The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class — A Review

On Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness

A Review by Theodore W. Allen (

1. David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness — a psycho-cultural investigation of the development of “white” identity among European-American workers in the North during the ante-bellum period — was originally published in 1991, and was republished as a revised edition in 1999. The revision consisted entirely of a five-page “Afterword”; the book otherwise remained unchanged. Roediger divides his book into four parts. In Part I, in Chapter 1, Roediger sets forth the conceptual approach to his subject, posing a set of questions of key importance that he has found Marxist labor historians to have ignored, or neglected, or misconceived: 1) “the role of race in defining how white workers look not only at Blacks but at themselves”; 2) “the pervasiveness of race”; 3) “the complex mixture of hate, sadness and longing in the racist thought of white workers”; 4) the relationship between race and ethnicity.” “Marxism as presently theorized,” he says, does not help us focus on “why so many workers define themselves as white.” He classifies Marxist and presumably Marx-influenced writings into two categories, the “traditional Marxists,” who are distinguished by their emphasis on class, combined with a subordination of “race;” and the “neo-Marxists,” who subscribe to the perspectives of E. P. Thompson in Britain and Herbert Gutman in the United States, whom he credits with opening the way for the emergence of “a new labor history,” particularly by “call[ing] into question any theory that holds that racism simply trickles down the class structure from the commanding heights at which it is created.” A set of “new labor historians” has emerged who are awake to the viciousness of “whiteness” in the labor movement. These new historians take the working class as a self-motivated agency of history, says Roediger, but their works are flawed by a “tendency to romanticize members of the white working class, by not posing the problem of why they came to consider themselves white. David takes on the task of correcting this error by his thesis that white supremacism was “in part” a creation of the European-American workers, in the early nineteenth century. Chapter two, referring to the Anglo-American colonial period, speaks of “The Prehistory of the White Worker.”

2. Part II introduces white identity in “the language of class,” wherein the European-American artisans responded to the threat of extinction by capitalist enterprise by an appeal to a “whites-only” republicanism. Part III relates the growing industrialization to the development of a “white” culture, the emergence of “whiteness.” Unskilled European immigrant peasant recruits, resentful of the routine discipline of industrial employment, consoled themselves with the social distinction of being free and citizens. Special attention is given to laboring-class Irish-Americans who, the author says, combined their political and economic motives with an “unthinking decision” rooted in repressed sexual fantasies which they projected onto their image of African-Americans. Part IV argues that in the Civil War and Post-Emancipation periods there was a degree of moderation of “white” workers’ “tendency to equate Blackness with servility.” In the end, however, European-Americans were still governed by “fears” of equality and of “sexual amalgamation.” The Black workers had much to contribute to the development of a labor movement, and the struggle for the eight-hour day in particular, but “the gift was spurned by white labor.”

3. In his “Afterword” to the second edition, Roediger, with exemplary professional courage and integrity, acknowledges errors committed in the original edition. Some unspecified sections of the first edition, he notes, were “embarrassingly thin.” He refers to “many shortcomings,” for which he presumes others will be able to make amends without much difficulty. But there is one, major, error that he “sharply regrets,” and for which he foresees no simple and easy amendment. That error, he says, was his acceptance of “the dominant assumption…[,] the unexamined and indefensible notion that white males were somehow ‘the American working class.’” Reflecting on this “flat mistake,” he recalls that he himself had expressed a contrary view. He frankly attributes the error to the effect of his “White Blindspot.” This political disability, he goes on to say, incidentally caused the tone of the book to be unduly pessimistic.

4. He takes note of favorable commentaries on his book by Dana Frank and by Staughton Lynd. Both of these reviewers, however, suggest that Roediger’s treatment of the complicity of European-American working people in white supremacism, may, contrary to the author’s intentions, encourage an abandonment of faith in labor becoming “a powerful agent for social change.” Frank tells of her students who, after reading Wages, found that it offered little hope for labor’s cause because, they said, “white working people have so consistently and inevitably acted on their racial interests.” Frank’s misgivings were shared by nearly all reviewers. In addition to the comments of Frank and Lynd, Roediger lists seventeen other reviews. With the exception of the two that I have not yet seen, I have read them all carefully, as well as four that were not listed there. While all but one were sympathetic to Roediger’s argument, a frequent conclusion was that Roediger had posed a problem but left no hope for its solution. It would seem that Roediger’s reaction to Dana Frank’s review should have been reinforced by the tone of these reviews. Although Frank had defended Roediger against her students’ despairing interpretation of his work, Roediger is compelled to note that “the fact that it requires such a defense is telling.”

5. The “Afterword,” be it noted, makes no attempt to explore the possibility of relationships among three major points in David’s reexamination of the work. First, how does he explain the lapse that led him to marginalize the Black workers in his concept of “the American working class”? What were the influences and the subjective factors that caused him to make this “flat mistake”? In finding the answer or answers to that question, perhaps David would save himself and others from repeating that lapse. Secondly, what relation may there be between his acknowledged white blind-spot and the consensus among sympathetic critics regarding what Roediger, himself, now calls the “unduly pessimistic” tone of the work? Thirdly, David attaches great importance to the prospect that the increasing proportion of women in the labor force will be a major factor in the struggle against white supremacism. But neither in the Afterword nor in the book proper does David seek to discuss the relationship between the struggle against male supremacism and white supremacism.

6. In the second paragraph of the Afterword, David says frankly that his book “was designed as a provocation,” and he generally encourages what his critical readers may offer by way of “elaboration, challenge and correction.” This essay is intended as an equally frank and generous spirit.


7. As I started reading David’s book, I presumed that as a historian, he was concerned with the degree to which, in E. P. Thompson’s phrase, “the working people’s consciousness of their interests and of their predicament as a class” has been expressed by European-American workers generally. For a century and more now, general historians, as well as labor and socialist specialists, have sought to explain the disparity of manifestations of class consciousness of workers in the United States, and the level of such manifestations by workers in other industrial countries. This is the abiding problem of American labor history, the problem of the “American exception” to the general pattern of development of class struggle typical of capitalist countries, and the relatively low level of class consciousness in this country. The implicit question concerned the extent to which Marx’s theory of class struggle as the driving force of history was valid for the United States — the subject that has been called “American Exceptionalism.”

8. Students of the subject — such as Frederick Engels, co-founder of the very theory of proletarian revolution; Frederick A. Sorge, main correspondent of Marx and Engels in the United States, and long-time active participant in the United States labor and socialist movements; Richard T. Ely, Christian Socialist and author of the first attempt at a general United States labor history, in 1886; Morris Hillquit, founder and leading figure of the Socialist Party for more than two deades; Werner Sombart, German investigator of the United States political system; John R. Commons, with his associates, compiler of a multi-volume documentary history of the labor movement in the United States; Selig Perlman, one of the original Commons associates, and later author of A Theory of the Labor Movement; William Z. Foster, trade union organizer and leader of the Communist Party; Mary Beard, a labor and general historian; Charles A. Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, Allan Nevins and Henry Steel Commager have all commented on this question, this peculiarity of United States history, and they have produced and reproduced a classical consensus on this subject.

9. According to the consensus, the relative absence of manifestations of class conscious American labor is to be ascribed to six peculiar factors of United States historical development: 1) the existence, from the very founding of the state, of the right to vote and other democratic liberties; 2) the heterogeneity of composition of the United States working class, a conglomeration of many tongues and kindreds; 3) the “safety valve” for social discontent provided by the availability of homesteading opportunities in the West; 4) the relatively greater access to social mobility in America; 5) the relative shortage of labor, resulting in a higher level of wages as compared with that prevailing in other countries; 6) the historic precedence of the trade union over the labor party in the United States, as contrasted to continental Europe, a condition facilitating the openly anti-socialist anti-labor party policies of the dominant corrupt “aristocracy of labor” within the working class movement.

10. Whatever incidental insights into our history may be provided by the various arguments advanced in this rationale for the low level of class consciousness of American workers, they are all flawed by the failure to consider this rationale in the context of the historically omnipresent factor of white supremacism in United States history. That white blindspot, which is inherent in the doctrine of American Exceptionalism, has historically frustrated the search for an explanation for the degree of class consciousness with which European-American workers have perceived, and still do perceive, their class interests as workers.

11. It would seem that David might have found American Exceptionalism’s historiographical tradition of white blindness relevant to his purpose of correcting the tendency of “new labor historians” who fail to pose the problem of why “members of the white working class came to consider themselves white.” Yet he ignores it. A close reading of the book reveals why.

12. For one thing, as a disciple of Herbert Gutman, Roediger proceeds on the assumption of parallels, rather than contrasts, between the development of the consciousness of the English working class in the late 18th and the early 19th century, and United States labor history in the 1812–1860 period, even though he believes that adjustments need to be made in its application. That assumption contradicts the predicate theme of American Exceptionalism. Gutman’s approach, furthermore, denies the premise that there is a historical role for the working class. When asked by an interviewer, “Why has there been no mass socialist movement in the United States,” Gutman replied that that was a “nonhistorical question,” because it rested on an assumption that there was a “proper” and an “improper” way for a workers’ movements to develop. Having made his decision to align his thesis with Gutman, why should Roediger want to get involved in the issue of the comparatively low level of class consciousness of the American working class?

13. Secondly, David’s psycho-cultural analysis finds no relevance in objective factors such as constitute the standard rationale for the low level of class consciousness of workers in this country. Indeed reference to them could only obscure, or even contradict, Roediger’s concept of his subject, designed as it is to steer clear of a class struggle interpretation of the etiology of “white” identity. He seems to have as little use for “an historical task that workers faced” as Gutman did.


14. The organic definition of “working class” derives from the analysis of the operation of the general law of capital accumulation, which inexorably reproduces a propertyless segment of society whose very ability to produce becomes the commodity upon which the expansion of capital depends. In Marx’s words, “The reproduction of a mass of labour power…which cannot get free from capital….[is], in fact, an essential of the reproduction of capital itself.” It has been the custom, however, with most American historians to exclude plantation bond-laborers in their references to the working class.

15. The proposition that the United States plantation system based on chattel bond-labor was a capitalist operation is a widely recognized principle of political economy, as noted in the writings of the otherwise quite disparate array of W. E. B. Du Bois, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Lewis C. Gray, Roger W. Shugg, and Winthrop D. Jordan. (Eric Williams and C. L. R. James view Caribbean slavery in this light, as well.) Karl Marx invariably referred to the American plantation economy as capitalist enterprise. I, myself have expressed this view, and David Roediger writes that he has “long argued that slavery in the US was part of a capitalist system of social relations…”

16. Those who would cling to the theory that the southern plantation system was something other than capitalism should consult the views of the slaveholders themselves. Writing to a fellow slaveholder regarding the profitability of “breeding women,” Thomas Jefferson advised that, “a child raised every 2. years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man…[because] [w]hat [such a] mother produces, is an addition to capital, while his [the male bond-laborer’s] labors disappear in mere consumption.” Though cotton replaced tobacco as the main staple crop, still, the guiding principle for getting “greater profits” remained “to buy more slaves to make more cotton for the continued purposes of buying more slaves to make more cotton,” even as “the capital cost of the slaves” rose.

17. In the judgment of George Fitzhugh, perhaps the most articulate publicist of the bond-labor system, “The success of Southern farming is a striking instance of the value of the association of capital and laborers.” Finally, in 1863, the leadership corporate of the slave holders’ rebellion, the “Congress of the Confederate States,” declared chattel bondage to be the proper relationship of labor to capital.

18. Given this understanding of slavery in Anglo-America as capitalism, and of the slaveholders as capitalists, it follows that the chattel bond-laborers were proletarians. Accordingly, the study of class consciousness as a sense the American workers have of their own class interests, must start with recognition of that fact. But historians guided by the white blind spot have, in effect, defined the United States working class as an essentially European-American grouping. In doing so they have ignored or, at best, marginalized the propertyless African-American plantation workers, the exploitation of whose surplus value-producing labor was also the basis of capital accumulation for the employers of those workers.

19. Roediger’s book unfortunately participates fully in the common error of the American Exceptionalists of effectively marginalizing the Black worker by conceptually excluding bond-laborers from “the American working class.” Under the compulsion of the dogma of his own making — that the “white” worker, as a self-conscious social category, could not have existed before 1800 — Roediger even excludes from the working class European-American workers of the 180 years of the colonial period as “pre-industrial,” and not “a wage-earning class.” He assigns them to the “pre-history of the white worker.”

20. Such disregard for colonial history, serves to gloss over fundamental contradictions in David’s psycho-cultural explanation of white supremacism as the creation (oh yes, “in part”) of the Irish and other European-American workers in the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Roediger relies on Winthrop D. Jordan for much of his very brief references to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century continental Anglo-America; he obviously accepts Jordan’s own psycho-cultural theory of the origin of “racism” as the outcome of the European colonists’ need to know they were “white.” At the same time, only nineteenth century developments can serve Roediger’s theory of the white supremacism being a manifestation of immigrant ex-peasants’ revulsion against industrial discipline, and their comfort of not being “slaves.” Here, then, is where his characterization of European-American laboring people of the colonial period as “pre-historical whites” serves to bridge over the implicit difference between his and Jordan’s explanation of the “roots” of white supremacism. Still, by categorizing those workers as “whites,” Roediger implicitly relies on the explanation of “the white race” as natural or hereditary phenomenon, and therefore, not a socially constructed one.


21. By taking “the American working class” as their subject, labor historians necessarily presume that there is a distinct working class interest to be investigated. In the evolution of the tactics of working class movements and organizations, at any particular juncture debates and controversies must necessarily occur over what policy decisions best serve labor’s interests. The best fundamental guide, in my opinion, is that set forth by Marx and Engels to the working class movements in Europe a century-and-half ago, and which, on the plane of American history, provides the ordinate and abscissa by which to locate the interests of the working class at any point in its history:

1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries,…point out and bring to the fore the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through,…always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

22. In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois, having studied and set right the record of Black Reconstruction in the South, with attention to the interests of “the laboring class, black and white, North and South,” drew the following somber conclusion:

The South, after the [Civil] war [said Du Bois], presented the greatest opportunity for a real national labor movement which the nation ever saw or is likely to see for many decades. Yet the [white] labor movement, with but few exceptions, never realized the situation. It never had the intelligence or knowledge, as a whole, to see in black slavery and Reconstruction, the kernel and the meaning of the labor movement in the United States.

In my opinion, the insight thus expressed by Du Bois is indispensable for understanding and applying the general Marxist principles in assessing the interests of American labor and the state of American labor’s consciousness of those interests.

23. Although David does not mention the subject of labor’s interests explicitly, one might possibly draw positive inferences from the fact that he repeatedly speaks of the adherence of European-American workers to “white” identity as “tragic.” Furthermore, he notes the contributions to the exposure of the vice of “white” identity made by persons who, from the standpoint of Marxism, see “workers as central to progressive political change.” It is apparent that David does not intend to be a white-labor apologist; he condemns any tendency “to romanticize members of the working class, by not posing the problem of why they came to consider themselves white.” He cites James Baldwin’s admonition, “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.” While Baldwin’s observation was not directed specifically to laboring-class Americans, it retains a special validity for the analysis of the “white race” in relation to the history and the prospect of the working-class movement in this country. Roediger associates himself with others who earlier have argued that the European-American workers have a class interest in throwing off their “white” identity.

24. He also gives a footnote mention to a pamphlet, Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race (although he does not quote it), which in its summary says:

But their own position [that of laboring-class “whites”] vis-á-vis the rich and powerful…was not improved, but weakened by the white-skin privilege system.

25. That particular pamphlet is a socio-economic study that places ultimate responsibility for white supremacism on “the rich and powerful.” David chose not to quote this or any other passage of it. The reason for this reticence seems apparent. David does not say how the problem of “whiteness” is to be treated as a matter of labor’s class interest. Furthermore, his attachment to the “new labor” ideology and method of Herbert Gutman, who expressly rejected the idea that the working class has a historical role to play, leaves unclear what Roediger’s thoughts are about why casting off “white” identity should be considered a special, particular, concern of the laboring people. David has no interest in a class-struggle approach to the matter, or in blaming any “rich and powerful” ruling class. That would be to put sand in the gear-box of his argument that “working class ‘whiteness’ and white supremacy [are] creations, in part, of the white working class itself.”

26. It is here that Roediger seizes upon Du Bois’s term, “psychological wage,” as the “indispensable formulation” for the needed correction in the “new labor history” tendency. Roediger then proceeds — by what, in my view, is a unique misappropriation of the term, “psychological wage” — in order to lend authority to his own answer to the problem of the “white” identity by borrowings from psycho-history, and psycho-culturalism. But, in his desire to save the “new history” from “romanticizing the working class,” Roediger unintentionally lets the classical white-labor apologists off the hook, by organically linking his argument to theses that he had found in the works of Winthrop D. Jordan and George Rawick; and what appears to me to be a misreading of the intents of Joel Kovel and Frantz Fanon.

27. As far as Jordan’s views are concerned, what more apology could one need for “white” labor’s white supremacism than his argument that Europeans come to these shores naturally endowed with white supremacism?

28. Although David apparently has little acquaintance with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglo-American happenings, he confidently praises George Rawick’s, treatment of the history of white supremacism in the colonial period as presented in chapters 7 and 8 of From Sundown to Sunup.

29. Upon reading of those chapters, however, one finds that Rawick presents nothing new, no new evidence or substantial argument, about the beginnings of the “white” identity. Just as David handed off to Rawick, Rawick hands off to Jordan, author of White Over Black, with its psycho-cultural theory of the origin “of American attitudes toward the Negro,” which Rawick swallows whole, with a brief reference to Genovese’s idea that “previous ideological conditioning made possible a racially based slavery” to help it go down. According to that scenario, it would seem as if the reduction of African-Americans to lifetime hereditary bondage was just a matter of convenience that the ruling class got around to in their own good time. Perhaps some readers will take issue with that assessment, but in any case it is clear that Rawick, like Jordan, offers no basis for David’s suppositional role of European-Americans workers as creators of “white” identity.

30. David names Joel Kovel’s White Racism as one of the sources of the “method and evidence” for Wages of Whiteness. But if, as Kovel at one time said, it were simply a matter of the Western id working its purpose out by aggression against, or aversion to, its dark “other,” then might not that serve as ammunition for the white-labor apologists, who simply take the “white” identity as a given?

31. It is unfortunate that Roediger did not take notice of the second edition of Kovel’s book, published in 1984, seven years before the publication of Wages of Whiteness. Kovel begins with a 48-page reconsideration of his first edition. That edition, he says, was the product of his salad days, when he was “immersed in training at a medically orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic institute….[so that] I had absorbed…entirely too much of what is called Ego Psychology, and I had chained my discourse up in it.” But his revised view is that

One no longer blames racism on….lower middle class or working class whites — but assigns responsibility according to real power over the racist society. I do not mean to exonerate the hate-filled, rock-throwing racial bigot….But….[o]f far greater significance is the man in control.

Kovel concludes his introduction to that second edition by saying, “if racism can change” [as from slave patrol to Jim Crow, he might say — TWA] “it can be made to go away….The cure for white racism? It is quite simple, really, only get rid of imperialism.”

32. One may agree or disagree with these latter-day remarks of Kovel, in matter or in manner, but the view they express cannot possibly be made to support Roediger’s argument, which avoids invidious refrences to the ruling class, while ascribing white supremacism to the “creative” powers of the European-American workers.

33. Roediger cites only one of Frantz Fanon’s books, Black Skin, White Masks, and cites that book only once. He uses it, not to establish a substantial relation with Fanon’s work, but merely in the effort to validate his own argument for psychic origins of white supremacism among “white” workers in the ante-bellum North.

34. References to the ante-bellum political and economic environment may help explain Irish-American Catholics’ “embrace of whiteness,” David writes, but analysis along that line, he believes, is “altogether too utilitarian.” That is as far as Roediger goes in the direction of a hinting at a possible ruling class involvement in the creation of the “whiteness” syndrome among European-Americans of the laboring classes. Even so, he borrows a notorious Jordanism to call this option “an unthinking decision.” Such socio-economic factors, he argues, cannot explain why “Irish-American Catholics would, for example, mutilate the corpses of free Blacks they lynched in the 1863 Draft Riot in New York City.” That would be explained by — and here David uses two widely separated phrases from Fanon — “‘the prelogical thought of the phobic’….[that led the Irish-American Catholic into] [p]rojecting his own desires onto the Negro’….”

35. I do not question the literal accuracy of the citation, but I do question David’s use of it. Acts of extreme sadism occur during wars, “religious” frenzies, and in “racial” pogroms, such as were committed in the 1863 Draft Riot. Fanon’s own case-notes provide confirmation of such acts in colonial Algeria, including those practiced by French colonial police. But he does not explain these acts as an alternative to struggle against class oppression. That is what David does, and does so in the context of his rejection of what he thinks of as “overly simple economic explanations” of white identity.

36. Fanon’s central concern was to help Africans overcome self-abasement resulting from experience with colonial oppressors. As he says, “We shall try to discover the various postures adopted by the Negro in the face of white civilization.” The self-hatred and the mental disorders acted out in individual violence by the Algerians are “not the consequence of the organization of his nervous system or of characterial originality, but the direct product of the colonial situation….[H]e [the Algerian] ought to pay attention to all untruths implanted in his being by oppression.” White “racism,” as Fanon had observed it, is regarded as being simply a projection of Europeans’ desire to exploit African people more effectively.

37. Fanon was able to base his psychoanalysis on direct observation and interviews, and on his personal involvement in the struggle against French chauvinism. And, unlike Roediger, he proceeded from Marxist economic determinist premises:

The analysis [of the “white masks” problem] that I am undertaking is psychological. In spite of this it is apparent to me that the effective disalienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process: — primarily, economic; subsequently, the internalization — or better, the epidermalization — of this inferiority.

38. David, on the other hand, depends upon inferences regarding the ante-bellum “white” workers drawn from his Freudian studies, perhaps from his own biography, and from his individual interpretation of Du Bois’s phrase, “psychological wage.” His disparagement of economic determinism, and his thesis of the “creation” of white supremacism by “the American working class,” contrast sharply with the economic premise, and the theory of internalization of Fanon’s investigations.

39. I am just one of the many Americans who admire Fanon’s courageous determination to put his professional capacities at the service of Algerian national liberation, and the liberation struggles of the people of Africa, in general, from colonialism and its neo-colonialist residue. He was rigorous and energetic in exposing and denouncing any attempt to apologize for “white” colonial oppression. It would not have strengthened his case to have suggested that racial oppression was an id-driven “creation” — and he did not. Perhaps David, by his resort to the language of psychoanalysis, does score some points against the tendency which he finds in the works of some “new labor historians” to “romanticize” the “white” worker. But, instead of challenging the white-labor apologists’ denial of the class-struggle meaning of “white” identity, he only gives them more wiggle room.

40. Thus, of these four sources of “methods and evidence,” two — Kovel and Fanon — fail him because of their class-struggle orientation.” The two others — Jordan and Rawick — present arguments that run counter to David’s notion that the nineteenth-century European-Americans created “white identity.” David appears unmindful of the shakiness of the support afforded him by these sources. He proceeds with full confidence in his theory that the “white workers” did not emerge until the nineteenth century, at which time they created “white racism.”

England and U.S. — Same Anxieties, Different Responses

41. According to Roediger, European-American workers “created” their “white” identity as a response to a fear of dependency on wage labor and to the necessities of capitalist work discipline.” Artisans’ “revolutionary pride” and fear of being reduced to a dependent status as wage-laborers for capitalists was expressed in “white republican equalitarianism.” Unskilled immigrants’ nostalgia for the halcyon life in their homelands, found solace in “white identity,” which made them “free citizens,” shielded from being compared to “slaves.” A sort of Freudian, rather than Du Boisian, “psychological wage” was provided for the European-American laboring people, according to David, in the form of release from sexual repression by projecting their sexual fantasies onto African-Americans, most commonly in blackface minstrel shows, but also on occasion in sadistic behavior toward Black people. Even in his somewhat self-critical “Afterword” in the second edition of Wages, David still “decidely argue[s] that white identity has it roots both in domination and in a desire to avoid confronting one’s own miseries.”

42. E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class takes the English artisans and the working classes generally through that same metamorphosis in the period 1790–1830, and describes and analyzes various responses of English working people to the social degradation and factory discipline visited upon them by the vaunted Industrial Revolution. One form of response was found in Wesleyan Methodism, which tended to sublimate hatred for the exploiters into sin-inspections and guilt. Another response sought solace in chiliastic anticipation. The nearest English analog to the European-American “white” identity phenomenon was in the line drawn between “sinners” and the “saved,” with “backsliders” subject to exclusion from Christian fellowship. But, unlike “white” identity in the United States, and unlike “Protestant” identity in Ireland, being “saved” did not confer social status in England. Another line of response, expressing a class-struggle orientation included the machine-wrecker Luddites, trade union organization, and the struggle for political reform, which was to culminate in the Charter movement of the 1830s that expressed the “working people’s consciousness of their interests as a class.”

43. In 1872, the First International rejected a proposal to deny the request of Irish workers in England to form their own Irish sections of the International. The Council based its stand on the recognition that the interests of the English working class required support of the Irish struggle for independence (conceived of at that time as “Home Rule”). In the course of the discussion of the proposal, its opponents, including Frederick Engels, referred to “the belief, only too common among the English working men, that they were superior beings compared to the Irish, as much an aristocracy as the mean Whites of the Slave States considered themselves to be with regard to the Negro.” The Council did not attempt to account for this chauvinistic attitude of the English workers as a “natural” attribute or as the outcome of psychic drives; rather they explained it as “one of the most common means by which class rule was upheld in England.”

44. Why was it that — whatever the degree of anti-Irish prejudice among English workers — Irish laboring folk fleeing racial oppression were welcomed in England where industry was in need of them, whereas in the United States the industrial bourgeoisie was barred by law from meeting its growing labor needs by employing African-Americans fleeing from racial oppression in the South? The answer is that in the United States the government was constituted on the strict condition of giving full faith and credit recognition to slavery, and the sixty per cent electoral bonus to slaveholding states. It was as a consequence of this fact that the country was dominated by the Southern slaveholders from the American Revolution until the Civil War, and white supremacism was established as a sort of American super-religion, with appropriate penalties for “backsliders.” Under the circumstances, “white” identity was made to appear to be an unrefusable offer. But it would prove to be as unhelpful to the class interests of European-American workers as “salvation,” or reliance on an imminent Judgment Day was to the class interests of the workers in England.

45. To invoke what are perfectly understandable and appropriate proletarian fears of and grievances of these workers, or to resort to plausible Freudian inferences regarding the projection of repressed sexual fantasies, to account for the “white identity” phenomenon, seems more of a justification than an analysis of it. Even if one were to accept David’s interpretation, it would still leaves unanswered the question: Why should these workers have responded to their exploitation and social degradation in the particular form of “white’ identification, and not by following the advice of Daniel O’Connell and Frederick Douglass to make solidarity with the African Americans, bond and free, in the struggle for an end to rule by the slaveholders and against the juggernaut of capital pressing in on their lives throughout the country.


46. David associates himself with activist scholars whose “historical writing on whiteness” show them to be “deeply indebted to Marxism and committed to seeing workers as central to progressive political change.” As such, he is as familiar as I am with the Marxist proposition that, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” If that concept does not apply to the historical prevalence of white supremacism in continental Anglo-America, in both its colonial and its regenerate United States form, it has no sociological validity at all. Yet, Roediger’s thesis seems predicated on the denial of that time-honored axiom of social science.

47. In the name of “neo-Marxism,” David disparages the basic “ruling-class-ruling-ideas” tenet of Marxism, and misrepresents it as a theory that “racism simply trickles down the class structure” from “the commanding heights at which is created,” into the gaping mouths of witless European-American proletarian dupes. That notion is nothing other than a straw man designed for easy dismissal between ironic quotations marks. It suits a certain academic fashion whereby its practitioners, including “neo-Marxists,” may excuse themselves from serious discussion of substantial issues regarding Marxist doctrine.

48. For example, Roediger dismisses the perpective of Oliver Cromwell Cox, author of Caste, Class, and Race, as an obsolete theory of a “class-based revolution as the solution to racism,” a “rosy view…of the possibility of an unambiguous revolutionary solution to racism [that is] largely gone.” The basis of Roediger’s criticism of Cox is that he does not give due attention to the role of “the [white] workers” in “creating” racial oppression. If one conceived of “class,” as in the “white working class” of Roediger’s title, then, of course, that would be a fallacy, one that has been brought out before, as David himself acknowledges. But if one conceives of “the revolution” as an instrumentality of a working class composed of Black and other direct victims of white-supremacism, and sufficient numbers of European-Americans who have repudiated the white-skin privilege system, that would indeed be an unambiguous revolution, a fundamental transformation of our country into a “people first” society.

49. Roediger’s comment on Cox occurs in the context of his general rejection of “traditional Marxists,” to whom Roediger imputes a “trickle-down” theory of political ideology based on an “overly simple economic explanations.” Such a characterization is an absurdity; if made without an offer of substantial evidence it is aggravated assault. The original “traditionals” were Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, evolved Hegelians. Putting Hegel’s dialectics to the service of their materialist outlook, they incorporated in their philosophy the concepts of the unity and interpenetration of opposites, and that every real thing is a complex of processes. To the problem of free will, they posed the concept that freedom is the recognition of necessity. In one elaboration of Marxist philosophic principles, Engels said that although Ludwig Feuerbach, their forerunner as a philosophical materialist, put the human being at the start of his outlook, he failed to relate the human being to the context in which this human being lived.

Men make their own history [wrote Engels], whatever its outcome may be, in that each person follows his own consciously desired end…it is precisely the resultant of these many wills operating in different directions and of their manifold effects upon the outer world that constitutes history. The will is determined by passion or deliberation…[W]e have seen that the many individual wills active in history for the most part produce results quite other than those intended…[But] the further question arises: What driving forces in turn stand behind these motives? What are the historical causes which transform themselves into the motives in the brains of the actors…? For the old materialism….nothing very edifying is to be found from the study of history….because it [the old materialism] takes the ideal driving forces that operate there [in history] as ultimate causes, instead of investigating what is behind them, what are the driving forces of these driving forces.”

50. This comment on Feuerbach, seems relevant to our repeated question: Why would European-American workers respond to their exploitation and social degradation in the particular form of “white” identification, rather than in “non-racial” ways? If one is content with observing the world, like an anthropologist or archaeologist, that might not present a problem; but for one bent on changing the world, it cannot be avoided.

51. Roediger’s avoidance of that question shows not only a failure to apply dialectical logic, but, more pointedly, it is a manifestation of his acknowledged white blind-spot. Here indeed we have a case of “wills that produce[d] results quite other than those intended.” The “white” identity did not preserve the artisans nor save others from reduction to life as merely another kind of Whitneyian replaceable parts in capitalist enterprises. Just the opposite, they lost the ten-hour day struggle, and efforts at establishing an independent labor party dissolved in defeat. Worse for them, by far — because of the inescapable national necessity to abolish slavery — the country was drawn into a war that not only brought death and severe injury for hundreds of thousands of laboring-class European-Americans, but also sharply eroded the buying power of their already insufficient wages.


52. What were the driving forces behind their self-defeating motives? David, without the slightest mention of such forces, simply ascribes the passionate adherence to the “white race,” to “creative” propensities of the European-American workers themselves, stoked by a collective id-hatched requirement for an “other” on whom to project their own guilt and repression and aversion of guilt rooted in infantile toilet training. What but the white blindspot could have permitted David to reconcile such a schematic formulation with his own belief in “race as a social construct” if he had investigated the responses of hundreds of thousands of African Americans who in this same period were also being inducted into capitalist industry.

53. According to the only general study of industrial bond-servitude in this country, “southern industry’s most interesting aspect was its wide and intensive use of slave labor. In the 1850’s …between 160,000 and 200,000 bondmen…worked in industry.” Whether in agriculture, or in mines, factories, timbering, or other work sites, the bond-laborers’ main grievance was, of course, bond-servitude itself. Among the industrial bond-laborers, the most common complaint was the necessity to repress their “natural desire to avoid the drudgery of industrial routines.” These workers had practically no way of recording or publicizing their resentments of their forced transition to industrial employment; but Starobin found journals and letters of employers and owners that reflect the workers’ feelings and attitudes. Their most trying adjustment to industrial life was to the enforced separation from their plantation-bound wives and families. Roediger is perceptive in comparing the longings felt by Irish immigrants and of free African-Americans in the North for family and friends left behind, after having been “wrenched from [their] homeland[s].” But, for almost all the male industrial bond-laborers, this was their homeland, yet they could not go home; to do so without the employers’ permission, meant that when they returned they would be subject to severe corporal punishment.

54. While the number of African-American non-agricultural workers was much greater in the South, free African Americans faced their own special problems of adjustment to the transition to hired-labor status. For free African Americans says Charles H. Wesley, in his classic, closely documented, labor study, “the transition from slavery to freedom, for individuals as well as the group, was not completed without creating difficulties….The adjustment to the new environment in the North often occasioned hardships.” Leon F. Litwak’s thoroughly researched and well-documented work found that, “Although they had been recently employed under slavery in a variety of skilled as well as unskilled occupations, emancipated Negroes found their economic opportunities limited to jobs as servants, seamen, or common laborers.” A French visitor to America in 1788 found that “The prejudices of Whites which lay obstacles in their way” caused free African Americans to be denied advancement in employment and access to education.

55. The African-American workers, no less than European-American workers, responded to the frustrations that faced them as they were inducted into capitalist industrial life. Robert Starobin has concentrated most concisely on the range of responses of industrial bond-laborers in his chapter titled, “Patterns of Resistance and Repression.” “The most subtle forms of slave protest were negligence, slowdown, feigned sickness, outright refusal to work, and pilferage…. Servile protests sometimes assumed more extreme forms, ranging from arson to escapes and from assaults to rebellions.” Revulsion against the repetitive drudgery of industrial work is suggested by he fact that those who ran away seemed to absent themselves most frequently at those times when “industrial operations peaked and production pressures mounted.”

56. The free African-Americans in general responded to the hardships of wage-labor employment and unemployment by striving to improve their knowledge and skills; and by rallying to combat the white supremacist barriers that were presented to their employment, and mobility. These intertwining concerns as expressed in conventions, manifestoe`s, petitions, and newspapers continually from 1787 to the end of the ante-bellum period. James Forten, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, published his protest in Philadelphia in 1813: “Those patriotic citizens, who, after resting from the toils of an arduous war, which achieved our independence…[are faced with the fact that] it appears as if the committee [of the Pennsylvania State Legislature]…do not consider us men….Has the God who made the white man and the black left any record declaring us a different species?….The same power which protects the white man, should protect the black.” The delegates to the Second Annual National Negro Convention in Philadelphia in 1832, resolved “strictly to watch those causes that operate against our interests and privileges; and to guard against whatever measures will either lower us in the scale of being, or perpetuate our degradation in the eyes of the world…. “We must have Colleges and high Schools on the Manual Labor system, where our youth may be instructed in all the arts of civilized life.” The State Convention of Ohio Negroes in 1849, declared its intention, “To sternly resist, by all means which the God of Nations has placed in our power, every form of oppression or proscriptions attempted to be imposed on us, in consequence of our condition or color. To give our earnest attention to the universal education of our people.”

57. Such well known and long established facts make it clear that induction into industrial discipline had its galling frustrations for African-American workers, just as it did for European-Americans. Yet one set of workers sought the abolition of chattel bondage and improved educational and apprenticeship opportunities. The other opposed abolition, supported the Fugitive Slave Law, and tried to bar Black workers from the trades. Why the difference? As for Freudian insights, had not African-Americans their ids? Were they not also veterans of the rigors of toilet training, and of feelings of repression and aggression stemming therefrom? Did they not have sexual fantasies that craved release?

58. Obviously, the catalog of personality characteristics traceable to such universal psychological factors does not explain why some behavioral patterns took the peculiar white supremacist form. It would seem logical, therefore, to look at the “forces behind the forces,” at the will of capital shaped by the need for ever greater accumulation of capital; the will that needs and has the power to destroy the artisan and to impose immiseration on the working class, and whose need to enforce and maintain its power depends on white supremacism.

59. In conclusion, therefore, in spite of my agreement with Roediger regarding the “white race” as a social construct, and on the destruction wrought by the “white” identity on the working class cause, I must challenge his psycho-cultural answer to the fundamental subject addressed in his study, namely, the etiology — the when, why, and how — of the emergence of the “white” identity as a connotation of social status of European-Americans of the laboring classes.

No Demographic By-pass Will Evade the Centrality of Struggle Against White Supremacism

60. To return at last to the subject of the despair expressed by reviewers because of the impression that Roediger had held out no hope for coping with white supremacism among European-American workers, and for the prospects for a historically transforming role for the United States working class. In response, David avowed an optimism for the future of the cause of labor, not in expectation of the repudiation of the white-skin privileges by European-American workers, but on demographic grounds of the prospective increasingly not-white and not-male composition of the United States working class, and specifically because such a transformation, he believes, will serve to remind white males that they are not the center of the labor movement, but only a segment of it.

61. For my part, any way for casting off that shirt of Nessus, the incubus of “white identity,” would suit me, but Roediger’s rather mechanistic perspective for producing a class-conscious proletariat, is problematic, to say the least. In a more recent article, David, himself, warns that, “demographic shifts do not automatically change anything.” That caution seems to me to be most appropriate, since the “demographic solution” requires the favorable constellation of three preconditions: 1) a predominant willingness of European-American females to repudiate white-skin privileges; 2) the readiness of not-white males to support the general struggle against male supremacism 3) a disregard for the mass of unconvinced white male workers, who enjoy general support from the ruling class in regard to “racial” privileges and patriarchal principles. It is a perspective that would require not only an absolutely unprecedented reduction of the sex ratio among European-Americans, but one in which “white” males are presumed to play a passive role. You don’t have to have the active adherence of all the European-American males to dismantle the “white race,” but you cannot rely on their being passive.

62. And, then, there is the little matter of the ruling class. They know as much as anybody about demographic changes and the possible bearing that those numbers have on social control. They can be expected to use all their power and influence, developed over centuries, to try to take measures to discourage proletarian class consciousness by, once again, reinforcing white supremacism through the divisiveness of “ethnic politics,” and by myriad “wedge” issues — abortion, religion in the public schools, pistol-carrying, etc. — hammered at constantly by their auxiliaries. However promising the phenotypic changes in the American population may appear, we cannot rely on demographics or any other naturally occurring factor, to fundamentally alter power relationships in this country. Whatever may be the remedy for feelings of despair noted by Dana Frank and the others, the requisite focus of effort needed for moving forward requires a strategy. That would be the proper way to recognize the value of David’s warning against “automatic” solutions to racial and sexual oppression, as not only evils in themselves, but as barriers to class consciousness of the American working class. What that strategy is to be is a matter for discussion in a hundred venues.

Drawing Lessons

63. As gratifying as the widening acceptance of the historico-relativist “social construct” theory may be, it is well to remember the fate of the first bold conceptual stroke designed to cut the Gordian knot of biology and “race” as a social formation. In the early 1930s the Communist party propounded the thesis of the Negro nation in the Black Belt. The “Negro question,” as it was termed, was given a rational historical basis for challenging the theory and practice of white supremacy. An absolutely essential key corollary of this theory was the assignment of particular responsibility to “white” radicals to combat white supremacist practices within the working class.

64. The Communists subsequently gained a wide degree of acceptance and indeed cooptation within the New Deal coalition, Roosevelt’s famous “troika,” — big city political machines, the labor movement, and the avowedly white-supremacists in the “Solid South.” The price paid, unfortunately, was the abandonment of the centrality of the struggle against white supremacism within the working class. Under this circumstance, the Black Belt nation theory was made to serve the very opposite of its originally declared intent, by making Black liberation contingent primarily upon the eventual victory of the racially privileged working-class “whites.”

65. However different the race-as-a-social-construct approach may be from the Black Belt Nation theory, the same basic gravitational field of white supremacism operates today as it did in the 1930s. Therefore, it is important for us to keep that history in mind, as we survey the current political and ideological scene, so that we may be alert to points at which that pervasive influence might start to reduce the pursuit of the abolition of the “white” identity to merely a study of “cultural differences,” in which “racial”identity” is regarded as a component of group heritage.

66. The thesis of “race-as-a-social-construct,” as it now stands, despite its value in objectifying “whiteness,” is an insufficient basis for refutation of white-supremacist apologetics, and for advancing “the abolition of whiteness.” The logic must be tightened and the focus sharpened. Just as it is unhelpful, to say the least, to euphemize racial slavery in continental Anglo-America as “the Peculiar Institution,” instead of identifying the “white race” itself as the truly peculiar institution governing the life of this country after Emancipation as it did in slavery times; just as it is not “race,” in general, that must be understood, but the “white race,” in particular; so the “white race” must be understood, not simply as a social construct (rather than a genetic phenomenon), but as a ruling-class social control formation.

67. It is not enough to reject the “natural racism” idea; it must be confronted by a self-standing completely opposite theory in full array, and driven from the field. For Marxists, of whatever vintage they may be, who espouse the “race-as-a-social-construct” thesis, this requires taking up — behaviorally and forensically — four basic challenges. First, to show that white supremacism is not an inherited attribute of the European-American personality. Secondly, to demonstrate that white-supremacism has not served the interests of the laboring-class European-Americans. Third: to account for the prevalence of white-supremacism within the ranks of laboring-class European-Americans. Fourth, by the light of history, to consider ways whereby European-American laboring people may cast off the stifling incubus of “white” identity.