IRON CAGES: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America by Ronald T. Takaki

IRON CAGES: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Up to now, studies of American attitudes toward minority races have centered on one specific race, be it blacks, Indians, Asians, or Mexicans. Takaki (Berkeley) takes a more ambitious path, trying to combine all of these specific instances into a general interpretation of the cultural underpinnings of racism. Using Gramsci's concept of ""cultural hegemony""--already successfully employed by Genovese in Roll, Jordan, Roll to investigate slavery--Takaki relates attitudes toward race to different phases of American economic development in terms of the ideology required by each phase. Borrowing his framework from Marx and Weber, he makes a lot of the ascetic character of ""primitive accumulation,"" whereby the capitalist must renounce immediate gratification in order to accumulate capital. Tying the ascetic ideology to notions of civility and virtue, Takaki shows that people like Jefferson and reformer Benjamin Rush viewed blacks as chained to their ""appetites"" and therefore deficient in the qualities required for civilized life. The ascetic ideology is one of three successive ""cages"" that Takaki sees as the boxes that white Americans built to separate themselves from non-whites; the others are the corporate ""iron cage"" of bureaucratic capitalism and the technologically-based ""iron cage"" of power and domination (exemplified by Moby Dick). While the initial ""iron cage"" of the Protestant ethic was fled to primitive accumulation, that of corporate capitalism expressed the westward movement--with its displacement of the Indian and Mexican populations, and exploitation of Asian and black labor--and the final ""cage"" the imperialist surge of the Spanish-American War. For each ""cage""/stage, Takaki employs a biographical sample--besides Jefferson and Rush, he profiles Andrew Jackson and Bret Harte, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Alfred Thayer Mahan, among others--and an overview of the particular phase of economic development. But all of this doesn't add up to a convincing case, since it rests on a questionable periodization of economic development together with a questionable assumption of ideological ""fit""; and because, moreover, the attitudes Takaki outlines were prevalent earlier in Europe, and date to the first European explorations (as shown in Ronald Meek's Social Science and the Ignoble Savage). A further shortcoming is that Takaki, unlike Genovese, incorrectly uses ""cultural hegemony"" as if it referred to an imposed ideology, without investigating the extent to which these attitudes shaped the self-images of oppressed races. Takaki takes a positive step in trying to broaden the approach to American racism, but the ground is soft underneath.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1979
Publisher: Knopf