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The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America

Philip A. Klinkner with Rogers M. Smith
The University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 0-226-44339-6


*2000 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award Semifinalist*
*1999 American Library Association "Best of the Best"

Although Americans would like to believe otherwise, our nation's commitment to racial equality has never been consistent, nor has it been irresistibly driven forward by America's founding principles. In The Unsteady March, Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith disprove the idea that the United States has been on a "steady march" toward the end of racial discrimination. Rather, progress has been made only in brief periods, under special conditions, and it has always been followed by periods of stagnation and retrenchment.

In their sweeping and accessible history of race relations, Klinkner and Smith show that significant advances in racial justice have occurred only when three circumstances have converged: large-scale wars, which require extensive economic and military mobilization of African Americans; an enemy that inspires American leaders to advocate inclusive, egalitarian values in order to justify the war; and domestic political organizations that are able to pressure those leaders to follow through on their rhetoric.

Klinkner and Smith's history clearly demonstrates that substantial progress has not yet occurred without these factors working together, as they did during the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Cold War eras.

Today we are in a period of retrenchment like those that have followed previous reform eras. With its insights into contemporary racial politics and its wealth of historical material, The Unsteady March is a penetrating and controversial analysis of race relations across two centuries. The fight for racial equality has not been won, the authors argue, nor will it be unless we recognize the true factors behind progress and the extraordinary efforts required to achieve it.

Philip Klinkner is associate professor of government at Hamilton College. He is the author of The Losing Parties. Rogers M. Smith is Alfred Cowles Professor of Government and codirector of the ISPS Center for the Study of Race, Inequality, and Politics at Yale University. His book, Civic Ideals was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History.

From the book jacket

"America is at a critical juncture in its struggle with the demon of race. The progressive momentum of the civil rights movement has dissipated. Efforts to elevate the social status of blacks are being fought at every turn. And yet, the prisons, welfare rolls, and public hospital waiting rooms are still crowded with the descendants of African slaves. In this provocative and closely argued work, Phil Klinkner and Rogers Smith examine American history that they might better understand the present. Their book sounds a dire warning. Those concerned to achieve a more just political order in America are well advised to take heed."

"Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith have superbly and clearly charted the ebb and flow of America's racial tides. This is an important book for anyone worried about our oldest unsolved dilemma."

"A masterful achievement."

John David Skrentny
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego
Author of The Ironies of Affirmative Action

"The Unsteady March is a throughly researched, brilliantly written, detailed and unblinking look at relations between blacks and whites in America from the earliest settlements to the present.  In this outstanding work, Klinkner and Smith bring to life the myriad federal, state, and local policies and personalities that have combined in focused fidelity for over 400 years to create the "black" and "white" Americas of today.  A must read for anyone seeking a better understanding of the inescapable, unspeakable power of race in America.  A must read for all Americans.

Randall Robinson
President, TransAfrica Forum

Book Reviews

"Civil rights workers sometimes said that for every step toward racial progress, the community would often slide two steps back. This "unsteady march" is documented in this unflinching portrait of the leviathan of American race relations. Klinkner (The Losing Parties) teaches government at Hamilton College and Smith (a Pulitzer finalist for Civic Ideals) teaches race and politics at Yale. They contend that racial progress hinges on three factors: a pending large-scale war, supportive government rhetoric, and strong domestic political organziations or advocacy groups. "The normal experience of the typical black person in U.S. history has been to live in a time of stagnation and decline in progress toward racial equality," they assert. There dense and compelling synthesis of many primary and secondary sources bears out a long history of atrocities and political maneuvering from the time of the Revolution through the Clinton presidency, while highlighting the role of the black press and the moods of various communities. The authors' theories will likely spur debate, yet they offer scholarly confirmation of a notion widely held in the black community for many decades. Acknowledging that the modern civil rights movement has irrevocably transformed this country, Klinkner and Smith conclude by arguing that there are nonetheless "abundant similarities" between our racial and political debates and those of the late 19th century. This important book should be read by all who aspire to create a more perfect union.

Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Unsteady March
  • One: "Bolted with the Lock of a Hundred Keys": The Era of Slavery, 1619-1860
  • Two: "Thenceforward, and Forever Free": The Civil War, 1860-1865
  • Three: "The Negro Has Got as Much as He Ought to Have": Reconstruction and the Second Retreat, 1865-1908
  • Four: "The Color Line": Jim Crow America, 1908-1938
  • Five: "Deutschland and Dixieland": Antifascism and the Emergence of Civil Rights, 1938-1941
  • Six: "Double V: Victory Abroad, Victory at Home": World War II
  • Seven: "Hearts and Minds": The Cold War and Civil Rights, 1946-1954
  • Eight: "There Comes a Time": The Civil Rights Revolution, 1954-1968
  • Nine: "Benign Neglect?": Post-Civil Rights America, 1968-1998
  • Conclusion: Shall We Overcome?
  • Notes
  • Index


Any questions about the book?

Email me at pklinkne@hamilton.edu