My research investigates what might be called ‘operative’ political thought (see Nederman and Forhan 2000, 11-14): that is I examine ideas about politics as they are deployed in practical politics and everyday life, rather than in intellectual treatises (a blurred line; I don’t mean that intellectual treatises are not engaged in political work). More specifically, I focus on political thought in the United States, mainly between 1865 and 1932.
My research thus has an ‘empirical’ component that intersects with work in the historiography of this period and in American political development. The approach is distinct from that of history, however, and differs from a ‘qualitative’ approach to answering empirical questions about historical or institutional change (though occasionally I publish on these topics as well). The main concern, rather, is theoretical: I aim to gain clarity on issues of interest to political theorists through an examination of how specific political ideas structure, and are structured within, the domain of practical politics.
My first book, Jim Crow Citizenship, examined ideas about race in American political life, and especially in the U.S. South, in the period between the end of the Civil War and the imposition of Jim Crow, as an institutionalized system, across the Southern states by 1920. The book made two central theoretical contentions. First, racial concepts naturalized social relations of dependence. Second, racializing dependence provided a practical link between arguments in favor of institutionalized racial hierarchy and standard liberal and republican claims that citizenship was preconditioned on a social status that conferred independence.
The first contention insists that race is not, in the first instance, a biological concept (it becomes so only under pressure from Darwinian natural science). Nor is it, again in the first instance, a criterion of ethnic belonging. Instead, for elite white Southerners in this period, ‘race’ both demarcated and legitimated a social hierarchy understood in terms of dependence and independence. Economic and racial criteria worked in tandem here: ‘blackness’ coded for natural dependence and legitimated economic and political subordination; but whites in economically dependent relationships were also racialized. This rarely meant that such whites were understood as black (though sometimes they were, rhetorically at least), but only that economic dependence prompted a search for the inherent characteristics presumed to be productive of such dependence. Not that race trumped class, but rather that race formed part of how class was constituted, as a lived set of social relations.
The second contention then suggests how specific political actors could be both committed to racial hierarchy and to facially liberal and republican ideals. These ideals are often understood to imply equality, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often presumed independence as a condition of citizenship (servants, women, children, were often formally excluded from citizenship by a range of political theorists, including Kant and Spinoza, because they were presumed to be dependent). Thus the tension often presumed, between racial hierarchy and liberal and republican political ideas, is only apparent, so long as one understands lower racial standing to imply a politically debilitating dependence.
I don’t argue that this exhausts how liberalism or race, for example, could be construed. The argument is limited to understanding the white southern progressives who developed the main pillars of the ideological defense of Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century: it is thus their understanding of race and liberalism that is at stake. But it’s worth pointing out that more egalitarian iterations of liberalism, ones that do not rely on social status as a condition of citizenship, would be relatively immune to the racialization I describe here. Racial theories that posited separate human species, meanwhile, were generally used to advocate the elimination of black southerners, rather than their incorporation into a paternalistic social hierarchy. There is, I would suggest, in any society a field of ideological possibility, and political actors operate within its terms, even if they can creatively combine its elements (and even if they effect change in that field at the margins). Partly as a function of continuity with the nature of the ideological defense of slavery in the past, and partly as a function of being located within a liberal and republican polity, white Southern elites crafted a defense of racial hierarchy that at least could be understood as consistent with the principles animating such a polity.
I am currently engaged in two research projects. In the first, I use the politics of immigration in New York City as a focal point for a re-examination of urban (“machine”) politics in the 1920s, and of the interplay of class, race, ethnicity and gender at work in the formation of what would, by the 1930s, become a central component of the New Deal coalition in the Democratic Party. The nativist movements behind the 1924 Immigration Act, and their historical antecedents, have been exhaustively studied, of course. But political opposition to immigration controls in the 1920s is understudied, partly because they were so comprehensively defeated. Nevertheless, I suggest that examining this opposition sheds new light not only on the development of the New Deal coalition, but on the forms of democratic politics possible in urban America in the 1920s, and on the ideals of citizenship animating urban politics in the period.
My second project is a more traditional political theory project. Here I examine the relationship between economic and racial justice in Black political thought, examining a wide range of writers, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, A. Philip Randolph and Hubert Harrison, among others. The purpose is to explore how Black political writers understood the tensions and overlap between these two projects, as they responded to the changing political and economic climate in America between 1865 and 1932.
Peer-reviewed Articles and Book Chapters:
“Demagogues and the Demon Drink: Newspapers and the Revival of Prohibition in Georgia,” in Carol J. Nackenoff and Julie Novkov, eds., Statebuilding From the Margins: Between Reconstruction and the New Deal (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014)
“Continuity and Change: Understanding Race in Southern Political Development,” Politics, Groups, and Identities, volume 1, issue 2, 2013
“‘Walk with Me in White’: Autonomy in a Herrenvolk Democracy (Atlanta, 1880-1910),” Du Bois Review volume 8, no. 2, fall 2011
“Resistance, Rebirth, and Redemption: The Rhetoric of White Supremacy in Post-Civil War Louisiana,” in “Rights and Practices of Modern Resistance,” Historical Reflections /Réflexions Historiques volume 35, no. 1, spring 2009
“How Was Race Constructed in the New South?,” Du Bois Review volume 5, no. 1, spring 2008
“Gender and the Politics of the Household in Reconstruction Louisiana, 1865-1879,” in Diana Paton and Pamela Scully, eds., Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World (Duke University Press, 2005)
“State Power, Hegemony and Political Memory: Lotman and Gramsci,” Poroi volume 3, no. 1, June 2004. A version of this article also appears in Amy Mandleker and Andreas Schonle eds., Lotman and Cultural Studies: Encounters and Extensions (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006)
"Taming Leviathan." Tulsa Law Review, Vol. 52, no. 4, Spring 2017
Review of "Reframing Randolph: Labor, Black Freedom, and the Legacies of A. Philip Randolph," Journal of American History, Vol. 103, no. 2, September 2016
Review of “Claiming the Union: Citizenship in the Post-Civil War South,” Journal of American History, Vol. 101, no. 4, March 2015
Review of “Jefferson, Lincoln, and Wilson: The American Dilemma of Race and Democracy,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. LXXVIII, no. 4, November 2012
Review of “Pursuit of Unity: A Political History of the American South,” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 44, no. 4, November 2010
Review of “James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government,” American Review of Politics, Vol. 30 (Fall 2009 / Winter 2010)