Race and the Working Class: An interview with David Roediger

February 1, 2012

Dave Roediger is a labor historian who, over the past 20 years and with other scholars, has plowed new ground in an area of social and historical inquiry that is sometimes called race studies or "whiteness" studies. Roediger's roots are in a small German-American working class community in Southern Illinois. His work examines how race came to a dominant category through which people define themselves and others, the ways in European-American workers came to identify themselves primarily as "white", and how this has hindered the development of the working class movement in the U.S.

Roediger teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This year he's on a fellowship at the University of South Carolina.

We began the interview by talking about the great African American leader and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, whose work has been a major influence on Roediger, and in particular Du Bois' major historical work, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, published in 1935.

I gave a talk here yesterday, and I made a point of carrying a copy of Black Reconstruction with me, and even though I had memorized the passage I was going to read, I took it out and read from it, and said it's important to have this book around.

That's one of the things that was a point of entry for me. I started by studying slavery and race and Reconstruction years and years ago, and one of the things that impressed me was that the emancipation of slaves also gave birth to the labor movement, to the movement for an eight-hour working day, and what Du Bois calls the general strike of the slaves actually ended up getting whole other groups of people to think about what freedom would mean for them. For women it meant women's suffrage, and we get this huge spike in organization of women's suffrage. But for workers – white workers mostly in the North – their jubilee, their freedom was going to be centered around an eight-hour working day, which was unheard of.  People were working 10, 11, 13, 15 hours a day.

But seeing that the impossible had happened, with slaves managing to emancipate themselves, you got this crest of national activity of labor. And it really called into being the modern labor movement. It took a decade or two to coalesce.

People sometimes think Black History Month is just about black history. But one of the things that my work tries to do is insist that, if you get at black history, you get at the whole history of the working class. This emancipationist impulse couldn't just be confined to the freed people, it very quickly inspired white workers also.

Question: Can you talk about how the development of the idea of race, and racism, has set back the working class in the United States?

It's first of all important to realize that race is not natural. Du Bois, writing around World War I, said that race is a recent thing in the history of the world, it's not more than 250 years old. And so if you go back you'd get to the late 1600s, and that's pretty much when historians think that a turn to a kind of hard anti-black racism, and to a mass use of a slave labor force, happened. And it happened in part because black and white workers were at that time uniting to revolt – particular in Virginia around the time of Bacon's Rebellion. It's true that sometimes they were uniting against Indians, but they were a threat to the rulers of Virginia. And the response to that threat was the first concerted effort to create a racial division, by law. It involved importing massive numbers of Africans as workers and then passing laws to separate the crimes and punishments and control mechanisms for black and white poor people.

That difference, created by rulers, has persisted and ramified. And it particularly did so in a harmful way to the labor movement because for most of U.S. history, free workers and slaves existed alongside each other. The United States is really the only country in the history of the world to take off to industrialization at the same time that millions of people were still enslaved. So the birth of the white working class was accompanied by black slavery. And one temptation was always to say, 'Well, we're not slaves.' Sometimes that meant, we ought to be in solidarity with slaves, and sometimes it meant we ought to be militant. But too often it meant, 'We're better than slaves, we're better than Africans, and we have a reason to be somewhat satisfied, even though poor, because we're not reduced to this position of slavery.'

So I think that there's a long, long, hard-wired connection between what I call the 'whiteness' of the white worker and the sometimes conservatism of the white worker.

Q: And did some of that take the form of unionism by subtraction, unionism that excludes people who are looked down upon? You've written about how, for a while, that exclusion was directed against European new immigrants, too. But especially when you define yourself as 'not black' and say that therefore, as a carpenter for example, you deserve respect and decent wages.

Right, and in a sense, that puts you in alliance with the boss. To say 'I'm a white worker' is to say 'I have something in common with the employer, who in most of U.S. history were all white, so the demand becomes, 'Treat me with respect as a man, as a white man, as a person with skill,' but there's the underside that says, 'and someone who's not part of this degraded Chinese or African American or Mexican, or Eastern and Southern European immigrant population.' So it becomes a form of cooperation with the boss around the idea of race.

Q: So do you think that's at the root of the general conservativism of the American labor movement?

When the project of trying to figure out the history of whiteness in the U.S. renewed itself in the 1990s, that's what a lot of us were trying to do. We were people who had been active in the labor movement in various ways and we were trying to figure out, in effect, why did half of white workers vote for Reagan.  Why would people vote against their own interest as unionists, in some cases, and as workers? So we got after trying to understand this term 'white worker.'

I don't think that explains everything about why U.S. workers are often conservative. But I think in many ways we see how it's possible for people to make these appeals to conservatism based on race, and at least some resonance happens with some white workers. Living in South Carolina now, it was in the primary here that Gingrich made this comment about Obama being 'the food stamp president.' And it kind of worked, in that particular primary. I'm not saying that the people who voted for him were mostly workers, but some were. And it's a very insidious and subtle appeal and it's amazing that it can work at a time when those of us who are white workers all have family members who are on food stamps and we all know that it's not a matter of a work ethic that keeps people massively unemployed in this economy.

On some level we all have that direct experience, but it's still possible for a Gingrich to worm his way in there and say, 'No, this is about race, and really welfare and the safety net are something that's for black people.' So it's been a very powerful and long-standing appeal.

But it's gotten harder to make that connection, and in the long run it's not going to work. Direct experience does matter. The white poor have always been tempted to say, 'Well the only property, the only advantage I really have is from being white.' But the material condition of being very miserable, and now for a long time without significant growth, and with real attacks on, particularly, union jobs – I think it does become harder to make those, what people down here call 'dog whistles' that Gingrich was attempting.

Q: And we've had forty some years of change coming from the civil rights movement.

I think that's the important point to realize – that things have changed and we struggle from a different position. But at the same time, disparities in wealth in the United States between for example, blacks and whites, are greater than they've been in a long time – greater than they were at the end of Jim Crow. So we have to be able to both see that things have changed and see that there's a lot of work to still be done.

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