In various forms, Barbara J. Fields, Martha Hodes, and Peter Kolchin each offer commentary on how historians have dealt with the (now common) assumption that race is a social construction. Fields does so through by looking at race as a historical ideology and focusing on the need to contextualize various forms of race and racism; Hodes heeds this call for historical contextualization by analyzing how experiences with race vary greatly across geographic and temporal boundaries. Kolchin looks at how the emerging field of whiteness studies has dealt with the socially constructed, ideological nature of race.
In “Ideology and Race in American History,” Fields argues against the American tendency to “accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding” (Fields, 144). Rather, Fields asserts, historians should conceive of race as an ideology, which she describes as a vocabulary used to interpret one’s lived, social experiences. These ideologies, in turn, must be considered within their full historical context. Fields disagrees with the very foundation of Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the negro, 1550-1812, in that the essential point of the argument in her article is that “[a]n understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations – not by enumerating “attitudes” which, endowed with independent life, are supposed to act upon the historical process from the outside” (Fields, 149). The largest flaw of Jordan’s work which Fields implicitly notes is the failure to deal carefully with changing historical contexts; Fields posits the question of how “[t]o the extent that white supremacy summarized prejudices of color, how can it have meant the same for different classes of whites, who had different experiences with blacks?” (Fields 156).
One of the consequences of Fields’ conceptualization of race as an ideology dependent on historical context is that she dispels with the common assumption that race and class are mutually exclusive explanatory frameworks. Rather than being alternatives to one another, Fields notes (like Seth Rockman) that “class refers to a material circumstance,” and as such, “can assert itself independently of people’s consciousness and sometimes in direct opposition to it,” whereas race cannot be stripped of its ideological construction (Fields, 150-151). She states that “[r]ace is a concept that we can locate at the level of appearances only”; this distinction between appearances and their underlying realities is one that Jordan, despite the breadth of his analysis, does not seem to make. Rather than being mutually exclusive, Fields argues that class is of the utmost important when considering interracial interaction in American history.
Martha Hodes furthers Fields’ call for contextualization when dealing with issues of race by placing it in a transnational context through an analysis of the experiences of Eunice and William Smiley Connolly, a poor white woman from New England and a sea captain from the British West Indies of a mixed African and European ancestry. Hodes “argues that the scrutiny of day-to-day lives demonstrates not only the mutability of race but also, and with equal force, the abiding power of race in local settings,” (Hodes, 85). Hodes describes as a poor, female wage-laborer without the support of a husband, Eunice struggled to support herself and her children, and as such became somehow “less white.” The people of Grand Cayman, conversely, viewed smiley Connolly, with high regard because he was a man of significant means, irrespective of his appearance. Likewise, while Eunice’s marriage to a man of mixed ancestry drew ire from both outside and within her family in New England and in some ways led others to perceive her again as less white, upon moving to Grand Cayman, her material conditions improved, even as she became more closely associated with her “colored” husband. For Hodes, like Fields, race is an ideology dependent on historical context – in this case, both geographic location and material conditions.
Peter Kolchin’s discussion of the emerging field of whiteness studies surprised me by the fact that it is the article that is in most direct conversation with Jordan’s White Over Black. Jordan’s overall assertion that white attitudes towards blacks (inasmuch as one can describe “white attitudes” for reasons discussed in the Fields and Hodes articles) stemmed from a desire to define themselves in a new cultural and social conditions, connects directly with David R. Roediger’s assertion that “because the white working class in the United States emerged in a slaveholding republic, its members came to define themselves by what they were not: slaves and blacks” (Kolchin, 155). While the Roediger conception of whiteness studies is not the only one, his assertions parallel Jordan’s very closely. Kolchin describes Roediger’s argument by stating that “the increasingly controlled and disciplined white population came to view blacks as their former, uninhibited selves,” while Jordan describes how “[w]ithin every American who stood confronted by the Negro, there had arisen a perpetual duel between his higher and lower natures. His cultural conscience – his Christianity, his humanitarianism, his ideology of liberty and equality, — demanded that he he regard and treat the Negro as his…equal. At the same moment, however, many of his profound urges, especially his yearning to maintain the identity of his folk, his passion for domination, his sheer avarice, and his sexual desire, impelled him toward conceiving and treating the Negro as inferior to himself” (Jordan 581-2). Jordan argues that this “perpetual duel” stems from “the need of transplanted Englishmen to know who it was they were…For white men had to know who they were if they were to survive. They had to retain control of themselves and of their liberties if they were to survive in America” (Jordan xiv). Jordan seems, to me, to do implicitly what whiteness studies seeks to explicitly, that is, define what exactly made someone “white”; for Jordan, early Americans did this through defining what exactly it meant to be “black.”
After criticizing whiteness studies for a lack of depth and analytical sophistication, he seems to bring the reader back to where Barbara Fields started two decades earlier, stating that “without attention to concrete social conditions,” the distinctiveness of racial history “is more likely to be obscured than clarified. In short, we are back to the question of context” (Kolchin 170).
***In response to Caleb’s comment requesting more analysis of Jordan’s argument, I’m editing this post for those only reading them through an rss feed***
Jordan attempts to answer the question of why only blacks were enslaved in the United States. Did racism develop because of slavery? or did the enslavement of blacks occur because of racism?
He begins his attempt to answer this question by looking at the “first impressions” of the English upon coming into contact with sub-Saharan Africans. He argues that the English commented most frequently on the Africans’ “black” skin, their lack of religion, their “savage” nature, and their hyper-sexualized, “bestial” nature. In doing so, Jordan is arguing that English perceptions of the way Africans differed from themselves included concepts other than skin color/appearance. In a time of rapid social change, the English became “uncomfortably self-conscious,” and they projected this identity crisis against the vastly different Africans.
Jordan ultimately argues that the rise of slavery was part of an “unthinking decision,” on the part of early English settlers. The significant need for labor in the newly settled colonies led the English to revive slavery, a form of labor with roots in English common law, as distinguished from free labor and indentured servitude, which were also used. Jordan argues that economic necessity revived the use of slavery in the English colonies. Jordan further argues that the decision to enslave Africans exclusively extends from the fact that they already knew the Spanish and Portuguese were enslaving Africans and utilizing slave labor, that the English in the West Indies were following that lead. The idea of enslaving Africans also fits neatly with the “first impressions” outlined in the first chapter. Thus, he seems to assert that the “unthinking decision” to enslave Africans had in many ways been made for them.
The American Revolution, with its ideals of universal liberty that clashed directly with the institution of slavery, led to the crystallization of a pseudo-scientific racial prejudice as a way to justify slavery in “the land of the free.” Jordan argues that white Americans attempted to reconcile revolutionary ideals with slavery by, in a variety of ways, defining America as a white man’s country. The revolutionary and post-revolutionary era was when, according to Jordan, fully race-based justifications of slavery fully developed in the American psyche.
There is more to Jordan’s argument, but this gives a better background for what exactly he is saying, and how I made the connections between his book and the readings for this week.