The Big R

The three books under review address black–white relations—the most urgent and intractable domestic problem the United States faces today and has suffered from throughout its existence. George M. Fredrickson’s short history conforms to the best academic tradition. Detached in tone, it carefully defines “racism,” and goes on to discuss how it originated in late medieval Europe, emerged in Iberia, took root in the New World, rose to a virulent climax in the first half of the twentieth century in Germany and in the United States, and still persists, though “it is less intense and intellectually respectable than it was a century or even a half-century ago.” The two other books under review, by Glenn C. Loury and David Brion Davis, are admirable in a different way, combining subtle analysis and argument with moral fervor. Neither, though, comes up with anything resembling a practical recipe for overcoming the racial divide in the United States—or elsewhere in the world for that matter.

Both Fredrickson and Davis are distinguished American historians whose earlier books also dealt principally with race relations. Their erudition is correspondingly impressive. The books of both are a sort of summation of their respective historical studies. Fredrickson has distilled and broadened his comparative historical work of many years. Davis, instead, has gathered twenty-six recent essays together, nineteen of which were first published in The New York Review of Books, and has written a new, autobiographical introduction to explain their cohesion. Loury, by contrast, is an economist by training, who, after a conspicuous and volatile academic and public career, concludes in The Anatomy of Racial Equality that the past shapes the present so powerfully that private choice and market behavior cannot be trusted to correct existing wrongs, as he once supposed. His knowledge of the past is far scantier than that of the two historians; but the fact that he is black gives his account of present-day conditions a poignancy and power that not even Davis quite matches.

Fredrickson’s short book deals with the rise and fall of anti-Jewish and anti-black racism in Europe and America, with a side glance at South Africa. The term “racism,” he tells us, only entered historical discourse in the 1920s. In his introduction, he writes,

I pay particular attention [in the appendix] to how investigations of anti-Semitism and white su-premacy have, for the most part, gone their separate ways. In the main body of the book I attempt an extensive comparison of the historical development over the past six centuries of these two most prominent expressions of Western racism. (To my knowledge no one has previously attempted such a study.)

In both instances, Fredrickson deftly combines intellectual with social and political history to explain the emergence of racism and its recent decline. The result is subtle and persuasive. Surveying religious prejudice and other forerunners of racism in late medieval and early modern times, he points out how the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century prepared the way for racism: “Paradoxical as …

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