Blackness has been an object of study for white people for a long time, an essential part of the project of constructing others, of naming, defining, marginalizing. The study of whiteness, however, has less of a history. There is a long tradition of blacks recognizing that race is not a ‘negro problem’ but a problem among whites. Yet it is only relatively recently that white people have begun to address explicitly the historical specificity of their own ‘racial’ and ethnic identities, to explore the ways in which whiteness has been constructed as a vital element in power relations, to specify the gendered nature of that whiteness and the inadequacy of a homogeneous notion of white.

David Roediger’s new book The Wages of Whiteness is a welcome addition to that project.footnote1 In it he describes the experience of growing up in an all-white town in the us where ‘race’ was never absent. Racism was a part of everyday life and went with an assumption of white superiority. Roediger’s work is rooted in a critical Marxism, critical particularly in its awareness of the ways in which ‘the main body of writing by white Marxists in the United States has both “naturalized” whiteness and oversimplified race’ (p. 6). His greatest intellectual debt is to W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois’ understanding of the dialectics of race and class has informed his own critical rethinking of Marxism and labour history. In particular, his perception that white workers, even when they ‘received a low wage . . . [were] compensated in part by a . . . public and psychological wage. They were given public deference . . . because they were white’ lies at the heart of his book. Du Bois reflected on the tragedy, (and Roediger aims to emulate that tone rather than being angry or judgemental), of the ways in which the white working class came to think of itself and its interests as white, to refuse a notion of class which was inclusive of blacks—and, he might have added, women.

The Wages of Whiteness argues that ‘the pleasures of whiteness could function as a “wage” for white workers’, and that ‘whiteness was a way in which white workers responded to a fear of dependency on wage labor and the necessities of capitalist work discipline’ (p. 13). Roediger sets out to demonstrate that in the sixty years before the Civil War ‘working class formation and the systematic development of a sense of whiteness went hand in hand for the US white working class’, that race and class have to be understood dialectically rather than privileging race over class or class over race. His narrative begins with the ‘prehistory’ of the white worker, the period up to 1800 when ideas about whiteness were not specifically linked to the category ‘worker’. It was only in the wake of the Revolution, he argues, that a republican ideology, focused on a new sense of being active participants in the creation of a new social and political world, opened the way for republican racism. Black oppression began to be seen as the result of slavishness rather than slavery, hatred of slavery became contempt for slaves, an increasing gulf between black slavery and white freedom meant that blacks were stigmatized as the antithesis of republican citizens.

The language of white republicanism, as formulated by male workers in the nineteenth century, was a radical language which argued against the inequalities of capitalism. But the language of class that those men developed was making sense of a slave-holding republic in which more than 86 per cent of African Americans were slaves. White workers measured themselves against both the republican dream of the independent small producer and the nightmare of slavery. ‘Freeman’ with its refusal of paternalism, of any association with servant status, came to be the favoured word for the male labourer. The white adult male was a free man—in opposition to the black unfree slave. The American revolutionary dream of a radical politics that would free men both from the shackles of colonialism and the shackles of slavery died. The emergence of a language of ‘white slavery’ and ‘wage slavery’ in the 1830s and 1840s did not signify a solidarity with slaves, Roediger argues, but rather a call for the end of white oppression. It went together with race riots, racially exclusive trade unions, and popular campaigns against the civil rights of free blacks. This did not preclude significant white-working-class support for abolitionism—but that was predicated on whites helping blacks, organizing on their behalf. In Britain, as David Brion Davis has suggested, the attack on slavery in this period powerfully legitimated its antithesis, ‘free’ labour, and its critique of radicalism. In the us, Roediger argues, the coexistence of slavery with antislavery delayed the development of a telling critique of wage labour. Only after emancipation could a more straightforward analysis of the wage relation develop, but by then ‘the importance of a sense of whiteness to the white US worker was a long-established fact’ (p. 87).

In From Sundown to Sunup George Rawick argues that blackness and whiteness were created together in the colonizing years, that blackness came to symbolize all that frugal and accumulating capitalists had given up, that white men cast black men as their unreconstructed selves.footnote2 Roediger takes this argument into the nineteenth century. He suggests that another aspect of the making of the American working class so carefully chronicled by the American labour historians in the last thirty years, was the emergence of a popular sense of whiteness, rooted in part in the notion that blackness embodied the old preindustrial world, which held together a very diverse white working class. This whiteness was lived culturally. Drawing on the work of cultural historians such as George Lipsitz, Roediger sees minstrelsy as occupying a key role in articulating a popular culture which played on the difference between black and white. The minstrels created a new sense of whiteness by creating a new sense of blackness. In the minstrel show the ‘negro’ presented white society with a representation of its natural self which was at odds with the normative self of industrial culture. This ‘natural self’ was both displayed and rejected, just as the blackness was taken on and off.footnote3 ‘Minstrelsy’, Roediger argues,

made a contribution to a sense of popular whiteness among workers across lines of ethnicity, religion and skill. It achieved a common symbolic language—a unity—that could not be realized by racist crowds, by political parties or by labor unions. Blackface whiteness meant respectable rowdiness and safe rebellion. It powerfully addressed the broadest tensions generated by the creation of the first American working class. By and large, it did so by racializing conflict more than by directly articulating class grievances. (p. 127)

The creation of a sense of popular whiteness across ethnic divisions was a complex process in mid-nineteenth-century America. Roediger takes the case of the Irish, a castigated and racialized group, by no means clear that they could claim ‘proper’ whiteness, to examine some of these complexities, to see how male whiteness was constructed as a politically homogeneous identity. Frederick Douglas asked how it was that a people so oppressed themselves racially could be so racist. The Irish were renowned for their hatred of blacks, their determination to drive out black competition, their fears of becoming like slaves. Crucial to Irish success in defining themselves as white were the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party, the two major institutions that supported those who arrived as victims of the famine. Both treated them as white and the Democratic Party offered inclusive citizenship to all white American males. The emergence of an organized Irish vote together with other forms of political influence was vital to Irish survival, to their definition as white.