FOR MARXISTS, antiracism is central to any political project aimed at transforming U.S. society. This perspective is premised on three things. The first is that racism is morally repugnant and destroys and devastates those who are victimized by it. Second, if socialists do not take seriously the fight against racism, they cannot possibly convince Black workers that they should be socialists. Finally, socialist revolution is only possible through the efforts of a multiracial working class whose unity is based on white workers being convinced that they must become the best fighters against racism.
For many progressives, this last sentence—on the possibility of white workers fighting racism—is utopian. It is widely accepted today by radicals, liberals, and left-wing academics that not only do white workers materially benefit from racism, but all whites are united in defense of “whiteness.”
For the second time since its initial publication in 1991, historian David Roediger has published a new edition of The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. This newest edition includes both a new preface by the author and an introduction by former Black Panther and current Yale law professor, Kathleen Cleaver. While the political concept of “white skin privilege” is not Roediger’s, his book was instrumental in its attempt to establish a theoretical foundation for what has now morphed into “whiteness studies.”
For Roediger, and for a veritable cottage industry of “whiteness” theoreticians and academics, “whiteness” consists of the sum total of perks, privileges, and advantages that come with white skin in a racist society. Moreover, whiteness, and its requisite benefits, are the foundational basis of white identity and white unity against nonwhites. The Wages of Whiteness thus posits itself as a revisionist history. Roediger views his history as a revision to a “crude” Marxism that he says has historically “privileged class over race” by describing racism as a means by which the ruling class divides the working class. Roediger, who credits Marxism as furnishing his “intellectual tools,” writes,
The main body of writing by white Marxists in the United States has both “naturalized” whiteness and oversimplified race.… The point that race is created wholly ideologically and historically, while class is not wholly so created, has often been boiled down to the notion that class (or “the economic”) is more real, more fundamental, more basic or more important than race.… [The] rosy view of a literal correspondence between racism and “social necessity” and of the possibility of an unambiguous revolutionary solution to racism is largely gone. But the idea that class should be politically privileged has not, as witnessed by the outpouring by recent left and left-liberal arguments that the Black freedom movement must now couch its appeals in terms of class rather than race.
There are three central problems with Roediger’s analysis, the first being his specious historical recollections. Roediger’s analysis begins in colonial America, but he cherry-picks his way through the history in order to substantiate his thesis that white workers were complicit in the construction of white supremacy. For example, there is no explanation of watershed events like Bacon’s Rebellion, where Black and white freedmen burned down the capitol of Virginia and threatened the stability of the entire colonial regime. Bacon’s Rebellion is generally cited as a turning point in the social construction of race in America.
Moreover, Roediger ignores the unique composition of the American working class and its consequent impact on the development of class consciousness and solidarity. The American working class developed from waves of millions of immigrants from all over the world who sometimes came with nationalist hostilities against other workers with whom their native rulers may have been in rivalry. Where that hostility was not present, new hostilities were provoked by employers who stood to gain by having a fractured, racially and ethnically tense workplace.
The second issue with the The Wages of Whiteness is its insistence on disconnecting material causality from racism. In an attempt to distance his own analysis from the Marxist method of historical materialism, Roediger relocates the roots of racism in the psychology of white workers. White workers create a Black “other” to blame for all their fears and insecurities that stem from their exploitation under capitalism. Wages rigorously downplays job competition between freed Blacks and whites as a contributing factor for racial animus between the two groups. Moreover, he denies or downplays any influence the ruling class and its media had in shaping the views of white workers––again discounting a central idea of Marxism—that the ruling ideas of a society reflect the ideology of its ruling class.
Roediger says Black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois’ seminal Black Reconstruction was his inspiration for Wages. The title of Roediger’s book is in fact a play on Du Bois’ reference to the “psychological wage” of racism. I have written elsewhere in this magazine about Roediger and Black Reconstruction (issue 57, January–February 2008). But it is worth mentioning here that while Du Bois places Black slaves, and then Black freedmen, at the center of capitalist production in the United States and the world—and thereby makes them central figures in their own liberation and the liberation of humanity—Blacks are absent from Roediger’s work except as props and recipients of white racism. Moreover, by focusing on the period before the Civil War as opposed to the period Du Bois examined—both the Civil War and its aftermath—Roediger misses the complicated ways in which poor whites and Blacks attempted to construct a new society based on their common needs and aspirations.
These efforts failed more than they succeeded, but that alone is not particularly revelatory. It is not quite a “stop the presses” moment to discover that white workers were racist in a country with Black slavery, where slavery was rationalized by white political leaders as necessary and reasonable given the “savagery” of the Africans who were enslaved. The significance of the Civil War and the end of slavery is that it created the possibility for a united, multiracial working class where that possibility did not exist before. Whether or not that possibility was acted upon has always been a political question that depended on the size and strength of the Left and the existence of labor militants and other radicals who could politically argue for interracial unity and who could build political organizations that put that principle into practice. No socialist with common sense has ever argued that unity was automatic simply because Blacks were no longer slaves. Unity, then as today, must always be fought for, argued for, and organized.
This possibility revealed itself almost immediately after Reconstruction, when Black and white workers collaborated on waterfronts, in lumber mills, and in coal mines across the South in ways that were unfathomable before the war. The Populist movement in the 1890s also highlighted the possibility of a united struggle, but also highlighted the weakness of political movements that did not fully grasp the need to combat racism.
If one reduces these and other examples of attemps at interracial unity as parenthetical to the more prevalent history of white terrorism and racism directed at Black workers, then it is impossible to understand why the Southern ruling class invoked Jim Crow across the South nearly thirty years after the Civil War—as it embarked on a campaign to disenfranchise not only Blacks but poor whites as well.
For those who are interested in learning more about the history and formation of the working class—including both Black and white workers—a better read is the recently re-released Labor, Free and Slave by Bernard Mandel.