Race, Ethnicity, and Urbanization: Selected Essays. – book reviews
Randall M. Miller
This collection of previously published, virtually unrevised, and wholly unrepentant essays spans writings from the mid-1970s through 1991. It covers such topics as readings of the several editions and impact of C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, case studies of segregation, comparative perspectives on race relations, profiles of southern urban development, and reflections on “the new social history.” The book demonstrates anew why historian Howard Rabinowitz commands so much respect among American scholars. Rabinowitz writes to be read. Common sense rules his thought, and clear expression graces his pages. Rabinowitz eschews social theory, psychological constructs, or other abstractions that keep him away from the sources, for what interests Rabinowitz most of all is what happened in the past and why. Historical truth, for Rabinowitz, is never predetermined; nor is it fitted to serve a contemporary social, cultural, or political interest, however worthy. Rabinowitz recognizes that historical truth is often ambiguous, even contradictory, and is only discovered by getting down to cases and getting behind the perspectives of the various participants in each story.
Such an approach has allowed Rabinowitz to look closely at segregation in the American South, the subject most abundantly represented in this collection. Rabinowitz’s major contribution to the debate on the origins of segregation – echoed here in his introduction, his reviews of Woodward’s work, and his several essays on race relations in the urban South from 1865 to 1900 – was to move the discussion on southern race relations from its segregation-integration axis, which was spinning intellectual wheels in the well-rutted debate on the validity of the so-called Woodward thesis, to an exclusion-accessibility continuum. Rather than leaving blacks as objects of others actions, Rabinowitz viewed such matters as segregation through blacks’ eyes. For most blacks, Rabinowitz discovered, the issue was not segregation but exclusion. With freedom blacks gained access to public facilities, transportation, and education. Separate schools, for example, were better than no schools at all. Segregation from that perspective marked an improvement, not a setback, for blacks. Through acts of self-segregation, as in their move out of white churches into their own, blacks asserted their own rights and laid the groundwork for their own communities. With few blacks able to afford access to first-class accommodations and with habits of separation in operation, the question for Rabinowitz becomes why whites turned at all to Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “why it became necessary to legalize customary practices” (54). The answers reside in part in blacks’ own attitudes and behavior as a new generation of blacks, born after slavery, arose, but they reside more in white attitudes, class tensions, and politics. The effects of those laws remain unclear. As Rabinowitz points out, few scholars have studied the ways specific laws shaped behavior and policies. Curiously, Rabinowitz largely ends his own story with the coming of the Jim Crow laws and disfranchisement. He has not responded to his own call.
Rabinowitz has not done so because since the 1970s he has widened his interest beyond postbellum southern race relations and urban growth to a more encompassing view of racial and ethnic identities in the United States. Happily, this volume reprints his formerly out-of-print overview of “Race, Ethnicity, and Cultural Pluralism in American History” (1983), which offers the best short introduction to the promise and problems of the “new social history” and much insight on the issue of assimilation. Rabinowitz also ventured into suggestions on “Writing Jewish Community History” (1980), which used a comparison of books exploring Jewish communities in Richmond, Virginia, and Columbus, Ohio, as a take-off to consider the genre, and into arguments on “Nativism, Bigotry, and Anti-Semitism in the South” (1988), which asked why anti-Semitism in the South was no worse than that in the North. And in a 1991 essay surveying southern race relations over the past century he counters those naysayers who see only gloom and count no progress. Civil rights made a difference in Rabinowitz’s calculations, which include tallying up blacks’ political gains from proscription to participation and even power, and observing a public etiquette that no longer humiliates blacks.
Throughout the essays Rabinowitz insists on a return to basics, a full immersion in the documents. In his cogent introduction, which should be required reading for all graduate students, he scores the “new historicists” for being so enamored of theory and being so needful of contemporary approval that they have lost their way, and with that, their relevance. By demonstration as much as by admonition, Rabinowitz makes the case for history as an empirical discipline with much to teach us about human agency. He therefore has given us a book much bigger in significance than the sum of its many excellent parts.
Randall M. Miller Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia
COPYRIGHT 1995 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.
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