there are many others whose racist work did not explicitly engage with the classical past, such as William Archibald Dunning, who at Columbia University received honorable mention in Latin, a scholarship in Greek, read a Latin poem as salutatorian of his class, and whose honorary degree from Dartmouth College in 1916 was introduced by his former Latin professor. He went on to publish widely on the American Reconstruction Era with scholarship that “legitimized segregation as a necessary system for the peaceful coexistence of black and white American” while using his influence as a Columbia professor to promote the work of scholars that championed white supremacy. Relatively well-documented examples such as Gildersleeve, Frank, and Dunning likely only scratch the surface of this legacy, and the discipline has not formally and openly addressed this history.

Is it any wonder that Scientific American found that Classics has the lowest pecentage of African American Ph.D.s of almost any academic discipline, or that the most prestigious Classics journals in the United States hardly ever publish scholars of color?

More diffuse in its agency but every bit as pernicious have been the ways that state power — not the extremists and reactionaries that Pharos typically documents but mainstream, elected goverments — uses the prestige of Greco-Roman antiquity to legitimize white supremacy. Confederate monuments, such as “Silent Sam,” whose dedication speech made explicit its racist purpose and meaning, or the more explicitly classicizing Nashville Parthenon, are but the most blatant examples of the role of the Classical in the erection of monuments and symbols that remind all who see them who has power, and who does not.

The seal of the University of Florida, for example, shows an idealized Native American watching the arrival of European-style ships. The scene is encircled by the university’s Latin motto Civium in Moribus Rei Publicae Salus, officially translated “The welfare of the state depends on the morals of its citizens.” A whole web of racist meanings lurks in this seal: the consequences of colonization are idealized in terms of “welfare” and morality, which surround, graphically, the native identity that this colonization attempted to erase. The seal displays 1853 as the year of the university’s founding, although it was not integrated until more than a century later. And the seal itself reproduces the image at the center of the Florida state flag, which incorporates a red saltire that is considered an attempt to memorialize the confederacy. Even more monumental are the frequently admired neoclassical buildings of the U.S. capital or other major cities in North America, which should be understood not as indicators of the importance of the Classical aesthetic but as monuments to the importation of Eurocentric history in order to erase and replace the history of the indigenous victims of European colonization.

Eurocentric History and the Construction of White Identity

The complicity of Classical Studies in white supremacy, however, goes far beyond the work of the outspoken racists of the first century of (white) United States history. It is only relatively recently that scholars in Classics, at least, have begun to question and expose Classics’ historical reliance on and promotion of a Eurocentric narrative of history that argues that white people have contributed more of value to humanity and the world than other people. Such narratives promote Greco-Roman culture as a supposedly universal ideal that can serve as a standard by which to measure other cultures, for example by privileging realism in art above other forms of representation or large-scale, permanent architecture over human-scale, temporary constructions. In turn these standards produce a teleological understanding of history that assumes that the development of all cultures leads to something that looks first like ancient Greece and Rome and ultimately like contemporary Europe. Those that do not “yet” meet Greco-Roman standards must be “primitive”, a designation which can then justify colonization and exploitation.

Classicists have fortified Eurocentrism by presenting (in our course titles and descriptions, promotional materials, book jackets, etc) Greece and Rome as “foundational” or “pioneering,” thus erasing the continuities between those cultures and those of the broader ancient Mediterranean, in particular those that are not understood to be “European” or to fall into the category of “Western Civilization.” The traditional disciplinary limits of Classics should be understood as part of this erasure: many disciplines limit themselves with geographical, linguistic, or temporal boundaries but Classics may be unique in imposing all three on itself in ways that give arbitrary priority to some ancient places, languages, and time periods over others. Greek and Latin are given precedence over other ancient languages; areas under Roman domination are studied more than unconquered regions; so-called golden ages marked by violent expansion are given more attention than periods of greater cultural blending or decline.

A narrow idealization of the Greco-Roman world is so central to the traditional definition of our field that it is inherent in the name itself: Classics

There is a racial component to defining, and valuing, Greek and Roman culture in this exclusive way. Rebecca Futo Kennedy has called Classicists’ attention to Alastair Bonnet’s study of how the term “Western” emerged as a code for “white,” which is itself a category invented to serve racist power that cannot be meaningfully applied to the ancient Greco-Roman world where people observed and discussed what we would call racial differences but attributed to them very different significance than those of modern racial categories. Kennedy has also traced the function of Greco-Roman history in the construction of this narrative of “Western,” and therefore “white,” cultural superiority. As Kennedy shows, from the very beginning this narrative, in the United States at least, served to justify the removal and forced assimilation of Native Americans during the period of westward colonial expansion by European settlers.

The full history of how Classical scholars themselves contributed to the establishment and promotion of the equation of “the West,” whiteness, and cultural superiority remains to be told, but “Great Books” programs, “Western Civ” courses, and university curricula with core requirements that emphasize Classical material would be one place to start. Such programs certainly served to promote this narrative and benefitted the discipline of Classics by making it central to the curricula at prestigious universities (many of which had racist admissions policies) and thereby providing Classics departments a steady stream of teaching positions and students, all at the expense of other departments focused on other time periods or geographic regions. Even at schools that have abandoned core curricula focused on ancient history in favor of distribution requirements that promote the study of a broader range of histories and cultures, Classics departments benefit from the “inherited wealth” of the legacy of “Western Civ” programs because they have larger faculties that are able to offer more classes than smaller departments, who have a harder time arguing for expansion than Classics departments do arguing to maintain their size. It forms a kind of institutional parallel to the fact that the wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans is so large because white Americans inherit so much more money than black Americans do.

Whitewashing the Past

Even without the explicit langauge of “Western Civilization,” many traditional approaches to Greco-Roman antiquity suppress or erase the ethnic diversity of the ancient Mediterranean, thereby contributing to the fantasy of Greco-Roman culture as a white-racialized European culture. Classical scholars have made some progress in expanding reading lists beyond a narrow selection of elite men, but the predominant way of categorizing authors is by the language (Latin, Greek) or period they wrote in (Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Imperial, “Golden,” “Silver”) and not by their geographical location or ethnicity: Apuleius and Euclid are usually regarded as occupying distinct categories (one, a novelist; the other a technical writer; one writing in Latin; the other in Greek), but few courses or works of scholarship (at least in Classics) would group them together as Africans and make that similarity the starting point for interpretation, tending instead to assimilate what must have been a formative dimension of each of their identities to a Eurocentric paradigm.

Visual representations of ancient people too often present only white skin, both in popular media (where the racist outcry over seeing non-white bodies in ancient settings reveals our assumptions), and, as is more common in our classrooms, in the Neoclassical European paintings that many professors use to illustrate scenes from mythology and ancient history. European art of all kinds has a long history of erasing the existence of non-white bodies, and its representation of ancient stories is no exception; using these images to illustrate our lectures propagates this false and simplistic portrait of ancient people. Related to this is the long-standing fetishization of the white marble of ancient statuary, which in antiquity was actually painted. This is not just a technical art historical point because the sculptures in question became a touchstone for racist pseudo-science. Even in the present, ignoring the polychomy of ancient statuary implies that the “normal” artistic subject was white, which in turn suggests that the ancients themselves prized white bodies over others. Thanks to the legitimizing prestige of Classical antiquity, this reinforces racist standards of beauty in the present that inflict both mental and physical harm on non-white people.

A recent Caesar textbook's title "A Call to Conquest" signals its uncritical presentation of what has been more honestly described as "a book about an unnecessary war written by the ruthless general of an occupying army"

At the heart of our discipline’s complicity in promoting the supposed superiority of an imaginary, all-white “Western Civilization” is a narrow idealization of the Greco-Roman world. This idealization is so central to the traditional definition of our field that it is inherent in the name itself: Classics. No other academic field has a name that makes a value judgment about the material it studies. Professional Classicists do not practice this idealization as much as they once did, and a few departments (but not the professional association for the discipline) have changed their names to signal their avoidance of it, but an idealized version of Greco-Roman antiquity remains very persistent in the public imagination, where it is beneficial to Classical scholars because it maintains the prestige of our discipline. It is a situation comparable in some ways to that of those who disavow personal prejudice but continue to benefit from structural racism.

White Supremacy in the Classroom

Participants at the roundtable noted several ways that this idealization can contribute to white supremacy, though many more could doubtless be named. For the most part introductory Latin textbooks sanitize sexual violence and omit or downplay the inhumane violence of the ancient Roman practice of enslavement in concious or unconcious imitation of defenders of American slavery, and as recently as 2018 state-level chapters of a national organization that promotes the study of Greco-Roman antiquity sponsored mock-slave auctions as a fundraising tool. More generally, the glorification of ancient Greek or (especially) Roman military success as admirable in itself or as a “civilizing” force both sanctions the large-scale violence of genocide and colonial domination and naturalizes as inevitable all kinds of brutality in a world where African American men and women are much more likely to experience violence than white people. One mechanism for this idealization is the continuing prominence of Julius Caesar‘s commentaries on the Gallic Wars in Latin curricula: a recent textbook’s title “A Call to Conquest” signals its uncritical presentation of what is far less commonly, but more honestly, described as “a book about an unnecessary war written by the ruthless general of an occupying army.” Middlebury College professor William Harris (that is, not the person you’re thinking of) studied the history of Caesar’s use in American schools and located its origin in a curriculum designed to prepare American students to be soldiers in wars aimed at the extermination of Native Americans.

It is impossible to speak of Classics and colonialism without noting that the removal of antiquities for display in the museums of colonial powers is a facet of the logic of colonization, by which a group of people that considers itself racially superior extracts wealth and resources from people they consider racially inferior. Minerals, metals, oil, and cheap labor do not account for all of the wealth transferred by colonial powers, who are enriched in status by their possession of sculpture, pottery, and even texts. Often the very layout of these museums separates the art of ancient Greece and Rome from the cultures that both influenced its development and remained in dialogue with it for many centuries.

The Languages

Even the apparently apolitical aspects of Classical scholarship, such as philology, have contributed to claims of white superiority. Research on the meanings of color terms in Homeric epic, many of which did not correspond to contemporary European descriptions of color, produced a theory that bronze age Greeks represented a primitive stage in the development of color sense. When British colonists in India found that native people there spoke of color in ways that more resembled Homer’s descriptions than those of modern Britons, they could label those natives primitive and thereby justify their colonization. On a broader scale, the discovery by philologists that the ancient language of India, Sanskrit, shared many features with Latin and Greek challenged notions of European culture’s superiority by demonstrating that it shared a linguistic heritage with its colonized subjects, but initial confusion gave way to the formulation of the myth of a racially superior “Aryan” identity, demonstrated by linguistic evidence, that was shared with ancient, but not modern, inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and that found its culmination in its racially “pure” European descendants. In Europe this theory produced the Holocaust; in India, colonists could claim that any appearance of shared cultural heritage in India was the result of a prehistoric invasion from Europe, thus providing a precedent to Britain’s own invasion.

It is striking how many features of traditional instruction in Latin or Greek can be found on lists of the features of white supremacy culture

Even outside the colonialist context it may be said that ancient languages, and especially the status they are accorded in our discipline, serve the interests of white supremacy. Knowledge of Latin and Greek served as the basis of discriminatory admissions requirements at American colleges and universities because only white people had the leisure, wealth, and access to preparatory schools required to learn them. Many of these universities that placed Classics at the center of their curricula were themselves the beneficiaries and defenders of enslavement and genocide, and their graduates, in turn, often went on to occupy positions of political power, making a knowledge of Classics a prerequisite not only for education but for being able to shape the laws and constitution of society. As Sarah Teets has shown, in Virginia, at least, this nexus between Classical learning and the preparation of statesmen who would maintain the white supremacist order was made explicit in the founding of its state university.

Drawing the Boundaries

The racist intent of these admissions requirements was not concealed: U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun was overheard saying that he would not “believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man” until he could “find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax.” Joanna Brooks has shown that the often-repeated story of the enslaved black poet Phyllis Wheatley being brought before a tribunal of white men to prove that she was really the author of her poems is a fabrication, but it is true that some were skeptical, doubtless in part because her extensive use of Classical material threatened the assumption that a knowledge of Latin poetry was evidence of white superiority. Brooks’ archival research shows that her London publisher, for example, declined her manuscript because he did not believe she could have written it, which led Wheatley herself to seek, and obtain, the attestation of several prominent white citizens in Boston that she really was the author.1

Although undergraduate institutions have long-since stopped requiring Greek and Latin for admission, graduate programs in Classics still make knowledge of Latin and Greek the primary criteria for their admissions. Such requirements make more sense for a specialized program in the study of the ancient world than for an undergraduate degree, yet the almost exclusive priority given to knowledge of Greek and Latin may have the same discriminatory effect as those earlier policies, even if it does not have the same racist intent, as suggested by the need for “pre-doctoral” fellowships (including one at the University of Virginia) intended to provide language training to members of underrepresented groups in advance of admittance into Classics PhD programs. More fundamentally, the exclusive focus on Latin and Greek languages means, in practice, that neither programs nor jobs exist for students who might chart a less Eurocentric path, say, by combining the study of Latin and Sanskrit.

Indeed this focus on a knowledge of Greek and Latin as the essential requirements for membership in the field is a relatively recent development. The earliest issues of the Transactions of the American Philological Association, the journal of what became the professional association for Classical Scholars, contain contributions not only on Latin and Greek but also on Sanskrit, “North American Languages,” “the German Vernacular of Pennsylvania,” Algonquin, and various Creole languages. The most influential western scholars of Sanskrit in the nineteenth century were educated in Classics (one was the first president of the American Philological Association) but at some point this language ceased to be taught and studied in Classics departments. This and other such narrowings of what constitutes “Classics” tended to exclude, by design or in effect, whatever was not sufficiently “European”, “Christian”, or dominant in contemporary social hierarchies as defined by white people. One participant in the roundtable suggested that such narrowing may have been necessitated by the abolition of slavery and the decline of “domestic service”: when men could no longer rely on slaves, serfs, servants, and women to provide for all their material needs, they had less time to study archaic languages. If this analysis is correct, then the narrow Eurocentrism of the discipline increased in proportion to the decline of the white supremacist social order.

The length of this essay shows that Classics has a special relationship to white supremacy. Perhaps it can play a special role in dismantling it

Mathura Umachandran has pointed out that “unless you can credibly defend the idea that black and brown people are either not interested or not smart enough to study ancient Greece and Rome, then structural oppression and discrimination have to be a plausible part of any account for” the reason Classics classrooms remain white spaces. This is especially true in Greek and Latin classrooms. Critics of traditional methods for teaching Latin and Greek such as John Bracey have noted that a pedagogy focused on comprehensive knowledge of formal grammar and an ability to produce a narrowly defined type of translation “takes language, something universally accessible to all, and creates a series of unnecessary and onerous roadblocks that render it accessible to only the few.” It is striking how many features of traditional instruction in Latin or Greek can be found on lists of the features of white supremacy culture, such as that provided in Dismantling Racism’s dRWorksbook: perfectionism, sense of urgency (we must cover x number of chapters in x number of weeks), “worship of the written word”, “only one right way”, and individualism.

The Water We’re Swimming In

Given all this — a legacy of association with if not outright participation in white supremacist politics, a history of promoting a vision of Greco-Roman antiquity that erases the presence of non-white bodies while sanitizing enslavement and the effects of imperialism, a reluctance to confront the role of Classics and Classical education in the construction of white identity, the policing of a narrow definition of what properly constitutes the study of Greco-Roman antiuqity and how that study should be conducted — is it any wonder that Scientific American found that Classics has the lowest pecentage of African American Ph.D.s of almost any academic discipline, or that Dan-El Padilla Peralta’s analysis found that the most prestigious journals in the United States hardly ever publish scholars of color? Is it any wonder that only 3.5% of the students who take the Advanced Placement Latin exam in high school are black?  Is it any wonder that the National Latin Exam won’t even collect data on the demographics of those who take their test? And these figures do not begin to describe the marginalization — not to speak of blatantly racist harassment — that non-white Classical scholars experience as a matter of course throughout their professional lives in a discipline that, by and large, has ignored its history and continually reaffirmed its narrow self-defintion. The result is not just an impoverishment of our understanding of the ancient world but a moral failure to put ourselves, so belatedly, on the right side of history.

The title of the SCS Roundtable contained reference to both the past and future of Classics. With no shortage of past (and present) examples of complicity in white supremacy participants had little time to address the future. That is perhaps exactly what one would predict for a gathering of (mostly) white people who already know they have benefitted from this culture. And yet each paragraph above implies actions one can take. The length of this essay shows that Classics has a special relationship to white supremacy. Perhaps it can play a special role in dismantling it.

 

1) An earlier version of this essay repeated the false story of Wheatley’s “trial.” Thanks to Dr. Anise K. Strong for directing us to Joanna Brooks’ essay on Wheatley, which describes how Wheatley’s dependence on white women promoting her work forced her to focus her genius (and her knowledge of Classical literature) on serving the emotional needs of the dominant culture while eliding her own suffering as an enslaved person and three-time bereaved mother.

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