David Roediger, Wages of Whiteness

Laurie Hartzell <ogrb@YAHOO.COM>Roediger, Wages of Whiteness
David Andrew Hurn <dahurn@ilstu.edu>Re

Date: Tue, 02 May 2000 07:21:30 -0500
From: Laurie Hartzell <ogrb@YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Roediger, Wages of Whiteness

by Laurie Beth Hartzell

According to the author, white identity and the formation of the working class go hand in hand. His book Wages of Whiteness, lures the reader through a myriad of historical scenarios to a final premise which appears far too simple for such a complex train of thought race is a necessary player in class, thus "white identity has its roots both in domination and in a desire to avoid confronting one's own miseries." (p.186). Roediger thus pulls the reader through series of time periods, ranging from the 18th century up to the civil war movement to demonstrate his belief in the new labor history, pioneered by E.P Thompson and Herbert Gutman. Written from a very theoretical perspective, Roediger relies on linguistics, Marxism, and strangely configured stories to illustrate the seemingly obvious connection between race and class.

The author lays out the basic Marxist idea that "Race disappears into the 'reality' of class." (p.8) by arguing that Marxism has ignoreed the "whiteness" of the working class, or have perhaps oversimplified it. While Marxism has noted the manner in which race has been socially and ideologically constructed, they have failed to examine the way that 'class' is related to this construction, and the dangers of emphasizing class over race. Roediger points out that the Marxist tendency to over emphasize race, also leads to the concentration of the effects of the ruling class in perpetuating racial oppression, ignoring the involvement of the working class in this issue.

Roediger brings up the perspective of the "New Labor History" to show that "Workers, even during periods of firm ruling class hegemony, are historical actors who make (constrained) choices and create their own cultural forms." (p.9). To demonstrate this, the text then transcends into a series of historical accounts which demonstrate the manner in which the working class was responsible for developing their own identity. This identity came to be one of whiteness due to the racist and often sexist manner in which this class utilized opposition of others to construct their own identity.

Roediger builds on the new labor history, by exploring the exclusive "whiteness' of the working class, and the racism that has helped to create this identity. While followers of this theory have noted that the emphasis on racial differences has served the capitalist class by creating opposition among the lower classes, they have yet to explore the ways in which workers were involved in the construction of such differences. Roediger illustrates the ways in which white labor has acted on racist ideas, even created them, to an extent that they have come to identify themselves, as well as their personal interests as white. The title of this text is thus based off the notion that white workers received not only a monetary wage for their labor, but also a psychological wage of whiteness attributed to them by the public.

The author mentions the role that anti-Indian sentiments had on the original development of "whiteness" as an identity. Curiously enough, he mentions the effect of the mythical Native American independent male and the American revolution, stating that the Indians were not seen as used as an 'other" in the construction of whiteness at this time, but that white fur trader's were often said to be 'going native'. The construction of whiteness in opposition to blackness seems to be more real according to Rodeiger.

This process is believed to have begun in the seventeenth century, but taken full effect in the nineteenth century when the terms white and worker became more meaningfully paired. The American Revolution then helped to create an environment where members of the working class were fixated on the term freeman, which tempted the workers to define themselves in opposition to slaves, and the tendencies of African Americans. Eventually the white workers would come to grapple with their identity in opposition to indentured slaves, who would regain their freedom eventually. Roediger notes, "White urban workers connected their freedom and their work" (p.33). Farm hands and helpers of the late eighteenth century were careful to refer to themselves as 'hired help'.

The purpose of drawing attention to themselves as paid help, with some choice in their employment was to accentuate their differences not only to slaves, but also to white indentured servants. The language commonly used in minstrels featured racist ideas as well as sexist ideas that could then represent the preindustrial past that featured blacks living in the manner that they both scorned, and missed. The inclusion of women into the identity of working class was imagined to have an emasculating effect on the men; therefore, the identity of the working class had a very gendered component that was based upon the exclusivity of women.

This discussion of the role of gender in the construction of working class identity was only one feature among many which helped to distinguish this study of the white working class from Mitchel Duneier's contemporary study of the black working class. While Duneir may have been more efficient in his attempt to draw a connection of this identity to our present day lives, he failed to not how this identity came to be so masculine. Roediger however, is much more constructive in his attempt to theorize about the relations of this class to their racial identity, as well their relation to our capitalist economy.

The most notable inconsistency with Roediger's argument though, is that he makes such a tremendous cry for the connection between race and class, making statements such as "The most pressing task for historians of race and class is not to draw precise lines separating race and class but to draw lines connecting race and class" and also states that "to reduce class to race is damaging". To take into account the interconnection of race and class though, would allow for much more efficient dialogue about freedom, oppression, and the reality of capitalism. This book makes a subtle note of the power of dividing people among arbitrary lines, so that they are less capable of rising together.

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Date: Wed, 03 May 2000 22:45:10 -0500
From: David Andrew Hurn <dahurn@ilstu.edu>
Subject: Re
 By David Andrew Hurn

Can you remember back when you was growing up and you was told to eat your vegetables, because they were good for you. So you ate certain vegetables, but didn't eat the other ones. Then later in life you ate vegetables because of the nutritional value but still really didn't like the vegetables.

The author of "The Wages of Whiteness, Race and the Making of the American Working Class" is like the vegetables, you like certain pages and certain pages you did not but I read it for the educational purpose or the grade.

The author David R. Roediger, writes of the historic, journalist and ethnic and the race relations in the labor movement in the Colonialism (pre-revolution), and Antebellum years (pre-Civil War). He also gives several references to the immigration of Irish immigrants and the labor force and the African American as slaves. Roediger also examines the correlation between free blacks and the Irish-American and a once civil race relationship turned violent, based upon the labor market and the Irish wanting to be accepted as free white people as other European ethnic groups were.

Roediger argues that in the Colonialism years the working class and the relationship towards race in the New World " cannot be explained simply with reference to economic advantage; rather, white working class racism is underpinned by a complex series of psychological and ideological mechanisms which reinforce racial stereotypes and thus help to forge the identities of white worker in opposition to blacks."

This is the repetitive message throughout out the book. That the white labor force is emotionally, physically and psychologically dependent on keeping the African-Americans oppressed and not worthy of having full citizenship as an American, because if this was permitted the white labor force would see that they aren't a superior being but as same as the " color".

The research of Roediger was very detailed, his insight of the " power of words " and how they can interchange based on the reference of the group, from past to present and the labor force. The word "Mechanic" today carries a ambiguous term depending on your experience with a mechanic, but in the colonial time "Mechanic" was "men professing a ingenious art and as intelligent citizen." (p.34) Another word "Freeman," implied wither political freedom or economic independence." (34) "Boss" a Dutch word meaning master was used, because the word servant did not was to associate with the word slave, meaning ownership.

Nevertheless, the first four chapters were an epistemologist dream and were essential words and definition of language used in the labor market. Chapters five titled "Class, Coons, Crowds in Antebellum America" and chapter six was titled "White Skins, Black Mask Minstrelsy and White Working Class Formation before the Civil War" were chapters that most America had forgot about the minstrel shows as Roediger explains "To black up was an act of wildness in the antebellum US. Psychoanalytically, the smearing of soot or blacking over the body represents the height of polymorphous perversity, an infantile playing with excrement or dirt. It is the polar opposite of the anal retentiveness usually associated with accumulating capitalist and Protestant cultures." (Pg. 118)

The minstrel shows were used for two reasons, to make the laborer forget about their own misery of being worked as hard as a slave and to keep the lie of racial superiority alive. Diplomats of other countries and President Lincoln often visited these shows or at the time called festivels.

The Irish American was a group oppressed by other European groups. The Irish American was seen as " Low-browed and savage, grovelling and bestial, lazy and wild, simian and sensual." (Pg. 133)The reason why the Irish was seen as savages were.

"The two groups often lived side by side in the teeming slums of American cities of the 1830’s. They both did America’s hard work, especially in domestic service and the transportation industry. Both groups were poor and often vilified. Both had experienced oppression and been wrenched from a homeland… Northern free Blacks who lived alongside Irish-Americans not only knew that their families had been torn from Africa by the slave trade but had also themselves experienced the profound loneliness, mixed with joy." (Pg. 134)

The question would be how did the Irish become accepted and became White? The historian of the Democratic Party Jean Baker, between the Age of the Jackson and the Civil War gives this reason, "This sense of white unity and white entitlement - of white ‘blood’ served to bind together the Democratic slaveholders and the masses nonslaveholding whites in the South. It further connected the Southern and northern wings of the Democracy…. Northern cities by emphasizing those immigrants from Europe, and particularly for Ireland, were white and thus unequivocally entitled to equal rights. In areas with virtually no Black voters, the Democrats created a "white vote". (140)

The Democratic Party capitalized upon the Irish people vote that could change the voting process in the Democratic Party or just polarizing the vote.

One of Roediger’s most interesting sub-chapters was the chapter on "Industrial Discipline, Sexuality and Iris Whiteness"; this section was a different viewpoint on race relation and the labor force in the antebellum years. Psychologist, Frantz Fanon called the racist attitude towards the Black race was due to "the prelogical thought of the phobic’- the fevered thinking in which the racist nurtures his hatred as he "projects his own desires onto the Negro" and behaves "as if the Negro really had them." Nevertheless, how? Fanon explains "that racism places Blacks within the category of the ‘biological’, defining them as sexual but also as without history and as natural, erotic, sensual and animal. Whiteness took shape against the corresponding counter-images, shunting anxieties and desires regarding relationships to nature and to sexuality onto Blacks". (Pg.150)

That Blacks was sexual savages and not to be seen as Black, they (white people) would act different than the stereotypical Black.Roediger gives a good historical account of the capitalist the laborer and the slave. He also shows how each group is interdependent on each other, how one oppressed group is oppressed by the other and to stay with a Capitalist Society, doesn’t make sense because of the evil of mankind to keep his fellow brother oppressed. On the other hand, to give a race comment "Once you go Black, You never come back.

My response to "the Wages of Whiteness, Race and the Making of the American Working Class", is like the plate of vegetables, you like certain pages and you don’t like others but you keep reading because you try to figure out where is he going with this. After awhile you just read and let nature take its course.

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