Asked to identify the city that best captures the long arc and ongoing dynamics of American history, most people would select New York or Philadelphia or Boston. Maybe Chicago. These cities were established early and were politically consequential and economically vital; they were sites of American independence and constitutionalism, national influence, great wealth and power, continental visions, and global reach for two hundred years or more. Walter Johnson suggests otherwise. His powerfully argued, insightful, highly personal, and—yes—immensely dispiriting new book, The Broken Heart of America, focuses instead on a city that is customarily overlooked, though very much at our peril: St. Louis.
For Johnson, St. Louis’s history is at the confluence of forces that have given shape to the United States: slavery, white supremacy, radical political struggle, genocidal warfare, empire, and racial capitalism.
Indeed, in Johnson’s telling, St. Louis encompasses America’s predominant historical pulses and rhythms very much because of where it is located: in the Mississippi Valley and at the edge of the trans-Mississippi West, rather than on the East Coast and the Atlantic. His is a story of the country’s history from the inside out; it offers up something of an inversion of the classic argument in Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and a radically different interpretive arc. There—and in the West more generally—Turner found the making of individualism and democracy; there Johnson finds the making of empire, racial capitalism, and white supremacy. Both, in their own ways, regard the West as central to the construction of American society and character.
Readers will find The Broken Heart of America challenging and insightful, compelling and unsettling. Johnson provides a deep historical context for the crises we currently face, as well as powerful links between past and present—a Faulknerian demonstration that the past is never dead, or even past. Although other scholars and writers have offered pieces of this story, Johnson’s is richly woven, arrestingly told, and politically fiery.
Yet the problem, it seems to me, is that Johnson’s is also a long story of continuity. The scenery changes and the actors come and go, but the central conceptualizations remain in place. The large themes—empire, white supremacy, racial capitalism—move across time without being sufficiently interrogated or analyzed. And so, for all its power, The Broken Heart of America is in danger of flattening a multidimensional story, of being a history without history.
For Johnson, St. Louis’s history is at the confluence of forces that have given shape to the United States.
St. Louis grew on lands once home to the great indigenous Mound Builders, as a French-claimed outpost of the lucrative fur trade. It did not become part of the United States until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, ironically made possible by the success of the slave revolution in Saint Domingue (not mentioned here)—ironic because Missouri entered the American union in a highly contested process as a state in which slavery was legal and anti-Blackness virulent. Before too long, the city became the “administrative center of midwestern Indian removal” and the staging ground for military forays against Native peoples; it would move from being the “westernmost hub of the fur trade to the eastern hub of the nation’s settler empire.”
A driver of this transformation and a figure hovering over the first section of the book is Thomas Hart Benton, the Jacksonian-era Democrat whom Johnson regards as the “prophet” of America’s Pacific empire.
According to Johnson, Benton exemplified how white solidarities and supremacy became forceful. Benton, he writes, “was the type of populist fixer beloved by plutocrats throughout American history,” turning white men “away from the ruling class … toward Indian lands and Indian wars. For Benton, Indian lands and empire (rather than class politics and revolution) held the promise of white equality.”
Yet, St. Louis also had a political and demographic complexity. Although slavery was legal, relatively few slaveholders were to be found in the city, and, like in Baltimore, it was possible for antislavery voices to gain a hearing. St. Louis also had a growing German immigrant population, many of them refugees from the failed revolutions of 1848, who would lend antislavery some ballast and give the Civil War and Reconstruction era its radical edge. The city is perhaps best known in this period as the place from which Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom. And while the Supreme Court’s decision, rendered in 1857 by Roger Taney, a Baltimore native, rejected the Scotts’ suit and declared Black people ineligible for citizenship in the United States, the case reflected a rare environment in which enslaved people could sue for freedom—and win.
The Civil War and its aftermath would seem to disrupt the interpretive arc of racial capitalism, white supremacy, and empire that Johnson constructs. Led by German and German-speaking radicals, St. Louis and Missouri more generally saw some of the earliest moves toward slave emancipation; before long, the US Army’s Department of the West—based in St. Louis—became an embodiment of the war’s revolutionary dispensations, and some of the German radicals viewed the struggle against slavery as integral to a worldwide struggle against bourgeois property. Fittingly, as Reconstruction waned across the former Confederate South, St. Louis had its own version of the Paris Commune: the General Strike of 1877, which Johnson describes as “the era’s most compelling example of interracial radicalism.”
In truth, however, the interpretive arc was not much disrupted at all. German radicals for the most part failed to transplant their vision of democracy and power into an American context in which people of African descent composed a very substantial portion of the country’s working class. As a consequence, they couldn’t mount an effective defense against white empire building in the West or the counterrevolution of property that would define the city’s future, still haunted by the ghost of Thomas Hart Benton.
The African American presence in St. Louis would continue to be significant, both culturally and politically. Two of the best chapters in The Broken Heart of America take us to Black St. Louis during and after the period of the Great Migration, when the city “was home to some of the greatest artists, athletes, and entertainers of the twentieth century”: migrants’ children like Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, Elston Howard, Quincy Troupe, and Dick Gregory. Here the sounds of ragtime and jazz mixed with a developing Black working-class movement—with Communist Party allies—that, by the 1930s, would, in Johnson’s words, enable “St. Louis [to come] as close as any other city in the nation to fulfilling the promise of the 1877 General Strike,” which had shaken the city and the nation as class conflict increasingly marked the postbellum United States. The surges in wartime industrial production and the strength of the March on Washington Movement in St. Louis and elsewhere suggested possible turning points in the making.
They were not to be. The occasions of Black militance, the foundation blocks of Black community life, and the political power that access to the franchise permitted were simply overwhelmed by a tsunami of white racism, racial capitalism, and the policies of Black removalism (effectively removing or marginalizing African Americans from the course of development).
Johnson tells us of the rise of the “Big Cinch” at the turn of the 20th century: the merger of old and new families of wealth into a bloc of power brokers keen to use their muscle and resources to create a thriving white St. Louis. In 1901, the city passed its first residential segregation ordinance, which had a long shadow despite being overruled by the courts. The World’s Fair of 1904 simultaneously sought to pacify the city’s white workers and celebrate the visions of empire that captured the city’s history and anticipated the country’s future. And the brutal East St. Louis massacre of 1917 revealed the iron fist of repression that always accompanies dreams of modernity.
A tradition of Black activism with roots in the mid-19th century resurfaced in mid-20th-century St. Louis.
The last section of The Broken Heart of America—the story of the past 75 years—takes up what Johnson calls the “dialectic of segregation and removal[ism]” that established an urban landscape of virtual confinement for Black people. Rather than the Jim Crow laws that choreographed race in the Southern states, the devices deployed in St. Louis were zoning, redevelopment, and urban renewal, linking real-estate developers with political officials, local industrialists, and white labor to control the Black population.
This, of course, is not just a St. Louis phenomenon; St. Louis typifies much of urban America since the middle of the 20th century, together with the interconnections of cities and suburbs that made for residential segregation and Black impoverishment.
But Johnson lays this all out with a clarity that is rare—he provides readers with excellent maps that reveal the on-the-ground demographic shifts—and with a cast of actors that is remarkably encompassing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, St. Louis—with its large Catholic population—also produced some of the most notable right-wing activists of the late 20th century: Pat Buchanan and Phyllis Schlafly chief among them.
None of this went unopposed. A tradition of Black activism with roots in the mid-19th century resurfaced with leaders like Percy Green and Ivory Perry, organizations like the Action Council to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION), the Nation of Islam, and the Black Liberators (with their 10-point program modeled on that of the Black Panthers), and desegregation struggles and rent strikes (including one of the nation’s first, led by Black women at the notorious Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex).
But although Johnson tries to end on a hopeful note about “ordinary people” now “imagining new ways to live in the city, to connect with and care for one another, to be human,” one sees instead the road to Michael Brown’s police murder in Ferguson, the image of “the world according to Chief Justice Roger Taney,” with Blacks having “no rights that the white man was bound to respect.” “In St. Louis,” Johnson writes—channeling Marx and thinking of the country more broadly—“the history of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the living.”
Sobering, provocative, and timely, The Broken Heart of America compels our attention. But that is all the more reason the historical flattening disappoints, especially when it comes to the concepts that frame Johnson’s interpretation. Let’s start with empire. Johnson recognizes, as relatively few historians do, that empire has been integral to the American project since the founding of the republic. But as Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper remind us in their sweeping study, Empires in World History, the concept of empire is capacious and contingent on historical context. Johnson seems to suggest that American leaders, across the political spectrum, had embraced a similar vision of empire: one that looked to the trans-Mississippi West and the Pacific and to eradicating the claims of the Native peoples (if not the people themselves) who lived there.
Yet the first half of the 19th century gave rise not to one but to competing visions of empire. Men like Benton—an enslaver himself—not only looked to the West; he joined hands with slaveholders (most of them Democrats), especially prominent in the Mississippi Valley, who looked south, to the Caribbean Basin and Central and South America, imagining an empire for slavery, or at least an empire in which slavery could be firmly rooted. It was, in many respects, an agro-commercial empire, an expanding territory of slaveholding and nonslaveholding white settlers, with politicians like Stephen Douglas articulating the aims and tying them to what he called “popular sovereignty.”
Whigs and later Republicans were no less imperial, but they were also more incremental, more developmental; they saw the trans-Mississippi West as lending scale and strength to a more urban and economically diverse landscape organized around “free labor” and a sovereign nation-state, with no place for enslavement. What’s more, even before the outbreak of the Civil War, Republicans began to imagine—William Seward is especially important here—a Pacific empire that was commercial rather than territorial, made up chiefly of markets and not lands. Empire, therefore, must be understood in the context of contrasting political economies, with St. Louis very much a border area, and explored more deeply in that way.
In his previous book, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Johnson made a great deal of the imperial perspective of the Mississippi Valley slave regime. But those insights do not figure sufficiently in The Broken Heart of America, where, instead, Johnson emphasizes a common denominator of empire in the idea of a continental white republic energized by white supremacy. No doubt such a common denominator could be identified; it was, however, only part of the picture, and the larger picture is meaningful.
Had the Civil War ended differently, either with an armistice or a Confederate victory, St. Louis and New Orleans may together have become the centers of a universe based on slaveholding and slaveholding beneficiaries (as an aside, Native peoples of the trans-Mississippi West may then have fared much better because of an alliance some fashioned with the Confederate rebels that included political representation). As it turned out, the Northeast rather than the Mississippi Valley emerged triumphant, with enduring effects that are pretty much passed over.
Like empire, and intimately connected to it, white supremacy is a central conceptual force of Johnson’s history. White supremacy is, of course, many things. It is an ideology, a constellation of power relations, the basis for political alliances, and, as we know better than ever, a rallying cry for mobilizations against systemic racism. In The Broken Heart of America, white supremacy seems to figure as an objective and, relatedly, as an idea that conjoins the interests of white people across class lines and thereby makes possible social relations and public policies that ordinarily come at the material expense of working-class and poor whites but require some level of their support.
Yet, much like “race,” white supremacy is also a construct. In part, it is an analytical construct meant to reveal the power dynamics in a society; and in part, it is a construct of historical actors—embedded in their actions and discourses—who seek to secure and advance certain hierarchies of power. Which is to say that white supremacy is the door opener for further analysis, not the descriptive end point.
The problem in The Broken Heart of America is that white supremacy tends toward the descriptive: Johnson uses the term to describe or capture the character of what is happening almost continuously—especially how St. Louis elites either manage lower-class white people or do not need to manage them because of a shared commitment to white supremacy.
But the value of white supremacy as an analytical as well as a descriptive device depends on the perspectives of white people who may not have a material stake in it. And here Johnson does less than we should like. Even though he is a historian who has written extensively about historical “agency,” the agency of working-class whites in the construction and solidification of white supremacy at any point is hard to detect in his latest book. “White supremacy” is rather deployed to connect an assortment of things occurring at various times, so as to suggest why rare moments of interracial alliance were undermined and doomed to defeat.
Should we assume that solidarities built around whiteness so easily prevailed in a multiethnic and multicultural city like St. Louis—or anywhere for that matter? Did the Germans or the Irish or the Jews understand their fortunes and destinies in terms of white supremacy? If so, how did they express them? Johnson presents us with the shifting languages of race held by urban elites and their minions—including suburbanites—but not the languages of other groups whose political loyalties had to be won. If white supremacy is a suitable descriptor of St. Louis society in the 1840s, 1940s, and 2010s—when the city was a commercial center, an industrial hub, and a postindustrial landscape with very different constellations of class, race, and power—it loses historical specificity and meaning. The point is not that white supremacy is irrelevant or a misplaced descriptor; this is not the case at all. The point is that white supremacy gains meaning in a broader and deeper historical context. Simply put, white over Black cannot be disentangled from white over white or white over an assortment of other social and ethnic groups, including Native people. It was not by accident that the confinement of Native Americans to reservations and the advent of segregationist Jim Crow unfolded at roughly the same times.
Empire and white supremacy constitute essential parts of the most important organizing concept in The Broken Heart of America: racial capitalism. This concept owes to the influential work of Cedric J. Robinson (whom Johnson generously acknowledges) and it has become especially significant in the developing field of slavery and capitalism.
On one level, this makes a great deal of sense; the expansion of capitalism as an Atlantic and then global system fed off the forced marches and hyper-exploitation of Africans and other people of color who were slaves, servants, contract laborers, tenants, croppers, and wage hands.
On another level, however, racial capitalism is confusing. Is it a particular form of capitalism or is it the essence of capitalism? Robinson’s Black Marxism (the text of reference) has only one chapter on racial capitalism, and it is a chapter on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In it, he alludes to “several forms of capitalism,” and he speaks chiefly of the racializations (of Europeans as well as others) that capitalist social relations promote.
Robinson’s analysis of the transition and its articulations is heavily influenced by the work of Immanuel Wallerstein, and his main point is the interconnection between feudalism and capitalism. “Capitalism,” Robinson writes, “was less a catastrophic revolution (negation) of feudalist social orders than the extension of these social relations into the larger tapestry of the modern world’s political and economic relations.” Each—feudalism and capitalism—had intimate, though distinctive, involvements with enslavement. Robinson’s is a critique of the limitations of Marxist analysis (which he recognizes, too, as a “Western construction”) and a reminder of the ways in which race and nationalism can mediate and organize class relations. Above all, he understands capitalism as a developing and changing historical phenomenon.
It is the historically specific nature of capitalism that seems missing in the way that Johnson uses racial capitalism. For him (and for many others who invoke the concept), almost everything that happens, from enslavement to capital accumulation to segregation to redlining to urban renewal, represents the handiwork of racial capitalism. The entire history of St. Louis—and one would presume any other place in the United States—seems to be encompassed by it.
But how much sense does this make? And where does it really get us? Systems of enslavement have emerged in societies all over the globe, and endured in a variety of forms for many centuries. They rose on the African continent and sustained slave trading over great distances long before Europeans arrived. Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere enslaved each other and engaged in raiding and warfare to add to or replenish the supply of slaves they had. And where enslavement or related forms of coercion developed, cultural representations of those subject to this type of domination involved notions of superiority and inferiority. Russian lords insisted that enserfed peasants not only had degraded heritages but black bones as marks of them.
A developing American capitalism fed off the wealth produced by enslaved Black people, but always had a contradictory relationship to it.
Atlantic slavery first developed in the 15th and 16th centuries in a context of Euro-African commerce, religious warfare, imperial predations, and early modern (often neo-feudal) social relations, as Robinson himself suggests. Early regimes of labor exploitation in North America included European indentured servitude, Indian slavery, and the enslavement of Africans, whose legal and cultural status nonetheless evolved slowly over the course of the 17th century. Notions of supremacy were usually expressed in religious (Christians vs. heathens) or cultural (non-sedentary vs. sedentary) terms. Languages and categories that might be regarded as “racial” could be identified, but increasingly elaborate racial thinking took shape only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when slave systems were being transformed (some call it a “second slavery”) and slavery itself was under growing attacks from within and without. This was the era of the Haitian Revolution and the advent of Euro-American abolitionism, and it was the era when “white supremacy” took on a new meaning. If anything, racial thinking was more advanced in those parts of the country (the Northeast and Midwest) where slavery was in decline and a post-slavery population of African descent was increasing in number.
But would white supremacy mean the same thing in Massachusetts, where there were very few people of African descent and where politics embraced antislavery and anti-Catholic nativism, as it would in South Carolina, where the majority of the population was Black, enslaved people of African descent composed the basis of social and political order, and few Catholics of European descent were to be found? A developing American capitalism fed off the wealth produced by enslaved Black people, but always had a complex and contradictory relationship to it, as the great historian Eric Williams insisted. And what did slave emancipation and the transition from enslaved to other forms of labor signify? Was it the emergence of capitalism in the areas where slavery dominated or the shift from one form of capitalism to another? Or did emancipation have little or nothing to do with capitalism in general and racial capitalism in particular? St. Louis was one of the very few areas where slavery remained legal that developed a more diverse local economy (completely unlike New Orleans farther down the Mississippi). How are we then to think about the role of slavery and capitalism in the city’s development?
In the post–Civil War period, as Johnson recognizes, American capitalism moved into an industrial and new imperial phase. It thrived on the surpluses produced by former slaves, but even more on those produced by millions of European immigrants and Chinese contract laborers, who built the railroads, made steel, mined minerals, cut timber, and transported goods. Is racial capitalism an aspect of this transformation or its basis—a compound subject or a subject with a modifier? In the Southern states, where the overwhelming majority of the African-descended population remained, this period saw large-scale Black migrations within the South (southeast to southwest) and migrations from the rural areas to towns and cities. Jim Crow as a form of white supremacy emerged most rapidly in the urban South and was an effort both to secure labor and to orchestrate what were increasingly called “race relations”: to mitigate the violent eruptions occurring in the countryside (it didn’t work very well, as Wilmington and Atlanta demonstrated, not to mention East St. Louis). Not surprisingly, this violence was a manifestation of population movement and of the persistence of Black political power in many areas. And not incidentally, apartheid in South Africa emerged at roughly the same time and in the same context of socioeconomic change: urbanization and industrialization.
The Great Migration once again reconfigured American capitalism and white supremacy. And here, St. Louis occupied a distinctive place as both a site of Jim Crow and a receptor of Blacks fleeing the Jim Crow South. The struggle over segregation had its own dynamics (as Johnson shows) in part because Blacks could vote there—unlike everywhere to the south and east, where white supremacy (really the supremacy of planters, merchants, and industrialists) was maintained by disfranchisement and brutal labor repression. In St. Louis, owing to an expanding and (after the Depression) changing industrial economy, Black workers were centrally involved in strikes and left-wing mobilizations. The eventual process of deindustrialization and the growing importance of what is known as the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, and real estate) undermined the gains Black workers had made, relegating millions to the poverty-stricken service sectors and underemployment, while Civil Rights achievements promoted the expansion of a Black middle class. But how much is this a story of the changing dimensions of global capitalism, and of new actors, rather than of racial capitalism in the United States?
White supremacy and racial capitalism are fundamental features of contemporary American society and of the larger world. Yet they have histories that are the result of courageous struggles and readjustments, not just the ongoing imposition of the heavy hands of domination. History can be about continuities but it is also about change, and analytical concepts are useful to the extent that they can account for and incorporate change—and help us recognize the moments when significant change in the relations of power is possible and when it is not. If we regard white supremacy and racial capitalism as transcendent forces with effectively no history, the future, like the past, is a dark tunnel. Where then is the hope that Walter Johnson wishes to find in his hometown?
This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonick.