Wrestling with the Mysteries of Race

The American Misadventure of Race

By Scott L. Malcomson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- 584pp -- $30

It is 1996, a year after white supremacist Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people with a car bomb at the federal office building in Oklahoma City. Scott L. Malcomson, a journalist and author, stands before the makeshift shrine there and wonders: Since the victims were of every race and age, why are the photos posted there solely of whites--and white children at that?

It's mysteries like this, small but meaningful expressions of the country's racial divide, that prompted Malcomson's investigation in One Drop of Blood. It is a heroic if sometimes abstruse attempt to understand America's obsession with race and how its racial categorizations came into being. Malcomson, the author of two previous books of travel and politics, is driven by his own personal demons, along with a deep moral dismay at the very existence of racial inequality. His mix of history and memoir makes a contribution to our understanding. But one of Malcomson's objectives--fathoming the experience of other groups--remains tantalizingly out of reach, perhaps unattainable. As a result, this profound, at times brilliant book ultimately proves frustrating.

Historically, the author says, many Americans have shared McVeigh's dream--a segregationist model in which ''any of the American races can pursue a separate destiny and in that pursuit achieve a new life and freedom.'' Sadly enough, the terrorist's act reinforced this separatism: White families posted their photos, while nonwhites were eloquent with their silence, which showed they didn't view themselves as part of the mainstream. As the author demonstrates, in our nation's history, separatism has often appeared to Indians, whites, and blacks as the only way out of the uncomfortable social and political confines of race.

Malcomson first takes the reader on an exhaustive (and exhausting) 400-page history of European and American attitudes about whites, blacks, and Native Americans. He has pored over a wide range of sources, from works by Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Locke to the personal papers of Elias Boudinot, a 19th century Cherokee. The result is more historiography than history: Malcomson discerns a pattern in the fabric of written histories, literature, and commentary, takes it apart, and from there attempts to infer how attitudes on race developed. He frequently steps away from the historical narrative to throw in an editorial comment. This creates a distance from the text that invites the reader to take stock along with Malcomson. It is a provocative technique but it requires intense concentration of the reader.

In one of the most persuasive and unnerving revelations, the writer shows that before Europeans arrived on American shores, there was no consciousness of Indian-ness among the many, highly distinct tribes; instead, identity was tribe-based. It took a while for white colonists to think of the natives as a group, as ''the other.'' It also took time for Indians to perceive that they were being defined as such. By degrees, ''colonial law and practice turned native tribal citizens into Indians,'' Malcomson notes, and into ''the still more mystifying category of people of color--a group that, in a further move, was associated by colonists with permanent slavery.''

The Native Americans' future would hold paradoxes and ironies as well as manifold miseries, and Malcomson deftly teases them from the historical record. The parallels between their story and that of both blacks and whites shackle the three groups together in an uncomfortable journey through the centuries. Some Indians were enslaved, but others held black slaves. Some Indians in the early 19th century constructed a ''theology of separation''--much as certain blacks did later on. This amounted to a fundamentalist creed that rejected white influences and culture. Those who mixed with whites and converted to Christianity entered a cultural purdah and were rejected by both sides. Still, there was intense government pressure to assimilate. Malcomson shows how the national census reflected a dwindling Indian population up until the 1950s. After that, it began increasing sharply--as racial pride grew and Indians, rather than census takers, were allowed to state their own affiliation.

From the beginning of the American experiment, philosophers, government officials, and opinion leaders on both sides of the Atlantic wrestled with ideas of race and freedom. What did the concepts ''Indian'' or ''black'' include? (Rarely, if ever, did these thinkers reflect on what exactly was whiteness.) Who, if not everyone, should be free? There were 19th century abolitionists who found no inconsistency in their opposition to slavery and support for a racially pure (white) state. Black inferiority was taken as a given by such figures as Abraham Lincoln. Thus ''colonizing'' blacks--shipping them to, for instance, Mexico, as his Administration suggested--seemed reasonable.

In the book's finale, Malcomson turns away from history and toward personal experiences, including his formative years as a son of liberal parents growing up in racially mixed Oakland, Calif. In the course of his research, Malcomson learned that his ancestors had been slaveholders, a revelation he finds unsettling. This is a heartfelt and highly readable section but far less original than the rest. Still, given the weighty investigation that has gone before, Malcomson's readers will forgive him.

Harris is a former BUSINESS WEEK Connecticut bureau chief.

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Wrestling with the Mysteries of Race

PHOTO: Cover, ``One Drop of Blood''

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