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Anti-Racism in U.S. History: The First Two Hundred Years.

Most studies of racial attitudes tell a bleak story of prejudice and indifference. Studies by Winthrop Jordan and George Fredrickson, for example, are often depressing explorations of the development of a mentality that in its early years grouped blacks with parrots because both could talk then went on to more insidious and brutal forms of degradation. Similarly, Eric Foner and others have found hard racial exclusiveness cloaked in the supposedly benign messages of antislavery and Free Soil. Is there no other tradition in U.S. race relations? Herbert Aptheker suggests there is. In his latest book (a first volume in a proposed two-volume set), Aptheker examines the history of antiracism in the United States up to the Civil War. His aim is revisionist in its own way: he argues that a strong tradition of antiracism formed a critical component of white-black relations in this country from the start, and he claims that this is the first book to explore that phenomenon.

That claim raises a central question. A major problem in any study of this sort is defining precisely what antiracism is. In one sense antiracism is simply a reaction to its opposite. From this perspective any evidence that whites overcame racial prejudice is evidence for an antiracist tradition. Aptheker works this material hard. There are chapters, some quite short, on the historiography of racism, sexual relations, politics, religion, and much more, all full of writings and anecdotes about white-black respect and cooperation. Here Aptheker's usual care and exhaustive knowledge of primary and secondary sources are evident and impressive, even though most of the evidence he presents is familiar.

Yet as a study of an "ism"--ideologically or culturally defined--the book needs a clearer methodology. In one remarkable paragraph in the introduction Aptheker suggests that antiracism was most prevalent among women, "lower" classes, and those who worked or lived in close proximity to blacks. If true, this would entirely revise the outlook on southern poor whites. Neither the methodology nor the evidence lends much support to the thesis, however, and at any rate it is not something the author diligently pursues. More problematic is the way the evidence moves in and out of other sources, most drawn from abolitionist arguments. Here antiracism appears either as a facet of evangelical Christianity, as a radical extension of Western liberal thought (which included a complementary movement in women's rights), or both. It is difficult to separate antiracism from what is already known of these movements and harder still to see how this book is unique.

The last word on the subject has not, of course, been written, and there is still much to be done on white attitudes toward blacks. A tighter focus might involve closer attention to the psychological reactions involved in multiracial encounters, plus some consideration of Native Americans and Mexicans--two groups that challenged whites' racial images in very different ways. Finally, more insight is needed into how perceptions of race get mixed in with perceptions of class.

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Author:Mayfield, John
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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