Management and race

Issue: 145

Martin Upchurch

David R Roediger and Elizabeth D Esch, The Production of Difference: Race and Management of Labor in US History (Oxford University Press, 2014), £16.99

The history of American capitalism is inextricably bound to genocide, slavery and racism. In this book two American political scientists, David Roediger and Elizabeth Esch, produce a detailed and well researched account of the depths to which such racism in the United States has shaped the practices of the management of labour, extending from slavery to the era of scientific management in the inter-war years. “Race management” or the “production of difference” is detailed as a practice to categorise workers by their race, and to relate physical and mental traits which then have to be “managed” in the context of white superiority. These characteristics and traits were subsequently translated during the era of scientific racism into complex matrices of “productivity” ratios and work suitability that became the core of American managerial practice until at least the 1920s.

Roediger and Esch raise questions with direct relevance to contemporary debates. For example, has the consciousness of white American workers been so deeply tainted with the “practice” of scientific racism that efforts to build class solidarity across races have been subdued and repressed? If so, does this provide solid ground for privilege theory, such that racist ideas take on “an auto-pilot effect” for white Americans who need to “check their privilege” when faced with questions of race and racism as essayist Tim Wise suggests?

The book begins with a description of the management of black slave labour in the antebellum South. The authors present a thorough review of the various articles, journals and books spawned in this period of biologically determined racism. Of particular interest is how employers weighed the pros and cons of slave labour against the employment of free black labour and desperately poor new immigrants such as the Irish and Germans. The African slave had to be purchased, fed and housed, as well as made to work hard. The only way of increasing productivity was through coercion, entailing close supervision to wield the whip. The dangers of slaves escaping the boundaries of the plantation also necessitated day and night security. Plantation owners would need to invest heavily in the project, which in practice was not dissimilar to the herding of cattle. The problem of labour supply meant they had continually to replenish the supply of slaves.

As new forms of capital accumulation emerged, the juxtaposition between the plantation and the factory model encouraged comparison between the productivity of slaves and free labour. The inherent tension between the two framed the backdrop to the civil war. However, much of the profits from slavery went into infrastructural projects during the surge forward of American capitalism. Most notable was the transcontinental railway system, designed to open up a direct passage from the more advanced eastern seaboard to the newer world of the west. The problems of labour supply became acute, and American capital began to turn elsewhere for labour, transferring their biologically-framed racist ideology onto other groups of immigrant workers. Nearly 1,800 miles of track were laid mainly through Native American territory, utilising Chinese labourers from west to east (the Central Pacific) and a mixture of mostly “European” labourers (predominantly Irish) in the east (the Union Pacific). The building of the railroad was itself a race, with concessions awarded to the winners, and the railroad managers used divide and rule to get the job done as fast as possible. As more Chinese workers entered the labour force, the white foreman was promoted as a new grade of worker. Employers also differentiated between different national groups, all sifted and graded according to their “suitability” for tasks in sometimes extraordinary detail. Similar divide and rule practices were central to the building of the Panama Canal, while in conjunction with the British (long-term practitioners of colonial race management), the emerging US Empire extended the same treatment to areas like the Philippines.

By the early 19th century the plantation and the frontier had been overtaken by the factory and the office as the fulcrums on which American capital accumulation was built. The growth of F W Taylor’s “scientific management” engendered a new approach by US capital, forcing a division of labour, mass production and strict managerial control over tasks rather than “race”. Immigration controls after 1924 also tightened labour supply, leading to the “integration” of existing Europeans into the vagaries of the American dream, albeit at the expense of black and Latino workers. A key question is whether or not race management was compatible with Taylorist practices and the new factory regime. Here Roediger and Esch present an argument that race management sat side by side with more modern management methods, and therefore “the cultivation of ‘white ignorance’…represented a combination of residual and emergent forms” (p143). The logic here is of continuity of race management within the US, albeit in a modified form focusing primarily on blacks as objects of white prejudice, or rather “an identification of whiteness with management as being no cause for suspicion of anything out of the ordinary” (p212).

The Production of Difference is presented to provide a pretext through the concept of white ignorance for a theory of privilege, and indeed the authors have shown sympathy towards privilege theory in earlier work, for example in Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. The US experience is presented as exceptional in this respect, standing outside of Marxist analyses of race and class. The concept of privilege, which focuses on changing the attitudes of individual white people, is now in the mainstream of US-inspired management diversity training. “Cross-cultural” management studies modules, emphasising identity and understanding of the “other” as a route to maximising individual potential and corporate productivity, are now de rigueur in business schools both in the US and UK.

For Marxists this highly individualised method of combating racism, with its focus on embedded white “racist” consciousness, will be at variance with the collective struggle of black and white. Indeed, in presenting their case the authors question Marxist interpretations of labour history and anti-racism which, they claim, “have emphasised only the common experience of oppression”. Antonio Gramsci, Harry Braverman and C L R James are all criticised as they allegedly “either ignore racial and national differences or see them as being effaced by the goals of progressive management to Americanise and homogenise workers” (p6). These are big claims. In framing the argument David Roediger has previously leant on the ideas of the radical black intellectual W E B Du Bois, and his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America 18601880. Du Bois examined the wage differential between white and black workers in the South. White workers, although low paid, “were compensated for by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white”.

However, this use of Du Bois is partial, as it ignores the crucial fact that rather than being a product of an innate and “ignorant” trait of the white worker the “psychological wage” was engineered by the employers. In other words, racism among white workers will usually have some material base, constructed by the employer to provide the context for racist ideology based on psychological “advantage”. Marx had expressed such points in his 9 April 1870 Letter to Meyer and Vogt. He described the relationship between the English and Irish worker in England whereby the English worker “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”. Rather than submit to a fixed and unchallengeable racist “consciousness”, the task was to break the ideological ties of the English to their own ruling elite. Only then could the English working class be liberated from its subordination to capital.

It is the interplay between material wage differentials, workplace discrimination and race, colour or culture that leads to a conclusion that racism must be fought as part of class struggle. This was certainly the objective of the American Communist Party in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the party began to organise both black and white workers in the Gastonia textile workers’ strike and against the show trial of the Scottsboro Boys. This is not to say, in vulgar fashion, that all class struggle is anti-racist, but rather that class exploitation and race oppression are inextricably bound, and common cause is necessary between black and white workers to achieve full liberation.

Indeed, it is this lack of consideration of the power of agency to transform society that is sorely missing in the book. Some reference is made in passing to great historical struggles in the US of both black and white workers such as that leading to the 1914 Ludlow Massacre. But such cases, rather than forming a beacon to be pursued, are presented as an exception to the rule. This is depressing and suggests the book, as finely researched as it is, represents an unnecessary retreat from struggle into a less pleasant world of personal identity and immutable consciousness.