Understanding Racism Today: an Interview with David Roediger

3-28-06, 1:00 pm

Editor’s Note: David Roediger teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the author of several books including, Working Toward Whiteness, Toward the Abolition of Whiteness and The Wages of Whiteness.

PA: In your new book, Working Toward Whiteness, you use the term “racialization” to describe the experiences of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Can you explain this?

DR: I think the big advantage we have now in scholarship on race in the last several decades is that we get to start from the fact that it’s a biological fiction. So a term like racialization is just meant to say that race is not biological and is made in society. It describes the processes in which race made, both by how groups of workers are slotted into jobs economically and are brought to nations under certain economic circumstances but also in the way that they’re treated in terms of citizenship rights by the state. Mainly those two processes determine how workers get put into a certain category. For my book, Eastern and Southern European immigrants were in an “in-between” position in both of those matters. They were slotted at the bottom of the economy, but not at the very bottom. By virtue of their whiteness in some contexts, they had civil rights and voting rights. But the state was constantly calling them into question through immigration restriction campaigns and saying, “You don’t really belong here. We can’t have a nation based on your citizenship, although we can have one based on your labor.” “Racialization” is that process through which the political economy and the state sort workers into different racial categories.

PA: Much of your work focuses on the working class’s role in the social construction of race. Why this emphasis rather than on the role of the ruling class in the creation and control of racist ideology, institutions, and practices, and does it risk sidestepping the responsibility of the ruling class?

DR: A lot of the new work, and certainly mine, matured in the Reagan years. Many of us on the Marxist left were anxious to try to figure out how it was that such a significant percentage of the white working class was voting for Reagan – the so-called Reagan Democrat. That gave, I think, a certain spin, a certain urgency to focus on the working-class population.

There is a sense in which my own work does not emphasize enough the fact that all of this activity by the working class took place within structures that were created by capital and in the early United States by slavery, settler colonialism and industrial capitalism together. My book Wages of Whiteness actually tries to emphasize those things and see the development of the white worker within those structures, but there’s no constant reminder that capitalism is implicated. I think it’s because so much of this work is done by Marxist scholars, going all the way back to Du Bois and James Baldwin, but up to Karen Brodkin, Noel Ignatiev, Alexander Saxton and above all Theodore Allen. Sometimes we assume that people know the ruling class’s responsibility for racism and for creating both the structures in which working-class racism matures and also for sometimes deliberately pitting groups in the working class against one another. My book Working Toward Whiteness tries to argue that much of US management in the early 20th century was not scientific management, but was simply – and people knew and talked about it – the pitting of racial groups against each other.

The criticism implied in the question is one I don’t reject. It grew out of a specific way that this literature has emerged, and I don’t think that it’s impossible to be concerned about both ruling class responsibility and the working class as the group that can actually change things. If it’s true that the ruling class structures racism and benefits from racism, we can’t look to the ruling class to change racism. At the end of the day, much of the emphasis has to be on studying the working class and race, but not in order to blame or to figure out which class is more culpable, but to figure out which class can move society and how.

PA: Usually we view the industrial unionism of the New Deal period as a spark for enormous social progress: expansion of democracy and the left-led fight for citizenship rights that were not linked to whiteness. In Working Toward Whiteness, you suggest a reexamination. Can you explain this?

DR: There are two dimensions. One is the unions themselves, the CIO unions that come out of the ferment of the 1930’s. Clearly, those were an advance for working people, Black and white, creating possibilities that just were unheard of before. African American organizations with few exceptions rushed to embrace that new sense of possibility. On the other hand, the logic of the CIO was very much to organize workers as they were and sometimes, in the more right-led unions, to organize as they were in terms of their racial attitudes as well. The term I use in Working Toward Whiteness is nonracial syndicalism, the idea, where race is concerned, that you organize people at work and that will break through toward Black, white and brown unity in the whole society. That couldn’t have been fully effective as an anti-racist strategy in the 1930’s because so few workplaces were integrated. So already the project accepted much of the structure of society. Even in integrated workplaces, so few departments were integrated that the CIO was bound to have lots of problems concerning skilled work being dominated by white workers. Even the left-led unions had a mixed record on this. You had Mine-Mill being so heroic in a city like Birmingham, Alabama and in various Latino struggles, but then in Montana in the copper industry not really having an answer for white workers’ hate strikes during World War II. The transit workers’ strike in Philadelphia is another excellent example where left-led unions had more progressive politics but didn’t really have a way to challenge this sense that what they were trying to do was organize the existing workers. But when the existing workers said that we don’t want Black workers, that was a hard question even for the left-led unions.

The other dimension to this question is the New Deal itself. It was very much an advance for specifically white workers and citizens in many ways. The Wagner Act, the labor relations law, rejected Black calls to make racism an unfair labor practice. The Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act rejected agricultural and domestic workers thereby defining almost all white workers into industrial citizenship and keeping almost all Black and Latino workers out of industrial citizenship. The homeowners loan policies of the New Deal invented redlining and ensured the huge differential in white and nonwhite wealth that comes from homeownership in the postwar period. The fact that the CIO’s advance was allied with these New Deal policies, that Ira Katznelson in When Affirmative Action was White has talked about, gives us reason to go back and look at the New Deal and see what was progressive about it and what wasn’t.

PA: How large of a role do you see anti-Communism linked to proponents of Jim Crow play in decimating working-class anti-racism and assisting the process of racialization you describe?

DR: As my previous answer suggested, I don’t think that without the Red Scare the CIO unions, even the left-led unions, could have automatically gone on to be the basis of the civil rights movement. I think there were lots of tough issues to be worked out within those unions. With that said, anti-Communism played an enormous role in turning back the possibilities of struggle against what we’re calling in this interview “racialization” in two ways at least. One, it removed a whole layer of the most internationalist Black leadership. Du Bois, Robeson, Alphaeus Hunton, and Claudia Jones – exactly the people who could have made the most meaningful links with anticolonial struggles and who could have helped us figure out how race functions in the whole world (Gerald Horne’s recent work is an important starting point on this) – were being removed from their jobs, mainstream organizations, were being denied the right to travel. All of those things mattered enormously. Some left-led unions were setting tremendous examples about united struggle: I am thinking of the longshore union in Hawai’i, Mine-Mill in Birmingham, Alabama, cannery workers, tobacco workers. There were some pockets, especially in unions where the membership was mostly people of color, of really progressive advanced organization that were also derailed or defeated by the Red Scare.

PA: Some critics of your field, the critical study of whiteness, view it as potentially discounting white working people, who because of white privilege cannot be won to antiracism. How do you respond?

DR: The impulse of the field is to try to center the white worker in some ways because we were thinking about the Reagan Democrat as a problem. I don’t think the study would have occurred as it did if there weren’t some kind of hope that white workers could move. So the question for me always is, under what circumstances have white workers moved? One of the answers to that question is that they have tended to move when they are in industries that are very integrated, like packing workers where Black workers had the social power of running the kill floor and there was no way to avoid united action if the union wanted to win. Mike Honey’s work on the left, race and workers in the South uses examples of unions which had enormous numbers of Black workers and some white workers. Those white workers moved in a way that’s different from unions that either managed to stay all white or to stay overwhelmingly white and helped to keep Blacks out of certain jobs in the plants.

The other dimension is that we need to be able to say that we want to realize the importance of the white worker without making it seem that to do so we have to put the accent on white. We have to be unwilling to give way before the racial backwardness of some white workers. I have an associate who uses the term the “whited workers” to remind us that people aren’t actually white and to remind us about the process of racialization. But the term also helps us to see that for white workers, part of the problem is that they have been racialized as whited workers and therefore accept a lot of misery in society in order to get rather meager benefits. I think we need to not think of the worker and the white workers as the same thing, and then other segments of the working class as peripheral. Increasingly those segments won’t be peripheral; in fact, they never were. White workers will be moving in a context that gives them a lot of freedom to move because they will be in workplaces that will be mostly Black and Latino in a lot of cases. So we need to be careful about how we discuss the white worker and not automatically think of the white worker as the center of everything.

PA: Don’t white workers have more of an interest in rejecting racist ideologies and practices than they do in, as you say, being “whited”?

DR: I believe that they do, but I don’t think that we can always measure that in terms of the opportunity of getting a home loan or the opportunity of making an extra 25 cents an hour or the opportunity of retaining skilled work rather than democratizing skilled work. Part of the reason that white workers lose in a racist society is that to preserve white privilege means that you have to give up on the idea of living in a good society. So you can get mired in smaller issues and lose the freedom dream, lose the eyes on the prize by being so wedded to what are at the end of the day relatively small privileges.

PA: How do you compare the situation of the “new immigrants” you describe in your book to the experiences of immigrant communities of today?

DR: One thing that interested in me in writing the book was as I read things from the 1890’s, conservative experts kept predicting that the US was about to lose its racial character. They would give dates and say the nation won’t have its allegedly excellent racial base by 1940. They’d look at figures and predict this. It was exactly the same kind of argument that we hear about the US becoming a non-white nation in 2040 or 2050 in current articles. The difference was that the “racial threat” in the 1890’s and early 1900’s was Poles, Greeks, Eastern European Jews and Italians. So one of the questions people are beginning to ask is will new groups get classified as white. I don’t think that’s the most important question. There are white supremacist societies with a white minority. That’s what the colonial world is all about. I don’t think whiteness needs a majority, and I don’t think we’ll necessarily see say Cubans, for example, classified as white in order to cobble together a white majority.

But I do think the important question is how can we build a set of political demands that challenge white supremacy for broad groups of people and makes it less than appealing to new immigrant groups to think of themselves as white and to identify their interests with whiteness. In other words, how do we build broad bold coalitions that encourage people to know that their biggest interests, their biggest dreams are not going to be tied to something as meager as thinking of themselves as white.

PA: One of your critics, writing in The Nation, accuses you of lacking a balanced approach, of describing new immigrants in the early 20th century as passive receptacles of racial ideology. How do respond?

DR: I am glad you asked that question. It goes to the earlier question about the ruling class and the working class. I do think this book is anxious to establish the structures and the roles of the state and the political economy in the process of racialization for Eastern and Southern Europeans. So there is now a situation where my work is being criticized for being both too much about the decisions that the working class made and blaming them too much for racism and then, in this Nation review that you are talking about, for overemphasizing structures and the absence of agency and activity on the part of working people. Usually when that happens, authors say, “Well, I must be right. I am getting criticized from both sides. The truth must be somewhere in the middle.” I wouldn’t want to say that. I would want to say that both ends of the process need to be emphasized. James Baldwin, the greatest writer on whiteness ever in the US, said that becoming white for immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe was, as he put it, “absolutely a moral choice.” Then immediately after that he said it was a choice “made under a vast amount of coercion.” So he also, at the same moment, wanted to emphasize the role of the state and the role of what he called the “whiteness factory,” the political economy. He wanted to not choose between those poles, but to say that both of them are important things to discuss. In a sense I don’t mind getting criticized from both sides because I am really trying to do two things at once.

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