Race and class in the US

Issue: 134

Nicola Ginsburgh

David Roediger, How Race Survived US History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon (Verso, 2008), £12.99

To state that race is socially constructed may be construed as a tired and even irrelevant point to make in a contemporary global society that has, in response to the Holocaust, seemingly banished biological concepts of race to history textbooks. Racism is presented to us as a problem of a few socially sick individuals at odds with mainstream society and its structures and institutions, while race itself has been regarded as increasingly failing to impact upon people in any real meaningful way. So race can seem anachronistic in the 21st century: an outdated and crude category which lacks the sophistication of concepts such as ethnicity, multiculturalism and immigration in understanding societies’ diversity and inequalities.

For many, Barack Obama’s election to the US presidency in 2008, to cheers of “Race doesn’t matter” from his supporters, epitomised America’s progression beyond issues of race. What Martin Luther King was able to articulate only as a dream in the 1960s has become a reality. Slavery and Jim Crow segregation are distant memories in this colour-blind US.

In this context, David Roediger sets out to show that, although progress has undeniably been made, the issues of race that shaped America’s past continue to shape its present. He argues that, while race is socially constructed, it has real material consequences. A country in which people of colour are more likely to be imprisoned, to suffer from Aids and tuberculosis, and to face unemployment, and where they are less likely to go to university, cannot claim to have moved beyond race. Race not only survived, but has been an integral and formative part of US history, deeply embedded in both the economic and constitutional foundations of society. Roediger argues that the celebrated concepts of universal liberty and freedom central to the US’s self-understanding were, from their very first applications in the American Revolution and Constitution, only ever understood as white and male. Women and people of colour had to fight for those ideals of liberty and equality to be extended
to them.

Roediger has assigned himself a formidable task in documenting the history of race in the US spanning over 400 years to the present day but he has skillfully presented a vast amount of literature and research in a relatively short book. The book aims to reach an audience beyond academic circles and, as such, Roediger has abandoned a “scholarly framework” to increase its accessibility. Yet the means he has adopted to achieve this accessibility—abandoning a reference system—does not in itself make a text easier to understand. There remains a considerable amount of assumed knowledge despite Roediger’s honourable intentions. However, he deserves praise for his exploration of the intricate tapestry of identities and racial categories and their fragmented, fractured and contradictory processes of development. In particular his recognition of the importance of the racism towards the indigenous Native American population is a welcome addition to literature which primarily focuses upon African Americans.

Roediger successfully dismantles the arguments of conservative economists who state that free market capitalism acts to liberate people from racial categorisation. Refuting the notion that capitalism is colour-blind and treats workers as an undifferentiated pool of labour, he argues that race has been central to strengthening US capitalism. His discussion of industrial management’s organisation of workers along lines of race illuminates how capitalism benefits from racial division and feeds into the creation and development of racial stereotypes.

Yet Roediger goes on to argue that the idea of “colour-blind capitalism” also permeates anti-capitalist approaches to race, making Marxism both “indispensable and inadequate” in understanding the history of labour in the US. While continually stressing the importance of historical materialism to understanding inequality and the formation of racial categories, he ultimately characterises Marxism as fundamentally lacking. This dismissal of Marxist approaches depends on a reductive and distorted definition of Marxism, which is caricatured as a crude determinist method that denies the importance of culture, politics and ideology. Criticising what he describes as Marxists’ “tendency to divorce the concept of labour from the bodies and cultures performing it” (p67), Roediger claims that “Marx’s logic held that capital homogenises society because it sees a world made up of units of labour, rather than of races, nationalities or genders” (p66).

However, recognising the centrality of class does not require denying heterogeneity and difference. Marx explicitly identified the importance of racial and nationalist ideologies in understanding the class struggle. For instance, in a letter sent in 1870, Marx described how the English working class, despite being well organised, was severely debilitated by nationalist and anti-Irish ideology. He wrote:

“The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself”.1

Likewise in Capital, Marx remarked:

“In the United States of North America, every independent movement for the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”.2

Marx saw how the differences among people could be manipulated into fixed concrete identities that acted to impede class struggle by distorting the real similarities between people. Marxism does not act to deny difference, but seeks to liberate people from the oppressions attached to it. These extracts also show that, while skin colour has been an important feature of racial ideology, racial categories and racism are not confined to matters of skin colour. There has never been a singular inclusive white identity and processes of racial categorisation have not strictly followed the contours of nationality or skin colour: the British eugenics movement in the late 19th century referred to the white working class as a different race and the white skin of Irish Travellers has not prevented their racist treatment and representation.

The importance Roediger assigns to “whiteness”, in which racial division is privileged over that of class, also contributes to his belief in the inadequacy of Marxism. Whiteness studies emerged in the 1990s seeking to explore how whiteness functions as a socially constructed racial category of superiority. Most regularly associated with sociology and cultural studies, proponents of whiteness studies aimed to show that the application of racial categories was not just something that happened to non-white peoples, but was a process which assigned all of humanity particular characteristics and identities. Roediger’s seminal text The Wages of Whiteness injected this new discipline into the history of the working class. Although Roediger has remedied the lack of analysis of gender that was criticised in his earlier work, the central arguments concerning whiteness that first appeared in that earlier book are upheld here.

Roediger wanted to assign agency to the working class; he thought traditional labour historians both unnecessarily romanticised the white working class and reduced them to passive instruments of ruling class ideologies and practices. In the work under review, Roediger acknowledges that the creation of white supremacy was not a result of agitation or sentiment of the white working class but by elites manipulating distinctions between workers. Nevertheless he remains ardent in insisting that the white working class has universally benefitted from racism. Therefore, for Roediger, the white working class has a vested interest in sustaining racist practices. Through this he erects an impenetrable barrier between white and black workers. Although he documents some multiracial working class struggles that occurred throughout American history, these are always presented as anomalies rather than as evidence of shared class interests. White workers are ultimately always “bought off” through racial identification and the privileges white skin supposedly bestows. Even when he acknowledges the existence of white people and people of colour living together or in remarkably similar conditions, cross-racial solidarity for Roediger is unthinkable, or if it does occur it is compromised and short-lived.

Roediger reduces class to one of many facets of identity—a construction which is completely transformed through racial categorisation. However, identification as white does not ensure wealth and power. Representations of white “trailer trash” attest to the demonisation of working class white people who fail to attain bourgeois standards of respectability. The 2009 census shows that while white people are substantially less likely to live under poverty than people of colour (the official poverty rate is 9.4 percent for non-Hispanic white people and 25.8 for black people), being white in itself does not guarantee material success. Racial categorisation influences but is by no means the sole determinant of wealth or privilege.

The fact that today, and throughout US history, many whites have been no better off economically than their black counterparts, does not deter Roediger from claiming all whites benefit from racism. He claims that, although not all whites receive material benefits from racism, they are subsidised by a “personal whiteness”. This personal whiteness is never adequately defined by Roediger, but is reminiscent of his past work which claimed white working class people received a “psychological wage”. Taken from writings of the black intellectual and activist WEB Du Bois, personal whiteness and the psychological wage are understood as particular privileges of white identity including legal rights, feelings of superiority and the ability to access better services under Jim Crow segregation. However, unlike Du Bois, who was able to see the common interests of white and black workers in spite of racial division and hatred, Roediger insists that these benefits tie the interests of white workers to the system. For Roediger, these advantages mean that white workers will never turn themselves against a system that exploits them or engage in cross-racial solidarity, because their poverty and exploitation are overridden by the “desires to claim white identity and to defend the relative advantages attached to it” (p212).

Yet division along racial lines only acts to weaken the working class. Racial categorisation has acted to discipline and repress workers regardless of colour. Blacks and whites have been pitted against each other in labour disputes by management to keep wages low. In the 1919 Great Steel Strike thousands took action against anti-union measures, but because of the division of labour along racial lines, management were able to bring in between 30,000 and 40,000 African American and Mexican workers to break the strike. In the 1970s Michael Reich’s study of racism and white inequality in the US revealed that the white working class faced greater levels of inequality in areas of higher racism. He argued that a white labour force that fears being replaced by cheaper black labour is less likely to push for better pay and conditions and continues that unions will be weaker and less militant.3

Despite these problems, Roediger makes an important point with this book, namely that we cannot forget race while racism exists. Being anti-racist requires that we acknowledge racial disadvantage and oppression, and the historical circumstances in which they came about. There is certainly a sense of urgency running throughout this book. Roediger insists that action must be taken by people, rather than relying on the state and its institutions, if race is to be truly overcome. He emphasises that globalisation and broad legal, demographic and economic trends by themselves cannot abolish white supremacy. Successive economic, legislative and political upheavals in US history demonstrate race’s strength and elasticity, which enable it to adapt, mutate and transform itself as capitalist society changes. Yet Roediger fails to outline what this action should entail, apart from acknowledging that the vehicle for change must be a coalition of oppressed groups and anti-racists. It is Roediger’s conceptual failings that lead to this inadequate strategy for fighting racism. Suggestions for action fall into the realm of identity politics, where all men benefit from sexism, all heterosexuals benefit from homophobia, and crucially for Roediger, all whites benefit from racism. Inequality comes to be seen as a consequence of heterosexual white male power rather than a result of capitalist exploitation.

There is a complex relationship between race and class that cannot be ignored. They cannot be equated, nor can race be regarded as an unimportant distraction from class. Class is not a singular identity and culture, but a social relationship in which numerous races, genders, ages, sexualities, cultures and identities exist. A class approach not only accounts for this diversity, but recognises that class struggle is the only means through which different types of oppression and discrimination can be effectively eradicated.


1: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/letters/70_04_09.htm


3: Michael Reich, “The Economics of Racism”, in The Capitalist System (eds), R C. Edwards, M Reich and T E Weisskopf (Prentice-Hall, 1972).