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The Wages of Whiteness (Revised Edition) by David R. Roediger

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book last week, though! 

The Wages of Whiteness is a book that’s been on my shelf since I read John Strausbaugh’s Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture back in Bucheon, years ago when I was preparing to teach a course in American Popular Culture. That was a book that yielded up a few fascinating-sounding references: I read Nick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather pretty soon after (and discussed it here), while Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness sat on my shelf waiting for attention.

Part of it was a feeling that I understood the broad shape of the narrative the book offered: Strausbaugh summed it up pretty nearly, after all. Poor whites living in the antebellum era in the United States, desperate to be higher on the social ladder than someone (anyone) else, went through a process of inventing “white” identity, the better to distinguish themselves from (free) Blacks (and then throw the Black folks under the bus). Not that everything was hunky dory between the two groups before that—but the fact they were mutually exploited by the same rich people, and could have joined together, was sidelined by the white desire not to be on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder: inventing whiteness gave them an obvious target to point at (and throw under the bus), and thus some claim to at least not be right down on the bottle rung of the ladder. 

This is… a somewhat accurate summary of Roediger’s book. However, that summary misses quite a lot of the nuance and detail that Roediger’s text manages. For one thing, Roediger’s sense of what “inventing whiteness” means doesn’t deny that some idea of whiteness goes much farther back. This is “invented” in a sense similar to Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition: the creation of something new stuffed into the skin of an existing idea and then given an air of longstanding formality and officiality. Roediger goes really deep into the social context by which this process occurred with the concept of whiteness in America. A lot of this identity-reconstruction business actually began earlier than I realized, in the antebellum era—I had the impression that it was after the Civil War that a lot of this happened, but the shift started much earlier. 

I was also startled by how much of the language invented during this weird “reformulation of whiteness” lives on today: “wage slave” and “white slavery” and “hired hand” and live on, with sometimes different meanings than those they had when they rose to prominence in the antebellum era. The discussion of how white workers—especially female ones—preferred to be called “hands,” or “hired hands,” for example, shone a pretty bright light on the role anxiety played in the formulation of this “white” identity. To their minds, “hand” or “hired hand” was preferable to “servant,” to say nothing of the insulting term “hireling” that was used for mercenaries—that is, people who could be had for money and nothing else. 

Since he is a Marxist, Roediger’s discussion makes clear that all of this identity-manufacturing was a product of class and economic anxiety. Poorer whites had a lot more in common with the free Blacks around them than they wanted to admit, and that the choice to identify themselves collectively and oppositionally to Black people who—despite a very different social experience—were absolutely being exploited by the same richer white people, within the same brutal capitalist system. Terms like “slavery” were actually accurate for some of the kinds of employment experienced by some whites: as I know from other books, apprenticeship was brutal and masters were literally called masters for a reason, for example: some apprentices were subject to violence at the hands of their masters, stuck in positions that were very difficult to leave, and given subsistence and no wages for years. Apprenticeship wasn’t the same as slavery, obviously—apprentice status was neither permanent nor hereditary, and apprentices were not subject to all of the brutal excesses that Black slaves faced—but comparisons abounded and the similarities were close enough that white laborers were very anxious to avoid them… the comparisons, even if they couldn’t avoid the abuses. 

By the end of the Civil War, though, laborers might still live in miserable conditions, but insisting they at least were not slaves meant little, since (officially) there were no longer any slaves in America. Uneasily, but unsurprisingly, rhetoric shifted from “We’re not slaves,” to “We’re not Black” (or more bigoted expressions of the same). Tracing the linguistic shifts from the 1830s to the 1860s, that’s a pretty unmistakeable pattern. WASPs might have readily compared Irish and German immigrants to animals, but the Germans and especially the Irish had, at least, the Blacks to point to as being “lower” than themselves… because they’d helped push them down the ladder. Again, it’s not like they weren’t acting on bigotry that didn’t exist, but Germans and Irish didn’t anywhere near so naturally feel as if they shared a meaningful “racial” category with one another the way they clearly do today in the US, Canada, and elsewhere. 

Roediger’s account also addresses the haphazard development of formalized linguistic racism, and how weird that process is. As a kid, I wondered whether there was any connection between Davy Crocket’s “coonskin cap” and the racist slur “coon.” It turns out there is a link: the term originally implied rusticated white folks (and con men), not Black people, and it took decades for it to shift to connoting Blackness, with a long period where its racial denotation was vague and ambiguous. By 1848 there’s a record of it being used unmistakeably as a racial slur, but just a decade earlier, the term was used by Democrats to mock and insult the Whig party for its attempt to appeal to rural white voters. That pattern of taking things that were descriptive of poorer whites and projecting them as slurs onto Blacks… well, it comes up a lot. Almost any strongly negative stereotype about Blacks tht is familiar to us today, was also a stereotype about Catholic Irish immigrants (and others) in the mid-19th century.  

In all of this I’m struck by the role of language in identity, identification, and in disinformation—a word we tend not to see used in a historical context like the antebellum US, but I think it’s fitting. Roediger’s contention is that despite the distinct aspects of their conditions, African slaves and their enslaved descendants are crucial to the history of labor and labor struggle under capitalism in America: that the fight against capitalist exploitation should include the struggle of slaves for freedom. I think it’s hard not to see, here in 2022, that he has a point: look at the bottom lines of the world’s richest companies throughout the pandemic and tell me you cannot see their insatiability for profit eventually engendering a willingness to enslave workers, laws permitting. They don’t, but mainly that’s just because there are laws forbidding it, or that’s my sense. (If they had any moral qualities at all, they would refrain from countless other horrifically destructive things that we know they aren’t refraining from.) Capitalism runs on machines built for exploitation, period, so slavery is something they inevitably tend toward, since it ultimately just the most extreme form of exploitation imaginable.

Going back to disinformation, this absolutely blossomed in the media of the day—minstrel shows and newspapers—and then spread through the populace. Every strident proclamation by the 19th century Democrats (the conservatives of that era) smacks of modern Republican disinformation: it’s easy to imagine Sean Hannity spouting some of the stupid things that white commentators darkly warned about. Ultimately, I think Roediger’s view is helpful because it brings the question of capitalism into the discussion: all workers are exploited; how did the reinvention and reconstruction of “whiteness” serve those interests at the top of the capitalist system? How did it further divide those at the bottom, leaving them vulnerable and unable to achieve solidarity? Language and stereotype—the languages and stereotypes that white workers used to define themselves under exploitative conditions, and the language and stereotypes they used to distinguish themselves from slaves and slaves’ descendants—was crucial, and race was taken up as the focus when other terms such as freeman vs. slave, or “hired hand” vs. slave no longer remained so meaningful or potent an anodyne for the misery of that exploitation. As always, too many people fell for the disinformation because it was easier than admitting the distressing, ugly truth and doing something about it… but also because their inherited biases and blind spots tended to make believing bullshit the most comfortable and easiest route.    

One more thing about the book struck me, particularly in this passage discussing the author’s early perplexity at how so many white people reach the conclusion that their own whiteness is “meaningful”:  

My question at age eighteen was why friends wanted to be white and why I didn’t. In the two decades since, the Marxist tradition has furished most of the intellectual tools I use, but in the main, it has not led me to press for answers to the question of why the white working class settles for being white. In my view, no answer to the ‘white problem’ can ignore the explanatory power of historical materialism, but neither does Marxism, as presently theorized, consistently help us focus on the central issue of why so many white workers define themselves as white.

Reading this was a stunning moment of recognition for me, especially in 2022. I, too, have always been perplexed by the eagerness of so many white people to “be” white—to pretend that their whiteness is actually meaningful in some essential or fundamental way beyond the stupid mythologies of white glorification we all grew up with, and to embrace a “white” identity that has always felt rather flimsy and hollow to me. 

In his afterword, Roediger mentions Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray’s response (in White Trash) to this passage, and I found it online: she and her coauthor suggest that Roediger here is expresses a desire to be “nonwhite,” but that strikes me as a willful misreading: if he’s anything like me, he understood clearly that the fact he’s of European descent is an immutable fact. What he’s longing for is a world where people were less susceptible to the kind of cultural brainwashing that has convinced so many of us that racial traits matter and are meaningful, given how little they say compared to so many other factors—our thinking, our actions, our ethics and behavior, what we make in the world, how we treat one another, and how we can work together to solve problems that affect us all. We are born to our race: what does it even mean to take pride in something you had no role in creating or determining whatsoever? 

I understand the role of privilege; I understand the ways that finding “pride” in one’s race might help counteract a lifelong experience of marginalization, oppression, or denigration—how it can be rehabilitative for people to be urged to take pride in their gender, sexuality, their struggle with disabilities, or their race. I support that, but to me it always seems depressing that such reclamation and rectification would remain necessary after so many millennia of human history. It reminds me of that line from Iain M. Banks about how money is a sign of poverty: nobody would bother to take pride in their race if they had not been abused or belittled for it, or—I suppose, when it comes to white nationalists—if they were not neurotically anxious about it.

Roediger expresses here what in the jacket text to a later book gets characterized as “dissent from white identity,” an argument in which he points out that the idea of (and privileging of) whiteness has immiserated and harmed many white people, along with all the nonwhite people it has harmed. (This argument is interesting in the same way the argument that patriarchy harms and immiserates countless men along with all the other people it harms and immiserates. Both arguments make sense to me fundamentally.) Clearly that’s a a far more nuanced idea than merely “desiring to be nonwhite.” 

That said, while I’m speaking of dissent from a role imposed from without, there’s one thing I found lacking in The Wages of Whiteness: a clear sense of how Black Americans responded to the formulation of whiteness as oppositional or “other” to Blackness. Working class whites (and the media that brainwashed them) obviously had the upper hand in terms of promulgating these identitarian creations through society, but I would be shocked if there weren’t a creative resistance among some free Blacks in terms of allowing the lines to fall where they ultimately did. (One thinks of Frederick Douglass refusing to speak in an illiterate manner following stereotypes of Black slaves, for example, and wonders how much farther others took this resistance, especially during the period Roediger discusses. It hasn’t come up much in the slave narratives I’ve read, at least, though you get hints of it here and there.)

Wherever those narratives are, I think they would make for fascinating reading. I guess Roediger would counsel me to go to W.E.B. Du Bois and other writers of his era, when Blacks in America had a little more freedom to se down their ideas about such things… and I should, certainly. But I’d really love a book that collected and analyzed this “formulation of American Blackness” process as a kind of counterpoint to Roediger’s narrative of the formulation of American whiteness. Perhaps by now such a book exists. If you know if it, feel free to let me know. 

As for a last snippet—and it’s a firehose: I found an interesting thread on Twitter that was posted in response to that whole “Irish slaves” meme that did the rounds during the 2016 election. It draws on Du Bois (and many other historical sources) to call into question some of what a reader might take from Roediger’s text (especially relating to Irish immigrants to America), or at least presents a fuller picture of the range of attitudes that existed, both in Ireland and in America… well, and in the Caribbean. You can read it here.   

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