July, 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, “The Crusade of Indignation”)
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.
Wages of Whiteness seeks to explain how the history of the development 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 forms 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 contrast 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 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 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’s 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)
For all of its insights, Roediger’s book is not without flaws. His analysis is beholden to the ever-present black-white binary that purveys much of the historiography on race in the U.S. In one of the brief detours—if one could call it that—from this dichotomous reasoning, Roediger problematizes the notion of whiteness by reviewing the history of how Irish-Americans came to be recognized as white. However illuminating this history might be, it begs the question: is white identity formed solely in contrast to blackness? By casting racial formation as taking place solely between black and white, Roediger excludes a whole a host of critical historical actors in the formation of racial and class antagonisms. What does one make of a book about race and class in 19th century America that fails to discuss at any length Chinese immigrants and their role in building the first transcontinental railroad? Occluded from Roediger’s story is how Asian immigrants went from making the case that they qualified as white and therefore were entitled to the rights of citizenship during the late 18th century to Chinese immigrants facing exclusion and being the first victims of legal deportation by the federal government in the 19th century. A discussion of this trajectory would make for a far more rich history of racial formation in the United States.
Accompanying Asians outside of the black-white binary are Mexicans and Native Americans. Roediger lends slightly over two pages to Native Americans and their part in racial formation in a chapter on the “prehistory of the white worker.” Mentions of Mexicans are also notably scant. One would think that the racial politics of Texas and the Mexican-American war would have some place in a history of race and class formation in 19th century America, but Roediger apparently deems these things irrelevant to the making of the white working class. Put crudely, the complexity added by all of these omitted events and peoples makes one uneasy with the notion that racial antagonisms are essentially a by-product of status-anxiety.
I came to Roediger’s work at a time when I held an acute distaste for any work that ascribed discourse nearly all-encompassing powers. Nevertheless, works such as George Lipsitz’s Possessive Investment in Whiteness and Shapiro and Oliver’s Black Wealth/White Wealth forced me to consider the discursive environment that allows different forms of racial hierarchies to establish hegemony. For all its shortcomings, Wages of Whiteness does an admirable job at explaining how racial consciousness and class-anxieties manifested a language of power among white labor that enabled them to retain a sense of respectability. Roediger accomplishes this important feat while avoiding the abstruse, jargon-laden prose commonly associated with works of this kind. For these reasons, Wages of Whiteness has rightly earned its place on the mandatory reading list of any student of US history.