Dog Days Classics: The Wages of Whiteness and the White People Who Love Them

white peopleJuly, 1956. It had been over a decade since the Carnegie Foundation solicited Gunnar Myrdal’s opinion on American race relations. A Nobel Prize in economics and Swedish citizenship rendered him an objective observer. That year, James Baldwin wrote a scathing critique of what is now a long forgotten book—Daniel Guerin’s Negroes on the March. “Labor’s interests may often be identical with the Negro’s interests,” Baldwin explains, “but Mr. Guerin fails to understand that, in the light of the white worker’s desire to achieve greater status, his aims and those of the Negro often clash quite bitterly.” (Baldwin, ‘Collected Essays,’ Literary Classics of the United States. 1998, The Crusade of Indignation, pp. 606-613)

In the 1986, sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant published their now classic book, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. This book developed the idea of racialization as a historically situated ideological process. “Racial ideology,” they argued, “is constructed from pre-existing conceptual (or, if one prefers, ‘discursive’) elements and emerges from the struggles of competing political projects and ideas seeking to articulate similar elements differently. An account of racialization processes that avoids the pitfalls of US ethnic history remains to be written.” (p. 64) A few years later, David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class answered this call for a thoroughgoing historical account of racial formation in the United States.

Historians’ aversion to social and political theory is well known. The discipline’s attentiveness to specificity, contingency, and the documentation of the particulars that account for change over time, for all its virtues, lends itself to inattentiveness to the theorization of the political principles at work in expatiations on social phenomena. Moreover, the manner in which historians are trained—by placing a premium on archival research—discourages scholars from taking the time to develop and discuss the theoretical framework from which they operate. To Roediger’s credit, Wages of Whiteness is constituted as a competent analytical synthesis of 19th century U.S. historiography that takes advantage of the explanatory power of racial formation theory.

Wages of Whiteness seeks to explain how the history of the construction of American working class consciousness is suffused with racial and gendered exclusivity. Although sympathetic to Marxian analysis, Roediger’s argument is grounded in the brand of cultural analysis pioneered by E.P. Thompson. Roediger intertwines the history of class formation with the process of constructing and sustaining new forms of white racial identity. Rather than seeing class as the overarching structure from which all other sorts of stratification follows, Roediger demonstrates how racial antagonisms played a major role in solidifying the class structure of 19th century America. Whiteness served not just as a marker of privilege but as the identity that demarcated the condition of possibility for republican virtue. By examining the language of labor and the modalities of power amongst the lowest rungs of American society, Wages of Whiteness utilizes racial formation theory to shed light on what was a neglected aspect of American labor history at the time of its publication.

The United States went through extraordinary changes in the 19th century. The transportation revolution beginning in 1815 coupled with an influx of immigrants facilitated the building of the continental empire. Economically, the US grew at an extraordinary pace. This growth imposed drastic transformations to the pace, style, and substance of life of American labor. Rapid urbanization transformed the work of independent artisans and mechanics and turned them into wage laborers, giving rise to the discourse of “white slavery.” American republicanism had been fashioned as an ideology centered on economic independence, a subsistence style directly at odds with the demands of an industrializing and increasingly urbanized economy. The development of a deeply racialized and gendered class-consciousness must thus be seen as co-dependent on the material developments of industrial capitalism.

The labeling of wage labor as “white slavery” arose not from recognition of the moral transgressions furnished by the chattel slavery system, but rather as a characterization in contradistinction to Black slavery. It signified a discursive and material delineation of what were unacceptable toils for true members of civil society in a republic founded on a liberal, and yet racially ascribed, rights doctrine. By fastening wage labor with the slave’s dependency on her master, white labor identified the slave not just as a figure to which empathy is owed and emancipation due, but rather as an entity that mobilized blackness as the model of anticitizenship—a warning to capital that its negation of republican rights to its lower white brethren constituted a delegation of whiteness to the status of the Black.  Roediger’s intervention turns on its head the oft-repeated plea for the working class to transcend racial compartmentalization and to recognize common economic interests by implicating the very construction of the working class as predicated on the subjugation of Black life. Wages of Whiteness lays to rest the notion of an all-encompassing “labor” entangled in a dialectic with capital. Roediger in fact provides the historical texture to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s claim that “Since [citizens] pay more attention to what is below them than to what is above, domination becomes dearer to them than independence, and they consent to wear chains so that they may in turn give them to others.” (cited in Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind, p. 225)

In short, Roediger’s work attests to the tragedy of free white labor’s acceptance of the indignities of slightly modified wage labor in exchange for the understanding that “one might lose everything but not whiteness.” (p. 60) Tracing the contours of American labor history, Roediger discovers a fundamental change in the language of labor. In the 1820s one sees the wage laborer’s master—as they were then commonly called—transform into ‘bosses’ and ‘white slaves’ or ‘servants’ metamorphozise into freemen or workingmen—paradigmatic cases of racial formation rendering (racially hierarchical) class formations intelligible to white America. “The title freemen was worth fighting over. Abolitionist papers took it for their names, as did antiabolitionist Catholic ones. When Walt Whitman launched a democratic experiment in journalism, designed to win a readership of neither masters nor servants, he called it the Brooklyn Freemen.” (Roediger’s italics) For their part, “female textile workers couched their appeals for better treatment in terms of their status as the ‘daughters of freemen.’” (pp. 55-56) This gendered and racialized constitution of working class consciousness inaugurated what Roediger calls herrenvolk republicanism, “which read African-Americans out of the ranks of the producers and then proved more able to concentrate its fire downward on to the dependent and Black than upward against the rich and powerful.” (pp. 59-60)

I came to Roediger’s work at a time when I was skeptical of cultural analysis and dismissive of anything that smacked of Foucauldian certainty of the power of discourse. In a sense, Wages of Whiteness opened the door to deeper critiques of the structures of power and regimes of knowledge. This sort of analysis of the cultural logic of racial hierarchy also goes a long way in elucidating modern-day party politics. From taut battles over the “working class” in western Pennsylvania within the Democratic Party in 2007 to today’s battles for the “ordinary,” “hard-working,” “tax-paying” “working-American,” Wages of Whiteness sheds light on the nature of power and maintenance of hierarchy in this period of late capitalism. Without this kind of cultural analysis, we are not only lost but also blind.