Why race still matters

How Race Survived U.S. History:

From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon

IN A national political culture that has grown used to speaking about race through an elaborate system of code words, euphemisms, and winks and nods, the election of Barack Obama touched off a rare and, at times, bizarre discussion about race and its place in a changing United States. Predictably, conservatives who have for years been pushing an argument about the “end of race” in the post–civil rights era found in Obama’s triumph confirmation of the mantra that race “no longer matters.”

Dinesh D’Souza, whose 1995 book, The End of Racism, made him a poster boy for “color-blind” conservatism, was just one of many right-wing pundits who felt “a sense of vindication” for the argument that “racism, which used to be systematic, had now become episodic.” In insisting that African Americans remained at the “bottom of the ladder” because of “cultural factors” rather than structural discrimination, “I may have been ahead of my time,” D’Souza wrote, with characteristic modesty, “but it now seems that I was not wrong.”1

In this timely, wide-ranging, and powerful rendering of the persistence of race over the long stretch of U.S. history, David Roediger offers both a withering rebuttal to D’Souza and the free-market right and a trenchant argument against the “misplaced faith” of “color-blind” liberalism that race will expire on its own, gently ushered off the stage of history by shifting economic or demographic trends. “Insistent proclamations of a new racial day sit uneasily next to patterns of inequality,” Roediger observes.

His grasp of the contradictory quality of the Obama phenomenon—in which deep and abiding, even increasing racial disparities sit side by side with the election of the nation’s first African-American president—offers a framework for making sense of a critical juncture in American politics. Roediger’s chronicling of the durability of white supremacy exposes the fallacy that racism might be “abolished by accident.” Instead, as he insists, it will require “deep and conscious anti-racist action.” These are critical insights, essential for a newly reemerging left as it attempts to grapple with (to reclaim a phrase) “the fierce urgency of now.”

Whiteness studies
In offering a “long view” of race in the American past, and in its consideration of the forces that most powerfully shaped racial thinking in the United States, How Race Survived U.S. History marks an important departure for Roediger and the field of “critical whiteness studies.” Hugely influential in academic circles, whiteness studies has over the past fifteen years offered a sharp challenge both to the populist approach of historians associated with the Old Left (and especially the Communist Party) and to what it views as a romanticized depiction of working-class interracialism in the “new labor history.”

In launching their critique, Roediger and others projected themselves as the inheritors of a set of indispensable insights on labor and race pioneered by the outstanding African-American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, and particularly in his argument that even where they suffered materially from racial division, white workers “were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.” Du Bois’s perceptive comments were aimed at explaining the weakness of “laboring class unity” in the specific circumstances of the post-emancipation South, but whiteness scholars were right to see their relevance for grasping American working-class history more generally.2

In their relentless emphasis on racial identity and the “race-making” powers of white workers, however, Roediger and others omitted a crucial element in Du Bois’s argument. Though in his writing he neither minced words nor saw any point in understating the deeply rooted racism prevalent among white workers and officially inscribed into the practice of organized labor, Du Bois penned one of the clearest and most unequivocal indictments of the elite source of racial antagonism. Working-class unity in the South

failed to work because the theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today two groups of workers anywhere in the world with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.3

In recent years, whiteness has itself come under increasing criticism—naturally enough from the right, who pine for a return to the old certainties of the past, where conflict didn’t intrude on the story of American “progress”—but also from others, less hostile politically. In a measured and comprehensive essay on the growing influence of whiteness studies, Peter Kolchin located it in a “broad-based, ongoing shift…from social to cultural history,” observing that Roediger and others seemed “more comfortable discussing ‘tropes’ than actual social relations, and…display[ed] notable unease about coming to grips with class, interest, and power.” Others, myself included, have argued that in simultaneously exaggerating the “race-making” capacity of white workers and ignoring the role of employers and the ruling class generally, whiteness theory has offered up a “tightly circumscribed understanding of power” and a flawed approach to understanding the relationship between race and class.4

A new direction
Whatever the merits of this critique, How Race Survived moves in a very different direction, fully acknowledging the role of elites in constructing and adapting race as the ground shifted underneath them over four centuries. In six chapters that explore these adaptations from settlement in the colonial South through the Obama election, Roediger draws on a generation of post–civil rights era historical literature to follow the thread of “race-thinking” as it bent itself to and in turn shaped new patterns of exploitation in a changing society. This can make for dense reading, and Roediger may have fallen short of delivering a book that can be absorbed over a few cups of coffee, but his fluency in distilling complicated, critical debates and his knack for bringing something provocative of his own to them makes the effort worthwhile.

The book’s opening chapter, on early colonial settlement in and around Virginia, offers a compelling example of Roediger’s ambition to offer a history “as complicated as real life.” The seventeenth-century Chesapeake has attracted the attention of historians over the past generation because there a racially fluid society based on a range of labor arrangements gave way, under a variety of pressures, to a highly stratified one built on African slavery and rigid enforcement of the color line.

White indentured servants, Africans whose status somewhere between indenture and slavery for life was still unclear, and a smaller number of Indians reduced to servitude under white elites had for a time shared an “equality of misery” at the bottom of a hierarchical settler society. “Black and white indentured servants shared alcohol, sex, marriage, death, and escapes across what would only later, after slavery, be called the ‘color line,’” Roediger writes. But, by the late seventeenth century, this crude egalitarianism had been largely extinguished, displaced by a new, racially obsessed colonial order. He sums up the significance of this shift:

The historical literature on the rise of race in colonial Virginia, inspired by the civil rights movement, uproots the reactionary common sense that imagines races exist outside of historical circumstances…. What happened in Virginia shows that white supremacy did not arise as a result of agitation, or even sentiment, among the white poor desiring to preserve and extend social distance between themselves and Africans…. Events in Virginia provide a clue to the enduring nature of white supremacy by unearthing its roots in popular protest and in the elite’s recognition of the rage of the poor.

Like others, Roediger is convinced of the importance of Bacon’s Rebellion—a multiracial rebellion that, in 1676, drew together Blacks and whites, slaves, indentures, and free laborers in an assault on Virginia elites that threatened the colonial order. In the elite scramble to guard against its repetition, racial difference became critical to “a new regime that sought to set poor people apart from each other much more clearly on the basis of ‘race.’”

Roediger brings three new elements into understanding this transformation. Alongside the relative fluidity of early Virginia, he argues, it is important to acknowledge the more calculated association of race and status that marked South Carolina from its inception. There an attempt by political philosopher John Locke and other elite figures to formally inscribe “feudal social relations” into the legal foundations of colonial settlement fell short, but offered a key rationalization for African slavery from the start. The recruitment of propertied settlers from the slave and sugar colony at Barbados brought “race-thinkers” to North America, and crucially the elaboration of race in what would become the U.S. occurred in a wider, Atlantic context: race was “made in a transnational race-making world,” one in which the encounter between European settlers, indigenous Americans, and imported Africans was shaped by the scramble for wealth.

Secondly, Roediger insists on the close relation between the colonial onslaught against indigenous Americans (and the racial logic it demanded) and the construction of the Black/white divide. Indian dispossession became, for colonial planners, “the engine of progress” in the New World, with the historic divide between Blacks and whites prefigured in elite policing of the boundary between native societies not yet driven by market principles (seen, therefore, as “uncivilized”) and settler colonies distinguished by the “sweaty brow” of those laboring for profits. Conquest was rationalized, in part, by colonials’ determination to “liberate” native women from labor in the fields: “civilization” promised them full domestic subordination packaged as bliss.

Finally, while Roediger clearly sees himself on the side of those who argue that race is socially constructed—a product of social relations and not genetic or biological difference—he insists that it is nevertheless a “social fact” and therefore neither illusory nor peripheral to the project of changing society.

There is an important discussion worth having about whether “race-making” was the object or the result of the transformation outlined in the early pages of How Race Survived,5 but its formative impact seems clear enough. Throughout the book, Roediger is concerned with exposing the ways in which whites’ attachment to racial identity closed off other possibilities: for a less grueling, shared life alongside Indians in the middle ground between contact and conquest; for a deeper, multiracial challenge to elite power (and, crucially, slavery) during the revolutionary period; for an enduring jubilee that would extend to all laboring people after slave emancipation; and for a clear view beyond the conciliation and half-measures pursued by liberals during the New Deal.

Whiteness and Marxism
Illuminating the dense and persistent entanglement between white supremacy and evolving capitalism in the United States, How Race Survived offers a timely corrective to the back-slapping complacency that Obama’s election has encouraged in some quarters. Still, there are aspects of Roediger’s approach that are problematic. While offering us a persuasive retelling of the persistence of race, the book ultimately falls short of identifying a dynamic that has enabled it to adapt and survive, and the author’s enthusiasm for the explanatory power of “personal whiteness” seems misplaced.

More importantly, the combination of deep skepticism toward the record of working-class interracialism and an inclination to present racial identity (“declaring oneself a white worker” or, its opposite, deserting whiteness) as fully conscious, either/or propositions means that agency eludes Roediger: Short of a mass, simultaneous conversion on the part of white workers, it is difficult to see how history might be moved in one direction, and not the other.6

This dramatically weakens his rendering of the Depression and wartime upheavals, where the complex, varied encounters between Black workers, the industrial unions of the Congress for Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the left over a period of two decades is summarized in a few spare and dismissive sentences. Here it seems Roediger has allowed his determination to expose the sham of free-market ideology and gradualist, color-blind liberalism to distract him from presenting a nuanced and extended appraisal of a rich history of far more importance to grassroots labor and community activists.7

The other source of disappointment is Roediger’s ambivalence toward the Marxist tradition. Clearly he and other scholars of whiteness are influenced by, and see themselves, as working from within Marxism. Here it is presented as “both indispensable and inadequate” for grasping the relationship between capitalism and white supremacy. But consistently throughout the whiteness literature—and Roediger’s writings are no exception—Marxism is presented as almost synonymous with economic determinism, reductionist, and “color-blind” in its approach to racial oppression.

In an otherwise valuable chapter on race and labor management, for example, Roediger suggests that in crediting the bourgeoisie with creating a “world in its own image,” Marx and Engels believed that capitalism would dissolve race tensions. This misreading conflates a prescient observation about the transformative power of globalization with a very different argument about the “war of all against all” that capitalism unleashed. The argument that Marxism posits a deterministic faith in homogenization is difficult to reconcile with Marx’s mid-nineteenth-century observation that “[e]very industrial…center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps” in which “[t]he ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor…much the same as…the ‘poor whites’ [do] the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.”8

The most unfortunate aspect of this ambivalence is that it cuts Roediger’s large, antiracist readership off from what is arguably the most coherent and uncompromising critique of the “color-blind liberalism” that he is so rightfully anxious to expose. W. E. B. Du Bois’s forceful, moving exposé of the racism attending the First World War (in his essay, “Souls of White Folk,” with which Roediger opens the book) found its most powerful echo in the working-class upheaval that broke first in tsarist Russia and sent shock waves around the world.9

The Bolsheviks’ attempt to grapple with the national question in an empire “forged together by an iron hoop of violence and despotism”10 had universal implications, and in an American context compelled Marxists to ditch their old “color-blind’ position on race for deliberate, sustained agitation around the racial oppression of African Americans.11 A veteran of the period, James Cannon, recalled the importance of this transformation: “The old [color-blind] theory of American radicalism turned out in practice to be a formula for inaction on the Negro front—and—incidentally, a convenient shield for the dormant prejudices of the white radicals themselves.”

The ability of the faction-ridden, numerically minuscule, and politically marginal early communists to recruit to their ranks some of the outstanding left-wing Black intellectuals of the early twentieth century, and to transform themselves (despite being encumbered with Stalinism) into a serious antiracist force during the Depression years, was almost wholly due to this revolutionary legacy, a heritage ignored in whiteness scholarship. At its best, the left carried into a range of struggles around housing and unemployment, police brutality and lynching, the fight for unionization and against Jim Crow, the twin principles that white workers had a direct stake in the fight against racism and that durable unity could only be built on the basis of a determined struggle against racism. To his credit, Roediger comes closest in this study to the same argument, but elsewhere whiteness scholarship is marked by ambiguity and equivocation.12

The point of all of this is not to defend orthodoxy in the face of new thinking on race, nor to assert ownership of the antiracist tradition, and even less to suggest that all the answers to our current dilemma are etched in stone tablets that only need dusting off. It is meant merely to point out that there is an alternative to reinventing the wheel—a set of general principles that, creatively applied in a changing society, can effectively link the project of working-class self-emancipation with the struggle to uproot racism. How Race Survived marks a major step forward for whiteness scholarship, and will be widely read by a generation lifted up by the prospect of change and the possibility of reckoning with America’s enduring legacy of race. In the long run, the question of whether large numbers of white workers will abandon racial identity for a new world based on thoroughgoing equality depends on how effectively socialists can intervene in the important struggles ahead.


  1. Dinesh D’Souza, “Obama and Post-Racist America,” Townhall.com, http://townhall.com/columnists/DineshDSouza/2009/01/28/obama_and_post-racist_america.
  2. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1935), 700–01.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Peter Kolchin, “Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America,” Journal of American History 89:1 (June 2002), 154–73. My own assessment appears in the introduction to Bernard Mandel, Labor, Free and Slave: Workingmen and the Antislavery Movement in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), xxxviii–xlviii; and in Brian Kelly, “Mapping Alternate Routes to Antislavery,” Labor: Studies in the Working-Class History of the Americas 5:4 (2008), 69–73. Roediger responds in “An Outmoded Approach to Labor and Slavery,” Labour/Le Travail 60 (Fall 2007), 245–50. For a critique of Roediger from within the whiteness camp, see Theodore W. Allen, “On Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness,” Cultural Logic 4:2 (Spring 2001), http://clogic.eserver.org/4-2/allen.html.
  5. Other whiteness scholars suggest that capitalism as a mode of production merely facilitated an international system of white supremacy. See the exchange between Mike Cole and Charles W. Mills in Ethnicities 9 (2009).
  6. Here whiteness shares the pessimism of Herbert Hill. See Hill’s “Mythmaking as Labor History: Herbert Gutman and the United Mine Workers of America,”International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 2:2 (December 1988), 132–200. The best of the responses to Hill, with relevance to the whiteness debate, is Stephen Brier, “In Defense of Gutman: The Union’s Case,” IJPCS 2:3 (Spring 1989), 382–95.
  7. Michael Goldfield offers a nuanced survey of the CIO experience in “The CIO and Race,” International Labor & Working Class History 44 (Fall 1993), 1–32.
  8. See Roediger, Chapter 6 (169–211). On Marx and Engels’ attentiveness to division, see especially Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England. Quote from Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, Selected Correspondence (New York and Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), 220–24.
  9. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” reprinted in Monthly Review(November 2003): http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1132/is_6_55/ai_111269074/.
  10. Quote on tsarism from Leon Trotsky’s speech, “The Brotherly Union of Soviet Republics,” which can be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8SsCUL0Pl0.
  11. Despite its limitations, the “color-blind” position was, of course, an important advance on the exclusionary policy of the American Federation of Labor and the racist Railroad Brotherhoods. Will Jones argues that Eugene Debs’ position has been mischaracterized. See his “Nothing Special to Offer the Negro”: Revisiting the “‘Debsian View’ of the Negro Question,” in ILWCH 74 (September 2008), 212–24.
  12. James P. Cannon, “The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” inThe First Ten Years of American Communism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1962), 233.

 

Issue #61

September 2008

Politics of change or politics as usual?

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