Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Race and Politics in Twentieth Century America

Gerstle, Gary. American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

This book explores the most important twentieth-century ideas about what it meant, and means, to be an American. Gary Gerstle sets out to provide a schema, a framework by which readers can understand and make sense of U.S. political, military, and social history during the 1900s.

Gerstle's thesis centers on a competition between what he calls civic nationalism versus racial nationalism. He uses the first phrase to refer to what has been called "the American Creed." That is to say, civic nationalism means American civic principles and rights. It is characterized by its disregard for racial and ethnic distinctions. Consider, for example, the very-American sounding statement, "Here in the U.S., it doesn't matter where you're from or what color you are, if obey the law and are willing to work hard, you'll eventually get ahead." That's an expression of what Gerstle is calling civic nationalism. By contrast, racial nationalism asserts that only people of a certain race and ethnic origin are qualified to lead in America and to enjoy all of the privileges granted by the U.S.

"In this book," says Gerstle, "I argue that the pursuit of these two powerful and contradictory ideals--the civic and the racial--has decisively shaped the history of the American nation in the twentieth century" (p. 5). But this is no liberal-versus-conservative telling of the story. The author says that his is "particularly interested in how liberals and their supporters wrestled with the contradictions between the two nationalist traditions" (6).

In short, Gerstle asserts and sets out to demonstrate that his deceptively simple model--civic nationalism versus racial nationalism--represents a powerful lens through which to look back on the history of the U.S. during the entire twentieth century.

The author acknowledges his dependence on Benedict Anderson's book, Imagined Communities, which, says Gerstle, explains that nations are "sociopolitical creations" and as such are "historically contingent." He also acknowledges the inspiration and direction that came to him through works by W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880; Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom; David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness; Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom; and Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (11-13).

In his "Introduction," Gerstle lays out both his thesis and his interpretation of America during the 1900s. He says that many, perhaps even most American liberals of the early twentieth century believed in "the superiority of a racialized melting pot." But they typically "did not think to include blacks, Hispanics, or Asians in their American crucible" (6). In fact, at that time many Americans with ancestral roots in northeastern Europe believed that even people from eastern and southern Europe would likely never become full-fledged Americans. On the other hand was what liberal Herbert Croly called "the promise of American life," a vision that President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a racist of sorts, placed at the center of his progressivist vision (7).

Gerstle notes that the competition between these two visions of nationhood heated up during times of war. Later, the "Rooseveltian" nation fell apart during the 1960s as a result of the Civil Rights revolution (9). By 1970, "neither the civic nor racial traditions of American nationalism retained enough integrity to serve as rallying points for those who wished to put the nation back together" (10).

In his "Epilogue," which considers the last 25 years of the twentieth century, Gerstle looks back over the wreckage left from the 1960s and early 70s. He says that from 1975 to 2000, Americans identified two new possible and, again, competing directions for the nation: a commitment to multiculturalism versus a renewal of traditional pride in a unified America. He suggests that the presidency of Bill Clinton represented a third option, which drew, in certain ways, on both of those ideas.

I have to confess that as I read American Crucible, I kept waiting for the author to overplay his hand, or for his interpretive framework to break down. From my vantage point, neither of those happened in this book. So I consider Gerstle's thesis a good way of thinking about the history of politics and race in the U.S. during the twentieth century. And, as the grandson of people who immigrated to the U.S. from southern Italy in 1897, for me the insights of this book sometimes hit fairly close to home.

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