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African American History Forum

Ideology and Race in American History

Ideology and Race in American History

Barbara J. Fields

The notion of race has played a role in the way Americans think about their history similar to that once played by the frontier and, if anything, more durable. Long after the notion of the frontier has lost its power to do so, that of race continues to tempt many people into the mistaken belief that American experience constitutes the great exception in world history, the great deviation from patterns that seem to hold for everybody else. Elsewhere, classes may have struggled over power and privilege, over oppression and exploitation, over competing senses of justice and right; but in the United States, these were secondary to the great, overarching theme of race. U. B. Phillips once wrote that the determination to preserve a white man's country was the central theme of Southern history. l Today, chastened by the failed hopes of the civil-rights era and genuinely appalled at the ironic turn of events that has seemed at times to give the Ku Klux Klan as much standing in California and Michigan as in Georgia or Mississippi, many humane individuals would regretfully extend Phillips's dictum. The determination to keep the United States a white man's country, they would say, has been the central theme of American, not just Southern, history. Racism has been America's tragic flaw.

Questions of color and race have been at the center of some of the most important events in American experience, and Americans


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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