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Drawing the Global Color Line: White Men’s Countries, by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds.

April 20, 2013

Drawing the Global Color Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality, by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008.


Fascinating transnational history about how thinkers and politicians in Great Britain, Australia, South Africa, and the United States worked together to draw sharp, legal and intellectual lines excluding people of color in the decades just before and after 1900.

Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have written a book which puts our national histories in a new, expanded perspective.  As an American historian, I knew that around 1900, racial definitions and restrictions had hardened in this country.  I had no idea this was part of a larger pattern in which US intellectual and political leaders worked with men of other white settler countries to share ideas and legal ways to exclude non-whites from their nations.  Influences and borrowing flowed back and forth as they came together around the alleged “fact” that only those of European origins had the capacity for self-government.  They claimed that democracy required racial homogeneity. Therefore democratic governments of white men had the right to exclude others those they deemed inferior.

William E. B. Dubois, the Harvard-educated black scholar, recognized what was happening at the time and wrote about it in an article called “The Souls of the White Folk.”  Racial prejudice had long existed, but in 1910 he noted that “the world, in a sudden emotional conversion, has discovered that it is white, and by that token, wonderful.”  He observed that “the discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s people is a very modern thing.”  He wondered “What is whiteness, that one should desire it so?  Whiteness is the ownership of the earth, forever and ever, Amen.”  The conversion to a “religion of whiteness” underlay the “transnational” efforts to exclude and control people of color.

The account that Lake and Reynolds give of the enforcement of whiteness focuses primarily on attempts to stop the migration of “unacceptable” groups into the colonies and countries created by white settlers.  Telling these stories together enables Lake and Reynolds to connect ideas and actions relating to the creation of White Australia, the legislation to exclude Asians from the United States and the first steps toward US domination of the Pacific, and the attempts to unite the Boers and British into a whites-only Union of South Africa.  All of their actions depended on the flawed assumption that after the U.S. Civil War, African Americans had “proven themselves incompetent” to govern themselves.  Although widely popular at the time, this interpretation has been proven wrong by those more attentive to the facts.  Blacks in state and national legislatures were not all “illiterate” ex-slaves, but included educated and refined son of planters and their slave mistresses.  Previously enslaved or more cultured legislators, they did not pass “ridiculous laws,” but supported measures like public education.  Reconstruction in the US failed because white ex-Confederates refused to accept blacks in positions of power and used extensive violence to frighten and kill African Americans who refused to return to a new version of slavery.  Southern whites were helped by Northern whites eager to heal the wounds of war with other whites at the expense of blacks.

Lake and Reynolds also address the many ways in which whiteness was a heavily gendered quality.  While the rhetoric included the protection of white women, its major concern was the importance of white manhood.  Reading the repeated claims that only whites were true men, “meat eaters” rather than “rice eaters,” I better understood the use of stridently male rhetoric in the US Civil Rights Movement.

Because Lake and Reynolds highlight the international story, they do little to connect the exclusionary measures toward Asian immigrants to the ways in which the white settler societies were simultaneously taking drastic new measures to segregate and restrict Indigenous populations, or in the case of the US, ex-slaves.  While I see the wisdom of their decision, readers need to keep in mind that each of these societies was also taking drastic internal measures based on the same justification of the incompetence of non-whites.

Perhaps it is a mark of the value of this book that I came away with big unanswered questions.  Was the same pattern emerging in the non-English colonies like those of the French and Dutch?  I have a new and better understanding of the growing anger of the Japanese before World War II, but I want to know more about the seemingly quick shift in policies that appeared with the United Nations proclamation of racial equality. Lake and Reynolds include the ideas of those who opposed the color line, but ideas of white supremacy still remain disturbingly popular in the US today, perhaps partly in response to the fact that the majority of Americans have elected a black president.   DuBois foresaw that race would be the essential global issue of his century.  Sadly the issue remains unresolved and as troubling as ever as we move into the 21st century.

Global histories, like this one, run the risk of becoming too broad and vague, but Lake and Reynolds are excellent, experienced historians who have researched and written carefully, never straying from the basic requirements of the profession to show evidence for their statements.  Wisely they have limited their topic to make it manageable.  Each chapter focuses on one individual or incident that has repercussions for others.  Their account does not challenge previous national histories but enhances them. Their book is written primarily for other historians, but it is so well-written that it is accessible to any general reader.  There is no jargon and no need for previous knowledge.

Drawing the Color Line is an important book, with obvious relevance to the world today. I recommend it to everyone concerned about issues of race and international relations.  And despite the anger that readers may feel about what was being done, I found it was an enjoyable book to read.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2013 10:32 am

    I had no idea that this happened in a big co-ordinated effort between countries. I think I would find this book thought provoking too.

  2. April 20, 2013 11:54 am

    I wasn’t aware either. That’s why I learned so much from this book.

  3. aartichapati permalink
    April 21, 2013 10:49 am

    Wow, this sounds very interesting (and, understandably, angering). I have never heard of the book before, but it sounds right up my alley. Great, thoughtful insights here.

  4. April 21, 2013 7:49 pm

    Yes, I think you would like this book, although she says less about India than about restrictions on Indians in South Africa. And yes, like me, you would get angry. The authors don’t stoke anger, but just let what leaders were saying damn them.
    The authors are from Australia, and I had a bit of trouble getting a copy of this book. Inter-library loan finally worked. Try that is you can’t find it easily.

  5. April 29, 2013 5:07 pm

    This is sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read amongst a large pile of other unread books. Thankyou for your insightful review. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds are highly respected historians. Your review indicates that I won’t be disappointed when I read this book.

  6. maamej permalink
    March 2, 2015 3:36 am

    It does sound like an interesting read, as well as a logical extension of the earlier work Lake & Reynolds have done. I remember reading both of them when at uni many years ago; Reynolds especially did some really breakthrough work on Aboriginal history.

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