Title: The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class
Author: David Roediger
Categories: Whiteness Studies, Labor, Class, Antebellum, Wages
Place: Industrial North (mainly)
Time Period: 1800-1865
David Roediger borrows W.E.B. Du Bois's conception of the "wages of whiteness" from Black Reconstruction to argue that between 1800 and 1865 a working class consciousness developed that rested on a foundation of race (not just class). Roediger works in a particular strand of Marxism (similar to E.P. Thompson) that emphasizes consciousness and identity rather than a more materialist conception of where historical actors fit within modes of production. Roediger grants agency to white workers by demonstrating how they actively shaped themselves as not only working class, but white and non-slaves. Before the Revolution, this coupling of race and worker independence was largely absent. It was only with the onset of republicanism and its emphasis on independence that white workers began to posit themselves in relation contrast to black slaves. This took place mainly through the use of language, as whites tried to distance themselves from any comparisons to slaves. "Hireling" became decoupled from "slave", just as "boss" rose as a replacement for the word "master," and "freeman" grows in popularity as a particularly resonant identity that specifically excluded free blacks. Similarly, white laborers in the 1830s and 1840s move away from "wage slavery" to talk about "white slavery" as a way to distinguish selves from blacks and often implicitly support the slave system - although this shifts by 1850s towards a more antislavery oppositional language of free labor. Roediger modifies the idea of "herrenvolk democracy" to "herrenvolk republicanism" in describing how blacks were not just seen as non-citizens, but actively as anti-citizens, and a danger to republicanism.
Roediger also argues that during this process whites faced the wrenching changes of an industrializing society imposing a new form of capitalist work-discipline (borrowed from Herbert Gutman). As a way of coping with these changes, whites envision blacks as the symbol of their own preindustrial and hedonistic past that they both scorned and longed for. This went hand in hand with the rising popularity of minstrel shows, which allowed whites to highlight their own whiteness while simultaneously allowing them to temporarily escape into their own preindustrial past. Finally, Roediger charts how the Irish were faced with immense discrimination upon immigration, but instead of that resulting in solidarity with blacks, resulted in their aggressive use of blacks a springboard to assert their own whiteness. This crystallized through their participation in the Democratic party, which helped to paper over ethnic divisions between white northerners in favor of a more universal whiteness.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Centrality of LANGUAGE to study whiteness
- Whiteness confers advantages for white laborers as pacification for their exploitation as workers
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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