George Fredrickson, influential voice on race, racism, dies at 73
George M. Fredrickson, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor of United States History, Emeritus, and a political activist, died of heart failure Feb. 25 at his home on the Stanford campus. He was 73.
Frederickson was a powerful force in reshaping historical views of the Civil War and race relations in the United States. He helped invent the field of comparative history through his seminal work White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Few, if any, other historians have so imaginatively used a comparative approach to racism in America.
"George Fredrickson was an incredible scholar. The scope and depth of his knowledge was breathtaking," said Hazel Rose Markus, the Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences. "Even in a brief conversation with him, non-historians immediately understood how today was composed of the past and everyone knew they needed to know more.
"Most significantly, his work has changed the way historians and social scientists think about race. George Fredrickson has helped us understand race as a dynamic system of attitudes and institutionalized practices. This system is rooted in a belief in white supremacy, and it persistently shapes societies and individuals."
With Markus, Fredrickson was a co-founder of RICSRE—the Research Institute of Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. The institute brings together scholars from Stanford and elsewhere for seminars and conferences. He co-directed the center with Markus from 1996 to 2002.
Fredrickson "was deeply committed to the view that scholars could and must make a difference," Markus said. "The loss to CSRE and to Stanford is immeasurable."
Fredrickson was a prolific writer. His most recent book, Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race (Harvard University Press), was published last week and is based on his W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures of November 2006 at Harvard. A collection of his essays from scholarly journals and the New York Review of Books, titled Diverse Nations: Explorations in the History of Racial and Ethnic Pluralism, will be published by Paradigm in June. It explores recent interpretations of slavery and race relations in the United States and introduces comparative perspectives on Europe, South Africa and Brazil; it includes work on ethno-racial pluralism in France and the United States.
Many of his works are seminal landmarks in the field: "His book Racism: A Short History, which compares anti-black and anti-Jewish racism, as well as an earlier book, The Black Image in the White Mind, should be required reading for anyone concerned with changing the world or creating a better one," Markus said.
Albert Camarillo, the Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service, praised Fredrickson's "amazing legacy": "George Fredrickson was a man of many dimensions—one of the great historians of his generation, a pioneer in the study of race in American society and a trailblazer in comparative history. He was a man of enormous intellect who was deeply committed to the values of equality, justice and opportunity."
"I knew him as a dear friend and my closest colleague in the History Department," Camarillo added. "I taught with him for many years. He was a gentle, big man. I never heard him say a mean word about anyone—other than he didn't like racists."
Fredrickson was born July 16, 1934, in Bristol, Conn., and grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D.
"He was a kid from the Midwest who had lived in an entirely white society. When he went to Harvard, he was transformed by what he read," Camarillo said. At Harvard, "he was working with some of the people who were pioneers in writing about white-black history in the South. It shaped his world views and it shaped his career."
Fredrickson's activism began early, according to Camarillo. In the early and mid-1960s, he participated not only as a scholar but in peaceful demonstrations as well.
Fredrickson earned a bachelor's degree magna cum laude from Harvard in 1956 and a doctorate in history, also from Harvard, in 1964. He taught at Harvard and Northwestern before coming to Stanford as the Edgar E. Robinson Professor of United States History in 1984.
At Stanford, he soon became involved in activism, urging Stanford to divest its stock in companies doing business with South Africa. In 1986, with the late Stanford sociologist St. Clair Drake, he delivered a petition signed by 206 faculty members to the Stanford Board of Trustees. He told the San Jose Mercury News that South Africa was "the only country in the world where race is used to determine what rights you have."
"The thing I have worked on for the last 20 years has been the history of race relations," he told the Mercury. "I tried to study racism in a rather clinical way, but when confronted with racism I have a rather strong reaction. And there's a side of me that says that you shouldn't just study it." On that score, he never changed his mind.
Following the 1992 Los Angeles riots, he decried "the new face of racism" in the Stanford Daily: "The heart of the matter is the probable belief of these decent citizens that they are in no way responsible for the inner city conditions that spawn crime, disorder and police brutality.
"Because they lack empathy with poor urban blacks, viewing them as alien outsiders rather than fellow citizens, they feel under no obligation to pay the taxes or support the public policies required to deal with the poverty and desperation of the inner cities.
"What makes them racist is that they do not feel the same responsibility for the abominable conditions under which many African Americans are forced to live that they would be likely to feel if the victims were people whom they regarded as akin to themselves."
His book Racism: A Short History was published in 2002, the year he retired, by Princeton University Press. It was the first time he had attempted a thematic book on race, and he is one of the few scholars to attempt one. It was a broad topic, synthesizing Fredrickson's understanding of race. The New York Times praised his "characteristically crisp, clear prose" and noted that "he draws both on a wide range of recent work by others and on nearly half a century of his own writings on immigration, race and nationalism, in the United States and elsewhere, to provide us with a masterly—though not uncontroversial—synthesis."
According to The Nation: "Fredrickson's book should be celebrated. The chief reason is the text itself. One of only a handful of attempts to cover Western attitudes toward race comprehensively, Frederickson's Racism is by far the most concise and lucid. It is also the most balanced. … Reviewers often apply the term 'path-breaking' to works that simply trim back a few errant branches. But Fredrickson's book really is path-breaking."
Carlin Romero of the Philadelphia Inquirer concluded: "As you exit Fredrickson's house of horrors, the cultural illiteracy with which most of us use racism becomes clear. Fredrickson, hardly the rose-colored-glasses type, doesn't claim that truth about racism will set us free. Still, one expects many readers will emerge from his book embarrassed by the ignorance at racism's core, and far less susceptible to its lure."
Among his other books are The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (1965); The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny (1971); White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History (1981); The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspectives on Slavery, Racism and Social Inequity (1988); and Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa (1995).
He received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Humanities Center and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He was a past president of the Organization of American Historians (1997-98). At Stanford, he received the 2000 Allan V. Cox Medal for Faculty Excellence Fostering Undergraduate Research; the award was given, in part, "for inspiring undergraduate research efforts with direct assistance, as well as by his own remarkable example."
Frederickson is survived by his wife, Hélène, and their four children: Anne Hope Fredrickson of Grass Valley, Calif.; Laurel Fredrickson of Durham, N.C.; Thomas Fredrickson of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Caroline Fredrickson of Silver Springs, Md. He also is survived by a sister, Lois Rose, of Great Barrington, Md., and four grandchildren. A private service was held for the family. The History Department is planning a memorial in May.