Electronic Reserve Text: Excerpt from Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic, New York: Verso, 1990.
Introduction: Historical Explanations of Racial Inequality
This study in nineteenth-century political and cultural history is directed to the problem of ideology and change. Its focus is on a single but extended relationship--that between white racial domination in the United States and ideas and attitudes about race. My purpose is not to produce another intellectual history of racial thought, but to trace the continuity and modification of a major ideological construction. Three assumptions govern the sequence. They are that a theory of white racial superiority originated from rationalizations and justifications of the slave trade, slavery and expropriation of land from non-white populations; that this theory continued to hold a central place in various syntheses of ideas legitimizing power because it continued to meet justificatory needs of dominant groups in the changing class coalitions that have ruled the nation; and that these legitimizing syntheses, including specific constructions within them, remained in flux through ongoing processes of modification and readjustment. This book explores these assumptions within the time span of the nineteenth century.
Explore may be less presumptuous than demonstrate. What I intend by it is an effort to integrate the starting assumptions into a set of plausible and economical explanations for known developments, which I take to be the closest one can come to demonstrating causality in history. Limitation to the nineteenth century seemed advisable on two grounds. First, the complexity of carrying this inquiry into the twentieth century is large enough to warrant a separate project; and second, although these assumptions apply in part to an era before 1800, they have been more widely accepted for eighteenth-century America and therefore have been more fully elaborated. It is the explanation of continuity that remains tenuous
[2 The Rise and Fall of the White Republic]
because, since it has not been widely accepted (scholars generally having relied on economic competition or psychological factors to explain the continuity of white racism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), it has not been tried out over any long span of American history.
The motivations that led to this study certainly were less abstract than my statement of its topic. Experience as an industrial worker and labor unionist faced me with perceptions of the centrality of race and racism in American society. Later, when I became a historian, I fixed the effort to arrive at some historical understanding of race as my chief goal. The project of the book, then, will be to bring together a viable historical explanation of the origin, and especially the continuity, of racial inequality in the United States. Why I see this as a study in ideology I will attempt to make clear in the remainder of this introduction.
For a book that focuses on racism and racial domination, terminology presents a special problem. In principle, any people to whom historical experience has imparted a shared identity ought to be known by whatever name they choose to give themselves. Yet there is no escape from the underlying problem, which is that the scars of racial subordination continue to mark any set of terms we select. The terms I have used - aside from the obvious designations of nationality and origin--are African American, American Indian, Euro-American and Mexican American. The latter remains appropriate for the late nineteenth century even though it may no longer be so for the late twentieth. Black and white I have used generally as adjectives. In treating the central subject matter, white racism, it has often been necessary to speak of Europeans or Euro-Americans in juxtaposition to those `others' who were the targets of racist ideology. The `others' were in effect the remainder of the population of the world. I refer to them in this context as peoples of color, or simply as non-whites.
Contemporary literature on race falls mainly into the categories of histories of ideas about race,' narrative or descriptive accounts of how race prejudice works, social surveys of its impact, and polemics against it. Awareness of a need for historical explanation is relatively recent. Until about the third decade of the present century, most people in the so-called western world, including most social scientists and historians, took for granted the hereditary inferiority of non-white peoples. Differential treatment required no special explanation so long as it could be understood as a rational response to objective reality in the same way that differential treatment of women and children was supposedly so understood.
Nineteenth-century racial doctrine began to be challenged during the
first decade of the twentieth century. That critique took more than a generation and is probably not yet fully completed. It was only when racist doctrine showed signs of crumbling under the impact of scientific criticism and political and economic changes throughout the United States - indeed, around the world - that the differential treatment of non-whites came up for scrutiny as a phenomenon requiring special attention. Even then, causal explanations of racism had low priority because it was still assumed that exposure of the falsity of racist doctrine would automatically explain the differential treatment of non-whites as the result of misunderstanding or ignorance. This was the outlook, initially at least, that informed the Carnegie Corporation's `comprehensive study of the Negro in the United States', launched in 1937 under the direction of the Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal.2
The Carnegie report lies fifty years behind us, yet the gravitational field of that massive enterprise has influenced virtually everything since written on the subject of race in the United States. For this reason it offers a logical starting point from which to begin a survey of historical explanations of racial inequality. Myrdal's explanation ran roughly as follows: Africans in North America were not at first treated differentially. Their status approximated that of European indentured servants. But as black servants `gradually were pushed down into chattel slavery while the white servants were allowed to work off their bonds, the need was felt, in this Christian country, for some kind of justification above mere economic expediency and the might of the strong.' A rationalization was constructed, mainly from the Old Testament. Africans had descended from Noah's son Ham, whose progeny had been cursed, and blackened, by God, and so forth. As these figments of religious mythology wilted under eighteenth-century Enlightenment scrutiny, there came a shift - disastrous for the Africans - from `theological to biological thinking'. Given the new premise that human beings belonged to the `biological universe', it was `natural' for `the unsophisticated white man' to arrive at the opinion that blacks were biologically inferior.'
In America, this opinion contravened what Myrdal called the "American Creed"--a composite of values of liberty, equality and civility derived from the enlightenment, from Christianity, and from English Common Law--which, in his view, served as a collective conscience or superego for the American nation. The title of his study, American Dilemma, referred to the dichotomy of between this set of values and actual treatment of Africans, for here the "Creed" operated in a "double dirction"--on the one hand forbidding inequitable treatment of any human being, while on the other requiring dehumanization of the black victims to justify the departure, in their case, from its proclaimed values. "Race prejudice" was needed "for defense on the part of the Americans against their own
Thus racism proliferated, not only with the expansion of slave-based cotton culture before the Civil War; but afterwards as a rationale for the `caste system' that became the `social organization of Negro-white relations'. Racist beliefs were seemingly verified in everyday experience. African Americans did in fact fall below whites in social and economic status, in health, in life expectancy. Myrdal stressed the cumulative effects of deprivation and `the early conditioning of the Negro child's mind by the caste situation'. Whites perceived these stigmata not as the wounds of imposed poverty, but as proofs of biological inferiority.' Were they `deliberately deceiving' themselves? `Our hypothesis', Myrdal explained, `is that the beliefs are opportunistic and have the "function" to defend interests.' Whose interests? The next sentence specified the interests of the `ordinary American'; while an earlier section had described `Negroes and the poor whites' as `placed in an intensified competition'. Myrdal then quoted a Swedish proverb: "`When the feed box is empty the horses will bite each other."' Yet the concept of competition did not lead him to a conclusion that non-whites and working class or immigrant whites were equally badly off. `The Negroes are set apart, together with other colored peoples, principally the Chinese and Japanese . ... Considerable efforts are directed toward "Americanizing" all groups of alien origin. But in regard to the colored peoples, the American policy is the reverse. They are excluded from assimilation."
Myrdal's collaborator, Ashley Montage, went beyond Myrdal in contending that economic stress unleashed accumulated resentments that might cause aggression against racial minorities as well as others. This argument was based in part on the psychoanalytic theory of infant deprivation which had already become a standard feature in studies of prejudice. As Montage outlined it, separation from `the nipple, the mother's body, uncontrolled freedom to excrete and to suck' thwarted `expected satisfactions'. Frustration led `to fear, to hatred and to aggressiveness', which `must in one way or another find expression -"Race" hatred and prejudice merely represent familiar patterns of the manner in which aggressiveness may express itself."
Myrdal's and Montage's arguments are ideological in that they place white racism as a necessary cause for the differential treatment of nonwhites. Racism they explain as the rationalization of an exploiting group. Neither Myrdal nor Montage noted, apparently, that this argument might be criticized as circular: a system of ideas and attitudes that allegedly causes differential treatment of non-whites is said to originate as a result of such differential treatment. Both authors believed that racism, once it came into existence, would not only perpetuate itself but continue to reproduce similar patterns of behavior. Since this explanation involves a
time span of several centuries, the authors attempted to bolster their construction by using additional factors (economic competition, frustration-aggression) to explain the continuing vigor of the original ideology. These additions, however, undermined the main argument because the added factors seemed to run counter to the starting assumption. An ideological argument, for example, must assume or demonstrate that racism exists because it serves the needs of an exploiting class or group; whereas the competition argument attributes racism to an exploited lower class. Or again, the ideological argument has racism serving socio-economic or political needs of an exploiting class, while frustration-aggression arguments stress a set of factors centering on the psychodynamics of individual personalities, presumably irrelevant to class situation. Moreover, frustra- non-aggression theory makes the victim extraneous to the generation of hostility. If racism is equated to other forms of internally generated, irrational prejudice it could focus as well on Catholics, Jews or Ulstermen as on African Americans. Frustration-aggression thus tends to undercut the interpretation of racism as a product of the rationalizing of slavery and imperialism to which Montagu as well as Myrdal had assigned priority.
Myrdal and Montagu both ended their examinations on notes of
ameliorative optimism. Montagu concluded by assigning to education the
keys to the future, a prognosis unfortunately negated by his ideological
and psychological interpretations of racism.9 When Myrdal's report was
published at the end of the Second World War the world situation was
one in which the United States found itself competing for the allegiance
of the world's largely non-white peoples. Racism was becoming dysfunc-
tional, internationally at least. Myrdal invoked the 'American Creed' for
his finale. America at last must reject racial favoritism in the name of
liberty, equal opportunity, and due process of law.10 It would be difficult
to pinpoint more precisely the central contradiction of MyrdaI's study.
While racism, especially as manifested in earlier centuries, is dealt with
in the blunt language of dominance and exploitation, the American Creed
- relied upon to right the wrongs of racism - is handled throughout in
the non-ideological terminology of abstract idealism.11
These contradictions and gaps in the work of Myrdal and Montagu are
themselves illuminating since they point to logical difficulties that have
proved recurrent. Thus the dilemma of the circular argument; the prob-
lem of joining supplementary to long-range argument; and the disjunc-
ture between psychological and either economic or ideological explication
continue to appear in the literature on racial subordination. Beyond that,
and more importantly, the report managed to identify major strategies
that would dominate the complex debates it helped set in motion. Those
strategies - economic, psychological and ideological - provide a con-
venient frame of reference for discussion of more recent work. The last
[6 The Rise and Fall of the White Republic]
of these three strategies - the ideological - might be taken as a subset of
the first; that is, ideological explanations are economic in derivation since
their starting concept is that of a collective rationalization of class or
group interest. In what follows, however, I will separate ideological from
economic explanations because the introduction of collective conscious-
ness as part of the apparatus of class domination adds such different
dimensions to economic explanation as to comprise a distinct category.
The simplest form of economic explanation for the differential treatment
of racial minorities is the argument from job competition. Two groups of
workers compete for a limited supply of jobs; the less established undercut
the more established, who respond with efforts to ostracize and exclude
their competitors. Ostracism and exclusion are accompanied by expres-
sions of distaste and hostility. If the more established have access to politi-
cal power they may be able to give their exclusionary efforts the sanction
of law. This argument has the effect either of obscuring racism as a factor,
or of reducing it to the sort of rational 'economic' resentment that in
America has often been directed against recent European immigrants, or
against strikebreakers, or both. It tends to exonerate members of the
excluding group from charges of bias or bigotry, since the existence of job
competition is clearly not their fault and they can hardly be blamed for
protecting their economic interests. For these reasons it is likely to be
invoked by representatives of organized labor, as well as by their liberal
or radical sympathizers. The argument of course may be applied to either
ethnocultural or racial minorities, its major weakness being the inability
to distinguish between the two. Thus, while satisfactorily explaining dif-
ferential treatment of minorities as such in reference to a dominant
majority, it cannot explain how a Chinese minority, for example, might
be treated differently from an Irish minority.12
The simple model summarized above has generated complex varia-
tions. One of these is split labor market theory, which provides a concep-
tual framework for examining and comparing racial, ethnic and gender
separations in the labor force in industrializing or postindustrial
~societies.13 Labor markets in the United States have generally been split
into more than two segments. Most European immigrants worked their
way out of disadvantaged split labor market situations within two or three
generations, a time span sufficient to equalize their cultural and economic
'resources' with those of the dominant group. The experience of non-
white workers, by contrast - whether native-born or immigrant - has been
distinctly different because racial hostility precluded any such equaliza-
tion. Split labor market theory, no better equipped to offer an autonomous
explanation for this racial differentiation than the original job competition
model, must necessarily begin with some particular market, and usually
begins by assuming a certain level of racism as one of the historically given
conditions of that market.14
Another variation on the job competition argument has gained some
celebrity through the work of free market economists like Thomas
Sowell.15 Job competition here becomes, not the source of discriminatory
treatment, but the arena through which disadvantaged minorities win
redress. African Americans are indeed heavily disadvantaged, in Sowell's
presentation - less, however, because of white hostility than because their
rural and slave past impoverished their cultural and economic resources.
Yet in this respect they differ little if at all from European immigrants of
rural background, some of whom, especially Irish and southern Italians,
had suffered comparable deprivations.16 All racial and ethnic minorities
(generally lumped together under ethnic) have achieved some upward
mobility in America and in so doing have encountered ethnocentric resis-
tance from the dominant society. Such resistance seems to be conceptual-
ized in this argument as a set of fixed obstacles like mountain ranges that
all newcomers must somehow find their way across. Varying rates of suc-
cess at surmounting these obstacles are partly dependent on the cultural
and economic resources of the several minorities; primarily, however, they
depend upon the workings of the free market in an expanding economy.17
Not only did that market in times past offer openings of some sort to
all comers, but it served also to cancel out the competitive disadvantages
of minorities. Thus nineteenth-century European immigrants of rural
origin, only marginally employable because they lacked industrial skills
and work disciplines, might nonetheless find jobs at substandard wages
and overstandard hours while their children supplemented the family in-
come by working in factories. Any who found themselves marginalized
by irrational prejudice could follow the same route. High though the
individual cost might be, upward mobility for the group as a whole was
achieved. That, in Thomas Sowell's view at least, is how the labor market
once worked. Alas, it no longer remains as free as it was then. Impedi-
ments such as wage and hour laws, social security, unnecessarily long years
of education - together with standardized criteria for hiring and promo-
tion imposed by social reformers or by corporate, union and government
bureaucrats - have bogged the market down. For African Americans, most
of whom entered urban areas and commenced industrial employment only
in the mid-twentieth century, the door to upward mobility that once stood
open for their European predecessors has been slammed shut. Presumab-
ly, the prospects for disadvantaged minorities would be as bright as ever
should the market ever be liberated from its welfare fetters.18
[8 The Rise and Fall of the White Republic]
The thrust of the sequence just summarized is to attribute differential
treatment of African Americans to departures from free market principles
(chattel slavery, followed by enslavement to the welfare state), and to
minimize white racism as a causal factor by stressing the similar situations
of African Americans and pre-industrial European immigrants. Yet that
similarity of situation rests upon an assertion that African Americans
entered urban labor markets only in the mid-twentieth century.19 While
for a majority this may in fact be true, it is also true that some African
Americans reached urban industrial areas as early as the 1840s. En-
countering ferocious white resistance, they were generally excluded from
industrial labor because of that resistance in conjunction with the abun-
dant availability of European immigrants. Had their reception been more
favorable, it seems likely that more black Americans would have moved
into industrial labor much sooner than they actually did. The circumstan-
ces foreclosing such a move (white resistance, employer preference for
European immigrants, selective federal migration policies) were themsel-
ves involved in white racism - which, having been expelled from the
visible equation, reasserts itself in the necessary historical context.
The free market version of economic explanation, then, although
doubtless serving political sympathies opposite to those of the liberal, or
even radical, job competition and split labor market versions, nonetheless
shares with them an incapacity to effectively exclude white racism as a
causal factor, or to explain it autonomously, without recourse to non-
economic linkages. Subsuming racial within ethnic, such arguments direct
their inquiry solely to the differentiation of minorities from the general
population, neglecting the differentiation of racial minorities both from
the general population and from ethnic minorities. If this simplification
corresponded to reality, one would anticipate that non-white Americans
after two or three generations would have found their way into the skilled
trades, supervisory positions, union leadership, small business and local
politics, as European immigrants generally have done. Since this was by
no means the pattern, at least before the Second World War, economic
explanations per se cannot account for the differential treatment of racial
minorities. They can of course serve as auxiliaries to larger explanatory
constructions. In that case they posit the pre-existence of racism as part
of the environment within which immediate economic factors operate.
Of the several strategies for explaining the differential treatment of racial
minorities, the psychological is the most prolific and multifaceted.
Psychological explanations, which usually stand at a distance from ques-
tions of class or socio-economic power, can fit harmoniously into either
the consensus or progressive variety of American national consciousness;
and this doubtless is a reason for their popularity. Two distinct types of
psychological strategy have appeared. One seeks its answers in the
presumed psychic and cultural deficiencies of racial minorities. The other
seeks them in hypothetical tensions within the collective and individual
psyches of the white majority.
The first type, well represented by the work of Nathan Glazer at Har-
vard, begins with the historical delineation of an American character
reminiscent of Myrdal's 'American Creed'. Thus the 'American orien-
tation' is said to be toward openness and liberality, and against bigotry
and prejudice. For this reason, the Anglo-American melting pot never
totally succeeded in reducing the long succession of newcomers in
America. What resulted was neither ethnic homogeneity nor cultural
pluralism, but something in between. Minorities shared a common ex-
perience through willing acceptance of certain basic ingredients in the
culture: language, interest group politics, upward mobility. Americanized
but not homogenized, each group emerged 'beyond the melting pot',
transfigured from what it had been, yet retaining unique characteristics
that comprised a continuing matrix for group identification. Ethnicity
could then replace class as the dynamic of an intergroup politics combin-
ing the realism of self-interest with the more generous, value-oriented
ties of cultural affinity. Even the old conflict between minorities and
Anglo-American dominance would eventually fade away as WASPs be-
came one more minority in the multi-ethnic society of the future.20
Thus far no distinction has been made between ethnic and racial
minorities. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that racial minorities
have fared less well in America than European immigrant minorities, and
the familiar question confronts us: why? The argument turns at this point
to a second historical proposition, specifically that American slavery in-
flicted psychocultural damage on African Americans that extended far
beyond those generations actually exposed to slavery. The historical
wounds are then said to reappear in the incapacity of adult black males
to function as heads of families, thus leading to a self-perpetuating
downward spiral of social pathology:
The experience of slavery left as its most serious heritage a steady weakness in
the Negro family. There was no marriage in the slave family... no possibility of
taking responsibility for one's children .... What slavery began, prejudice and
discrimination, affecting jobs, housing, self-respect, h~ave continued to keep
alive .... This is the situation in the Negro community; it will be the situation
for a long time to come.21
For a long time to come, also (if we extend Glazer's premise to its
[10 The Rise and Fall of the White Republic]
apparent corollary), African Americans will be treated differentially rela-
tive both to the population as a whole and to ethnic minorities because
of the negative characteristics presumably implanted long ago by slavery
and transmitted culturally from generation to generation. The ultimate
blame of course is placed on slavery. But nothing can be done about that
now; nor can much be done to alter differential treatment of black
Americans if such treatment is believed to result from pathological
deficiencies seen as self-perpetuating in African-American culture.
Obviously, it would not be difficult to construct parallel sequences for
other racial minorities using similar models. The conclusions suggested
by such beginnings seem not very different from the standard conclusions
of old-fashioned radsm. Ironically, they enter scholarly discourse as the
purported findings of an interdisciplinary analysis that rejects racism and
expresses keen sympathy for its victims. Leaving aside these conclusions,
however, the entire construction remains flawed by the failure of historical
evidence to sustain it.
America's supposed openness to newcomers throughout most of its
history has been racially selective. By the time of Jefferson and Jackson
the nation had already assumed the form of a racially exclusive democracy
- democratic in the sense that it sought to provide equal opportunities
for the pursuit of happiness by its white citizens through the enslavement
of African Americans, extermination of Indians, and territorial expansion
at the expense of Indians and Mexicans. If there was an 'American
orientation' to newcomers it was not toward giving equal opportunity to
all but toward inviting entry by white Europeans and excluding others. It
is true that the United States absorbed a variety of cultural patterns among
European immigrants at the same time that it was erecting a white
supremacist social structure. Moderately tolerant of European ethnic
diversity, the nation remained adamantly intolerant of racial diversity. It
is this crucial difference that has been permitted to drop from sight.::
A shortage of historical evidence similarly undercuts the concept of a
psychocultural deficit imposed by slavery. Since its original formulation
in 1959 this proposition has been examined and re-examined. A phalanx
of distinguished scholars, who agree perhaps on little else, has
demonstrated beyond much possibility of doubt that African Americans,
under slavery and afterward, created a distinct, partially autonomous cul-
ture including a viable and enduring family structure. That critique has
reduced the credibility of the psychocultural deficit argument to a vanish-
The second main tendency of psychological explanation has sought to
avoid the neo-racist implications of the first by focusing on psychological
aspects of the dominant culture. The trend goes back to Gordon Allport's
Prqudice and especially to Theodor Adorno's classic study, The Authori-
tarian Personality. It goes far beyond these earlier works, however, in its
reliance on Freudjan theory to explain not merely why certain personality
types might be receptive to prejudice; but why hatreds directed specifi-
cally against Mrican Americans and American Indians have found mass
acceptance among the white population of the United States. The
pioneering work of this tendency was certainly Winthrop Jordan's White
Jordan, like Myrdal and Montagu, has made racism the keystone in his
account of the differential treatment of African Americans. His task is to
find the originating and continuing causes of white racism. Jordan shows
that in Elizabethan England blackness and darkness were widely used as
symbols of evil, whiteness and light as symbols of virtue and wisdom.
Treason, betrayal, murder, were black deeds. The carnal instincts, par-
ticularly sensuality, were dark. So were things repulsive such as excrement;
and Jordan here hints at the Freudian concept of anality. He then develops
a complex argument in which these associations, operating metaphorical-
ly, serve to explain the enslavement of black Africans on one hand and
the extermination of red American Indians on the other. His argument
runs as follows: the English, when they colonized America, began to
enslave Indians because they were dark-skinned, savage - and available;
but they did not go far in this direction because, since Indians were not
black, they did not meet the needs of the English psyche for the symbol
Yet Indians did meet another symbolic need that required a different
role for them: by being driven off the land, they demonstrated the English
dedication to civilization and rational progress. Africans, by contrast, sym-
bolized the carnal instincts - those internal enemies of civilization whose
domain included sexuality, the womb, excrement - having always to be
hugged close yet kept under rigid control. '... Indians and Africans rapidly
came to serve as two fuced points from which English settlers could tri-
angulate their own position in America; the separate meanings of Indian
and Negro helped define the meaning of living in America'. Indian exter-
mination and African enslavement are thus derived from subjective needs
of the English psyche?
Jordan's psychological and intellectual interpretations are sometimes
brilliant and always interesting. The basic problem with his presentation
is not a paucity of information or shortage of historical evidence, but
rather a priori assumptions that govern his e~aluation of causes. Fully
aware of the military, economic and political factors favoring African over
Indian enslavement, and which eventually favored African slavery over
European indenture, Jordan dismisses such factors as insufficient. Only
subjective factors are brought forward as the decisive ones. Masters
refrained from enslaving their European indentured servants, Jordan
[12 The Rise and Fall of the White Republic]
writes, not because they lacked the power to do so, but because they 'did
not believe themselves so empowered'. And of the original decision to
enslave Indians and Africans rather than Europeans, he comments that
'to ask such questions is to inquire into the content of English attitudes'.26
Certainly this is not the place for a critique of Freudian theory, but it
is worth noting that Jordan and other psychohistorians dealing with white
racism rely on segments of that theory - anality, for example, or infant
deprivation - as if they were bedrock. Some of us, on the other hand, may
feel that formulations that invoke presumed instinctual drives are vul-
nerable to criticism and that a willingness to take them as universals of
human behavior tends to subvert historical thinking. Yet the major dif-
ficulty presented by Freudjan theory for historical explanation is at a
simpler level. It is, to put it bluntly, that of credibility.
Doubtless one of the special conditions confronting all psychohis-
torians is that so much of their material is metaphorical - as illustrated in
Jordan's treatment of white-black symbolism. Every external action then
becomes a metaphor for internal processes that are alone the real causes
of historical events. These internal processes, however, can only be known
by decoding the external actions metaphorically. Since metaphor is in-
definitely expansible in its range of meanings, the psychohistorian remains
at liberty to tap in at any level that suits the needs of the argument.
Another difficulty inherent in the notion of symbolic acting out of
inner tensions is the gap between the psyche allegedly experiencing the
tensions and the human beings who presumably act them out in history.
Jordan attempts to bridge this gap by assuming a collective psyche to
which the techniques of psychoanalytic theory can be applied. Since that
collective psyche does not yet exist, it has to be constructed by the his-
torian. There is then no great difficulty in achieving symmetry between
the collective psyche-as-constructed and the resultant historical actions;
but the construction itself lacks much in the way of evidential validation.
Like a work of fiction, it must depend upon its power to induce the willing
suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.
Most other psychohistorians have avoided this particular dilemma by
using the form of the biographical study. Given a prolific public figure
such as the young Luther, or Andrew Jackson, abundant evidence is likely
to be available upon which to base an interpretation of the individual
psyche.27 But how to get from the tensions of that psyche to the actions
~of people in history? There appear to be two possible routes. One posits
the subject of study as a representative figure whose inner dynamics
typified those of his contemporaries. The other places him as a creator,
a kind of culture hero, who publicly acted out symbolic resolutions that
masses of fellow citizens could then internalize as their own. Not only are
these routes conceptually contradictory, but it is difficult to demonstrate
the actuality of either, let alone distinguish between them. Again, the
reader is left to accept, or reject, the psychohistorian's creative intuition.
It is true of course that epistomological questions may be raised with
respect to any mode of historical explanation. But the difficulties seem
exceptionally severe for psychohistory because of its assumption that real
causes are psychic ones that can be approached only through metaphorical
interpretation of external actions.
In constructing explanations for the differential treatment of racial
minorities, Myrdal and Montagu began with an ideological formulation,
then shifted ground to economics and psychology. Direct economic ex-
planation, however, turned out to be incapable of standing by itself; while
the two main trends of the psychological approach have either
retrogressed to neo-racist polemics or become locked into the metaphors
of psychohistory. Ideological strategy remains; but ideological explanation
has suffered from so bad a name in the not very distant past that scholars
often felt obliged to repudiate its influence, as did Winthrop Jordan when
he wrote that to describe racism as 'merely the rationalizing ideology of
the oppressor' was to 'advance a grievous error'.2s There are, of course,
ideological reasons why ideological interpretation stood in disrepute.
Most basic among them is simply the obverse of the reason suggested
earlier as to why the psychological approach has been so widely accepted:
ideological interpretation does not fit harmoniously into either the con-
sensus or progressive varieties of American national consciousness be-
cause it stems from a class analysis of historical change. The Cold War
intensified that lack of harmony to the point of driving ideological inter-
pretation underground in American academic and intellectual circles.
As the Cold War itself went underground, ideology gradually found
its way to the surface again. Its return to visibility was heralded by the
widely influential work of the historian Bernard Bailyn and the
anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Both gave central billing to ideology; yet
these scholars in different ways stripped the ideological concept of most
of its class linkages. The actual reuniting (in America, at least) of ideology
with class analysis, resulted from - or coincided with - publication of the
prison writings of the Italian Communist AntOnio Gramsci, and their
extraordinary impact in Europe and the United States. Post-Gramscian
ideology, however, differs from the ideology of many earlier Marxists or
even from that of the Frankfurt scholar Karl Mannhelm. The concept has
become at once broader and less optimistic.
It is less optimistic because it has abandoned the Enlightenment belief
[14 The Rise and Fall of the White Republic]
in self-evident social truths that need only the ripping away of obscuran-
tist ideology to be revealed to universal perception.29 At the same time,
the older, limited notion of ideology as willful distortion of reality has
yielded to a broader concept of 'principles, programs and goals' through
which a particular class strives, in Gramsci's phrase, to achieve hegemony
- to impose 'its values and attitudes', its sense of direction, on the society
it dominates or hopes to dominate.30 Since literature and art as well as
socialization, education and political debate furnish the substance of
ideological construction as so conceived, studies of that construction must
cope with a vast terrain. As applied to the differential treatment of non-
white peoples in American history, it is not surprising therefore that
ideological explanations remain scattered and fragmentary. So far there
has been no single study of the problem as a whole. Nonetheless it is not
difficult to piece together a summary of what presently exists by way of
definition and explanation.
1. Racism is the pivotal concept for the ideological argument. It is defined
as a system of beliefs and attitudes that ascribe central importance to real
or presumed racial differences. Physical differences between groups may
be easily visible and are certainly real, but racism reaches beyond them
to assert that moral, intellectual and psychological qualities are also ra-
cially characteristic; that they are transmitted, along with physical traits,
by heredity; and that these together constitute a major chain of historical
causation. Racism is thus fundamentally a theory of history. Like other
theories or systems of beliefs and attitudes, such as liberalism or
nationalism, it exists as a phenomenon in history, capable of explication
in terms of historical causation.31
2. Racism entered history as a product of that complex sequence of
events, which about the middle of the fifteenth century impelled peoples
of Western Europe to an outward surge of exploration, conquest and
exploitation. Since these events accelerated the accumulation of capital,
they set the stage for the capitalist industrial revolution in Europe.
3. Thus the same sequence that led to expansion gave to western
Europeans long-sustained advantages in social and economic organization
!nd in industrial and military technology. By the end of the nineteenth
century, European empires controlled most of the earth.
4. Since Europeans are generally white-skinned, while the peoples they
encountered are generally dark, for three and a half centuries basic human
relationships centered on the domination of whites over people of color.
5. Racism has stemmed from the appearance of social reality. It expanded
into a rationalization and a means of justifying and perpetuating that
reality. Rationalization began with speculative accounts of the divine
origins of white Christian civilization. As European thought shifted from
a religious to scientific orientation, racism assumed the form of a scientific
6. Linked to the beginnings of the social sciences, racism became part of
that massive synthesis of physical, biological and historical explanation
that nineteenth-century science bequeathed to humanity. It then con-
fronted every informed person, white or non-white, in the dual guise of
existing social reality and established scientific knowledge. Each in-
dividual, although perhaps rejecting certain moral or political implica-
tions of racism, remained powerless to dispute its standing as social reality
and scientific truth.
7. Racism retained its prominence until the early twentieth century, when
the combined effects of scientific criticism and of historical changes that
it was incapable of explaining began to undermine its foundations. Even
then it continued a vigorous existence within the cultures and institutions
of predominantly white societies. The institutional embodiment, as a kind
of residual class base, has generated continuing endeavors to reestablish
its earlier claims to scientific credibility.
There are obvious gaps in this sequence. One is the already familiar
proclivity to circular argument. Thus it might appear in Point 5 that
racism is simultaneously cause and result of the differential treatment of
non-whites? Ideological explanation understands social behavior as ul-
timately moved by consciousness of class or group interests. Morality then
centers on definitions and interrelationships attributed to self (as the
necessary locus of consciousness); to class (as trustee of rational - if not
always perceived - self interest); and to group (as the assignee of dedica-
tions and purposes). Hegemony, in this reading, becomes simply the es-
tablishment or preservation by a ruling class of identifications between
class and group. But why should it be supposed that seventeenth-and
eighteenth-century Europeans experienced spontaneous convictions of
self-interest and group dedication that required them to burn up their
lives on plantations and slave ships in order to accumulate capital for
entrepreneurs back home?
What is needed to resolve the dilemma of circularity is an ideological
explanation for the initial act of differential treatment that does not invoke
racism or any variant under some other name as a causal factor. Edmund
Morgan in a study of the origins of slavery in Virginia offers an example
[16 The Rise and Fall of the White Republic]
of precisely such an explanatory process. Morgan reverses Jordan. Instead
of insisting on the primacy of subjective factors in the English psyche,
Morgan shows how Virginians established African slavery through a series
of rational responses to real situations, each step illuminated for them by
concepts of labor, class and wealth that they had brought from England.
Racism is not a necessary cause in Morgan's account of the origin of
slavery in Virginia. Rather it results from that origin and becomes a neces-
sary cause for what follows?
More formidable than the problem of circularity is that of continuity.
How has racism reproduced patterns of racially differential behavior for
more than three centuries through shifts of ruling class power and across
a spectrum of labor systems from slavery to wage labor? As would be
expected, the most successful ideological explanations of continuity have
dealt with slavery. There is no great difficulty, for example, in under-
standing the planters' defense of slavery, or that, although racism need
not have caused any particular act of racial exploitation, it must have
become a central factor in justifying a class that achieved wealth and
power through such systematic exploitation- 'Wherever racial subordina-
tion exists', as Eugene Genovese put it, 'racism exists .....' 34
But how can such an understanding of planters explain why non-
slaveholding whites acquiesced either in planter dominance or in its
ideological justifications? And what of the North and West? Slavery was
only one segment of time and space occupied by racism in American
history. The 'world the slaves made' existed for at least half a century
within an egalitarian white society described by the sociologist Pierre van
den Berghe as 'herrenvolk democracy.35 The same
destroyed slavery, yet retained the doctrine of white supremacy as key-
stone in its new legitimizing synthesis. Upon that democracy rose an
industrial capitalist order. As labor power assumed its characteristically
capitalist form of commodity, economic theory might have predicted that
racial characteristics would lose their relevance in the labor market. On
the contrary, they dominated the labor market. From what socio-
economic nutriments, in the era of modernization, did the ideological
component, racism, draw its sustenance?
The question is crucial. It cannot yet be answered adequately, since no
systematic explanation for the differential treatment of racial minorities
~as been developed for Jacksonian, or Gilded Age, or Populist America -
let alone for America of the progressive or New Deal or Cold War
periods. Nor has ideological analysis been applied to such historically
baffling phenomena as the shift of federal policy with respect to race and
racism after the Second World War, or the cult of ethnicity and begin-
nings of neo-racism in the 1960s and 1970s. In default of such projects,
the ideological strategy will remain tentative, more broadly based on ex-
pectations than on achievement.
Nonetheless, it seems fair to say that of the several approaches surveyed
the ideological appears the most promising. It promises, in the first place,
a conceptual frame for more limited explanatory sequences such as that
of the split labor market examined above, or theories of labor market
segmentation in advanced capitalism, which begin by assuming racism as
a factor of the environment under study. At longer range, it promises to
meet a pressing need by providing a historical explanation for the dif-
ferential treatment of racial minorities in the United States that could
command general acceptance simply because it works. The purpose of
this book is to offer a modest contribution in that direction.
The book is divided in three parts. Part One begins by posing class
and racial hierarchy as the basis of Whig politics, taking American whig-
gism not in the once-standard mode of a reaction to Jacksonian initiatives,
but as the established order against which those initiatives were directed.
The focus then shifts to theJacksonian side with examinations of the press
and theater selected to exemplify the reworking of racist ingredients in
mass culture to justify white egalitarianism. Part One ends with an inter-
pretation of the Jacksonian Democratic party.
Part Two brings forward three transitional sequences: the first involv-
ing the popularization of regional vernacular heroes; the second and third
stemming from urban artisan radicalism on one hand and New England
National Republicanism on the other. All three pursued separate routes
(by way of the Free Soil alliance) into the Republican coalition. Part
Three begins with the Republican party and the new Republican West.
In the context of western working-class experience, it explores the prob-
lem of class consciousness in a racially segmented labor force. The last
chapter but one - continuing earlier discussions of vernacular charac-
terization in drama and fiction - traces the class and racial components
of western heroes from Leatherstocking to Owen W~ster's V~rginian. The
book ends with an inquiry into the failure of late nineteenth-century
challenges to industrial capitalism, and the degree to which white racist
ideas and institutions tended to inhibit effective opposition to ruling-class
My effort throughout this work is to get at the actual processes of
ideological revision. Whether animated by deliberate intent of leadership
or through individual compulsions of 'ideological i~nnovators', those
processes reaffirmed the credibility of the racist component. They added
necessary adjustments of conceptualization and tone to conform, first, to
shifts in the class structure of the ruling coalitions; and, second, to changes
in the scientific, religious and attitudinal mix of world-reality as perceived.
I have worked from a conviction that consciousness mandates an effort
to impart meaning and coherence, including some system of purposeful-
[18 The Rise and Fall of the White Republic]
ness or moral commitment, to experience. Not all experience is social but
the consciousness of it is framed in social experience. The starting point,
therefore, is the collective inheritance, differentiated by class or social
group background - the received wisdom each individual copes with, repetitively for the most part, sometimes innovatively. What results is an ongoing social construction of reality. 36 Conflicting ideological components, such as a defense of racial exploitation on one hand or an assertion of racial equality on the other, must depend in part for their effectiveness upon a degree of correspondence with that ongoing construction. It is within this rather narrow perimeter of correspondence, seemingly, that anticipations of creative input to historical change must find their place, if they are to have a place.
1. Although my focus is not on studies of ideas about race, such works are crucial to
any investigation of racial ideology. I have relied especially on George M. Fredrickson, The
Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-
1914, New York 1971; Thomas E Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America, New
York 1963; Dwight W. Hoover, The Red and the Black, Chicago 1976; William Stanton, The
Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815-1859, Chicago 1960;
Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism, Cambridge, Mass. 1981; and Roy Harvey Pearce, The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization, rev. ed., Baltimore 1965.
2. Gunnar Myrdal assumed directorship of the Carnegie Corporation's project in
1937, and his final report was published in 1944. Page references are to 'The Twentieth
Anniversary Edition'. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemnta: The Negro Problent and Modern
Democracy, New York 1962. Myrdal's account of the project is appears on pp. lidxii. Parallel
citations'are included in Arnold Rose, The Negro in America: The Condensed Version of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, New York 1948.
3. Myrdal, pp. 85, 97; Rose, pp 31, 35.
4. Myrdal, pp. 8-14, 78-80, 89; Rose, pp. 1-5, 20-30, 33.
5. Myrdal, pp. 88, 98; Rose, pp. 33, 35.
6. Myrdal, pp. 102,111, 69-70, 28, 53-54; Rose, pp. 37, 41, 27, 12, 21.
7. Ashley Montagu, Man~ Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, Cleveland and
New York 1965, pp. 151,154-55.
8. Montagu, Appendix A, pp. 34, 36-371.
9. Montagu, pp. 351-59.
10. Myrdal, pp. 1015-1024.
11. See Rose's summation, p. 320, presumably concurred in by Myrdal; Rose, p. xii.
12. Two examples among many: Philip Taft, Organized Labor in Anterican History, New
York 1964, pp. 3014, in contrast to pp. 306, 308; Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement
in the United States, Vol. 1: From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor, New York 1947, pp. 272-76.
13. Job competition and the opposite side of the same coin, the argument that racial
division in the labor market functions to benefit employers by weakening the ability of the
labor force to act collectively in its own interest, appear in a wide variety of economic
explanations. See, for example, Harold M. Baron, 'Racial Discrimination in Advanced
Capitalism: A Theory of Nationalism and Division in the Labor Market', in Richard C.
Edwards, Michael Reich, and David M. Gordon, eds, Labor Market Segmentation, Lexington,
Mass. 1973, pp. 203,207-8; Raymond S. Franklin and Solomon Resnik, The Political Economy
of Racism, New York 1973, p. 22; David M. Gordon, ed., Problems m Political Economy: An
Urban Perspective, Lexington, Mass. 1977, pp. 14749; Robert Cherry, 'Economic Theories
of Racism', in Gordon, ed., Problems ... , p. 173; Victor Perlo, Economics of Racism, USA:
Roots of Black Inequality, New York 1975, pp. 146, 149, 16344.
14. The comments on split labor market theory are directed to several essays by my
colleague and friend, Edna Bonacich: 'A Theory of Ethnic Antagonism: The Split Labor
Market', American Sociological Review 37 (October 1972): 547-59; 'A Theory of Middleman
Minorities', ASR 38 (October 1973): 583-94; 'Abolition, the Extension of Slavery, and the
Position of Free Blacks: A Study of Split Labor Markets in the United States, 1830-1863',
The American Journal of Sociology 81 (November 1975): 601-28; 'Advanced Capitalism and
Black/White Race Relations in the United States: A Split Labor Market Interpretation',
ASR 41 (February 1976): 34-51. William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race:
Blacks and Changing American Institutions, Chicago 1978, pp. 144-54, arguing for the rising
significance of class in the disadvantaged situation of non-white minorities, recognizes that
racism has played a major role in determining the over-representation of non-whites in the
new industrial 'underclass'.
15. Thomas Sowell, Race and Economics, New York 1975.
16. Ibid., pp. 54-55, 71-90, 131. Sowell, The Economics and Politics of Race: An Interna-
tional Perspective, New York 1983, extends his free market analysis to the world at large in
a wide-ranging and interesting book. The historical explanation of racial inequality in the
United States, however, remains basically unchanged.
17. Sowell, Race and Economics, pp. 61-80, 127-31, 143. For a striking contrast to
Sowell's view, see James P. Comer, Maggie's American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black
Family, New York 1988, especially pp. 212-15.
18. Sowell, Race and Economics, pp. 14344, 149-50, 153-56, 192, 202-3,208.
19. Ibid., pp. 4, 5-21,116, 142-50, 153-56.
20. Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes,
Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City, Cambridge, Mass. 1963; Glazer and
Moynihan, eds, Ethnicivy: Theory and Practice, Cambridge, Mass. 1975; Glazer, Affirmative
Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy, New York 1975; see especially pp. 5, 6,
21. Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, pp. 33, 52; Glazer, Affjrmative Dis-
crimination, pp. 72-73.
22. In contrast to Nathan Glazer's 'American orientation', see Pierre L. van den Berghe,
Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective, New York 1967, p. 77; Ronald Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America, New York 1979, pp. 11-15. For a more recent examination by Takaki, 'Reflections on Racial Patterns in America', Takaki, ed., From Different Shores: Pespectives on Race and Ethnicity in America, New York 1987, pp. 26-37.
23. As Nathan Huggins points out in 'Herbert Gutman and Afro-American History',
Labor History 29 (Summer 1985): 323-35, Glazer and Moynihan could have taken most of
their descriptive material on African-American families from the Chicago School
sociologists, E. Franklin Frazier The Negro Family, 1941, and Charles S. Johnson, Shadow
of the Plantation, 1936, who attributed presumed family malfunctions to a presumed total
destruction of the African culture. The psychocultural deficit theory stems mainly from
Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, New
York 1963, first published by University of Chicago Press in 1959. For refutations of this
theory, see Andrew Billingsley, Black Families in White America, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1968;
John Blassingame, The Slave Community, New York 1972; Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan,
Roll, New York 1974; Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery, and Freedom, 1750-1925,
New York 1976. ~
24. Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, , abridged ed., Garden City, N.E
1958. Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-
1812, Chapel Hill, N.C. 1968. Theodor Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality, New
York 1950. Martin Jay, Adorno, Cambridge, Mass. 1984, pp. 3841.
25. Jordan, The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States,
New York 1974, pp. 22, 49, 46-54. The White Man's Burden is a 'quite drastic abridgement
with minor modifications', p. viii, of the author's longer and vastly more detailed White
Over Black. Since the argument is the same in each, I have cited the shorter version.
20 The Rise and Fall of the White Republic
26. Jordan, p. 50 (italics in original); David Brion Davis, Slave~/and Human ProFess,
New York 1984, p. 38.
27. Fawn Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South, New York 1959; Brodie, Thomas
Jefferson: An Intimate History, New York 1974; Eric Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in
Psychoanalysis and History, New York 1958; Michael P. Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew
Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian, New York 1975.
28. Jordan, p./x.
29. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Cambridge, Mass.
1967; Clifford Geertz, 'Ideology as a Cultural System', in The Interpretation of Cultures:
Selected Essays, New York 1973; Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, New
York 1971; and Selections from the Political Writings, 1910-1920, New York 1977; Carl Boggs,
Gramscian Marxism, London 1976. For an account of the changing meanings of the term
ideology, see Martin Seliger, Ideology and Politics, London 1976. My own usage of the term
will be clear enough, I think, from my comments on 'post-Gramscian ideology'. For a more
formal definition, with which I generally agree, see Seliger, p. 119. Mannhelm, Ideology and
Utopia , New York 1936, stands between early Marxian and post-Gramscian notions
of ideology, since Mannhelm allows at least the possibility of self-evident perceptions of
social reality by occasional utopians or chiliasts.
30. George M. Fredrickson, review of David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the
Age of Revolution, in New York Review of Books 16 October 1975, pp. 38-40.
31. The definition of racism corresponds to a fairly widely held view (for example, van
den Berghe, p. l 1) with a historian's twist at the end. Points two through seven are a com-
posite drawn from many sources, most of which I cannot individually identify. The book
review by George Fredrickson referred to in note 30 above, and an essay by the same author,
cited in note 32 below, have been helpful; likewise Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, pp.
51-82. I should also refer to Caste, Class and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics, by Oliver
Cox, Garden City, N.Y. 1948, as a work with which I have both deep agreements and strong
disagreements. Barbara Fields, 'Ideology and Race in American History' in J. Morgan
Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds, Region, Race and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, New York 1982, pp. 14347, generally parallels the argument I have set
out. Fields's essay becomes, I think, unnecessarily confusing because of a failure to distin~
guish between race as an objectively visible fact and racism as an ideological construct.
32. Historically oriented scholars have generally rejected ethnocentric explications of racism because they invoke instinctual drives or 'universals' of human nature. Frederickson, 'Toward a Social Interpretation of the Development of American Racism', in Nathan Huggins, Martin Kilson and Daniel Fox, eds, Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience, New York 1971, 1:246. Frederickson distinguishes between an 'implicit' or 'societal' racism, which he says characterized the white society of North America until the early nineteenth century, and 'ideological' racism, said to have come into existence in the 1830s as a conscious defense of slavery against attack. Neither appears to be equal to, or directly caused by, ethnocentrism. Van den Berghe, pp. 12-13, accepts ethnocentrism as a nearly universal human trait, but separates it decisively from racism.
33. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery - American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, New York 1975. For an admirably succinct application of a comparable argument to colonial slavery as a whole, see Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848, London 1988, pp. 3-31, especially pp. 9-11. These two works suffice to destroy the foundation of Winthrop Jordan's psychological explanation.
34. Genovese, Roll Jordan, Roll, pp. 4, 749.
35. Van den Berghe, p. 77.
3~ I have borrowed this phrase from the title of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, New York 1966.