Category Archives: racism

97: Penny Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire

In Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, Penny Von Eschen locates radical black American thought within the larger tradition of politics of the African diaspora, and she traces the rise and fall of the relationship between the two in the decades surrounding WWII.  The international politics of the African diaspora (or the Black Atlantic) combined local struggles against racism and colonialism with a broad critique of imperialism.  International black leaders found support in Pan-Africanism, the Popular Front, labor movements in the US and the colonies, and a very vocal independent black press in the US; they viewed WWII as a unique opportunity to pursue their anti-colonial activism because they felt the racism and imperialism of the Axis powers would force the Allies to recognize and join their mission.  This international context for radical black American thought provides context for the Civil Rights movement while detaching race from its American context and reconfiguring it as the internal contradiction in global capitalism.

Von Eschen traces the rise of this international movement in the decade before WWII as an internationally coordinated project that was at once dedicated to eradicating local racisms and to fighting global capitalism.  After WWII, however, the movement began to decline.  In the US, the 1947 decision by the NAACP and major African American periodicals to stop criticizing Cold War policy because of anti-Communist sentiment dramatically reshaped the movement.  Critiques of US imperialism were replaced by a narrative of American exceptionalism, where the US was the legitimate leader of the “free world” and racism was an aberration, not a constituent element of capitalism or imperialism.  Further, the Americans replaced their international diasporic solidarity with paternalism toward “primitive” Africans, effectively erasing international ties with Africa.  The Cold War thus impeded decolonization efforts, disrupted black radicalism, and hindered the Civil Rights movement, all with devastating effects on black politics worldwide.

While Von Eschen might have overstated the dominance of radicalism in black American political thought, her integration of domestic thinkers and activists with an international movement to end racism by ending imperial capitalism provides much-needed context for the Civil Rights movement and the development of black American thought more generally.

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71: Frederick Hoxie’s A Final Promise

Frederick Hoxie’s A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 argues that the attitudes and goals of policy reformers, educators, and politicians involved in Indian assimilation at the turn of the century changed radically in 1900.  From 1880 to 1900, the assimilation campaign combined ethnocentric intolerance with a “racially optimistic” belief that Indians should and could fully assimilate with American culture; after 1900, this optimism shifted to a pessimistic view that Indians and other “backward” people could never become fully equal to whites.  By contextualizing assimilation policy within a broader context of social upheavals and reform at the turn of the century, Hoxie links this shift in policy to a growing pessimism in American culture about the value of racial diversity as a result of economic expansion, industrialization, immigration, and urbanization.  He argues that with social institutions straining to serve increasingly diverse populations, after 1900 the old goal of maintaining cultural homogeneity and equality was replaced by a new social order that connected race and ethnicity with economic class.  Assimilation from 1900 to 1920 thus meant assimilating into society as the other to American whiteness.

Sidenote: Hoxie calls his method an “ethnohistory of Indian policy,” and he connects legal decisions, contemporaneous anthropology, popular fiction, representations of Indians at the World’s Fair in 1893, and archival sources from government agencies and the Bureau of Indian Affairs into an interdisciplinary anthropological framework.  
The first assimilation phase, the “Dawes era,” started in 1879, hard on the heels of antislavery zeal and the failure of Reconstruction.  Land policies were designed to slow settler assaults on Indian lands, and the campaign itself emphasized egalitarianism.  Moves toward Indian citizenship and the development of an Indian education system indicated sincerity of the American “final promise” to compensate the victims of American expansion by giving them “full membership in a ‘civilized’ nation.”  However, this pledge only lasted a generation, and from 1900 to 1920 the rhetoric of assimilation was undermined by eased access to Indian lands and decreased funding for full assimilation.  Rather than full citizens, Indians became nominal citizens as well as fully-regulated wards of the state.
Ironically, if the Dawes era assimilation policies had been aggressively pursued, Indian cultures would have been all but obliterated – though setting Indians spatially outside the United States and forcing them to retain their traditional ways destroys their culture as well.  Hoxie doesn’t pursue this tension, nor does he include many Native American voices or provide a particularly nuanced account of why, exactly, 1900 is THE year.  He does, however, provide detailed discussion of assimilation policy throughout the whole period, and he shows how Native American policy became integrated into a larger project of statemaking in a newly diverse industrial society.

70: Eric Foner’s Reconstruction

Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 is a synthetic history of American Reconstruction that combines social, political, and economic aspects of Reconstruction into three overarching themes:

  • the centrality of black experience
  • the larger context of an emergent national state
  • the impact of social, political, economic, and moral developments in the North affected the course of Reconstruction in the South

A synthesis of “revisionist” scholarship on black experiences after slavery, Foner’s book clearly and consistently emphasizes the experiences, worldviews, interpretations, and actions of black Southerners across class lines.  He thus builds on the work of new social historians and continues WEB DuBois’ project in Black Reconstruction, which rewrote the history of the Reconstruction period by reframing black “debauchery” as white racism and a deliberate attempt to retain the power of white elites by discrediting freed blacks.  He also integrates “post-Revisionist” studies into his argument by showing how Reconstruction policies themselves were woefully inadequate, and thus the North, as well as the South, was complicit in the failure of the Reconstruction project.  Even though freed blacks were eager to take control of their working lives and many had millenial expectations of a post-racial society, white Southerners were so afraid of losing their disciplined workforce that they blocked land purchases, denied credit access, built exploitation into a new sharecropping system, and used violence to prevent freed people from exercising their newfound freedom.

Foner is careful to show that Reconstruction failed not because of class warfare, but because of racial conflict; poor whites aligned with white elites to oppress blacks in support of Republican “free labor ideology,” even though this move was against their own class interests.  He thus complements a detailed discussion of black community institutions and efforts to gain education and representation with an analysis of how fear of black assertiveness shaped both the postslavery system and the emergence of a new Republican party.  As Foner suggests, in the complex post-Civil War environment of Reconstruction, ‘perhaps the remarkable thing about Reconstruction was not that it failed, but that it was attempted at all and survived as long as it did.”

61: Alexander Saxton’s Rise and Fall of the White Republic

In The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, Alexander Saxton investigates a key question for historians of the antebellum era in America: how and why did a nation founded on principles of equality and democracy become so fraught with racial inequality?  To answer this question, he takes an “ideological” approach  to 19th century American history, in which he connects political ideas, economic and social practices, and cultural production and consumption into an emergent American worldview.  And by analyzing a variety of texts, from high political discourse to popular forms like blackface, dime novels, and American folk heroes, he shows that the development of a dominant capitalist ideology in nineteenth-century America was intimately tied to white racism.

Rise and Fall is framed around the rise and fall of different political parties in a three-stage dialectical process: the National Republicans or Whigs, whose emphasis on business-friendly hierarchy and racial hierarchy created a kind of structural “soft” racism; the Jacksonians, who combined active racism with the language of equal opportunity to create white populism; and the “Republican synthesis,” which supported both white populism and business-friendly tariffs, infrastructural development, and expansion policies.  Thus, the ideology of white racism developed out of elites’ need to vindicate themselves for profiting from the slave trade and slave labor within the new Republic’s democratic ideals.

Unlike Roediger, who argues that working class whites created racism as a way to feel better about their reduced economic and political power in early industrialization, Saxton argues that racism has a large top-down component: the populists use it to unite poor and rich whites into a single, popular class that erases white guilt for profiting off slavery.  Sean Wilentz hammers this difference home when he argues that Saxton never quite explains why white workers would act against their own class interests and participate in a Populist ideological project.  However, despite this very valid critique, Saxton’s book compliments Roediger’s by examining the process of racialization from an upper-class instead of a working-class position, and by showing that racism continued to operate in the US long after the need to justify slavery had been met because it helped solidify the power of various class coalitions.

60: David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness

In Wages of Whiteness, David Roediger argues that whiteness is an ideology that was constructed in the 19th-century, when working-class whites responded to the increased wage dependence, standardization, and discipline attached to the Industrial Revolution by separating themselves from blacks, demonizing them, and accepting the “public and psychological” value of whiteness as part of their wage.  The compensation of these “wages of whiteness” led to a kind of self oppression, which both made them willing to accept a lot more misery than they would otherwise have taken and kept them from organizing with black workers against their mutual exploitation.

This deceptively simple argument has several constituent parts, as Roediger pulls from an updated classical Marxism, new labor history, new social history, and theories of racism to delineate the development of whiteness and connect it to the formation of the working class in the early 19th century.  Critical to his argument is the expansion of Marxist theory to include race: he argues that race cannot be reduced to class, and that the two social categories work in dialectic with one another.  From the new labor/ new social history, he pulls the insistence that working class people are historical agents, not dupes controlled by capital, and that they are thus complicit in the construction of their own racism.  And he builds on existing theories of race, racism and slavery (most notably George Rawick) to show that racism developed as a response to early 19th-century capitalist development, of which slavery was a constituent part: nostalgia for a pre-industrial past, combined with frustration at their own proletarianization, resulted in white working-class racism and hatred toward black slaves as emblems of both preindustrial peasants and industrial capitalist workers.  From there, the step to racism as a constituent element of white working class identity was a small one.

The rest of the book includes two case studies that Roediger largely pulls from secondary sources: blackface minstrelsy as a way to provide an outlet for white racial tensions and frustrations; and the story of how the black Irish adopted racism against blacks to assume a white American identity.  In both cases, Roediger shows how racism both constructs and masks the blackness that is at the heart of whiteness.  While I was surprised to find that such an innovative and hugely influential thesis is built on secondary evidence and conjecture more than empirical research, I think the case studies illustrate Roediger’s argument well, and I really like his innovative use of developments in studies of race, slavery, and the working class that came out of the new social history.

59: George Rawick’s From Sundown to Sunup

In From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community,  George Rawick stresses the agency and relative autonomy of American slaves “from sundown to sunup” – those few hours when they weren’t expected to work the fields – to create the behaviors and institutions that helped them survive the oppression of slavery.

Rawick has two main theses.  First, he argues that black slaves developed an autonomous community outside of the white environment; this community was shaped by both their experiences in the US and their African heritage.  The backbone of this community was communication among slaves, which relied on travels of free blacks, reading of white newspapers, and the “interplantation” movement of the slaves themselves; it encouraged different levels of resistance, fostered a separate series of religious practices, and supported the continuity of the black family.  It also kept the slaves from having to become “Sambos.”

Second, he argues that there was a connection between the parallel emergence of slavery and capitalism.  I’m not sure I buy this argument, but Rawick claims that racism has European roots; black Africans were seen as rural peasants who represented a longed-for but unreachable past, and therefore slavery and racism were punishment meted out to blacks.  And then racism played an important role in the growth and continuity of slavery and in the development of American culture more generally.

From Sundown to Sunup was one of the earliest books on slavery that treated slaves as subjects and actors instead of as victims and objects; working from an assumption of subjectivity allowed him to create whole worlds based on slave narratives and psychological and psychological theories.  This focus on slaves as conscious, subjective actors also allowed Rawick to overturn two oversimplifying accounts of slave culture: Kenneth Stampp’s argument that slaves lived in a state of cultural chaos, unable to practice their African cultures and unable to understand American culture; and Stanley Elkins’ argument that slave personalities were almost entirely determined by their subordination to authoritarian masters.  Thus, while it suffers from the same lack of verifiable data as do other attempts to reconstruct slave culture (and in Rawick, this lack is particularly exacerbated because he uses slave narratives from the Civil War era to reconstruct slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries), the book still puts forward a theory of racism and a respect for slave subjectivity that continues to impact later works.

47: Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom

In American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, Edmund Morgan studies the social and political history of Virginia from the 1580s to about 1720, and he argues that the supposed political harmony and freedom in Virginia after 1730 was symbiotically related to the enslavement of black people – freedom and slavery didn’t just co-exist; they mutually constructed one another.

Apparently the trajectory of Virginia’s growth closely followed the pattern set out by Jack Greene in In Pursuit of Happiness: small and disorganized in Jamestown; then a tobacco boom starting in 1615, which creates huge disparities of wealth between planters and workers, as well as high mortality and increased individualism; then social stabilization from 1630 to 1680, when the mortality rate dropped and, despite Bacon’s Rebellion in 1670, elites centralized control; and then the increased substitution of slavery after 1680, which solved the problem of freed indentured servants wanting land and, through racism, created a bond between lower and upper-class whites.  And racism, combined with 18th century ideology of the common man and a dwindling number of non-landowning whites, froze social relations and neutralized dissent in a way that allowed elites to support freedom and slavery to be the thing that held freedom up.

This thesis – that freedom and exploitation are intertwined – seems like a pretty classic Marxist argument to me.  What Morgan adds to the equation is the development of racism as a consciously applied tool of capitalist exploitation.  I’m a little confused about how, exactly, racism comes about – do the elites invent it?  Do the roving bands of unemployed former indentured servants invent it?  Is is already in the air because of experience with Native Americans?  But regardless of origins, this idea of racism as a tool of economic oppression is now pervasive in whiteness studies, so maybe he’s on to something.