Thursday, February 03, 2005

"A War Within a War" summary and analysis

Moriah Berger
January 31, 2005
Freedom Movements

Unsuccessfully Dividing the Racial Formation Process:
A Critical Analysis of George M. Frederickson's White Supremacy

Though released several years before Michael Omi and Howard Winant published Racial Formation in the United States, a work that explores the limits of theories formerly utilized to address the subject of race in order to introduce a novel approach the scholars termed “racial formation,” George M. Frederickson adheres to many of Omi and Winant's proposals in his comparative study of the history of race relations in the United States and South Africa. Frederickson's White Supremacy is aligned with the racial formation tenets that race has a social nature, that the formation of racial meanings are a process transcending both time and space and are historically flexible, and that race relations operate on various levels of scale, from “micro” to “macro-social” levels. Indeed, Frederickson purports that white supremacy is a fluid, variable, and open-ended process. However, White Supremacy is not a study of racial formation, I argue, as Frederickson presents only half of the process. While he delves deeply into the ideologies, the collective white consciousness, the political systems and demographics that developed as well as altered, all resulting in a racial hierarchy with a reserved place at the top for whites, Frederickson fails to grant space in White Supremacy to the communities of people of color, their methods of resistance, struggles to overturn an unjust social structure, and collective consciousness. As Frederick Cooper remarked in his analysis of Frederickson's work, “To analyze an ideology of racial superiority without taking seriously the agency of black people…gives only a partial view.” In the analysis that follows, I juxtapose White Supremacy with a chapter from Nan Elizabeth Woodruff's American Congo, highlighting the differences in approach to discussions of race relations in the United States and thereby offering a complete picture of the racial formation process.

Woodruff presents efforts waged by the wider black community in the United States, with a particular focus on the south and Delta region, that directly challenged unequal race-based distributions of power. Her chapter “A War Within a War” also aligns with Omi and Winant's racial formation approach, as she emphasizes the borderless nature of freedom struggles, stating that they do “not occur within a national or global vacuum.” Thus, though not thoroughly explored within the single chapter, Woodruff recognizes the significance of a larger comparative framework when analyzing race relations and is similar to Frederickson in this regard. Her approach, however, covers ground that did not receive mention in White Supremacy. While Frederickson dedicated his pages to a chronological discussion of the laws, mindsets, geographic alterations, wars, and economic developments instigated by the white community, Woodruff discusses the direct challenges to the system of white supremacy initiated by people of color. Woodruff presents black people as agents with an influence on their social standing while Frederickson's white-based approach does a disservice to such efforts, as they appear entirely reactionary. Whereas Frederickson introduces miscegenation laws, anti-slavery and voting rights mandates and presents a changing racial climate only through the lens of those with the power to alter de jure race relations, Woodruff analyzes the resistance methods of southern rural sharecroppers, the ways they used their “newfound higher wages to gain control over their own time.” A mirror image of Frederickson's exploration of the ways in which white settlement and white-dominated political systems affected people of color, Woodruff concentrates upon civil rights and workers' rights developments in the United States sparked by the collective action of African Americans and the white reaction that followed. “In challenging their employers,” Woodruff writes in regard to black agricultural laborers, “black workers also tested planter dominance of their social and political world.”

In her review of White Supremacy, Shula Marks accuses Frederickson of writing “the history of South Africa…as though the majority of its population had no history.” I selected the following excerpt to emphasize Frederickson's blatant lack of acknowledgement with regard to the agency of people of color in the social, geographical, demographic, and political structures on which he focused:
“In the Cape…the liberation of the Khoikhoi from quasi-serfdom in 1828 and the emancipation of the slaves in 1838 neither involved a substantial political commitment to their subsequent welfare that went beyond 'equality before the law' in the most rudimentary sense nor occurred in such a way as to inspire the newly freed with the kind of communal pride and ambition that would lead them to develop institutions of their own…” (emphasis added)

The above example illustrates Frederickson's chronological approach to racial formations and his dedication to exploring the laws that originated in communities of power-possessing whites. However it also highlights his treatment of efforts waged by communities of color as entirely reactionary to the white-instigated legal alterations. The tone of the passage and Frederickson's failure to include the struggles of people of color leave readers with the impression that black people needed inspiration from whites in order to challenge an unjust society. Frederickson must be credited for publishing, nearly a decade following White Supremacy, an analysis of the remainder of the race spectrum in his work Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa. However the problem remains that he has drawn an arbitrary line, dividing race-based struggles into white and non-white, and has thus attempted to separate a complex web of interrelated efforts either challenging or attempting to maintain the racial hierarchy. As Cooper remarked, “two books on half a topic each do not make a whole.” With regard to racial formations and the elements of the process arising out of communities of color, Woodruff offers a more complete picture.

Works Cited
1. Cooper, Frederick. “Race, Ideology, and the Perils of Comparative History.” The American Historical Review Volume 101, Number 4, 1996.

2. Frederickson, George M. White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1981.

3. Marks, Shula. “White Supremacy. A Review Article.” Comparative Studies in Society and History Volume 29, Number 2, 1987.

4. Omi, Michael, and Winant, Howard. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960's to the 1980's. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul plc, 1986.

5. Woodruff, Nan Elizabeth. American Congo: The African American Struggle in the Delta. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.