During his visit to South Africa in 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy addressed a student audience at the University of Cape Town.

I come here today, because of my deep interest in and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, a land taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued and relations with whom are a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which was once an importer of slaves and must now struggle to wipe out the last traces of that form of bondage.

He then paused and delivered his punch line: “I refer, of course to the United States of America.”1 In his catalog of the analogies between American and South African history, Kennedy might well have added one more—the legally mandated segregation that came to be known as Jim Crow in the American South and was called “native segregation” and later “apartheid” in South Africa. When Kennedy spoke, however, the two nations seemed to be on divergent paths: the United States was dismantling Jim Crow, and South Africa was still strengthening its system of apartheid. More than thirty years later the governments of both nations are now committed to legal and political equality for racial and ethnic groups previously considered inferior and unworthy of the full rights of citizenship.

Were there any direct connections between the history of segregation in the two countries? The first Jim Crow laws were passed in the 1880s, before the first efforts at systematic segregation by the Union of South Africa. The abolition of apartheid in 1991 came well after the successes of the civil rights movement in the US. In both cases South Africa lagged roughly twenty to twenty-five years behind the United States. Did American changes in race policy, and the movements that brought them about, have a strong influence on events in southern Africa?

Writing about the campaigns for segregation in both countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the historian John Cell has shown that white South Africans borrowed the term “segregation” itself from American white supremacists; they also borrowed the arguments of white Americans for mandatory racial separation, particularly the claim that legal and political equality during the Reconstruction era in the American South had been disastrous for whites.2 We often hear that the American civil rights movement inspired the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa; but the American movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., remained committed to nonviolence, whereas the African National Congress took up arms after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.3

Were there common patterns of development in the two nations that would account for the history of segregation and desegregation in both? This is the question that Anthony Marx has addressed in Making Race and Nation. He is the first writer I know of to do so by comparing race policy in the United States and South Africa with the experience of Brazil, another multiracial society with a slaveholding past but one that never imposed official segregation. Many authors have written about the contrast between American and Brazilian race relations and on the similarities and differences between the American and South African experiences. But Marx’s book is the only systematic and fairly detailed comparison of race and racism in all three countries yet to appear.

A political scientist by profession, Marx argues that the United States and South Africa adopted policies of racial exclusion and oppression primarily because of the imperatives of “state and nation building” as perceived by political elites who happened to be white. In the United States during the era of sectional conflict and Reconstruction and in South Africa around the turn of the century, order and prosperity—the main goals of any state, according to Marx—were threatened by crises resulting from sectional or ethnic divisions among the enfranchised white citizenry. But, he argues, the conflict between North and South in the United States and the struggle between British and Afrikaner settlers in South Africa had no counterpart in Brazil, where the white population has never been seriously split along regional or ethnic lines.

In the United States, the acquiescence of the federal government to the Jim Crow laws of the Southern states was the price of national solidarity and a necessary device for building a modern state. In other words, Marx argues, blacks were made the scapegoat in order to promote political accommodation among opposing whites. By the 1960s in the United States and by the late 1980s and early 1990s in South Africa, in Marx’s view, white unity was no longer at risk while black resistance had become a serious threat to the health or survival of the state. Ruling elites in both countries chose to abolish discriminatory laws and fully enfranchise blacks so as to promote the same goals of internal peace and prosperity that had earlier led their predecessors to impose segregation.


Marx’s analysis is original and provocative, although it will seem too schematic and abstract for most historians. It makes a strong case for putting a new emphasis on the importance of the state if we want to understand how race and racism came to be treated differently in different societies. In my own research on the United States and South Africa I also found that political conflicts among whites and efforts to resolve them were a recurring factor that helped to account for changes or adjustments in race policy from the colonial period to the present. But, like any explanation that highlights a single factor, Marx’s theses risk oversimplifying a complex and many-sided process.

Marx has little to say, for example, about efforts to resolve or manage another kind of split among whites—the class tensions between employers and workers in industrializing regions or between landlords and tenant farmers in the countryside. For some historians, such conflicts do much to explain the rise of legalized segregation, discrimination, and disfranchisement in the United States and South Africa. By appealing to white racial solidarity in the face of an alleged danger of “black domination” in the South after Reconstruction and in South Africa in the 1920s and 1930s, segregationists could take the edge off potentially explosive antagonisms between well-to-do and poor whites. There is no reason, on the face of it, to prefer Karl Marx to Anthony Marx on this issue, but also no clear reason to prefer Anthony. The pursuit of order and prosperity by the people in charge of the state is difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate from the efforts of class or economic interests among whites to gain control of a larger share of the economy. How do we decide who called the tune? We need only ask “order and prosperity for whom?” to open up questions that Anthony Marx’s sharp distinction between state and society will not answer.

A comparison of economic classes in the three societies could probably explain Brazil’s peculiarities as effectively as Anthony Marx’s emphasis on what was needed for the making of the state. At least until very recently, Brazil has had both a relatively slow rate of economic development and a pattern of patronage and paternalism that produced a social ethos quite unlike the competitive individualism characteristic of American and South African society during the age of segregationism. Because of the strength and pervasiveness of personal ties between rich and poor and black and white, Brazilian society and culture have traditionally discouraged people from basing their identities on class or race. Like people in other pre-modern and pre-industrial societies, Brazilians have tended to identify with their privileged patrons or protectors, rather than with the social class or ethnic group to which they belonged.4

Marx believes racism is as strong in Brazil as it is in the US or South Africa. Most dark-skinned Brazilians, he points out, are poorer and have fewer opportunities than others. For Marx, Brazil’s failure to legalize and institutionalize anything like Jim Crow or apartheid is explained by its lack of deep political conflict among whites. This view can be criticized for ignoring the differences many writers have observed between the relatively relaxed and fluid character of relations among Brazilians of differing skin color and the more sharply defined and well-enforced distinctions between whites and blacks in the United States and South Africa even before they were codified into law. Brazil’s claims to have been a racial democracy have recently been persuasively deflated.5 But Marx’s contention that racism or racial prejudice has been similar in all three countries remains highly debatable.

Black-white relations in the United States and South Africa sooner or later assumed a castelike character that they have never had in Brazil, even though an effective pattern of extralegal discrimination based on color differences persisted in Brazil after slavery was abolished. Interracial marriage was banned in much of the United States from the colonial period to the late 1960s and in twentieth-century South Africa; it has not been illegal in Brazil since its early days as a Portuguese colony. Twentieth-century Euro-Brazilian intellectuals and politicians of European extraction have at times endorsed intermarriage as another way (along with European immigration) to “whiten” their nation.6

This preference for the mostly white over the mostly black is obviously a form of racism, but it is a more tolerant and permissive variety than the fixation with racial purity and the rigid color lines that characterized American or South African racial thought and policies before and during the eras of Jim Crow and apartheid. Unlike Afro-Brazilians, southern African-Americans and black South Africans were commonly treated not merely as social inferiors but as permanent aliens or social outcasts, ineligible even for a limited or second-class citizenship. White American and South African conceptions of their national identities have often betrayed a commitment to white purity and exclusiveness that has no real counterpart in Brazil.


That Brazil’s history was different from that of the United States and South Africa in its post-emancipation racial policies can therefore be partly explained by the special character of its racial or ethnic hierarchy, as well as by the fact that the political unity of white Brazilians was never threatened to an extent that impelled nation builders to find a scapegoat. Despite recent revisionist studies, there is no doubt some truth in the traditional view that Brazil, while still a Portuguese colony or a Portuguese tropical empire—and well before it aspired to be a modern nation-state—established a pattern of racial relations that differed significantly from that which developed in the United States and South Africa. The mulatto, or pardo, stereotype was—and to some extent still is—quite different from that of blacks, or pretos.

Brazil’s limited openness to mixing races offered some mulattoes access to many of the advantages of Euro-Brazilian status. Those who were light-skinned and well-educated could be hired for well-paying jobs, run businesses, buy desirable property, obtain government and military appointments, and marry white partners. The many different color categories in Brazil and the permeability of the boundaries between these categories meant that a system of Jim Crow segregation or apartheid would have been very difficult to impose in Brazil even if there had been a strong political incentive to do so. It was simply too difficult to determine who was what on the basis of physical appearance alone.

South Africa also had a “colored” middle stratum, some of whose members succeeded in passing for white, but this category originated in the mixture of the white-, brown-, and yellow-skinned peoples who lived in the Western Cape during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The “Cape Colored” were in fact an internally diverse group whose members were made into a single category by white census takers in the mid-nineteenth century. They were left in an ambiguous intermediate position when the confrontation between Europeans and Bantu-speaking Africans became the central fact of South African history. No mulatto category emerged from the frontier encounters that led to white dominance over most of South Africa during the nineteenth century. The offspring of the black-white sexual unions that occurred on the frontier normally became members of African tribes rather than “Coloreds.”

The sharp black-white dichotomy that, for most practical purposes, came to characterize the US and South African patterns was therefore not reproduced in Brazil. If Brazil had been unfortunate enough to have had a sectional Civil War in the nineteenth century, it is quite conceivable that the whites and mulattoes would have formed an alliance at the expense of the blacks. The black-mulatto split during the Haitian revolution might have had some parallels in Brazil. The state may be a force in the construction of racial categories; but the societies out of which it constructs national citizenship are conditioned by preexisting patterns of inequality or exclusion that may differ significantly.

Very different from Making Race and Nation, Robert Massie’s Loosing the Bonds tells the story of the relations (both official and private) between the United States and South Africa during the apartheid era. The most interesting questions that it raises are, how and why did apartheid come to an end when it did and, more specifically, to what extent did the African-American struggle for civil rights inspire the anti-apartheid movement?

Deeply researched and rich in its details and personal portraits, Loosing the Bonds is particularly interesting for its exhaustive history of the American anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the campaigns to make institutions and pension funds divest themselves of the stocks they held in companies doing business with South Africa and to use stockholder petitions to pressure these corporations to withdraw from South Africa. Massie describes in great detail the battles over the investment issue that took place at universities, especially Harvard, within various religious denominations, among trustees of city and state pension funds, and at corporate stockholder meetings. As an activist clergyman who took part in some of the events he describes, Massie is exceptionally well qualified to tell the story of this movement. (He took time out to earn a Ph.D. from the Harvard Business School, presumably in order to master the intricacies of the corporate world.) I cannot imagine that anyone else will now write another, comparable history of the American efforts to mount an economic boycott of South Africa.

But how important was this American movement to the overthrow of apartheid? Does its historical significance fully merit the attention that Massie has lavished on it, or was it, as has sometimes been suggested, essentially a “feel-good” movement with limited consequences? Was it an unambiguous moral crusade that offered antiracist liberals of the Seventies and Eighties respite from a domestic race problem that refused to go away after Jim Crow was abolished but for which there seemed to be no clear and straightforward answers?

Massie believes that the American movement for an economic boycott of South Africa contributed significantly to the liberation of blacks in that country, but his careful account does not always support this conclusion. He concedes, for example, that corporate disinvestment, the most popular and seemingly successful tactic of anti-apartheid protesters, often had unintended consequences. As American companies pulled out of South Africa under pressure from individual and institutional stockholders, South African firms purchased their subsidiaries at bargain prices and often got rid of the programs set up by American management to abolish in-house segregation and increase the wages and opportunities for promotion of African employees. (These practices, of course, were not so much the result of corporate initiatives as a response to the moderate wing of the anti-apartheid movement, led by the Reverend Leon Sullivan of Philadelphia, which had encouraged American companies to remain in South Africa so long as they subscribed to a fair employment code.) In retrospect, it seems unfortunate that disinvestment succeeded to the extent that it did; few expected that in a few years a black majority government would be inviting American capital back and getting a disappointing response.

There is no denying, however, that economic pressures such as trade sanctions and the restriction of credit from international banks made both the South African government and the white business leaders of the 1980s calculate the price of apartheid and eventually come to the conclusion that it was too high. The anti-apartheid movements in the United States and other Western countries deserve much of the credit for creating a climate of opinion that forced their governments to put the screws on South Africa in more effective ways than private companies and investors could have ever hoped to do.

How should we weigh this external pressure against the pressure applied by black South Africans struggling to liberate themselves? By the mid-1980s, the United Democratic Front, in alliance with the outlawed African National Congress, had virtually achieved the ANC’s proclaimed goal to make the country “ungovernable,” with internal disorder increasing daily. This provoked widespread, and widely reported, repression by the Botha government; and that repression was the most important cause of trade sanctions and the drying up of credit that brought the South African economy to its knees in the late Eighties. Anthony Marx, in an earlier book on the internal resistance to apartheid, paid almost no attention to the role of international sanctions in the victory of the black liberation movement.7 His comparative study also makes it seem that apartheid was overthrown almost exclusively because black South Africans rose up against it, thus threatening the state’s ability to provide security and prosperity for its citizens and forcing the government to accept a new system of race relations.

The two books under review, it would appear, suggest competing explanations for apartheid’s demise. Massie gives the impression that the external (especially the American) anti-apartheid movement played, if not a central part, at least a critical one in the demise of state-supported segregation in South Africa. Marx, on the other hand, concentrates almost entirely on internal political developments and gives little if any weight to international relationships.


A full explanation for the end of apartheid would have to take both internal and external factors into account, without necessarily giving primacy to either. The internal opposition could not have prevailed at the time that it did without international pressure and support, but that pressure and support would probably not have been forthcoming if there had been little or no internal opposition. It was not so much the sheer injustice of apartheid that set off international revulsion as the government’s brutal treatment of those who protested against it. The Sharpeville massacre of 1960, the mowing down of rioting schoolchildren in Soweto in 1976, and the innumerable arrests, assassinations, and bloody police and military actions of the mid-1980s provoked waves of international protest that finally crested toward the end of the 1980s.

The black resistance movement did not win a war or make a revolution; but it gained political power through negotiations because of a combination of its own ability to stay the course and the fact that the apartheid state and its white constituency were weakened and demoralized. White South Africans suffered from the effects of sanctions and other adverse economic developments, not to mention the cultural and sports boycotts that made them feel like international pariahs.

A full explanation of the fall of apartheid would also have to consider how the end of the cold war affected Great Power attitudes toward conflicts in southern Africa. As the East-West conflict wound down, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev stopped supporting the efforts of the African National Congress to overthrow the white regime by force. The United States in turn lost its fear that a white supremacist South Africa would be replaced by a Soviet-dominated one, a concern that since the Truman administration had justified much of the open or covert US aid to the apartheid regime. By 1990 both sides in the South African conflict were willing to negotiate because each realized that their Great Power patrons had abandoned them; and neither could hope to win a total victory without outside support. Historians may one day view international realignment as the crucial factor that made South Africa change.

International power relations also help to explain the triumph of the American civil rights movement twenty-five years earlier, although in this case it was the cold war itself rather than its demise that was particularly important. Neither Anthony Marx, who tends to treat individual nations as isolated entities, nor Massie, who stresses the antiracist idealism in both the African-American and black South African struggles (and ties them together on that basis), is much interested in weighing the effect of international Realpolitik on shifts in government race policy. Massie, however, presents evidence that the Kennedy administration was moved to support civil rights, in large part at least, because of cold war considerations. It was a great embarrassment, to take a mundane example, when diplomats from newly independent African nations that both the Soviet Union and the United States were assiduously cultivating were denied service at restaurants or had trouble finding apartments in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Three senators returning from a 1961 fact-finding tour to Africa reported to their colleagues that “racial discrimination in the United States probably is the most important of all natural barriers to a better understanding between Africa and this country.”

No one has made a full study of the effect of the cold war competition for “the hearts and minds” of Africans and Asians on the federal policy toward black civil rights in the early 1960s, but the evidence I have seen suggests that it was substantial. As in the South African case, however, the black protest movement and the brutal response that it sometimes evoked from the authorities made headlines throughout the world and greatly intensified the belief of US leaders that the persistence of Jim Crow was undermining America’s international standing. Domestic “reasons of state” clearly played a role in the death of segregation in the United States, as Marx claims. But just as important, if not more important, were America’s power relations with other states.

Massie is on firm ground when he demonstrates the very close connections between the domestic struggle for racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s and the American anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s. As early as 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., called for an extensive economic boycott of South Africa. King’s plan for nonviolent opposition to apartheid by people outside South Africa was inspired by the effective use of boycotts in King’s campaigns against segregation in the South. Many American civil rights activists threw themselves into the campaign against apartheid, and it was clear in their own minds that they were fighting the same war on another front.

It is more difficult, however, to determine whether the African-American struggle against segregation had a significant influence on the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front in their battle to end apartheid in South Africa. More for pragmatic than for ideological reasons, the ANC had tried nonviolent protest in the 1950s; it gave it up as futile and even suicidal when the police opened fire on nonviolent demonstrators at Sharpeville in 1960 and the government subsequently banned black protest organizations. That same year, 1960, sit-ins erupted throughout the South and the African-American nonviolent struggle really got off the ground. Nonviolence simply does not work against a government that has no compunction about killing unarmed protesters. Hence the major differences between the American and South African situations—in one case the central government was amenable to persuasion by nonviolent protesters and in the other it was not—set the movements on divergent courses. Ideologically they were already out of sync. By the mid-1950s, the ANC conceived of itself as a revolutionary third world liberation movement that expected help from the Soviet Union and opposition from the United States; it clearly was not drawn to the kind of reformist struggle for inclusion in a liberal capitalist society that was carried on by the early civil rights movement in the United States.

But in the late 1980s, when apartheid was beginning to be dismantled and protest demonstrations were tolerated for the first time since the 1950s, the American example suddenly took on new relevance. Church leaders like Desmond Tutu and Alan Boesak led marches and sit-ins, frequently invoking the spirit and rhetoric of King and leading their followers in the freedom songs of the American civil rights movement. After he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela praised the African-American struggle and identified himself with it, a position that suited the ANC, which had by then renounced violence and socialism in exchange for the vote and the chance for blacks to compete with whites for the material rewards of a capitalist economy.

Making Race and Nation and Loosing the Bonds have sharply contrasting strengths and weaknesses. If Anthony Marx’s perspective is too schematic to do full justice to historical contingencies and to some of the significant characteristics of the societies he is examining, his bold and provocative argument illuminates an important and previously neglected facet of the comparative history of race relations. He has brought the state into the discussion of how race is made in a way that will make it impossible to ignore in the future. Massie might be criticized for his relentless concentration on details and for his reluctance to make general assessments, but he effectively conveys a sense of the extent to which history is made by individuals and small groups rather than by faceless, impersonal forces. No pair of books could convey a stronger impression of the differences between two ways of dealing with the past—historical social science and narrative history. Each approach has earned its place, but one might reasonably wish for less segregation and more miscegenation. Read together, these two books add considerably, albeit in their very different ways, to our understanding of the rise and fall of official segregation in South Africa and the United States.

This Issue

May 6, 1999