The Writings of David Roediger

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

Roger Horowitz

IN JOHN SAYLES’ provocative film, “Brother from Another Planet,” one of its most humorous scenes concerns two white college students from Chicago who are visiting New York City. Unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the IRT line, they take the wrong subway and end up in Harlem rather than at Columbia University. Visibly nervous at being in a Black community, they scurry into the bar where the Black alien–the “Brother from Another Planet”–has taken refuge amidst a small Black clientele.

They find in the brother a willing ear (as he is mute), and unload a series of cliches designed to convince him and the Black bar patrons that they are not racist. To clinch their argument, the two inebriated whites emphasize their admiration for Ernie Banks, one of the great players on the Chicago Cubs baseball team. One says, “I didn’t just love Ernie Banks. I wanted TO BE Ernie Banks.” At that the bar owner hustles them out, and laughs once they depart, leaving the alien utterly mystified as to what has taken place.

Perhaps if the alien had a chance to read David Roediger’s writings on race and racial identity, he would have understood. In his pathbreaking book, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso, 1991), Roediger begins with an autobiographical note about his white friends in the early 1960s who rooted for the Black stars of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team–and also used the word “nigger” as a term of opprobrium despite little personal contact with African Americans. He employs this story as an allegory to suggest how notions of what it means to be Black and what it means to be white permeate our society. While acknowledging the economic, social and political sources of racism, Roediger also wants us to take seriously the psychological processes that root notions of race deep in the psyche of working-class Americans.

White racism, he suggests, contains a volatile mixture of longing for qualities identified with blackness, but which whites do not feel they can enjoy without losing the privileges accorded to their race. Sayles’ white college students fear Harlem because Blacks are, to them, physical, mysterious, dangerous; yet they can admire Ernie Banks, “want to be Ernie Banks,” for his very athletic talents invoke awe in these intellectual, repressed, and timid individuals.

The Wages of Whiteness was one of those rare books that has reoriented how historians look at the American working class. Since its publication, investigation into the process of “race making” among white workers has become commonplace. Roediger has also extended his analysis in a number of other works, including a collection called Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (Verso, 1994) and a number of essays. Taken together, Roediger’s intent is to draw out W.E.B. DuBois’ insight that white racism functioned as a “public and psychological wage” which brought whites not just material benefits, but also deference and political power.

In taking this tack Roediger criticizes Marxists for too often reducing racial discrimination to conflicts over resources, such as jobs or housing, that are manipulated by a society’s upper classes in order to divert attention from the real sources of inequality. Such a focus, he argues, ignores the manner in which race and racial consciousness is integrally tied to class formation and working-class consciousness.

Moreover, he contends that this is a critical topic for advocates of working-class movements for social change. In his essay, “Labor In White Skin,” (first published in 1988 and reprinted in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness), Roediger chides historians of the American working class for ignoring Marx’s prescient statement that “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” (Capital, Vol. I [NY: 1967], 301.) His agenda is to show how race consciousness among whites needs to be fought so that the working class can be brought to an emancipatory agenda.

Racial Consciousness and Class Formation

Roediger locates the beginning of the development of the “wages of whiteness” in the dramatic economic changes that affected skilled artisans in the first half of the 19th century. While in colonial America an artisan could reasonably aspire to own his own shop, by the 1840s most skilled workers were destined to spend their lives laboring for wages under conditions set by an employer. This process of creating a defined working class occasioned bitter resentment and considerable protest by the white male artisans who objected to the loss of opportunities which their fathers had enjoyed.

Roediger argues that in the context of this dramatic change, “…the pleasures of whiteness could function as a ‘wage’ for white workers. That is, status and privileges conferred by race could be used to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships.” [The Wages of Whiteness 13]

Notions of whiteness even imbued the republican ideology used by workers to claim their rights in the early republic. Many historians have show that white workers articulated an ideology which took the language of the struggle for political independence from Britain and used it to argue for independence and power in the emerging United States of America.

Roediger wants us to consider the hidden racial transcript in what has been called “working-class republicanism” because the formulation of these ideas took place in a nation which included and protected a caste system of slavery. He points out that the conditions and aspirations of the white workers were a studied contrast to the status of enslaved African-Americans. “In this slaveholding republic, where independence was prized but where, especially among Northern artisans, it was also threatened, the bondage of Blacks served as a touchstone by this dependence and degradation were measured. Racial formation and class formation were thus bound to penetrate each other at every turn.” [20] As workers articulated a republican ideology to express their objections to the changes in their lives, enslaved blacks remained a constant negative reference point.

Roediger fleshes out his argument through an analysis of language and culture. His most successful effort is uncovering the racial connotations of the word “freemen,” a term popularly employed by workers in the 19th century as a mean to assert their rights in politics and at work. Roediger wants us to consider how the notion of freemen intrinsically assumed that Blacks were “anti-citizens” because of their dependent status.

He shows effectively that free Blacks were routinely driven from working-class celebrations of the American Revolution. Moreover, at the same time as property qualification fell in the early 19th century, allowing white workers into politics, new explicitly racial bars were imposed to prevent free lacks from exercising the franchise. In this manner the notion of “freemen” was not simply an affirmative term, but as a negative statement on what the “unfree” Black race was not–even if the Black person was not a slave.

In the democracy of pre-Civil War America, the “whiteness” assumed in the word “freemen” assured workers that no matter how far they might experience downward mobility because of economic change, they would always be citizens because they were white.

The economic pressures on skilled white artisans between 1800-1850 provide the context for Roediger’s most extended psychological argument. As employers pressed their employees to abandon pre-industrial work habits in favor of time-discipline and adherence to work rules, white workers imputed to Blacks a retention of those habits as a way of rationalizing the growing distance from their pre-industrial past and a repressed desire for that culture. The mixture of revulsion towards and attraction to Black culture–“to be Ernie Banks”–was expressed through blackface minstrelsy. In this immensely popular 19th century form of theater, white men wore cosmetics to appear “black” and performed songs and skits which emphasized “the preindustrial permissiveness imputed to AfricanAmericans.” [107] In so doing, the performers and audience could revel in preindustrial culture at the same time they established a firm distance from it–and thus their superior “whiteness.”

Roediger’s discussion of the Irish allows him to draw out the implications for “whiteness” as a means for facilitating the incorporation of immigrants into a “white” working-class. To gain political power in a nation where Protestants viewed Catholics as outsiders, the Irish supported a Democratic Party based in the south and committed to slavery. Being accepted as “white” by the Democratic Party thus was for the Irish the very basis for their ability to become citizens. To gain access to better jobs, the Irish struggled to draw a firm line between “nigger work” and “white work.” This meant not only excluding Blacks from many areas of employment, but also breaking down bars to the employment of Irish on the basis that they were “white” as well. Roediger again takes care to emphasize the larger economic and political context. For the Irish “The imperative to define themselves as whites came but from the particular ‘public and psychological wages’ whiteness offered to a desperate rural and often preindustrial Irish population coming to labor in industrializing American cities.” [137]

Roediger brings The Wages of Whiteness to a close with the Civil War and its aftermath. He emphasizes the immense potential for a revolution in whiteBlack relations, because the war sundered the material basis for the identification of Blacks with servile, dependent labor. The war removed the “ability of white workers to derive satisfaction from defining themselves as ‘not slaves’ and called into question self definitions that centered on being ‘not Black.'” Moreover, the military experience of the war brought northern working-class whites into direct contact with Blacks in an environment in which the abilities of the escaped slaves could make an impact on attitudes towards the abilities of African Americans.

This potential was not fully realized, Roediger suggests obliquely, because of the failure of Reconstruction and the emergence of sharecropping which reasserted link between blackness, servility, and dependency.

History, Psychology and Language

The Wages of Whiteness had a tremendous impact because of the force of its argument, and not its evidence, which is suggestive and not comprehensive. Roediger remains firmly grounded in the material and political context of pre-Civil War America, and constructs his arguments concerning language and psychology on that basis. Although Roediger doffs his intellectual hat to Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin and the “dialogic” approach to analyzing culture, I found a great deal of the early Wilhelm Reich in his book.

In the Mass Psychology of Fascism and the writings collected in Sex-Pol (both written in the Germany of the early 1930s), Reich criticized other marxists for ignoring the psychological structures that people constructed to explain their economic and political context. Fascism and racism, Reich argued, could not be defeated unless revolutionaries countered the psychologic roots of the attractiveness of those ideologies.

Roediger similarly contends that white workers inculcated notions of “whiteness” and “blackness” in their psychological outlook in a manner that had profound effects on their words, ideology, and deeds. In a society where race did matter so immensely, Roediger seems correct to contend that it could hardly be otherwise.

This book ends before the great waves of immigration from eastern Europe transformed the composition of the American working class, and also prior to the efforts to form labor organizations in the 20th century. Recognizing this limitation, Roediger has sought to extent his analysis beyond Reconstruction. In doing so he has to alter the basis of his argument–that notions of race were rooted in a 19th-century American awareness of slavery, and Blacks as a juridically subordinate race. Instead, Roediger has to negotiate far more slippery terrain, an America in which race still had tremendous meaning, but not the stark implications of chattel slavery. As he does so, Roediger pays more attention to concrete forms of white-Black interaction, and relies far less on broad, overarching explanations of white identity among workers. The result is a series of intriguing and persuasive vignettes.

In “Gaining a Hearing for BlackWhite Unity: Covington Hall and the Complexities of Race, Gender and Class,” the best essay in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, Roediger focuses on the way white union leader Covington Hall and others in the exemplary IWW-affiliated Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW) in the south wrestled with race consciousness in the 1910s. Befitting his closer look at racial structures in particular situations, Roediger emphasizes how integrated character of the timber cutting workforce stimulated and encouraged efforts to overcome racial divisiveness. Hall appropriated, and effectively built on this potential, by emphasizing “stomach equality” and winning white workers through bread-and-butter appeals.

But Roediger refuses to take the easy way out, and directs our attention to the limited manner in which the BTW negotiated race and whiteness. Despite value of stomach equality, “the BTW remained a product of American and southern conditions and continued to think and speak in terms of racial and gender hierarchies.” (145) It stopped short of endorsing social equality and used appeals to masculinity as a way to preempt racial divisions.

Roediger is at his best when he demonstrates how the language of the BTW simultaneously subverted and accepted southern racial conventions. In the lexicon of the BTW, the pejorative terms “nigger” and “white trash” were equally derogatory and only applicable to non-union workers and scabs. Standing in opposition to these lower forms of life in the union’s vocabulary were white and Negro “Men”—pro-union workers who stood by their families. In doing so, the BTW relied on manliness to transform the meaning of racist terminology and to promote interracial unity. But even this refashioning of terminology accepted a critical component of southern racial creed, the intrinsic separateness of Black and white.

Inbetween People

The other essays in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness are not of the same quality. I found the last piece, “Whiteness and Ethnicity in the History of ‘White Ethnics’ in the United States” particularly disappointing. It merely extrapolates Roediger’s arguments about the Irish to later European immigrant groups, and is not persuasive in doing so.

A far better indication of Roediger’s approach to 20th-century “whiteness” in the north is the article, “Inbetween Peoples: Race, Nationality and the New Immigrant Working Class,” published in American Exceptionalism? American Working-Class Formation in an International Context (London, 1997), co-authored by labor historian James R. Barrett. The essay’s focus is the inbetween status of immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century, whom Roediger and Barrett term “not-yet-white ethnics,” a formulation of immigration historian John Bukowczyk.

Drawing from the extensive literature on the immigrant working class, they point out that the new immigrants were not “white,” either to established white Americans or, for that matter, to themselves. Examples abound, including the many cases of employers developing elaborate ethno-racial job classification systems in which races were deemed to have special abilities which fit them for particular kinds of work. Conversely, these immigrants saw themselves as distinct from other white groups.

Nonetheless, immigrants could not elude the issue of whiteness and race making. Simply the right to become a citizen was racialized, as legislation and the courts prohibited most non-European immigrants from becoming American citizens. Consequently, Barrett and Roediger argue that “For new immigrant workers the process of ‘becoming white’ and ‘becoming American’ were intertwined at every turn.” Adding to these tensions over racial definition was the triumph of immigration restriction in the 1920s, as supporters of this legislation emphasized the non-white character of excluded groups to support their case.

Immigrants and their children also learned about race and whiteness at work because of the patterns of labor market segmentation. However, variations in job opportunities did not necessarily impart clear instructions on the benefits of whiteness. As Roediger and Barrett point out, “management created an economics of racial inbetweenness which taught new immigrants the importance of racial hierarchy while leaving open their place in the hierarchy.” [313] Ethnicity could seem far more salient than race, due to the importance of ethnic networks in obtaining employment and relatively limited job competition with blacks in most industries. While ethnics certainly learned the benefit of being “not nonwhite,” they did not necessarily conclude that “becoming white” was the only way to advance in American society.

Far more typical than acceptance of whiteness or rejection of racial identity was a seeming indifference to racial identification as such. Barrett and Roediger note how immigrant groups in the 1910s and 1920s tried to stand aloof from Black-white racial conflicts. They could add that the preeminent organization based on whiteness in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan, contributed to this “inbetween” sensibility in the north by targeting Catholics and Jews even more than African Americans.

These dynamics of race and class formation in the early 20th century pose an informative contrast with the Irish in the 19th century. Barrett and Roediger point out that Irish leaders “challenged anti-Celtic Anglo-Saxonism by becoming leaders in the cause of white supremacy” and sought to change the political debate “from Americanness and religion to race whenever possible… ” [335] Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe never took this approach. Instead of emphasizing race and common racial heritage with other white groups, they “generally tried to change the subject from whiteness to nationality and loyalty to American ideals.” (336)

Unfortunately, we are left wondering how Roediger would bring his argument into the 1930s and 1940s. “Inbetween Peoples” ends with only a few incomplete comments on this critical period when first and second generation ethnics, African Americans, and native born whites cooperated successfully to unionize mass production industry. We know from other literature on this period the importance of “Americanism” during the New Deal and World War II for previously marginal working-class groups, such as African Americans, southern whites, and the children of immigrants. How did whiteness and racial identity impact this process? And in turn, how were notions of whiteness themselves affected by the process of unionization of workers, and the political unification of the working class (including Blacks) inside the Democratic Party?

How Do Attitudes Change?

This question illustrates a larger problem in Roediger’s analysis: how do racial attitudes change (assuming they do change)? His essays are best at describing definable periods in which racial consciousness does not undergo dramatic alterations. Roediger does not write essays in which change serves as the fulcrum; persistence, rather than change over time, draws his attention. His focus on language and mentalite mitigates against an analysis which can explain, or anticipate, improvements in white racial attitudes.

This is a critical issue, especially if we accept Roediger’s opening dictum that “labor in white skin” will not support an emancipatory agenda. If notions of race are so deeply imbedded in our culture and psychology, can “whiteness” eventually evolve into something innocuous, a sense of difference rather than a belief in special privileges vis a vis other groups? Or is racism simply too deeply rooted in the psychology of the white working class for a liberatory movement to ever take root?

The body of his work so far does not encourage an optimistic answer to these questions. On balance it implies that racial attitudes are not significantly affected by incremental processes such as integration at work or in the community, and the activities of organizations such as unions which stress inter-racial cooperation. In The Wages of Whiteness, it takes a massive shock to the system –Civil War and emancipation–for notions of whiteness to take a hit. And even then, Roediger shows how limited and inconsistent are the changes in white attitudes towards the freed slaves.

In Towards the Abolition of Whiteness and other subsequent essays, racial attitudes remain deeply embedded in the bedrock of identity and class formation, highly resistant to change by social movements such as unionism. This is a pessimistic interpretation of the possibilities for the “abolition of whiteness” in America.

Roediger’s opening anecdote in Wages of Whiteness about his youth suggests he would like to believe it is possible to change racial attitudes without calamities like the Civil War, even as his work leans towards the opposite conclusion. Roediger’s positive experiences with Blacks on a tennis team “loosened” the hold of the “whiteness” he had assimilated through his German-American community. When the civil rights movement politicized race relations, Roediger crossed over to side of inter-racialism. Personal experiences due to an integrated environment made him open to new ways of viewing blacks, and the civil rights movement positively and permanently affected the no-receptive mind of this young man.

Roediger’s personal journey suggests, in a small way, the capacity of experience and social movements to alter ideas. I hope that as he continues to expand his opus on whiteness and race making in the working class, Roediger will turn his attention to movements for social change and their effect on racial attitudes.

ATC 66, January-February 1997