We already have a sizable shelf of comparative histories of slavery and race relations, subjects that have attracted special attention from the comparativists. Of these works most have been concerned with comparisons between Anglo-America and Latin America or the West Indies, all of them plantation societies with large populations of African origin and common experiences of slavery, emancipation, and racial adjustment. Early studies contained moral and admonitory preoccupations and stressed the contrast between rigidity and harshness toward slaves in North America and flexibility and mildness in Latin cultures. Later studies have modified the contrast, but have never entirely abandoned making invidious and admonitory comparisons.

George M. Fredrickson is the first to undertake a comparison of the two nations where the term “white supremacy” applies with special force—South Africa and the United States. Author of one of our best histories of white racial attitudes in America,1 he has also mastered South African history in preparation for this difficult task of comparison. His purpose is “to increase understanding of the processes examined rather than to make direct moral judgments.” These he leaves up to his readers. “Models” and “macrocosmic theory” he leaves up to social scientists and resolves to keep his study “within the bounds of an essentially humanistic discipline.” Another distinctive mark of Fredrickson’s method is his refusal to postulate any “fixed pattern” of race relations on either side—as some historians have done in comparing New World societies. Instead he sees these relations constantly changing within a perpetually shifting historical context. He is acutely aware of “enormously significant differences,” especially in demography, between the two countries.

White supremacy began in both countries in the seventeenth century with the domination of aborigines who were not black, and was preceded by “rehearsals” elsewhere on the part of the parent nations. In England the brutal subjugation of the “Wild Irish,” the Celtic “savages,” prior to colonizing Ulster, was such a rehearsal. At the same time the Dutch commercially exploited the East Indies with the milder motives of trade, without the need for expropriation of the land or extermination of the natives. The English repeated their experience in colonizing America, treating the Indians as they had the “wild Irish.” The Dutch repeated theirs at the Cape of Good Hope, where the Hottentots were not shoved aside or exterminated but were eventually deprived of their native culture and their biological identity through mixing.

Neither the English nor the Dutch found the indigenous populations suitable subjects for slavery or satisfactory solutions for labor supplies. Both resorted to importing lower-class surplus populations from the mother country as “indentured servants,” which amounted to temporary enslavement. At the Cape this phase was quickly ended by the arrival of black slaves from Angola, so that the Cape Colony “was virtually born as a multi-racial slave society,” somewhat like South Carolina a bit later. The transition to black slavery took longer in the Chesapeake colonies, where the enslavement of Christians of whatever color was nominally barred until 1667. At that time the religious exemption was removed and race rather than “heathenism” became the essential criterion and justification of enslavement. The same shift followed a century later at the Cape. In both lands the slaveholding mentality was “the well-spring of white supremacist thought and action” then and long after the end of slavery.

One aspect of American racial dogma for which there is no parallel in South Africa—or anywhere else for that matter—is the unique two-category or “descent rule” of racial classification. By this rule all descendants of mixed unions are arbitrarily classified with their black progenitors, so that the mixture is perceived as the modification of one race with no modification of the other, the white. This “unilateral” character of American miscegenation resulted from the social position assigned people of mixed race. South African whites were, by contrast, much more permissive in the assimilation of racially mixed people. Children of a mixed marriage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were likely to be accepted as white in the third generation, if not before. Legal intermarriage between races was quite common in the Cape, and was not made illegal until 1948. “In such a society,” as Fredrickson says, “there was no hard and fast line between white and part-white,” and “substantial infiltration of the white population by those of non-European origin obviously occurred, contrary to the myth of Afrikaner race purity that later developed.”

The nearest equivalent of this South African interracial mobility in the United States was “passing for white.” But this covert means of crossing racial barriers was much more restrictive than the permissive assimilation of the Cape, where rigid caste barriers were not erected until more than a century after they had arisen in North America. One legacy of the early era of race mixing is the people that became known in the nineteenth century as the Cape Coloreds. Their recognition as a distinctive class marks an increase of racial consciousness but, according to Fredrickson, the racial exclusiveness for American whites “was never an essential feature of South African white supremacy.” In the United States, except in a few parts of the South, “white supremacists have enjoyed the luxury of a kind of exclusiveness that is probably unparalleled in the annals of racial inequality.”


In treating the Cape Coloreds, particularly their late move to identify with the black majority and make common cause with them, Fredrickson might have made more of the comparison with American mulattoes had a recent history of them by Joel Williamson been available to him.2 Williamson addresses the question: “Why is it that American mulattoes of all shades have been brusquely relegated to a simple Negro caste along with blacks and, further, have come eagerly to embrace that identity?” His first answer is that it was not always so. In the lower South before about 1850 free mulattoes formed a third class whose relations with whites “had a distinct West Indian flavor.” They stressed their whiteness and allied with the dominant race to whom they were tied by kinship and culture. They could and did marry into white families. The “door to whiteness” was kept open. This was especially true in South Carolina, with its strong ties to Barbados, and in Louisiana, with its long Latin and West Indian connections.

Then came “the great changeover” between 1850 and 1915 when whites rejected miscegenation and any degree of mixture. Mulattoes formed an affinity with blacks during the Civil War and cemented the alliance during Reconstruction. They later experimented with identities such as “the new Negro” and “brown America,” but in the 1960s the alliance became a union. They renounced their whiteness and embraced their blackness, and white became black by their own volition. If something of the sort occurred among the Cape Coloreds, it developed much later.

In spite of obvious disparities in the political history of the two countries, especially in chronological sequence of events, enough common themes emerge to furnish ground for fruitful comparison. They include wars for independence and for union, sectional conflicts, secessions, civil wars, emancipations, reconstructions, reunions, and reactions. In each of these events in both countries racial policies and issues played a part. With astuteness and insight, Fredrickson exploits opportunities for comparative analysis and leaves no received wisdom about race relations in either country entirely undisturbed. Such is their complexity and abundance that his findings can only be samples here.

Both slave societies, he finds, eventually developed an ideology of “Herrenvolk democracy”—the equality of all white males—to justify white supremacy, and each developed its own style of patriarchalism. Rough equality of economic status made Herrenvolk democracy more of a literal reality in South Africa than in the Old South, before land engrossment in the former created a class of poor whites. Afrikaners were more relaxed than southerners about the innate inferiority of blacks, taking it for granted, and developing no more than a primitive racism and no pro-slavery doctrine to speak of. They produced nothing so sophisticated in either respect as the doctrine of the southern planters. With the Afrikaners, racial purity was an afterthought, not to be taken too literally.

Resistance to threat of abolition and reform took different shapes of nationalism and secession in the two societies. The Vortrekkers seceded with their feet to found independent republics in remote wilds. They tended to be more anti-British than anti-black and more nationalist than racist, as compared to Confederate secessionists, though both were firm white supremacists. In the ensuing civil wars, both Boers and British were constrained by a tacit understanding from using black troops on either side. No such gentleman’s agreement prevailed in the American Civil War. Union reliance on black troops brought on transformations in race relations in the South of a kind that did not result from the British victory over the Boers. Afrikaner and Cape Whites were confronted with nothing so traumatic as universal black suffrage. Humanitarian and egalitarian urges subsided as quickly among northern Republicans as among British imperialists, however, and neither consistently challenged the presumption of white domination. Both American and British liberal-capitalist reformers fell short of realizing their ideal of a classic free-labor market. The roads to reunion taken after the wars differed in many respects, but both were paved with betrayed black hopes and aspirations.

Since white supremacy attitudes and policies developed in preindustrial settings on both sides of the ocean, “it makes little historical sense” to Fredrickson to attribute them to industrial capitalism. Nor does the Marxist model of class formation apply in societies where this process was impeded by cultural and racial pluralism and where the working population was fragmented along ethnic lines. Abundant cheap labor for industry was provided on one side by European immigrants and on the other by black natives, but the form of racial discrimination differed radically in the two societies. In both, blacks were economically segmented in different ways. In the United States they were excluded from industry for a long period except in parts of the deep South and confined largely to agriculture. In South Africa they were put into the mines under fixed contracts, housed in compounds under strict supervision, and paid ultra-low wages. White miners, on the grounds of allegedly superior skills, were paid more than ten times the wages of Africans. By such means competition between the races was forestalled or minimized in both economies.


Interracial competition became a threat early in the twentieth century as southern blacks moved into the northern labor market and Afrikaner “poor whites” were driven into the cities in desperate need of jobs. In the northern states the threat of black competition was countered by private employers, by racially exclusive craft unions, and by violence, but it was not completely blocked. In South Africa a white miners’ strike to exclude blacks from semiskilled jobs escalated into an armed insurrection, the Rand Rebellion of 1922. Government troops crushed the strike with tanks and planes and killed hundreds of rebels. Two years later, however, the backlash against the repression brought to power a new government, a coalition of Afrikaner Nationalists and the Labour Party, that in 1926 enacted a strict industrial “color bar” and “civilized wages” for white workers. The effect was to transform the white working class into a labor “aristocracy” that shared with businessmen and farmers an interest in holding down Africans and avoiding class conflict among whites.

Forced racial segregation would normally be the first subject that comes to mind in any comparison of the United States and South Africa, and indeed Fredrickson calls this “the most striking institutional expression of white supremacy” in the two countries. South Africa may have borrowed the term “segregation” from the South, where Jim Crow laws flourished between the 1890s and 1960s, and were paralleled in the political sphere by disfranchisement laws that excluded blacks from the electorate. Segregation as a deliberate public policy was delayed in South Africa, however, until a self-governing union was established in 1910, and only after the Nationalist Party won the election of 1948 on a platform of “apartheid” were the full rigors of “separate development” and “homelands” realized and the remaining loopholes closed. Both the South and South Africa proceeded on the “separate-but-equal” fiction, but the latter explicitly abandoned it and authorized inferior facilities for nonwhites by an act of 1953—only a year before the Brown decision of the US Supreme Court. Thus the two segregated societies were by that time set on opposite courses.

In spite of resemblances in practice, ideology, and spirit, major and substantial differences existed between the Jim Crow system of the South and apartheid of South Africa. As Fredrickson puts it in the title of his chapter on the subject, there were “Two Strange Careers” of Jim Crow, and the differences were “of such degree as to cast doubt on the value of a detailed comparison.” Territorial segregation assigned Africans to “homelands,” but made them a reservoir of cheap labor for white convenience in the rest of the country. It was as if American whites had used their Indian reservation system for blacks, as if the blacks were the great majority of the population, and as if they constituted the main labor supply of the cities with no civil rights when off the reservations.

The kind of segregation most familiar to Americans, separate Jim Crow public services, facilities, transportation, and amenities for blacks, is described in South Africa as “petty apartheid,” and is a relatively superficial aspect of the larger pattern of African-European relations. While inconvenient and humiliating for Africans, “it was a minor irritant when compared to the pass system and the industrial color bars.” The significance of relaxing the more expendable parts of “petty apartheid” as reforms in response to foreign criticism can easily be exaggerated by Americans, because their experience of segregation was so different. The laws of the South were directed at a minority race, people who had never been geographically segregated, and who shared white culture to a much greater degree than did South African natives and were at least theoretically citizens of a democratic nation and not conquered aliens.

It is the experience of the Cape Coloreds since emancipation that, according to the author, “more closely parallels the ‘strange career of Jim Crow’ in the South.” Both groups are descended largely from slaves rather than from indigenous conquered people who retained their traditional culture. Both are of racially mixed origins, though of different degree, and were profoundly influenced by white or European culture over periods of three centuries or more. They also represent similar proportions of the populations in both the nations and the regions of the nations in which they have been concentrated. But of greater significance are the parallels of historical experience undergone by Afro-Americans and Cape Coloreds since slavery. These include the granting of equality under the law and access to suffrage, followed by the loss of most of these rights under a wave of white supremacy extremism. The Jim Crow laws that overwhelmed Afro-Americans in the period 1890-1910 did not strike Cape Coloreds fully until the 1940s and 1950s.

Preceding these periods of repressive white supremacy in both the South and the Cape there was an era of relaxed race relations when separatism was more informal, voluntary, or customary than it became under legal segregation. Fredrickson calls it “laissez-faire segregation.” He thinks the current tendency to belittle the difference between that era and the following era of full Jim Crow in the South and Colored apartheid in the Cape “can be misleading” for several reasons. The new legal rules universalized and rigidified the system, removed anomalies, loopholes, and confusions of class and race, insulated all whites regardless of class from interracial contact, and relegated all Coloreds regardless of class or attainments to inferior accommodations and status. Disfranchisement implied much the same as legal segregation: restrictions of the full rights of citizenship and the fruits of the economy by race.

Fredrickson is not one to draw morals or point lessons. He does venture the opinion, however, that the only prospect for lasting survival of whites in South Africa lies in their abdicating their privileged position, and that “the history of white supremacy in South Africa provides little hope for such an outcome.” And in order “to help deflate any notion that white Americans have a kind of innate moral superiority over white South Africans,” he reminds us of Indian-white relations and what might have happened had demographic tables been turned and the defeated red people been in the same proportion as black people are in South Africa. As for the progress of black-white relations in America, he points out that “equality and fraternity do not result automatically from the elimination of Jim Crow laws and practices.”

Left for a long time to amateurs, comparative history has lately captured growing attention from professionals. It was the main theme of a recent convention of the American Historical Association, and it is the subject of all the articles in the latest number of that organization’s official journal. In the leading article, “The Case for Comparing Histories,” Raymond Grew, himself the coeditor of another journal devoted entirely to comparative studies, has this to say for his argument:

To look at other cases is to see other outcomes. By considering them, the historian wins some freedom from the tyranny of what happened and develops that awareness of alternatives—of a missing revolution, of banks that were not formed, of parliaments that did not meet, of populations that failed to increase—that underlies some of the most provocative of historical questions. We are easily blinded by the obvious…only comparison establishes that there is something to be explained.3

George Fredrickson’s White Supremacy is a major contribution to the art of historical comparison and it richly illustrates what can be done in the way of removing the blinders of the obvious and the parochial.

This Issue

March 5, 1981