The first thing the reader notices about race in Moby-Dick is the diversity of the cast of characters, which includes among its principals a South Sea Islander, a Native American, and an African tribesman. The protagonist and narrator express attitudes of racial tolerance that are surprising for a nineteenth century text. Overt racism, when it occurs, is usually condemned by the tone of the novel. Still, the racial dynamics here are far from perfect: all the non-white characters are subordinate to the whites and tend to function as caricatures of their cultures. Most importantly, there are hardly any African-American slaves or freedmen (freed slaves) in the novel at all, with one notable but relatively minor exception (Pip). Considering that Moby-Dick was published in 1851 and heavily engages race as a theme, it’s significant that Melville mostly avoids commenting on slavery, one of the most important issues of the period. (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published only months later, in 1852.)
Moby-Dick presents a vision of America as a racially diverse nation that is both enriched and endangered by cultural variety.
Although Moby-Dick works to undermine many typical nineteenth-century racial stereotypes, in the end it reinforces such stereotypes by repeatedly subordinating nonwhite characters to whites.