- Open Wound: The Long View of Race in America
Open Wound: The Long View of Race in America begins with a tantalizing promise—to integrate the ever-proliferating and disparate studies on race into a novel and compelling synthesis. "What is needed now," Evans tells us, "is a long view of how American racial institutions and ideas began and how and why, over time, they have changed" (1). Evans maintains that important changes in America's racial system occurred at three specific historical junctures: the Revolutionary War, which spurred Northern states to phase out slavery; the Civil War and Reconstruction, which resulted in emancipation and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments; and the Cold War, which encouraged the defeat of legal segregation as the race problem became America's Achilles' heel in a global PR battle with the Soviet Union. Each of these crises opened "a window of opportunity," according to Evans, for "idealists who challenged the defenders of the racial status quo" (2-3). Although all three of these crises stimulated significant advances in the way that "whites treated blacks," none of them resulted in the achievement of full racial equality (3).
In a trenchant 1995 essay on race and the writing of history, Thomas Holt identifies four main paradigms that have shaped the study of racism: idealism (racism as a consequence of misguided ideas), materialism (racism as a function of economic drives), psychological (racism as an outgrowth of attitudes, habits, and irrational urges) and cultural (racism as a product of a social formation that is culturally and historically specific). While Evans includes a deft analysis of mid-nineteenth-century cultural production (with an emphasis on minstrel shows and the reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin), he effectively embraces a materialism framework in which racism emerges as a result of labor markets and economic self-interest. For example, the Atlantic slave traders responsible for "the creation of a racially stratified society," Evans tells us, "acted from practical business concerns" (32), as did the plantation owners whose "consuming passion was a defense of the property that made them the richest class of comparable size anywhere in the nation" (88). Unlike say, Winthrop Jordan, who famously argued in White Over Black (1968) that Africans were prepped in the eyes of whites for slavery and debasement as a result of perceived differences such as their dark skin color, heathenism, and "strange" customs, Evans contends that enslavement itself precipitated anti-black racism. Following scholars like Ira Berlin and Barbara Fields, Evans claims that it was the "legal and economic condition" of African slaves that set them apart rather than their physical appearance or cultural practices (34). Racial ideas, Evans suggests, were only invented later in order to justify existing inequalities.
Open Wound is divided into four parts, spanning four centuries from the Jamestown settlement in 1607 to the rise of a "color-blind" Supreme Court in the 1990s. Part 1, "The Colonial Period," locates the origins of the American racial system in the development of the Atlantic slave trade and the advent of the Southern plantation system. In the 1700s, Evan maintains, English settlers, especially in the plantation colonies, adopted a new system of social classification. Rather than the old country divide between "gentlemen" and "commoners" (or "the people of quality" versus "the multitude"), the critical mark separating the haves from the have-nots became color: "slavery was black; freedom and opportunity white" (24). Part 2, "The Antebellum Republic," describes the hardening of [End Page 214] this racial regime with the emergence of a new kind of white solidarity which was based on a myth of shared equality vis-à-vis blacks. This color-conscious solidarity, Evans says, was consolidated by the exclusion of blacks from urban job markets and by the enormous popularity of minstrel shows, which garnered "support for slavery by ridiculing black freedom" (128).
Part 3, "The Racial System Challenged and Revised," discusses the period from the Civil War to the turn of the twentieth century. Evans argues that an alliance of the...