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“WALK WITH ME IN WHITE”1: Autonomy in a Herrenvolk Democracy2

  • Marek D. Steedman (a1)

This article argues that Americans operate with a concept and practice of political autonomy centered on a notion of “mastery,” which is inextricably linked to race, gender, and class hierarchy. I adopt Max Weber's concept of mastery and use it to broaden the construct of a Herrenvolk democracy beyond its traditional association with White supremacy. I then use this theoretical framework to illuminate the emergence of segregation in Atlanta between 1880 and 1910. This period marks a crucial transformation in the concept of race in the United States, as the paternalism of Southern agricultural relations is transposed by Southern Progressives into more urban and industrial settings. I conclude by raising the possibility that the concept of political autonomy currently operative in the United States shares important common ground with the ideological achievements of the Southern Progressives, confounding institutional attempts to foster citizen autonomy.

Corresponding author
Marek D. Steedman, Department of Political Science, University of Southern Mississippi, 118 College Drive, Box # 5108, Hattiesburg, MS 39406. E-mail:
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The title references a phrase, “they shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy,” from Revelations. It is quoted as “Come thou, walk with me in white; for you are worthy” in a 1904 article on “The Decline in Self-Ownership” in the South Atlantic Quarterly (Woodward 1904). I use it in this context as a play on the connection between Whiteness, worthiness, and independence.


The author would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Rita Mae Kelly Endowment and the Centennial Center for Political Science and Public Affairs, and the research assistance of Hayley E. Patterson. Thanks to Mika Lavaque-Manty, Julie Novkov, Joel Olson, Spencer Piston, Kim Smith, and anonymous reviewers for DBR for comments on earlier drafts.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Gail Bederman (1995). Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

George J. Borjas (Ed.) (2007). Mexican Immigration to the United States. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

John W. Cell (1982). The Highest Stage of White Supremacy: The Origins of Segregation in South Africa and the American South. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Martin Gilens (1999). Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Julie Novkov (2008). Racial Union: Law, Intimacy, and the White State in Alabama, 1865–1954. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Sanford F. Schram , Joe Soss , and Richard C. Fording (2003). Race and the Politics of Welfare Reform. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Alexis de Tocqueville ([1835/1840] 2000). Democracy in America, Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Trans.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Nicholas J. G. Winter (2008). Dangerous Frames: How Ideas About Race and Gender Shape Public Opinion. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
  • ISSN: 1742-058X
  • EISSN: 1742-0598
  • URL: /core/journals/du-bois-review-social-science-research-on-race
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