Thursday, February 03, 2005

White Supremacy Review--Shula Marks

The article White Supremacy: A Review Article by Shula Marks, is a review of two major works, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History by George Frederickson, and The Highest Stage of White Supremacy: the Origins of Segregation in South Africa and the American South by John Cell.
Both of these works concentrate on understanding white supremacy, segregation, and race relations, through looking at the comparative historical experience of the United States and South Africa.
The Marks piece begins with a summary of the major points and themes that Frederickson addresses. She reviews that Frederickson was attempting to write a comparative history of the US and South Africa, but focuses mainly on the differences rather than the similarities of the ideas and practices of “white supremacy” in both societies. While Marks finds the first three chapters of Frederickson’s work “it’s most original and interesting”, she is very critical of Frederickson, particularly highlighting the problems of historical comparative analysis. She finds that in his work, Frederickson is far more comfortable and exposed to North American literature and secondary-source historical information, and that there are gaps in research, and much historical information about South Africa that is underdeveloped and inadequately contextualized and understood. Thus, Marks brings attention to an additional, important point about South African historical studies—the fact that there is limited and insufficient information about South Africa, leaving much more room for additional research.
Using evidence from secondary sources, Marks highlights some of the points that Frederickson makes, which she finds problematic. Particularly, she emphasizes the failure, on the part of Frederickson and others, to appreciate the extent into which the Cape was an important part of the world economy. She provides an example, which Frederickson alludes to in a sentence, about the slave-Khoisan uprising of 1799-1801 which, she argues, was an important historical event which affected subsequent attempts by the British to mediate master-servant relations in South Africa (388).
Further criticism of Frederickson’s work, comes from Marks’ observation that Frederickson was preoccupied with settler history, thus neglecting black history. She points out that in his discussion of the Cape Colony, Frederickson underestimates the political context, and instead emphasizes ideology as the explanation for social change (390). The last two chapters of Frederickson’s work, Marks explains are “a lame conclusion to an otherwise challenging and formidable comprehensive work (394).” This is due is most part to the fact that Frederickson finds the differences between Jim Crow laws and “native segregation” in South Africa too great, and thus compares the Cape Coloureds with African-Americans. Marks explains that Frederickson’s analysis overlaps with themes in John Cell’s book, so she begins a review and critique of his work as well.
Marks’ critique of Cell’s book is equally as thorough—she finds limitations in his analysis of the rural dimensions of segregationist policies, as well as a number of inaccuracies in Cell’s historical information (397). Marks’ again points to the weaknesses within academia regarding South African history, in particular when scholars focus on individuals, and the nature of the struggles between and within, men/women, class hierarchies, urban and rural capitalist interests, and governments, are often left out of the historical account of policies of segregation.
Clearly, there are a number of similarities between the work of Frederickson and Cell that Marks reviews in her article on white supremacy. Ultimately, Marks is very critical of both authors, particularly on their unbalanced comparison of American and South African history. Yet at the same time, Marks recognizes the importance of these works as a contribution to disciplines in academia including history and African studies and the discourse surrounding white supremacy.