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Excerpted from: Kathleen Neal Cleaver, The Antidemocratic Power of Whiteness: A Review of David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, 70 Chicago-Kent Law Review 1375 (1995) (Book Review) (61 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KathleenCleaverLike the formally neutral concept of “civil rights,” “race” usually makes one think of blacks. To link the idea of race with the social construct of whiteness is uncommon. As a rule, white Americans no longer see race in relation to their own identity, and genuinely believe that racism poses a problem for “others.” Nobel prize winning author Toni Morrison finds it both poignant and striking that the academic concentration on racism's targets avoids studying the impact racism has on its perpetrators. But this little noticed blindness does not stop with academic disciplines. A widespread failure to acknowledge that whiteness conveys internal meanings at the same time it fulfills anti-black functions helps frustrate programs that seek to eliminate racism's pernicious legacy. Thus, The Wages of Whiteness, a sophisticated analysis of the significance of racism in the formation of the nineteenth-century white working class, offers a welcome addition to the emerging literature interrogating whiteness.

Labor historian David R. Roediger draws upon recent scholarship in social history, such as the study of gender roles, industrial discipline, and popular republicanism in examining the specific ways that beliefs in white racial superiority became part of the consciousness of working men, weaving mass culture, language and politics into his neo-Marxist analysis. Going beyond the obvious results in order to understand the motives of their choices, Roediger does not focus on the material benefits of 'white skin privilege.’ Instead, he looks at the agency of working men themselves in constructing the meaning of whiteness. Understanding this process is crucial to Roediger because he shares African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois's conclusion concerning the deepest injury that white supremacy caused. Du Bois wrote that though “the consequences of [racist] thought were bad enough for colored people the world over,” they were “even worse when one considers what this attitude did to the [white] worker. . . . He began to want, not comfort for all men but power over other men. . . . He did not love humanity and he hated niggers.” This passionate devotion to white supremacy holds a partial explanation for the failure of the post-Civil War Reconstruction and the collapse of its legal framework for black freedom.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that the lawyer's task was not done until “he had seen . . . the birth and growth of society, and by the farthest stretch of his reason . . . [understood] the philosophy of its being.” The most turbulent disputes from the American past have left their mark not only on the narrative of our history, but in the text of our laws, and on the form of our legal culture. These disputes, and their resolution, have entwined themselves into our public consciousness and thus become part of how we perceive the world around us. The abolition of slavery, and in turn segregation, provoked the most virulent disputes of all, but before any careful understanding of that legacy has been reached, complex new changes are again throwing our social and legal world into turmoil. Judges, practitioners, and legal scholars all need a better grasp of the intricate relationships between beliefs in racial superiority and inferiority and the operation of our legal institutions. The brief, provocative examination in The Wages of Whiteness enhances that understanding.

Indebted to the dialectical study of race and class that W.E.B. Du Bois pioneered in his classic historical work Black Reconstruction, Roediger adopted his theme from Du Bois's formulation that the status and privileges conferred on the basis of whiteness provided compensation for exploitative and alienating class relationships, that even when white workers were paid a lowly wage, they were “compensated in part by a . . . public and psychological wage.” Du Bois concluded that nineteenth century workers prized whiteness to such an extent that instead of joining with black workers with whom they shared common interests, they adopted a white supremacist vision that approved of capitalism and “ruined democracy.” White supremacy served as the unifying theme of the militant resistance that defeated Confederates mounted against the revolution that ended the political and legal structure of slavery. The triumph of white supremacy helped destroy the legal transformation of the entire political system that Reconstruction initiated and eviscerated the laws of freedom that would have extended democracy to freed slaves.

Until the 1860s, the United States was not only an expanding nation but also a slaveholding republic. In the republican vision of a nation composed of small independent producers, suspicion ran deep both against the ranks of the powerful and the powerless. One rarely sung verse of The Star Spangled Banner that Francis Scott Key based on the British military's use of mercenaries and freed slaves to burn down the White House during the War of 1812 says:

No refuge could save the
hireling and the slave
From the terror of flight or
the gloom of the grave.

Back when this verse was penned in 1814, hireling was a term of disgrace. The radical ideal of republican government then eschewed dependency and elevated independence. Those gradations of dependency that whites experienced during the eighteenth century, such as apprenticeship, impressment, indentured servitude, farm tenancy and convict labor, Roediger argues, prevented the drawing of hard distinctions between an “idealized white worker and a pitied or scorned servile black worker.” Many eighteenth-century whites worked as servants, the same term used with the modifier “perpetual” or “negro” to describe blacks. Racial attitudes during the eighteenth century, Roediger believes, were more contradictory and promiscuous than they later became given the galling varieties of “unfreedom” whites experienced as well as the popular denunciation of “slavery” which flourished in anti-British rhetoric of the revolutionary era. From 1800 to 1860, the gradual transition into an economy in which wage labor became widespread, and the class of 'hireling’ expanded dramatically, produced problems for republican ideology. Dependency on wages, however, was not merely compared unfavorably with the ideal form of labor but it also faced comparison with the genuine slave.

Roediger explains the context in which the consciousness of a working class was developing in this way:

On the one hand, the specter of chattel slavery -- present historically in no other nation during the years of significant working class formation -- made for a remarkable awareness of the dangers of dependency and a strong suspicion of paternalism. On the other hand, hard thought about 'the hireling and the slave’ could make the position of the hireling comparatively attractive. The white hireling had the possibility of social mobility the Black slave did not. The white hireling was usually a political freeman, and the slave, and with very few exceptions, the free Black, were not. The comparison could lead to sweeping critiques of wage labor as 'white slavery,’ but it could also reassure wage workers that they belonged to the ranks of 'free white labor.’ . . . [W]orking Americans therefore expressed soaring desires to be rid of the age-old inequities of Europe and any hint of slavery. They also expressed the rather pedestrian goal of simply not being mistaken for . . . 'negers.’ And they saw not nearly so great a separation between these goals as we do.

Roediger argues that the particular constellation of social developments and attitudes that connected “white” with worker did not fully come together before the nineteenth century. Not until the 1860s did the process that reduced nearly one-half of the nonslave labor force to dependence upon wages and subjected them to new forms of capitalist discipline reach its completion. Also by the 1860s those republican notions of political and economic independence that had inflamed the nation's imagination during the Revolutionary era were waning. According to historian Gordon Wood:

People in the early nineteenth century sensed that everything had changed. . . . [M]urder, suicide, theft, and mobbing became increasingly common responses to the burdens that liberty and the expectation of gain were placing on people. . . . Urban rioting became more prevalent and destructive than it had been. Street, tavern, and theater rowdiness, labor strikes, racial and ethnic conflicts -- all increased greatly after 1800. . . . America may have been still largely rural, still largely agricultural, but now it was . . . perhaps the most thoroughly commercialized nation in the world.

America's newly industrializing commercial empire in formation was something unprecedented. As new types of production and social relations emerged during the raucous transition to capitalism, the political rhetoric of the day wrestled to define the new working conditions variously called “wage slavery,” “white slavery,” or “free white labor.”

Central to the nineteenth-century worker's devotion to whiteness was his assertion of maleness, with its perils and yearnings, and his uncertain claim to republican citizenship in the world of men. Roediger's examination of the way laborers cherished the term 'freeman’ is illuminating. “[I]n an urban society in which work and home became more radically separated and masculinity underwent extensive redefinition, its masculine ending may have had special appeal.” The word held the double meaning of economic and political independence. And in the antebellum era, “Blackness,” Roediger explains, “almost perfectly predicted lack of the attributes of a freeman.” This suprises no one, but what Roediger's study clarifies is how important it is to emphasize that blacks were perceived as “ anticitizens, as 'enemies rather than members of the social compact.”’ Thus, along with agitation to expand male suffrage to include all freemen went efforts to bar free blacks from exercising the franchise or to make the legal definition of freeman congruent with white adult males.

The analysis of new meanings and words defining labor is an intriguing element of Roediger's study. The increasing use of the words “help” or “hired man” or “hired hand” to replace “servant” developed early in the nineteenth century. The decline in the willingness of white domestic workers to be called servants Roediger attributes to the egalitarian notions current in post-revolutionary America plus the obnoxious association between “servant” and the work slaves performed. Roediger found that virtually all the evidence from the nineteenth century sources shows that the new usages were initiated by the workers, not, as some historians have claimed, by their employers. He quotes James Feinmore Cooper's derisive observation that “[a] man does not usually hire his cook to help him cook his dinner, but to cook it herself.” Roediger describes the new terminology for household and farm laborers as the worker's means of asserting claims to greater dignity and freedom than the term servant permitted, given the link between servility, slavery and blacks.

Widespread repudiation of the term master, for which the Dutch word boss was substituted, was another innovation. Webster's 1829 dictionary, Roediger reports, did not yet include boss. And in 1837, James Feinmore Cooper bristled at the popular usage of “boss,” claiming that “ 'the laboring classes of whites' moved by a desire not to be connected with 'negro slaves' had dispensed with the term master. . . . [But] they have resorted to the use of the word boss, which has precisely the same meaning in Dutch!”

Tracing the transformation of slang terms into racist slurs more explicitly demonstrates the changing consciousness. As late as 1840, the connotation of 'coon’ was that of a country bumpkin or city slicker. Davy Crockett's coonskin cap became the symbol the Whig Party used to identify with rural folk during the 1840 Presidential campaign. Democrats denounced their Whig rivals as “coons” using epithets like “Whig coonism” and “Whig coonventions.” New York City Democrats attacked the Whigs as a “Federal Whig Coon Party.”

Later in the century, the blackface minstrel character Zip Coon came to personify the stereotypical irresponsible, dandified free Northern black, and by the end of the nineteenth century the “coon song” craze reached such intensity that Zip's songs sold millions of copies of sheet music. The popularity of minstrel songs and blackface entertainment provided urban wage earners with a sentimental, rowdy but safe form of rebellion. Explaining the phenomenal appeal after the Civil War of the 'coon songs,’ Roediger cites the work of scholars who found that this appeal lay in the songs' projection onto emancipated blacks of those values and actions that aroused both fascination and fear among working class whites. Roediger writes, “Whatever his attraction, the performers and audience knew that they were not the Black dandy personified by Zip Coon.”

The elaborate cultural disguise of “blacking up” emphasized that those on stage performing were in reality white and that whiteness mattered. All whites could participate in the central joke of the minstrel show, despite their own ethnic and religious diversity, and the minstrel farce presented them with an increasingly smug whiteness. The masking process, Roediger argues, holds the key to the genius of minstrel shows, for it allowed the performer to both display and then reject the natural self in the way he could so convincingly take on and then take off blackness. It also, Roediger concludes, offered the working masses an illusory opportunity to retain the joys of preindustrial culture amidst the discipline and repression associated with industrialization, social mobility, and respectability. These shows addressed the broadest tensions produced by the creation of the first American working class, and the uninhibited wildness of the minstrel performances gave the men in the audience a representation of psychological perversity that was the antithesis of the qualities associated with capitalist acquisitiveness.

[. . .]

The analysis Roediger develops starts from a position black scholars and writers have long articulated: the race problem is a white problem. And in Roediger's opinion the traditional theoretical approach to labor history will simply perpetuate an oversimplified view of race which sees whiteness as natural, until it recognizes how workers participated in the creation of their own racial identity. Roediger points out that labor historians should be able to grasp the inconsistency of any theory that asserts that the industrial worker's racist views merely trickled down from the ruling class. This should be particularly clear now, given that neo-Marxist perspectives in which workers are seen as historical actors making their own choices and creating their own cultural forms dominate the study of the working class. Yet, the new labor history remains reluctant to acknowledge the worker's participation in the construction of 'whiteness' and 'white supremacy,’ clinging to variations on the presumption that economic relations produced racist attitudes.

For Marxist historians, class remains the privileged category of analysis even when scholars acknowledge the deformations of race, for to them economic class seems to have greater objective validity and therefore more political importance. Roediger is critical of this preference, and in his analysis it is the simultaneous structural formation of the working class with a systematic elaboration of its sense of whiteness that takes center stage. “[W]hiteness,” in the broadest strokes, Roediger argues, “was a way in which white workers responded to a fear of dependency on wage labor and to the necessities of capitalist work discipline.” The most pressing task that social and cultural historians face, in Roediger's view, “is not to draw precise lines separating race and class but to draw lines connecting race and class.” The study of class must be reconceptualized, he argues, to recognize how race operates to create class consciousness.

Roediger's theoretical analysis of the meaning of whiteness to the worker's self concept will have lasting significance if its insights bring clarity to the remarkable power of racism to sustain itself. The structural economic crisis now disrupting our society is the most severe this nation has seen in a century. If whiteness in the nineteenth century offered a way for the newly forming working class to express fears of dependency and anguish over the imposition of capitalist discipline, is it predictable that the fears and agonies modern day workers face may also seek expression in resurgent white male superiority? Whatever connection exists between the racially charged political rhetoric of recent campaigns and the disturbing fragmentation and decline facing the industrial worker, the abiding significance attached to whiteness is clear.

This attachment to whiteness has far-reaching side effects, particularly in light of the way race polarizes everyone. As Professor Lani Guinier has observed, Americans “have learned to see race as an issue of blame and punishment.” In the polarized, winner-takes-all climate of our political debate, Guinier writes, it seems there is no longer any will to do more than blame race for our problems. In some instances, among those overwhelmed by the magnitude of problems that seem to defy solutions, she writes, there is a belief that the solutions are the problem. The assault on blacks and the poor that characterizes our present debate inhibits the creation of any “approach that gives working-class whites and blacks, poor people of all hues and other political orphans a . . . way to make common ground. . . . No one tries to point out,” she concludes, “that the interests of minorities and the poor are integral to our collective self-interest.” Clearly, these spurious wages that white racism paid long ago continue to bedevil our democracy.

Assistant Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law (on leave 1994-95); Fellow, The Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College.

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