Why Do Historians Write About Race, Class & Gender?

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tags: historians

Originally published 2-13-04

Mr. Alford was an HNN intern while he was a student at the University of Washington.

From the mid-twentieth century to the present, there has been an increasing tendency among academic historians to focus their studies upon issues of race, class and gender. This trend can be seen as a result of both the equal rights movements of the 1960s that worked to expose historical processes of oppression, and the emergence of new theoretical frameworks that focus upon humans' social identity.

Most contemporary theories are largely influenced by the post-World War II intellectual movements of structuralism and post-structuralism. These movements posited human identity as the product of cultural and historical systems. Michel Foucalt, one of the foremost thinkers associated with post-structuralism, examined the relationship between knowledge and power in history and the ways that these two forces work to construct human identity. According to Foucalt, human identities are determined by the structures of culture such as language, political systems and religion. This is the process that he is referring to when he claims, in somewhat esoteric language, that "it is a matter of depriving the subject of its role as originator, and of analyzing the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse" (from the essay, "What is an Author?").

The notion of socially and historically constructed identities has a particular resonance for contemporary academics engaged in the critical study of race. In their highly influential essay, "Racial Formation," Michael Omi and Howard Winant assert: "Although the concept of race invokes biologically based human characteristics, selection of these particular human features for purposes of racial signification is always necessarily a social and historical process." To argue against a biological basis for racial categorization is not to say that the concept of race does not play a significant role in the structure of contemporary society. Therefore, the task of the historian who subscribes to the idea of race as a socially constructed category of identity is to discover the historical processes that have contributed to its construction. In his book, Race and Manifest Destiny , Reginald Horsman approaches this challenge by describing how "science" was used to justify racist notions of white superiority in nineteenth century America . "American science provided Americans with a confident explanation of why blacks were enslaved,” he wrote, “why Indians were exterminated and why white Americans were expanding their settlements rapidly over adjacent lands. These ideas did not exist in scholarly isolation. Racial differences were a vital issue for Americans."

The influence of structuralism and poststructuralism on feminist and Marxist theorists has produced similar studies of the historical and social construction of gender and class differences as are common in discussions of race. Although gender is a category more firmly rooted in biological origin, many contemporary theorists view ideas of masculinity and femininity as socially determined and as connected to the workings of power in society. Given the historical oppression of women and people of color, it is often impossible for historians to speak of race and gender without addressing corresponding issues of class difference and economic disparity.

Other historians, although they may be somewhat influenced by these same intellectual traditions, elect to study the role of race, class and gender in society for more overtly political reasons. Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States , writes in the afterword: "I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality and national arrogance." Zinn sees a connection between American nationalism and dominant historical narratives that results in a distorted view of both the past and the present. Writing about his own experience studying history in high school and college, he reflects: "There were themes of profound importance to me which I found missing in the orthodox histories that dominated American culture. The consequence of those omissions has been not simply to give a distorted view of the past but, more importantly, to mislead us all about the present." Zinn chooses to focus largely upon issues of race, class and gender in his book because he feels that they are not addressed as they should be in the traditional accounts. James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong , also speaks to this need to expose those aspects of history that have been previously ignored. "We need to produce Americans of all social class and racial backgrounds and of both genders,” he writes, “who command the power of history--the ability to use one's understanding of the past to legitimize one's actions in the present. Then the past will seriously inform Americans as individuals and as a nation, instead of serving as a source of weary cliches."

Loewen argues in his book that high school history textbooks provide students with a narrow understanding of American history, one that works to justify past instances of American oppression in the name of historical progress. He claims that the effects of teaching history in this way are potentially devastating: "While there is nothing wrong with optimism, it can be something of a burden for students of color, children of working-class parents, girls who notice the dearth of female historical figures, or members of any group that has not achieved socioeconomic success."

For historians like Loewen and Zinn, it is critical to focus on issues of race, class and gender in the study of history in order to understand the effect that these histories have had upon society. Underlying their approach is the assumption that it is only by recognizing the mistakes of the past that society can move forward to an increasingly democratic and egalitarian future.


Michel Foucalt, "What is an Author?" The Critical Tradition . ed. Richter, David (Bedford Books, 1998). pp. 899.

Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny (Harvard College Press, 1981), pp. 137.

James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (Touchstone, 1995). pp. 14, 318.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant, "Racial Formation."

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (HarperCollins, 2003), pp. 684, 686.