The Arrogance of Race
Reviewed by Jacob Howland
Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991, pp. 22-23
The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspective on Slavery, Racism, and Social Inequality. George M. Fredrickson (Wesleyan University Press, 1988. viii, p 310 pp.).
It is a nice touch that the tribute to C. Vann Woodward, as the ninth of seventeen essays in The Arrogance of Race, occupies the position of honor at the exact center of the book, for “The historian,” according to Fredrickson. “must contrive somehow to be in the stream and on the bank at the same time.” In that, Woodward succeeds because of his exemplary ability to fuse narrative, which focuses on “the particular, the concrete, the individual,” with interpretation and analysis. This attempt simultaneously to negotiate stream and bank requires of the historian “a lack of dogmatism, a refusal to allow his historical imagination to be fettered by an unchanging set of interpretive assumptions, and an openness to correction or revision.” These words of praise for Woodward describe Fredrickson’s own historical vocation and sensibilities as well.
Fredrickson weaves history by shuttling in illuminating ways between the particular and the general. The warp and woof of these essays (most of which have been published previously) are two distinct factors, “class” and “status” Fredrickson’s “dualist” or “interactionist” approach, unlike that of Marxist historians, make no a priori assumptions about me relation of stratifications rooted in economic power on the one hand, and in ethnic status and “honor” on the other By focusing on the dynamic interplay of class and status, the historian may “do justice to the complexities, ambiguities, and uncertainties of human experience.” This approach involves a commitment of fine-strained analysis, for conceptions of status and “honor” are especially complex and ambiguous, since they are socially determined and constantly changing. Abstract or theoretical models are useful to the historian as they draw attention to “peculiarities or deviations” that thus bring to light specifics of historical experience.
Fredrickson’s own “reverence for particularity,” a phrase he applies to Woodward, is amply evident in the contents of the present volume. The book’s first part includes a handful of essays that explore influential attitudes toward slavery and raceatthe time of the Civil War. In one, for example, “Masters and Mudsills.” Fredrickson carefully dismantles the view that repression and Negrophobia in the Old South were limited or softened by white paternalism. The remainder of the essays in this section employ a biographical approach and underscore Fredrickson’s conviction of the essential importance of narrative in historical writing. These chapters, which include studies of Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child, and Albion W. Tourgee are especially exciting, because in reading them one senses how the stream, the particularities, can shape the bank The complex character of Hinton Rowan Helper, whose book The Impending Crisis of the South, fed the fires of sectional controversy leading up to the Civil War, emerges with special force. Fredrickson explores the mixture of twisted envy, opportunism, and economic insight expressed in Helper’s “antislavery racism,” an attitude summed up in his credo “Death to Slavery! Down with the Slaveholders! Away with the Negroes!” Helper’s story is important because of the political impact of his widely distributed book which was endorsed by Horace Greeley and a number of Republican leaders, and because his attitudes illuminate his time.
The second part of The Arrogance of Race includes seven essays on “Historians of the Nineteenth Century South.” It includes a fine essay on “The Historiography of Slavery.” which emphasizes the significance of ties of marriage and obligations of extended kinship for slaves within the “totalitarian” institution of the plantation. Fredrickson suggests that “the threat of sales that could break up families may have been the most powerful device that the masters possessed to ensure discipline and economic performance.” While he stresses the limits of applying the concentration-camp model to the world of the plantation, this passage brings to mind the story Elie Wiesel tells in Night, about the Nazis’ exploitation of the Jews’ communal and familial bonds and traditional religious faith. Another essay on ‘The Triumph of Radical Racism’ considers Joel Williamson’s The Crucible of Race within the intellectual and literary tradition of “agonized southernism,” and points toward the limitations of the Hegelian concept of a “Volksgeist” as applied to both whites and blacks.
The third and final part counter-balances the first, and
the Woodward essay seems to serve as the book’s fulcrum. If the biographical essays of the first part view the bank from deep within the stream of particularities the comparative explorations of slavery and white supremacy in the third part observe the stream from the bank of general theory. This section includes an extremely interesting study of the social origins of American racism, in which Fredrickson asks: “To what extent was America really born racist.. and to what extent did it become so?” He argues that to a significant degree prejudice followed m the wake of slavery, and that white “societal racism–the treatment of blacks as if they were inherently inferior for reasons of race–dates from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a rationalized racist ideology did not develop until the nineteenth century.” The book concludes with an excellent study of the political foundations of segregation in the South and South Africa.
My only criticism of The Arrogance of Race concerns Fredrickson’s rather undiscriminating view of what constitutes racism. Fredrickson acknowledges that Reconstruction, “the most radical departure from white supremacy attempted anywhere in the nineteenth century,” was too radical; to enforce the new rights of the freedmen “would have required a concentration of national authority and efficient bureaucratic administration that was beyond the capacity of the American state in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century.” Lincoln appreciated the problem later underscored by the failure of Reconstruction:” blacks as men were entitled to equality, but whites were unalterably prejudiced against them and would never permit the actual attainment of equal rights.” Does this understanding of the vexed racial situation in America justify the conclusion Fredrickson offers in the next sentence, that for Lincoln “the Negro was,. a man but not a brother?”
Similarly, Fredrickson speaks of the “quasi-racism” expressed in Lincoln’s opinion that the systematic oppression of slavery had “clouded the intellects of blacks, and regards Lydia Child’s remark that “it would take generations for freed blacks to shake off the degradation and bad habits engendered by slavery” as “insufferably condescending and paternalistic.” In another context, Fredrickson warns against “a new ‘racism,’ based on the concept of ‘cultural deprivation.'” Yet the essential point of Lincoln’s and Child’s opinions, however distasteful they may seem to our current sensibilities, is that democratic citizenship requires a certain kind of education and training, and that the political culture of slavery (like that of communism, or fascism) provides a very different sort of training.
Richard Wright observed in Black Boy that “clean, positive tenderness, love, honor, loyalty and the capacity to remember” are not native with man, but must be “fostered, won, struggled and suffered for, preserved in ritual from one generation to another.” Is it racism, or realism, to recognize that the same is true of the habits of independence and responsibility that alone can sustain a democratic political community?
Jacob Howland teaches philosophy at the University of Tulsa.