Obituary: George Fredrickson, Expert on Racism, 73

The nation, and indeed the world, has lost one of the great minds who shaped the scholarship on racism. George Fredrickson, 73 and historian at Stanford University, has died. The New York Times obituary quotes David Brion Davis, a Yale historian, as saying, that Fredrickson’s  White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (Oxford UP, 1981) was, in the field of comparative history:

“a landmark book and a model that has not been superseded”

Fredrickson’s work certainly influenced me and shaped my thinking about white supremacy as a system and a social structure rather than a feature of individual psychology.   Echoing a point I made here a couple of days ago, Douglas Martin, author of the Times obit goes on to say this:

“In the early history of the United States, Mr. Fredrickson wrote, whites needed an ideology of racial superiority to justify importing slaves and uprooting and killing American Indians while pushing to establish an agrarian economy in their new land.

South Africa, by contrast, historically had more tolerance of racial mixing and a more pragmatic definition of whiteness, in large part because of a shortage of “pure” Europeans, especially women, Mr. Fredrickson wrote.

The countries differed in laws governing race. The United States had founding documents promising equality that over many years it tried, fitfully, to live up to. In Mr. Fredrickson’s view, the United States, with its history of slavery before the Civil War, had a worse racial past than South Africa did but a better means, in law, to move on to better relations.

South Africa’s early race relations, while never smooth, were more benign, he said. But in contrast to the American experience, the country’s race relations dramatically worsened, with the establishment of apartheid in 1948, laws that required irrevocable racial segregation. (In 1992, more than a decade after Mr. Fredrickson’s book, South Africans voted to end apartheid.)

Yet in Mr. Fredrickson’s judgment both countries had a huge similarity: both required an ideology of equality of white males to justify ‘dehumanization of blacks.’ “

Fredrickson’s last book (he wrote eight books and edited four) was published this year, titled Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race, is about Abraham Lincoln’s conflicted stance on slavery, emancipation and states’ rights.  His was a great mind and he will be missed.

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