Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Survey: Old Trees

How to keep students interested in race during the Progressive Era? One obvious choice is a module on the progressive side of Jim Crow, a topic covered nicely by Mike McGerr in Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Era that counters the standard Woodward, Gilmore narrative. This year, however, I decided to mix things up and interweave race with environmental conservation. Animating this was a reread of Mathew Guterl's section on Madison Grant in The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940. Grant worked not only to preserve the Redwoods in California, but also to preserve the Anglo-Saxons in the West, a group that he termed the "great race." Popular for articulating a tri-racial theory of European whites, (pitching them as Alpines, Mediterraneans, and Nordics), Grant made a case for preserving racial purity, much like rescuing a rare plant. I contrast this to Teddy Roosevelt, also a conservationist, who believed in preserving wilderness not to save endangered species so much as to provide a savage environment for effete East Coasters to become rugged frontiersmen. Unlike Grant, Roosevelt took an assimilationist view of race, arguing that Americans were becoming a new, superior race, both because of contact with the wilderness and mixed blood. Recovering this debate has reinvigorated class discussion, in part because of the rich ironies in how conservation was deployed, not to mention Roosevelt's intriguing argument that race-mixing bred racial superiority (an argument that Winston Churchill would pick up on to counter Nazi Germany in his popular History of the English Speaking Peoples). Any other approaches to race and Progressivism?