White Supremacy

The most important subject for comparative study in American history is the rise and fall of that “peculiar institution,” Afro-American slavery. In the last thirty-five years, a significant body of literature has appeared that has compared the slave system in the United States with slavery in Latin America. These works have sparked a lively and continuous debate.

The first of these works was Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas, published in 1946. This book presented the thesis that the treatment of slaves was milder in Latin America than in the United States, a difference attributed by Tannenbaum to the strength of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, which encouraged better treatment for and more frequent manumission of slaves.

Also important to Tannenbaum was how the freedmen fared after they were released. Again he argued that the freedmen were treated better in the Latin American nations than in the United States. The work of Stanley Elkins and Herbert Klein confirmed this view of important differences between the slave systems of British America and Latin America.

In 1966, David Brion Davis in The Problem of Slavery in Western Cultures offered the first important critique of the Tannenbaum-Elkins-Klein thesis. Davis maintained that Tannenbaum stressed the differences in the slave systems to the neglect of the many similarities. He further felt that, if there were differences, they were caused not so much by the legal and cultural heritage but by economic differences, the number of slaves involved, the type of slave employment, and the ratio of slaves to whites. Carl Degler and H. Hoetink have strengthened the thesis that it was the economic situation that shaped the slave system and not the Catholic Church or the King of Spain.

George M. Fredrickson in White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History not only continues the comparative approach regarding slave and citizen but expands the historical purview to include another area of the world for a frame of reference—South Africa. Fredrickson is not the first to compare South Africa with the American South; William Wilson in his analysis of racism in Power, Racism and Privileges (1976) and Kenneth P. Vickery in an article in 1974, “Herrenvolk Democracy and Egalitarianism in South Africa and the U.S. South,” have produced interesting works comparing South Africa with the United States South, but Fredrickson is the first to break new historical ground by his careful analysis and superb scholarship.

This work is a model study in the growing field of comparative history. Using a large number of sources in American and African history, Fredrickson has also used significant works in the social sciences. He has given his readers the perspective needed to understand the complex field of race relations, covering two continents and three hundred years of history with a sensible organization and clear approach.

Six general topics are presented in the work: (1) the opening of these two frontiers to white settlement and the awakening of the settlers to new conditions and native dangers; (2) the development of slavery and the working out of a slave culture; (3) race mixing and the drawing of a color line; (4) sectional conflict with central authorities and the results of these disagreements; (5) the emergence of industrialization and the growth of class and racial conflict; (6) the appearance of Jim Crow in the South and apartheid in South Africa. What gives this work its unity is the author’s focus on the white man’s policies and beliefs and the understanding that this “emphasis provides . . . the causes, character, and consequences of white supremacy in the two societies.”

In both South Africa and the American South there were long, bloody wars between whites and natives for control of the land. To rationalize the taking of the land and the destruction of native culture, the whites used the religious and social differences between themselves and the natives: conquest was idealized as a struggle between heathen savages and civilized Christian whites. When religious fervor and the issue of racial inferiority sparked confrontations, the end result was usually death and the removal of the natives.

Fredrickson points out the interesting fact that the removal of southern Indian tribes to the trans-Mississippi West occurred at the same time, the 1830’s, as the Great Trek of the Voortrekkers from the Cape Colony to the area north of the Great Fish River. There were, however, crucial differences in these removals. In the United States, the natives were forcibly removed by the American government to make way for white farmers; in South Africa, the Boers trekked northward because of the refusal of the British government to provide them with land to increase the size of their farms. Unlike the American farmers, the Boers often felt like a persecuted minority. Thus the Great Trek was as much a reaction against unpopular governmental policies as it was a search for new lands.


(The entire section is 2093 words.)


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