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Just Us

Three books examine American history through the scope of racism and racial identity.


“The history of the world,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1897, “is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history.” More than 100 years later, these words still resonate. While few scholars today would feel comfortable endorsing a single idea as the key to “all history,” most have been trained to view concepts like racism and racial identity as essential to a full understanding of a society’s cultural DNA. Three new books by Edward Blum, David Roediger and Ira Katznelson are part of a flourishing cottage industry in academia, examining, as Du Bois did, the enormous impact of race on American history.

Like most scholars of race relations in the late nineteenth century, Blum views the era of Reconstruction, stretching from the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865 to the departure of Northern troops from Southern soil in 1877, as a time of tremendous optimism, and ultimate tragedy, for the nation’s freed people. Change was in the air. Radical abolitionists were recognized for their foresight in opposing slavery, while black fighting men were hailed for their courage under fire. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments guaranteed African-Americans full citizenship, at least on paper. Indeed, it was Southern whites who stood apart from the national mainstream–their “outsider” status heightened by a galling refusal to blame themselves for the bloodshed or to punish those who had caused it.

Over time, however, the Northern urge to reform the South fell victim to political squabbling in Washington, a nationwide economic depression and endless violence against blacks who tried to exercise their newfound constitutional rights. Some historians believe that a more gradual Reconstruction, one that pursued less radical goals, might have succeeded. Others disagree, contending that the North’s commitment to civil rights was never strong enough to combat the fierce resistance of Southern whites to even the most modest gains by their former slaves. Either way, the advances of Reconstruction were quickly reversed, leaving Southern blacks powerless and segregated, unable to vote or to seek protection under the law.

Where does Blum stand? In his view, the pursuit of racial justice was swamped by an idyllic vision of national healing, based on restoring the white racial unity that had been torn asunder by the war. And those most responsible for this vision, he contends, were Northern Protestant ministers, evangelists and reformers who used their pulpits, revival tents and social crusades to “reforge” the broken white Republic. Whiteness soon became the national identity, white supremacy the national faith.

His examples are compelling. Most of us remember Harriet Beecher Stowe and her brother, the minister Henry Ward Beecher, as fiery abolitionists who mobilized Northern opposition to slavery. (Lincoln famously referred to Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as “the little lady who started the big war.”) But few of us, I suspect, are aware that Beecher spent his later years preaching “mercy” and “magnanimity” toward the defeated South in terms that would have made Margaret Mitchell blush, or that Stowe, who purchased a winter home in Florida, ended up spinning the virtues of Southern society to a generation of gullible Northern tourists. For her, writes Blum, “a new and ideal United States would be one in which northern and southern whites ruled benevolently and former slaves worked cheerfully in a naturally subservient status.”

They weren’t alone. Blum wonderfully includes Dwight Lyman Moody, a Massachusetts-born shoe salesman-turned-evangelist whose massive tent revivals, peppered with calls for sectional healing and racial segregation, swept the nation in the 1870s, spreading the belief, Blum notes, “that God desired peace among whites far more than justice for all citizens.” And Francis Willard, crusading president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, described her campaign as “the new abolition war, in which Northern and Southern bayonets point the same way.” Like Stowe, Beecher and Moody, the Northern-born Willard beseeched the Lord to heal the wounds inflicted upon white America by the Civil War. She, too, constructed a vision of white Southern goodness that ignored the realities of racial oppression.

Reforging the White Republic won the Southern Historical Association’s C. Vann Woodward Prize in 2004 for the best dissertation in Southern history. Like many newcomers seeking a niche, Blum is not averse to self-congratulation. “This book offers a completely new perspective on sectional relations and racial ideologies after the Civil War,” he writes in his introduction, noting a page later, for those who may have missed it, that his work “not only offers a new window into reconciliation and Reconstruction, but also challenges the bedrock assumption of nearly a century of religious historiography on the postbellum years.”

Well, not exactly. What Blum has done, with great skill, is add a new dimension to a familiar story. He reminds us of the enduring power of religion in public discourse–how it was used, in this instance, to bring feuding whites together on the basis of race. It’s a sad lesson, well worth remembering.

David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness is a more complex, yet ultimately less satisfying, book. Roediger, a history professor at the University of Illinois, starts his story around 1890, when the first wave of immigrants from Southern and Central Europe began to pour in to the United States. He shows that their assimilation into American society was a long, difficult process, meaning that a Jew or an Italian, for example, was not perceived to be, in historian Thomas Guglielmos’s words, “white on arrival.” Yet Roediger makes it clear that the obstacles encountered by these immigrants must never be compared with the oppression and exclusion suffered by those of African, Latino, Asian, or American Indian ancestry. Indeed, he argues, the incremental inclusion of the first group was shaped by the continued exclusion of the other.

For Roediger the huddled masses who swarmed through the gates of newly opened Ellis Island were in a kind of racial limbo–their status somewhere between that of a white American and a person of color. They were the “kikes” and “hunkies” and “greasers” whose odd-sounding dialects, alien cultural beliefs and assorted biological “weaknesses” made them dubious candidates for racial assimilation. With a keen eye for historical irony, Roediger sees the National Origins Act of 1924, the most restrictive piece of anti-immigrant legislation in our history, as a prime factor in moving this process forward. Strict quotas on immigration meant that Americans no longer had to worry about being overwhelmed. The trickle of newcomers after 1924 made European immigrants seem far less threatening. America would now transform the foreigner, rather than the reverse. Immigrants, at last, had become “digestible.”

The following decades completed this process. The two keys, Roediger says, were the rise of industrial labor unions, which provided white immigrants with economic and political clout, and new federal housing policies that encouraged them to reside in segregated neighborhoods–a process he describes as “perhaps the clearest example of the New Deal’s ‘whitening’ reforms.” The suburban house became “an important (white) American symbol,” he adds, “and the subsidized suburban home owner the quintessential social citizen.”

Roediger makes a strong case here. There is a vast gap between the despised, racially suspect immigrant of the 1890s and the proud white ethnic American we celebrate today. And bridging that gap required a whitening process that historians have often overlooked. The problem, however, is that most of Roediger’s immigrants are pawns in this drama, controlled by powerful forces–employers, politicians, union bosses, policy-makers–who manipulate them in ways designed to strengthen white nationalism and weaken racial reform. How these immigrants came to their own opinions about race and class, without reward or coercion, is less important to Roediger than demonstrating how such views were forced upon them. In his version, the immigrant is more a bystander than a participant.

This is not an easy book to read. Though Roediger thanks a dozen research assistants and numerous others for “expertly prepar[ing] the manuscript for submission,” the end result is cluttered, jargon-filled and confusing. A typical paragraph goes on for pages. Each is chock-full with six, eight, ten examples of a single theme, a virtual bombardment of redundant information. I can’t recall an author quite as devoted as Roediger to citing the work of so many colleagues–all positively–in the text itself. These include: “Anne McClintock’s challenging work on cleanliness,” “Michael Rogin’s exciting work on blackface in film,” “Ewa Morawska’s excellent quantitative study of Johnstown, Pennsylvania,” “Janice Okoomian’s fine studies of Armenian American women immigrants” and several hundred more. Identical phrases pop up with numbing regularity, leaving the impression that the book’s harassed editor simply threw in the towel. In the end, Roediger’s often shrewd insights are obscured by his vacuum-cleaner approach to history.

This is not the case with When Affirmative Action Was White, a gem of a book that favors brevity and precision. Ira Katznelson, a political scientist and historian at Columbia, understands the dilemma he faces. Opponents of affirmative action have captured the moral high ground by lining up to defend America’s most fundamental right: equal protection under the law. Meanwhile, those on his side have responded with puffy declarations about righting the wrongs of the past and encouraging “diversity” in the workplace or the classroom. What is needed, says Katznelson, is a better argument–a way to show white Americans that a direct relationship does exist between the recipient of affirmative action and the harm that is being remedied. And that’s where history comes into play.

Katznelson owes a large debt to other recent studies, particularly Lizabeth Cohen’s superb synthesis of citizenship and prosperity, A Consumers’ Republic. He begins with Lyndon Johnson’s magisterial address at Howard University in 1965. “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair,” the President declared, adding: “We seek not just freedom but opportunity…. not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” By then, Johnson was a devoted advocate of civil rights. Since this was not always the case, Katznelson uses LBJ’s remarkable transformation to show how Southern politicians helped craft social welfare legislation to benefit white men in particular, while insuring the continued subordination of blacks. The key decades were the 1930s and ’40s–the era “when affirmative action was white.”

Coming from the (then) one-party Democratic South, Congressmen like Johnson could dominate Capitol Hill by virtue of their seniority and use of the filibuster. Determined to preserve the “Southern way of life” (i.e., segregation and white supremacy), they used their leverage to threaten anyone bold enough to press for civil rights. “They will block every bill I need to keep America from collapsing,” a reticent Franklin Roosevelt admitted. “I just can’t take that risk.”

As Katznelson notes, it was Southern Democrats who helped craft the Social Security Act and the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (commonly known as the GI Bill). Though “colorblind” in language, these laws selectively excluded blacks from reaping the economic rewards they offered. The Social Security Act, for example, did not apply to predominantly black occupations in the South, such as domestic service and farm labor; worse, the eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance and Aid to Dependent Children rested with the states, leaving local white bureaucrats in control.

The GI Bill had a similar effect. While spectacularly successful in elevating white veterans into the burgeoning middle class, it did far less for black veterans, nearly all of whom had spent World War II in segregated units and most of whom had returned to the South, where their day-to-day lives did not seem much improved by the victory over Nazism. Southern blacks had a hard time using their education benefits because the vast majority of colleges in the region would not accept them as students. (Only 5 percent of the black colleges were formally accredited, says Katznelson, and not one “had a doctoral program or a certified engineering program.”) In addition, black veterans found it tougher to get a loan or a mortgage, or to find a realtor who would sell them a house. For black veterans, the GI Bill was certainly better than nothing. Yet as Katznelson makes clear, “the differential treatment meted out to [them]…significantly widened the country’s large racial gap.” Like Social Security, it mixed unprecedented largesse with devastating inequality. And there, says Katznelson, rests the specific racial harm to be remedied today.

How to achieve this is another matter. At the end of his book, Katznelson suggests a plan to “extend affirmative action in order to end it within one generation.” Equitable in theory, at least, it calls upon the government to find and compensate those (and their heirs) who were excluded from the federal entitlement programs of the 1930s and ’40s. In practice, however, it’s hard to imagine how such a plan could be run without a massive bureaucracy, endless cries of corruption and a mountain of racial ill will. For one thing, the number of people likely to identify themselves as the wounded heirs of domestic servants or farm workers or others denied a federal benefit would make a mockery, I suspect, of Katznelson’s “closely targeted program of corrective justice.” For another, history has shown that such programs, while often described as “transient,” “temporary” and “provisional,” inevitably take on a momentum of their own. In supporting the landmark Bakke decision, which allowed race to be used as a factor in determining admission to medical school, Justice Harry Blackmun noted: “The United States must and will reach a stage of maturity where action along this line is no longer necessary.” He wrote these words in 1978.

The great value of Katznelson’s book, then, lies in the specific and devastating patterns of discrimination it has uncovered, not in the remedies it provides to combat them. In large measure, Katznelson has done what he set out to do: sharpen the discourse surrounding affirmative action by showing how the most cherished social welfare legislation in American history dramatically increased the economic chasm between blacks and whites. Future debates on this subject should be a lot more substantive as a result.

Unlike so many issues that grab our attention and fade quickly from view, racial inequality remains stubbornly, painfully, in place. There is neither a quick fix for it nor a consensus about the best way to make it disappear. What is hoped, however, is that white Americans will come to see that the high-minded standard of racial neutrality demanded by current opponents of affirmative action ignores a history of discrimination that became subtler, but no less insidious, in the years following World War II. As Lyndon Johnson said forty years ago: “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

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