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The Rediscovery of Working-Class Americans (April 2021): The Colors of the Working-Class: Race, Racism, and Whiteness Studies

By David Cullen

The Colors of the Working-Class: Race, Racism, and Whiteness Studies

Three books appeared in the 1990s that provided an analytical bridge linking the second and third generations of labor historians: David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, Noel Ignatiev’s, How The Irish Became White, and Neil Foley’s The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture. These three works were catalysts for the field now known as whiteness studies. The concept of white privilege was not new; all three historians acknowledge the work of W. E. B. Du Bois and his 1935 monograph on Reconstruction (Black Reconstruction in America), as well as the argument put forth by Theodore Allen in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement calling for white Americans to recognize and repudiate their white privilege. Rather, Roediger, Ignatiev, and Foley focused their attention on how racial identity overruled class experience as the key to understanding the motivations of workers and the failure, in their eyes, for the lack of biracial cooperation needed to sustain a successful union movement. Influenced by their works, several other historians published volumes examining the impact of whiteness on working-class issues in the first decade of the new century. 

Michelle Brattain’s The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South concluded that in the South race defined the class interests of workers, but not class consciousness overall. In her 2004 book, The Whiteness of Child Labor Reform in the New South, Shelley Sallee found that to improve conditions for child workers, progressive reformers emphasized the need to provide educational opportunities for white children, which would counter northern philanthropists attempt to do the same for African American children. The following year Roediger broadened his research with Working toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. Recognizing that between the 1840s and the 1940s most immigrants to the US emigrated from Europe, Harvard historian Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People is a timely overview of the history of whiteness from the earliest European societies. Painter reinforces the argument of Roediger and others that whiteness is not a biological but a social construction, and that studies of labor, gender, and class must acknowledge the impact of that fact. 

The field of whiteness studies did not go unchallenged, however. Some historians, like Eric Arnesen in his essay “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination,” felt that Roediger’s work was more a political response to the election of Ronald Reagan and the Republican electoral victories of the 1990s. Many historians who self-identified as liberals or Leftists sought to understand why workers voted against their economic interests, allowing ideology to drive their methodology. Barbara Fields and others felt that the suggestion that workers’ skin color decided their politics ignored the obvious—those who are exploited sometimes adopt the values of those who exploit them in order to gain economic security and an opportunity to enhance their status, as she elaborates in her essay “Whiteness, Racism, and Identity.” These critics also noted the failure to examine the influence of religion, region, and community on the working poor. They further argued that, since exploitation for any reason is still exploitation, class remains the deciding factor in shaping workers’ experience. However, any discussion of race and labor should begin with two books that emphasize the impact of the Civil War era on labor activism: Robert H. Zieger’s For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865 and Mark Lause’s Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class.