Saturday, June 05, 2010

Review: The Wages of Whiteness

[David R. Roediger. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, Revised Edition. New York: Verso, 2007 (1991).]

The Wages of Whiteness is a classic in the academic study of whiteness, a field of anti-racist analysis that arose out of a long history of African-American thinkers reflecting on their oppression and on the people who enact it. The book brings together important scholarship around race with the kind of working-class history from below pioneered by E.P. Thompson and others. It examines processes of racial formation and class formation in the United States, most thoroughly between the Revolution the end of the Civil War, especially the first half of the 19th century, with some brief attention to periods before and immediately after that. The question it tries to answer is why the white working class in the United States has so often chosen to side with the white owning class against working class peoples of colour, rather than the other way around. How and why did white workers come to understand themselves primarily as white workers?

I am not going to attempt a comprehensive review. Partly this is because, as the author discusses in the preface to the current edition, it is a book that has been talked about a lot. Reviews of Wages include attacks on it that bear little relation to its actual content or political project, praise that elevates it perhaps too high and distorts its actual significance in the field, along with lots of solid critique that has informed the subsequent work of Roediger and many other scholars in the area. I'm not familiar with the details of many of those responses, but my sense is that the key valid criticisms include its very brief treatment of the role of colonization, settlement, and anti-indigenous racism in the formation of white working-class identity in the United States, and inadequate attention to the gendered aspects of these processes. I also found that while I appreciated that it was a reasonably short and engaging read, there would be value to more detailed and exhaustive documentation in certain areas, particularly to bolster some of the arguments based in readings of white working-class culture.

Mostly, I just want to make a few fairly personal points about my reaction to the book. The first -- which is also partly why I hesitate to attempt a more comprehensive review -- is that it reminded me how little I really know about 19th century U.S. history. I know a fair bit more about 20th century U.S. history, or Canadian history from both centuries, but I've never had much occasion to learn about what went on south of the border a century and more ago. I really appreciated this opportunity to encounter some of that history in a way that foregrounds issues or race and class (though, as I said, not so much gender) in how it tells it.

Part of why that was so fascinating was comparing it with Canadian history as I read. Though the two countries share a continent, and have many core similarities -- the whole continent is basically one white-dominated, Christian-dominated, patriarchal, capitalist society grounded in the settler colonization of Turtle Island -- the shape of their histories, particularly in that era, were quite different. In the United States, small-r republicanism was a dominant element in the political culture, while in Canada it remained subordinated to a spectrum that stetched the relatively short distance from Tory-flavoured to more liberal-flavoured English liberalism. The organization of making and doing was quite different in important respects, especially in terms of slavery. There was certainly chattel slavery in Canada, but it never had the mass character or the large-scale role in production that it had in the U.S. or the Caribbean. White Canadian benefit from slavery was still significant, but much of that was less direct than in the U.S., often flowing from relationships with the U.S. and the British Caribbean.

Another key element was a difference in timing -- urban, capitalist ways of organizing production and social life more generally took shape later in Canada. I would imagine this is because there was fairly large scale settler colonization earlier in a much larger area of what would become the eastern United States than was true in what later became Canada. Yes, there was already evidence of an organized working class in Halifax before the end of the 18th century, but by and large this difference in timing means that history north and south of the border in the 19th century feels quite a bit less similar than in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

All of this means that processes of racial and class formation in that era would likely look quite different in Canada than they do in the United States -- still reflective of the imposition and resistance to white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy, but put together differently. So I'm surprised that I haven't encountered anything quite like this book in the Canadian context. I'm not sure exactly what such a book would look like. It would have to have much more emphasis on the relevance of settlement and the conquest of indigenous peoples in the development of self-consciously held whiteness among Canadian working people. There would probably also be more reason to emphasize regional differences, particularly white-Asian encounters on the West coast and white-Black on the East coast. Another major difference would be related to the importance of republican ideologies in the United States, which both contributed to and were significantly reinforced by the Revolution, and which were central to racial and class formation in the U.S.

That actually leads into my final point, which is not reflecting on Canadian versus U.S. histories in the 19th century, but is rather an expression of fascination and surprise at the ways in which the contemporary elite-directed but somewhat populist right-wing discontent of the Tea Party and associated ilk really does, as they claim, flow from certain features that were crucial during and shortly after the American Revolution. I know this isn't a new idea, and in the last year or more I've come across a few pieces that trace longer histories of right-wing populism and populism more generally in the U.S., but I found it particularly striking to see the parallels in this book, because this book was written many years before the Tea Party was a glint in Bill O'Reilly's cold, cruel eyes.

Now, I don't have the knowledge to draw out all the richness of these connections, or to trace how similarities in shape and style relate to actual material connections over the years, and I'm not inclined to take the time. But they are still striking. Both in certain sectors of the Revolutionary public of the late 18th century and the Tea Partying public of the early 21st century, there is a taste for politics organized around paranoid fantasies of what nefarious Others are up to rather than actual analysis. In the period of the Revolution and after, it was common for small-r republican (which is not the same as big-R Republican today, I should stress for non-U.S. readers) artisans and other ordinary people to be concerned about the possible connivance of the powerful with the powerless to deprive them of their rights. This, apart from bearing little relationship to reality, sometimes involved important opposition to the powerful but too often degenerated into attacks on the easier target -- that is, those with less power. Much right-wing rhetoric in the U.S. has a very similar shape today, warning of conspiracies between Black and Brown folks and elite liberals to take away the rights of ordinary white people. Today, this is very clearly organized around whiteness and the supposed threats to the white "us" by various, mostly non-white Others. Back then, that aspect was similar, though less firmly established. The threat that emancipated slaves might pose loomed large in the white small-r republican imagination.

And all of this, both past and present, is organized around a particular understanding of "liberty" that has its roots in the experiences and desires of those republican artisans of the Revolutionary period. This understanding became crystallized because of its role in creating unity during the process of the Revolution. It had deeply troubling aspects even then, but it at least had, for a brief period, some material basis in the existence of large numbers of independent producers in the former Thirteen Colonies. Capitalism being capitalism, that was not true for long, yet that particular way of understanding liberty has remained, for a significant number of people, highly influential. Transposed into the context of 21st century capitalism, this understanding of what liberty is and should be is completely ungrounded and perverse, and largely serves as cover for elite self-interest and white supremacy. Yet, as the Tea Partiers claim and as most liberals seem to want to deny, it does actually have some basis in that holiest of U.S. nationalist moments, the American Revolution.

I don't know enough to know what to make of all of that, but it does seem to me that the liberal huffery-puffery about the Tea Partiers that refuses to see the movement's basis in longstanding features of social relations and political culture in the United States and rather treats it as novel is a sure recipe for more bad stuff. Only acknowledging and tackling those longstanding features can lead to effective opposition to the current right-wing surge in the U.S.

Anyway. This is an important book to read if you want to understand the past and present of the United States.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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