The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States
by Winthrop D. Jordan
Oxford University Press, 229 pp., $1.95 (paper)
When it was published in 1968, Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black was at once praised as the definitive work on the history of American racism before 1812. The book clearly deserved its reception. Jordan uncovered much important source material and used it as the foundation for a subtle and broad new interpretation of the growth of anti-black attitudes in the United States. But some of his assumptions and conclusions might well have been the subject of sustained controversy. Any account of the origins of American racism, as Jordan himself would be the first to admit, necessarily involves evaluating data that are fragmentary and ambiguous. White Over Black was really too provocative a book to be treated as a scholarly monument, or, even worse, as an encyclopedia of early white prejudice and discrimination to be ransacked for fragments of insight and information. Instead it should have stimulated a vigorous debate on issues that are obviously of more than purely historical interest.
That such a debate has not really taken place may be partly owing to the intimidating effect of the great length and documentation of the original volume. Furthermore, Jordan’s complex and undogmatic approach to historical explanation, combined with his mastery of the qualified generalization and the tentative statement, made him an elusive target for those who might have been troubled by what he chose to emphasize. The new book, a very readable condensation of White Over Black, is therefore doubly welcome. Not only does it make Jordan’s important findings accessible to a larger public but it also serves to throw into sharper relief his main argument. It is now easier than before to see precisely what Jordan has been saying and to come to terms with it.
Jordan’s work can partly be seen as a powerful challenge to those historians who have suggested that racial prejudice in the colonial period developed very gradually in response to changing social and economic conditions and that for a time class was more important than race in determining what kinds of people could be economically exploited and socially subordinated. Jordan does not deny that prejudice intensified over time or that elements other than color consciousness were involved in the degradation of blacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But he refuses to acknowledge, even as a possibility, that the changing class relations of colonial America were a crucial factor in the development of white supremacy as a way of life.
In his efforts to distinguish early attitudes toward blacks from the disparagement of other kinds of “inferiors,” Jordan goes back to the sixteenth century and unearths a number of quotations to demonstrate that Elizabethan Englishmen had an acute sense of the hideous color, barbarous customs, and hypersexuality of Africans. All the associations of the color black with evil and filth, he suggests, were projected on to the Negro race, and the myth of black lasciviousness and animality was powerfully summed up in the legend that African women sometimes had carnal …
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