David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness

René Francisco Poitevin

Working Toward Whiteness:
How America’s Immigrants Became White
by David Roediger
Basic Books, 2005, 339 pages,
$26.95 hardback.

A DISTURBING AFTERMATH of the pro-immigrant demonstrations recently held in dozens of cities across the United States, besides the obvious anti-immigrant backlash, has been the increase in Black/Brown tensions. Particularly alarming has been the way in which Latinos are being accused, not only by conservatives but by Progressives as well, of being the latest permutation of a long history of immigrant groups arriving to this country and making it, to quote Toni Morrison, “on the backs of Blacks.”

This argument is part of a broader narrative which claims that Latino struggle for social equality is being waged at the expense of African Americans.(1) According to this argument, Latinos are bound to assimilate and become the new whites, a situation that will put them economically above, and in antagonistic relation to African Americans.(2) So goes the story. But is it true?

This essay takes a look at David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness to make the case against the so-called Latinos-are-White thesis, and against the apparently imminent Black/Brown debacle. Working Toward Whiteness helps us understand how Latinos “throw a wrench” into our traditional Black/White mode of looking at race relations — and why they cannot be easily collapsed into a Black/White racial binary.

I will make the case that so-called transformations in Latino racial consciousness have to do less with actual shifts in Latino identity, and more to do with a poverty of theory. By taking a closer look at the way we theorize immigration and race relations in this country, this essay hopes to contribute to the discussion on how we strategize for effective anti-racist and anti-capitalist organizing, and how to think about new theoretical interventions.

Racial Transformation

To be sure, Working Toward Whiteness is not about Latinos, but rather the Southern and Eastern European migration that brought 13 million people to the United States between 1886 and 1925 — and how this population, which definitely arrived as “non White,” became White within the span of few decades.

The book, which divides its seven chapters into three sections, tells the story of this European racial transformation through a three-way account of the specific contexts underlying the arrival of these “new immigrant” groups, the nature of “Whiteness” as a form of racial consciousness which developed after arrival, and the explicit intervention of the State as a necessary condition for the institutionalization of Whiteness.

But why use a book on early European migrants to talk about Latino migration today? The short answer is that by putting race at the core of how immigration and assimilation is socially embedded, and by looking at assimilation as Whitening as well as Americanizing(9), Working Toward Whiteness provides a very important framework for understanding how Whiteness is socially constructed — and for sorting out whether Latinos are in fact becoming ‘the new Italians.’(3)

The punch line (I hope I’m not giving away too much of the plot here) is that for early twentieth century European migrants to become White — and let’s not forget that they came in as racially “in between,” neither White nor Black — they had to first, embrace a racial identity predicated on the discrimination of Blacks, and second, become the direct beneficiaries of white-supremacist state policies aimed at institutionalizing this newly acquired white identity.

The book argues that in a country where European immigrants and others were judged on the basis of race, and in which citizenship was commonly denied to those classified as nonWhite, the perks to be gained by embracing Whiteness — together with the concrete penalties that came with being associated with nonWhites — were too tempting to be ignored.

Equally important for the development of Whiteness during this period is the active role of the state as a necessary condition for “creating” Whiteness. Simply put, individual choice alone was not enough to congeal such a diverse European ethnic mix into a “monolithic Whiteness.”(138)

Therefore one of the most important lessons from Roediger’s book is that European assimilation into Whiteness had less to do with skin color and more to do with power structures and state regulations.

Long Latino History

How many “second generation” Mexicans does it take to change a bulb in the United States?

Roediger’s answer: lots and lots. In a context where academic research seems to be obsessed with the “second generation” question as the main way to determine whether or not Latinos are assimilating, Roediger refreshingly reminds us that Latinos have actually been in this country for hundreds of years now, and that they have not exactly experienced upward mobility during that time. Quite the contrary.

Working Toward Whiteness documents the historical depictions of Mexicans as “greasers,” the naming of lower-status jobs as “Mexican jobs,” the implementation of restrictive covenants to keep Mexicans out of decent housing — not to mention the couple of million Mexican Americans who were deported during the 1930s and 1950s.

The point here is not to imply that there are no important lessons to be learned from looking at the children of first-generation immigrants. It is, rather, to show the limits of explanatory models of assimilation that narrowly reduce incorporation into U.S. society in terms of whether or not Latino kids are learning English or marrying outside their group — all the while refusing to take into account the importance of race and discrimination in constituting what it means to become “American” in this country.(4)

Messy Ethnicity

Another refreshing feature of Roediger’s book is the way it reminds us that our current race/ethnicity divide is actually more “messy” (Roediger’s term) than social science wants us to believe. For one, in the early 1900s, there was no such thing as “ethnicity” as we understand it today.

We can find debates on “nation-races” and “color-races” during this period, but the idea that we could use “ethnicity” to differentiate between Europeans and other racial groups was simply nonexistent. For Roediger, the way we reinsert “ethnicity” back into the early 20th century, as a way to explain why new European migrants became White, has to do more with the politics of academia now than with clarifying what was going on back then. (28)

That the race/ethnicity divide is very fragile indeed became clear in the 2000 Census. More than 10 million Latinos, or about a quarter of all the Latino population in the United States, said that they belonged to the “Latino race.” What makes these numbers even more dramatic is that “Latino,” according to the U.S. government, is not a race but an ethnicity.(5)

But if Latinos are becoming “White” according to some critics, then why are millions refusing to embrace the White (or Black) identity and going out of their way to say that they are something else? What does it mean for our dominant Black/White racial paradigm and the way we account for race relations in this country?

Roediger’s book reminds us that these Latino numbers are not the exception to the rule, but that they simply reflect, once again, the messiness of racial categories — a messiness that cannot be taken care of by simply invoking a Black/White racial divide.

Will Latinos Embrace Whiteness?

Even if we entertain the possibility that, contrary to “second generation” theorists, Latinos might not be assimilating even if we are willing to complicate our understanding of racial categories to allow for such a thing as a Latino “race,” together with the possibility that the Black/White racial paradigm might not quite work in the case of Latinos, the question still remains: are Latinos going to turn their back on African Americans and embrace Whiteness the way the new European immigrants did?

Recall that in order for Southern and Eastern Europeans to become White two things had to happen: European immigrant groups had to embrace an anti-Black identity (see Roediger’s Section II), and this newly embraced Whiteness had to be institutionalized through state laws and government programs (see Section III).

The Federal government’s response to this need to institutionalize Whiteness through state policies and subsidies was the New Deal. The New Deal not only created and literally paid for a new generation of segregated neighborhoods, it also became the sponsor and enforcer of restrictive housing covenants.

The New Deal also strengthened the institution of “White unionism” through legislation that excluded a large number of Black, Latino and Asian workers (notably, agricultural labor) from the protection of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act — in effect, making the idea of fairness and economic citizenship a matter of race.

Of course, the New Deal also brought us the 1935 Social Security Act, which despite being “universal,” managed to leave out a great deal of workers of color through exclusions based on low wages and episodic employment. The end result of the Social Security legislation was that Black and Mexican women, who not surprisingly were concentrated in these low-wage sectors, were the most affected by these policies.

In short, the New Deal formalized a new White regime that was being already implemented through everyday practices at home, in public spaces, in houses of worship and at the workplace.

The relevant lesson is that Latinos — who are certainly not beneficiaries of such state policies today — are a long way from becoming the “new Whites.” Indeed it is clear from the last Census that millions of Latinos are refusing to embrace Whiteness.

While it is also true many Latinos also see themselves as White — after all, Latinos are not immune to anti-Black and anti-people of color stereotypes — this situation would make Latinos “in-between people” at best, certainly not White. And when you look at their long history of solidarity and collaborations with Blacks, it makes sense to think of Latinos’ racial consciousness shifting toward a “people of color” identity — not Whiteness.

The strongest evidence against the claim that Latinos are becoming White is the lack of current government policies designed to make Latinos “White.” Simply put, there is no Latino “New Deal” channeling hundreds of millions of dollars for new Latino housing (as happened with European immigrants), or New Deal-type legislation geared toward giving Latinos the upper hand against other groups on labor issues or government assistance programs.

If anything the exact opposite is true: New government policies have been aggressively criminalizing Latinos (as the money being spent in building a wall across the border and HR4437 clearly confirmed earlier this year); and Washington is either eliminating benefits or downsizing those social programs that help Latinos the most.

Capitalism and Immigration

This is why Latinos are a long way from becoming the “new Irish” or “new Italians.” The counter-claim, that it is just a matter of time before some New Deal-type of arrangement on behalf of Latinos, misunderstands a deep contradiction in the way U.S. society deals with non-European immigrants.

Simply put, without immigrant cheap labor capitalism could not survive — so the State must let them in so that they can be exploited. On the other hand, constructions of American identity require the existence of an “Other” to allow us to define “ourselves” in opposition to that which we are not — namely “illegal” immigrants of color.

During the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, Asians were the “Other” of American national identity as demonstrated by the long record of anti-Asian exclusion Acts. Since 1965 Latinos have become the new “Other” in opposition to Americans, as demonstrated by the way ‘Mexican’ has become synonymous with “illegal” in public immigration discourse.

This is why the government will not, anytime soon, implement a New Deal-type of program on behalf of Latinos. Claims that Southern and Eastern European migrants went through an “otherness” similar to what Latinos are undergoing now do not understand the way in which European migrant discrimination has always been qualitatively different from Blacks and Latinos — a point which is highlighted in Roediger’s book.

Latinos’ Real Conditions

Last but not least, one more point needs to be acknowledged in our discussion of Latino/Black relations and claims of Latino shifts toward Whiteness. The latest economic indicators show that Latinos are actually suffering as badly as African Americans in virtually every category.

When you look at Latino and Black numbers for median income, poverty, unemployment, health insurance rates, dropout rates, graduation rates, incarceration rates and home ownership rates, the fact is that these two groups are basically at the same level. The only category in which Blacks are clearly doing worse than Latinos is incarceration rates — and you can guess which group is quickly catching up.

The real challenge confronting us, which still needs to be recognized by organizers and academics, is not that Latinos might become the new Whites, but that Latinos might actually become the ‘new Blacks,’ a situation that, if true, would collapse our Black/White racial paradigm, and pose profound political challenges for multi-racial coalition building in this country.

This hardly means that African Americans are doing better now, or that old-fashion racism is fading away. The majority of African Americans are, if anything, doing worse now than before, as confirmed by the criminal government response to Katrina victims, and as the right-wing agenda committed to erasing race from public discourse and public policy continues to succeed.

This essay is not meant to romanticize a Black/Latino alliance either — whatever coalitions and partnerships emerge between these groups must be created out of concrete material conditions and struggles.

The challenge confronting us is how to move forward in a way that upgrades our theories of race relations while avoiding pitting groups against each other. Hopefully you will agree with me that Roediger’s book moves the discussion in the right direction.


  1. See Stephen Steinberg’s, “Immigration, African Americans and Race Discourse” (New Politics, Vol. X, No. 3).
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  2. See Andre Banks, “The Price of the Ticket” http://www.arc.org/content/view/432/1/.
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  3. See Joel Perlmann, Italians Then, Mexicans Now: Immigrant Origins and Second Generation Progress, 1890-2000, (Russell Sage: 2006).
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  4. For an example of ‘second generation’ research that actually argues against the mainstream notion of assimilation, see Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Legacies, the Story of the Second Generation, (UC Press: 2001).
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  5. Today’s Census, by the way, only allows for four races: White, Black, Native American/Alaska Native, and Asian groups. Compare this with the 1911 official count of 46 races in the United States, out of which 25 were from Europe alone.
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ATC 125, November-December 2006