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America the Bad?

In response to:

America the Bad? from the November 22, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

In his First Annual Message to Congress, President Andrew Jackson solemnly told Americans: “Our conduct toward these people [Indians] is deeply interesting to our national character.” It may also be said that our approach to the study of the history of race in America is “deeply interesting” to the “character” of historical scholarship. C. Vann Woodward’s review of my book, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America, is a recent case in point (NYR, November 22). His suggestion for comparative analysis of racial oppressions in the world was intended to have a larger purpose: In his assessment of America vis-à-vis Brazil, Cuba, Indonesia, South Africa, Russia, the Gulag, the Wall, Germany, Vietnam, and Cambodia, he argued that this country was not so “bad” after all.

I think we certainly need cross national comparative analysis to develop our understanding of the nature(s) of racism, and hope my study of America from a comparative multiracial perspective will be useful to such international studies of racial oppression. As we examine the “worst instances” of racial violence in other countries, however, we must be careful not to diminish the importance or the meaning of what happened here to Blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans, and Asians. To those who have suffered from racism in this country, it would seem beside the point as well as heartless for scholars to engage in a body-count—to compare racial violence in America with the “horrors of genocide” and the “millions of corpses” in Germany, the “mass killings between Islamic and Hindu people,” and the “bloodbaths” in Cambodia. It would have given little comfort to black slaves in the American South to have been told that the conditions for black slaves were worse in Latin America. For slaves in Mississippi, Alabama, and other southern states where the increase of the black population was “unparalleled,” it would have mattered little whether the black population in Brazil was “17.5 million” rather than “127.6 million” by 1850, or whether slavery beyond the “three-mile limit” was more terrible and deadly. It would also have given little assurance to the Native Americans in the United States to have been told that the aborigines “south of the border” suffered a more horrible fate. Forcibly removed from their homelands in the 1830s, the Cherokees would have found painful and unwelcome irony in such comparison had they been asked to have a “more balanced perspective” and compare Indian deaths on the “Trail of Tears” with the Spanish destruction of the Aztecs and Incas.

To acknowledge and analyze the presence and power of certain “iron cages” in America is not to “denigrate” this country nor to deny the existence of “iron cages” elsewhere in the world whatever their forms and sizes. Neither is it to resist comparison between the United States and other countries. Such comparisons might actually make us hesitate to note, in an almost self-congratulatory way, that “so far” a “race war” has not happened in America. They might also help us avoid complacency. Indeed, a long time ago, Alexis de Tocqueville offered future historians a sobering observation based on cross national comparative analysis. Contrasting the Spanish and Anglo-American treatments of Indians, the French scholar described the unique ability of Americans to “exterminate” the Indians and deprive them of their rights “with singular felicity, tranquilly, legally, philanthropically, without shedding blood, and without violating a single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world.” As he watched US soldiers “drive” Indians westward and leaders like Jackson provide a metaphysics to explain their actions, Tocqueville caught a glimpse of a peculiar horror. “It is impossible,” he remarked in barbed language, “to destroy men with more respect for the laws of humanity.”

Comparative analysis of racial oppressions can lead to conclusions similar to Tocqueville’s; it can also open the way for fresh dialogue among historians and others about the dynamically multiracial reality present in American history. But so long as studies critical of American culture and institutions are characterized as “self-flagellation,” much of historical scholarship will continue to protect us from our past.

Ronald T. Takaki

University of California, Berkeley

C Vann Woodward replies:

Mr. Takaki’s Iron Cages does not tell the half of it. Of wickedness in America of the nineteenth century (not to mention three other centuries) there is no end. Americans were indeed “bad.” The point is the badness was not a national peculiarity nor a racial characteristic. The author tells us his book “seeks to offer a comparative analysis of racial domination.” But by confining his comparisons to examples within the national boundaries he avoids making illuminating comparisons beyond those borders. Such comparisons become quite relevant in any discussion of American policies of “genocide” and “extermination,” and counting can be useful, even “body-counts.” To avoid comparisons on the ground that they are “heartless” or “painful” and “would have given little comfort to black slaves” is misplaced delicacy. The purpose of historical scholarship is neither to protect us from our own past nor from comparisons with the past of others. Rigorously critical studies of both could discourage fatuous complacency as well as skewed perspectives on American history.

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