Thursday, June 22, 2017

American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century

Gary Gerstle. American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century.

Gary Gerstle’s America is a place where race relations, particularly racial discrimination, have been the overwhelming catalyst behind both domestic and foreign policy for the entire twentieth century.  His work, American Crucible, charts the impact of race on twentieth century America and the conflict between the competing forces he calls “racial nationalism” and “civic nationalism”.  Civic nationalism is the age-old founding myth of the United States as “the nation’s core political ideals, in the American belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in a democratic government that derives from the people’s consent,” (4). In contrast, racial nationalism “conceives of America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government,” (4). American Crucible makes the case that both ideologies find their roots in America’s founding documents – the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and are therefore embedded features of American political thought.

To make his case, Gerstle starts with Theodore Roosevelt, who becomes his icon for an America that struggles with a desire for a nation that truly meets the criteria of civic nationalism where all citizens are valued for their abilities and all citizens have an equal chance of making a decent life for themselves, but cannot quite keep from using race as a lever.  American Crucible presents the racial basis for Roosevelt’s philosophy of what makes an American and what made the United States a great nation first, which certainly gives the impression that it was the most important part of his philosophy.  The Theodore Roosevelt described believed that the quest to conquer North America from the Indians forced the Scottish, Irish, English, German, Dutch, and Swedish settlers “was enough to weld [them] together into one people,” which caused them to “become Americans, one in speech, though, and character,” (21). This in itself does not seem overly concerned with race, or how it influenced the development of the United State, other than demonstrating Roosevelt’s belief that disparate peoples could be forged into an American whole through adversity.  This is further illustrated by the method he used to recruit men into the Rough Riders, or 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, which included frontiersmen from the Southwest and a leavening of other types of Americans, particularly “the fifty men, most of them athletes, who had come from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale and who possessed a refined sensibility and a capacity for leadership…” and “a smattering of Irishmen and Hispanics, at least one Jew, one Italian, four New York City policemen…” (27). Specifically excluded by Roosevelt were blacks and Asians, who were kept out of the Regiment for the same reasons that Roosevelt praised the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act saying, “From the United States and Australia the Chinaman is kept out because the democracy, with much clearness of vision, has seen that his presence is ruinous to the white race,” (23).

The role of blacks, both in Cuba and in American society, was a vexing problem for Roosevelt, according to Gerstle.  On the one hand TR believed that their importation as slaves was a blight on America because they could not be truly assimilated, and they could not play the role of the savage opponent necessary to bind white Americans together.  Roosevelt also believed that black could not be treated as equals because “Negroes … would not take well to democracy, a form of government that depended on the kind of self-control and mastery that only the white races had attained,” (23). As a result, while Roosevelt praised the skill and effectiveness of black troops in Cuba, because their effectiveness did not mesh with his world-view, he immediately began to diminish their contributions and worked to eliminate them from America’s military services. In essence, the composition of the Rough Riders mirrored Roosevelt’s views on race: any European was welcome as long as they were willing to give up all ties to their former nations.  This combined with Roosevelt’s ideas that all citizens should have equal rights and that government should reign in the excesses of large businesses for the good of all to create a new paradigm in American politics that would come to fruition in the New Deal

Gerstle continues chronologically through the 20th Century cataloging the rise and fall of both racial and civic nationalism, which seems almost cyclical in nature.  Wartime policies seem rooted in racial nationalism, with racially motivated policies appearing during both World Wars, with the most extreme example the internment of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast.  This is not to say that American Crucible neglects the anti-immigrant policies of the 1920s.  Gerstle discusses these in great detail, particularly as they relate to immigration restrictions for Europeans and Asians, as well as the reform policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s.  FDR’s policies included repealing prohibition and increasing immigration quotas.  FDR also focused on the Depression as the enemy, rather than a separate racial group as had Theodore Roosevelt and the World War I generation.

Indeed, FDR ushered in an era where racial nationalism does not seem to be a key component of policy or debate, with the exception of the war in the Pacific, which Gerstle claims was more savage due to racial conflict between Americans and Japanese. The war against Japan, Gerstle contends is a “race war”, fueled by the Japanese assault on American’s belief that they were racially superior to all non-whites. Despite this, Gerstle believes that American intellectuals working with FDR created an image of the United States where “people of all races, creeds, and religions coexisted and prospered,” (195). This illusion survived until the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
American Crucible blames the fall of the new atmosphere of relative tolerance and domination of civil nationalists on three things: the civil rights movement, Black Nationalism, and protests against the Vietnam War.  The reason for the inclusion of the first two is simple: Gerstle argues that, “By forcing a showdown with the racial nationalist tradition, King and his black supporters triggered furious resistance from white Americans who could not accept the elimination of race as a defining characteristic of American nationhood,” (269). This movement, which Gerstle claims was incubated during the New Deal, simply involved black Americans requesting, at long last, their place at the table of political and economic equality.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and his supporters were operating under the assumptions of the civic nationalist New Deal, which proclaimed that all Americans should have equal access to government protections.  Unfortunately, American racial nationalism was still alive.

Gerstle blames the dormant and unchallenged racial nationalism of the South for the rise in Black Nationalism after the Democratic National Convention of 1964, when Freedom Democrat delegates were not seated. The new emphasis by some Civil Rights groups, particularly that of Malcolm X, on “Black Power” and that the uniqueness of black culture had an inherent value, led irrevocably, according to Gerstle to the rise in multiculturalism among ethnic Americans, which increased America’s consciousness of race.

America’s Crucible closes with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which Gerstle seems to see as a victory of sorts for American blacks due to their increased acceptance to positions of responsibility in the United States military, particularly in command positions over white soldiers.  He goes on to address Ronald Reagan’s discomfort with blacks and issues of race, while still trying to promote the ideal that anyone can succeed in attaining the American Dream.

In all, Gerstle does an admirable job of illustrating the centrality of race to the development of the United States in the 20th Century.  Particularly important is the depiction of American reactions to other European “races” such as Italians, Jews, and Irish from the 1890s to the 1920s.  This conception of race may not occur to those steeped in the modern mind-set concerning race relations.  Gerstle also provides valuable in-depth analysis of the Civil Rights movement and its impact on race relations and the continuation of the New Deal and civic nationalism.  However, because American Crucible has not been updated since its original copyright in 2001, it does not deal with issues related to the post-Sept. 11, 2001 world.  He also does not adequately deal with issues of the 1980s and 1990s such as the riots following the Rodney King verdict or the trial of O.J. Simpson for murder.  In future editions, if there are any, discussions of these topics would strengthen American Crucible and make it more valuable for understanding issues of “racial nationalism” in the current time.

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