Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race

State of the Discipline


Autonomy in a Herrenvolk Democracy2

Marek D. Steedmana1 c1

a1 Department of Political Science, University of Southern Mississippi


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.

(Online publication October 24 2011)


  • Weber;
  • Mastery;
  • Race;
  • Atlanta;
  • Southern Progressives


c1 Marek D. Steedman, Department of Political Science, University of Southern Mississippi, 118 College Drive, Box # 5108, Hattiesburg, MS 39406. E-mail: Marek.Steedman@usm.edu

Marek D. Steedman is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Southern Mississippi. He received a PhD in political theory from the University of Michigan. His work on the relation between race and the liberal and republican traditions in American political thought can be found in Jim Crow Citizenship (forthcoming from Routledge). Other publications include, “Resistance, Rebirth, and Redemption: The Rhetoric of White Supremacy in Post-Civil War Louisiana,” in Historical Reflections 35:1 (2009);” “How was Race Constructed in the New South,” in the Du Bois Review, 5:1 (2008); and “Gender and the Politics of the Household in Reconstruction Louisiana, 1865–1879,” in Gender and Slave Emancipation in The Atlantic World, Diana Patton and Pamela Scully, (Eds.) (Duke University Press, 2005).


1 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.

2 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.