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    America is the only well-established nation in the world that still insists on having Founding
    Fathers, as if we had but two generations, a tiny founding one and a vast and disappointing second
    one.  All we are meant to inherit are the principles of the Founding Fathers.  Doesn't that create
    something of a void after 1792?  It is a void we have filled, principally, with race, time out of
    mind.  we took the idea of freedom and made it a racial idea, which meant it had to appear as racial
    separatism, in one form or another, which means that we have been chasing our freedom like a dog
    chasing its tail.
        -Scott L. Malcomson, One Drop of Blood

This is a really interesting book on the complicated, often tragic, history of race relations in America.  While the general focus is on European whites, native American and Blacks,  Malcomson's specific topics range from the voyages of exploration to religion to literature to politics, from Christopher Columbus to James Fenimore Cooper to minstrel shows to Black Muslims to the Symbionese Liberation Army to the Oklahoma City Bombing. The author shows an impressive command of these varied topics and does an excellent job of tying them all together into a readable narrative.

Unfortunately though, the unifying theme of the book is that race relations are central to the nation's history, an assumption which is unsupported by the facts.  There have certainly been a series of violent encounters between the races, and they have produced some fairly catastrophic effects, but they have only occupied the national consciousness for very brief periods and their ultimate effect has been beneficial for non-whites.  I recognize how heartless that sounds, but bear with me.

In the first instance, Europeans came into contact with "native" peoples during the initial discovery, exploration and settlement phase of history.  It is unarguably the case that this contact had tremendous
consequences for both races.  Within a few hundred years the natives were completely displaced, their population decimated by disease and by warfare, both delivered by the white newcomers.  But in the context of this book, the question is not really whether there were effects but how important a role race played in them and how enduring the focus on race was in driving the process.

As a threshold matter, you have to give the original settlers the benefit of the doubt and accept their claim that they initially hoped to convert and civilize the natives, not destroy them.  The fact that European diseases proved so fatal to the previously unexposed natives was merely a stroke of bad fortune, not a product of genocidal calculation.  The inability to rapidly Westernize the natives, regardless of the reasons, made conflict between the races inevitable, but seems to have little to do with race itself.  Try a simple thought experiment : suppose that the natives had been caucasian but had clung to polytheistic and animistic religious beliefs and refused to adopt Western manners and morals.  Is there any reason to believe that the Europeans would have treated them any differently?  Consider the way the British treated the Irish before you answer.  Alternatively, suppose that the natives had either been at a similar stage of cultural development when they were discovered or that they had eagerly embraced European manners and morals.  Is it not likely that Europeans would have been more deferential, regardless of the natives' race?  Consider the example of Japan and China.

Once hostilities commenced, they may have been pursued more ruthlessly because of racial differences, but it is difficult to see how the rapidly expanding European powers could have ever left huge swathes of the New World in the hands of technologically primitive people who were incapable or unwilling to exploit the natural resources.  But more important to the issue at hand, once the long process of wresting the entire New World from native hands got underway, it's outcome was preordained; in fact, it came to be called Manifest Destiny.  Given the palpable sense that the process would continue, was perhaps even divinely sanctioned, doesn't the race of the natives become a fairly insignificant factor?  Like the wilderness itself, they became little more than an obstacle to be overcome.  It's hard to imagine that most whites even gave them any consideration when contemplating an American Empire which would spread from sea to sea, let alone that they were obsessed with the racial component of the process.  In it's own way this may speak ill of those whites, but it certainly dispels racism or racialism as the central factor in this episode of history.

Subsequent developments also suggest that race and racism were not the paramount focus in relations between whites and natives.  First, once the natives were moved out of the way of development they were largely forgotten.  The reservation system may have been a form of apartheid and was surely an injustice, but one they were established, there was no organized white violence directed towards them.  Second, to the extent that white America did continue to have contact with the reservations it was to try and foster Christianity and Western values, which suggests that assimilation continued to be a goal.  Third, though natives were sometimes portrayed as savages, they were almost always portrayed as noble savages.  Everywhere from western novels and movies to current New Age spiritualism, the natives are celebrated, not demonized, in the popular culture.  Finally, as the native population has taken advantage of the law to plunge into the gaming industry, they have been greeted with white customers, not with any systematic attempt to stifle their success.  All of these things run counter to what we would expect to find in a society where race is truly the defining issue.  And the end result is that natives today are more numerous, healthier, longer lived and enjoy a substantially higher standard of living than they did at first contact.  Without excusing the harsh treatment they received at the hands of whites, they must be said to have benefited in the long run.

Relations between blacks and whites are obviously even more complex, mostly because the two races have lived in such greater proximity to one another.  It's not possible to treat here all of the issues raised by these relations, but just take the most significant moments or trends from the relationship :  blacks were transported to America and enslaved by whites; the Declaration of Independence and Constitution established an intellectual disconnect, positing that all men are created equal and born free, but countenancing the continuation of slavery; within 70- years this situation was rectified in the Civil War; despite being technically free, blacks faced crippling discrimination for a century after the War; finally, in the early 60s, blacks demanded and received the civil rights they had been promised.  This is a long and tangled history even in such a ridiculously condensed version, but these are really the only four points at which race is the central issue, or one of them, in American life.  It does not necessarily speak well of us, but it is particularly noticeable that these occasions are so rare and are of such brief duration.  Racial tension may bubble beneath the surface most of the rest of the time, but it is simply not true that race occupies an inordinate place in the national consciousness.

Malcomson opens the book with a discussion of the Oklahoma City Bombing, to illustrate his thesis that race and racism are central to American life.   He portrays Tim McVeigh as being motivated primarily by racial hatred and argues that because initial suspicion for the blast centered on the likelihood of an Islamic perpetrator and because the blast, despite claiming numerous minority lives, is seen as having occurred in the white heartland, McVeigh in some fashion achieved his separatist goal.  This is merely the first of Malcomson's many attempts to load his thesis with more weight than it will bear.  First, in the political climate of the past several decades it was perfectly reasonable to suppose that the bombing might have been carried out by Islamic terrorists; this assumption, though erroneous, was logical rather than racist.  Second, I have no doubt that Tim McVeigh is a racist, but that hardly seems to have been his primary motivation in the bombing.  His animus towards the federal government would certainly seem to outweigh his animus towards people of color.  If the intended message of his terrorist act was racial couldn't he have found an NAACP office somewhere?  In fact, he just bombed a generic government building and did so on the anniversary of the government's attack on the Branch Davidian.  Race may have played a role but it would have been a secondary one.

Suppose though that the bombing was racial--what then did it reveal about the state of race relations in America.  The public reaction was uniform horror and disbelief; there was no significant level of support for the action.  After an initial bout of false rumors concerning Arab bombers, the full weight of law enforcement was brought to bear to catch and try the bombers.  McVeigh and Terry Nichols were convicted and, while Nichols got life without parole, McVeigh was condemned to death.  This hardly seems to indicate a society which treats racism lightly.

No, as I say, the book is interesting and has much to recommend it.  There may be no better single source to turn to for a thorough examination of the role that race has played in American history.  But the importance role of race, which is undeniable, does not de facto place it at the core of our history.  A little less hyperbole and a little broader perspective would have helped greatly.  There's also a great deal of personal background information and a fair bit of travelogue, both of which might have worked better in a separate book.  Those qualifications notwithstanding, it is often fascinating, always thought provoking and ultimately hope filled.


Grade: (B-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Color of Blood
    -ARTICLE : The Color of Bones : How a 9,000-year-old skeleton called Kennewick Man sparked the strangest case of racial profiling yet. (SCOTT L. MALCOMSON)
    -REVIEW : of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America  By ANGELA D. DILLARD (SCOTT L. MALCOMSON, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY :  BREAKTHROUGH BOOKS : The American West :  We asked seven historians to recommend the best recent books  about the American West : Scott L. Malcomson, author of One Drop of Blood: The  American Misadventure of Race (Lingua Franca)
    -BOOK SITE : One Drop of Blood by Scott L. Malcomson (FSB Assocoiates)
    -REVIEW : of One Drop of Blood by Scott Malcomson (Orlando Patterson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of One Drop of Blood (Jacqueline Jones, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW : of ONE DROP OF BLOOD: The American Misadventure of Race By Scott L. Malcolmson (Marilyn Harris , Business Week)
    -REVIEW : of  ONE DROP OF BLOOD The American Misadventure of Race By Scott L. Malcomson (Jim Sleeper, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of "One Drop of Blood" by Scott L. Malcomson In a panoramic study of American racial reality, whites, blacks and Indians jostle for position from Colonial times to the present (Dan Cryer, Salon)

    -ESSAY : Whiteness (Susan Wise Bauer, Books & Culture)
    -The Afrocentric Experience :  Commentaries On Reparations