Posted on November 27, 2019

The Wages of Roediger: Why Three Decades of Whiteness Studies Has Not Produced the Left We Need

Cedric Johnson, Non Site, September 9, 2019

Editor’s Note: Below is merely the introduction to a lengthy essay critiquing, in short, “white privilege theory” and its cousins from a Marxist point of view. Though dense and decidedly Leftist, it still makes for an interesting read, and is another example of the curious “anti-anti-white Left” I first started taking note of 2016.

The popular claim that Trump’s election signified resurgent white supremacy is not only wrong — it’s dangerous. It grants more power to the fascist right than it deserves. Different voters and constituencies supported Trump for different reasons, not all of them rational. His “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan worked in multiple registers. On one level, his rhetoric gave comfort to nativist fears of undocumented immigration, terrorism and outsourcing of U.S. jobs, and stoked the racist anxieties of some whites, fearful of the well-publicized demographic “browning” of America. On another and perhaps deeper level, Trump’s rhetoric, like that of Reagan’s “Morning in America” a generation earlier, promised a return to the affluent society of the Post World War II era. In this regard, Trump’s campaign was iconoclastic, promising to staunch the bleeding of job loss and capital flight produced by bi-partisan international free trade agreements. His “put America first” protectionist sentiment had a visceral appeal among some voters, but such rhetoric oversimplified the relations between international trade and domestic job growth, and while singling out specific firms as scapegoats, he absolved the investor class as a whole as responsible for decisions about production technology and restructuring that have downsized American manufacturing.

The economic appeal of the Trump campaign, and his success in parts of the Midwestern industrial heartland has provoked a rash of explanations and invective centered on the “white working class.” But the “angry white worker” line misses too much. Trump did not grow the GOP base substantially, though he outperformed McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 by over 2 million votes. More importantly, Trump did not secure a larger share of the white vote than Romney did. Trump performed well among blue collar voters, former Obama voters, wealthy whites, non-unionized workers in coal country, the steel-producing belt and Right to Work states, building trades and contractors, proto-entrepreneurs, and minorities. One-third of Latino voters supported Trump, as did 13% of African American men.

The answer to why Trump was elected lies in the ideological crisis of the Democratic party, and more specifically in the implosion of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, both problems having their root in the New Democrats’ neoliberal political agenda and pro-corporate strategic and governing priorities. To the extent that party insider Donna Brazile’s new memoir corroborates other accounts, the New Democratic leadership of the party worked to sabotage the challenge mounted by democratic socialist candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, especially after his New Hampshire primary victory. The antipathy towards white workers found its most forceful expressions early in the 2016 election, most often in the statements of party operatives and the liberal commentariat, who attempted to derail Sanders’ bid for the Democratic presidential nomination by portraying him as the candidate of white working-class men, and a relic of the old-style New Deal liberalism. Even after Hillary Clinton’s embarrassing defeat, many clung to this logic that rustbelt voters didn’t matter, the working class was dead, and the future of the party lay with African Americans, Latinos and women, as if those groups do not comprise the working class. MSNBC personality Joy Reid summed up the New Democrat’s anti-worker electoral calculus, “Because Democrats, although they understand, I think, deep down that they are the party of black and brown people, of gay people, of marginalized people . . . they still long to be the party of the. . . Pabst Blue Ribbon voter. . . the Coors Lite-drinking voter.” Reid doubled-down on the New Democratic shtick that first gestated in the wake of the unsuccessful presidential challenges of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, when the Democratic Leadership Council was formed and committed to an electoral strategy predicated on making symbolic overtures to the constituencies that once made up the New Deal coalition, while adopting a neoliberal agenda. That agenda, despite the pretense and optics of social liberalism, has been ongoing throughout the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and the campaign platforms of numerous candidates before and after them, typically hostile towards working-class interests in practice. “The problem with this line is not just that it’s gross and elitist — it’s that it’s not even true,” as Connor Kilpatrick noted in the throes of the 2016 primary season, “The working class is bigger than ever, is still really white, and is broadly supportive of a progressive populist agenda.” The “white working class” is a powerful political myth, one that services the corporate-centered agenda of Democratic elites, but its origins lie in academic left attempts to make sense of the historical difficulty of achieving socialism on U.S. soil. Born out of noble intentions, it is a dangerous myth nonetheless, one that distorts our sense of history and politics and how we might build social forces capable of contesting the power and interests of capital in our times.

Given the timing of its publication, David Roediger’s latest book, Class, Race and Marxism (Verso, 2017) is addressed to this new terrain of Trumplandia, and the book’s introduction takes up the debates within the American Left that reached fever pitch during the 2016 election cycle. The book, however, is not a collection of new essays, but rather a compendium of Roediger’s writings over the last ten years. As such, it is an attempt to reassert his position on how we should think about questions of race and class in American life and history, and what role Marxism might play in that process. This essay examines Roediger’s latest book, but also takes stock of the interpretative assumptions of some three decades of whiteness studies in academe, and its consequences for left thought and action. Throughout what follows, I offer alternative historical analysis and case-study illustrations to demonstrate the limits of whiteness discourse, and how we might approach questions of class power and interests instead.

Whiteness studies as an academic field of inquiry was born in the waning years of the Reagan-Bush era, and its creators’ motives were earnest and well intentioned. They were preoccupied with how to reverse the trend of neoconservativism and revitalize the American Left. The New Right was built in American suburbia, the southern states, and the shuttered manufacturing towns stretching from the eastern seaboard across the Midwest, and at the heart of the New Right’s campaign playbook and governing agenda was the assault on the egalitarian reforms of the civil rights and second wave feminism, such as affirmative action and reproductive rights, as well as those targeted programs of the welfare state, e.g. AFDC, public housing, which were portrayed as giveaways to the undeserving black and brown poor. The problem, many would argue, lay in whiteness, as a category of material advantage and political affinity, or put another way, the New Right had emerged through conspicuous appeals to whites as a group and against urban blacks and Latinos, who were portrayed through underclass narratives as an inferior caste, lacking a work ethic and delayed gratification, immoral, prone to criminality and self-sabotage, and in the most racist articulations, biologically inferior, lacking the intellectual and social capacity that might enable assimilation as citizens.

Whiteness studies had important precursors. In 1987 black political scientist Ronald W. Walters published a pamphlet titled, “White Racial Nationalism in the United States” as part of the Without Prejudice series of the United Nations’ International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Seeing a clear connection between Reagan’s conservative policies and the rising violence perpetrated by white supremacist organizations and vigilantes, Walters concluded that “the current wave of American nationalism is chauvinistic not only because it is American, but also because it is white.” In 1989 feminist educator Peggy McIntosh’s published “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” an abridged version of an article she penned a year prior. But it was Roediger’s 1991 book, The Wages of Whiteness, that quickly gained influence within academia and beyond, establishing the new beachhead of anti-racist thinking and activism. More than any other single figure, Roediger has helped to advance the study of whiteness as a central problem in American history and politics, having published and edited numerous books on the subject, including his Toward the Abolition of Whiteness (1994), Working Towards Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (2005) and How Race Survived U.S. History (2010).

In the three decades since Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, dozens of books have explored the historical process of white identity formation, such as Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995), Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1996), George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (1998), Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (1998), Grace Elizabeth Hale’s Making Whiteness (1998), dozens of scholarly and popular articles, as well as the independent left journal Race Traitor. A one-man brand, Tim Wise has become a routine fixture on the college lecture circuit, national news and radio programs, and authored numerous best-selling books including, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (2008) and Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority (2012). McIntosh and Wise represent a more therapeutic, consciousness-raising approach to whiteness that has spawned a cottage industry of professional trainings, national conferences, study guides, manuals, and curricula targeting white audiences and intended to spark dialogue, personal reevaluation and behavioral modification, all in the hopes of reducing racism in its various manifestations, i.e. micro-aggressions, institutional racism, and white privilege. Such projects include the United Church of Christ’s White Privilege: Let’s Talk — A Resource for Transformational Dialogue, the film, Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, produced by World Trust Educational Services, and the Whiteness Project, an on-line interactive platform built around interviews, among scores of similar initiatives.

As historian Eric Arnesen pointed out in a critical overview of the whiteness studies literature, “Whiteness is, variously, a metaphor for power, a proxy for racially distributed material benefits, a synonym for ‘white supremacy,’ an epistemological stance defined by power, a position of invisibility or ignorance, and a set of beliefs about racial ‘others’ and one-self that can be rejected through ’treason’ to a racial category.” The promiscuity of the concept of whiteness, and related notions of white privilege and white supremacy make it a difficult concept to criticize, as Arnesen adds, “it is nothing less than a moving target.”

Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness was unique in its focus on the complicity of white workers, and its rejection in part of earlier Marxist arguments that pinned the creation and circulation of racist ideology on ruling elites. Published a decade into Reagan-Bush’s neoconservative reign, Roediger’s opening salvo posed the question that many still asks about white workers’ commitments to the GOP — “why do white workers vote against their interests?” — with the speaker almost always assuming that working-class interests are already self-evident, unified and simply waiting to be advanced. “White labor does not just receive and resist racist ideas but embraces, adopts and, at times, murderously acts upon those ideas,” Roediger argues in that now classic book, “The problem is not just that the white working class is at critical junctures manipulated by racism, but that it comes to think of itself and its interests as white.”

This essay takes aim at this central premise regarding “white interests” running through Roediger’s oeuvre, from The Wages of Whiteness to his most recent book, and widely adopted by other academics, professional trainers, activists and citizens. The academic and popular discourse of whiteness is concerned with the “souls of white folks” if you will, their predilections, behaviors and reactionary tendencies, often relying on retrospective psychoanalysis to discern the interior lives and private motives of the antebellum crowd, the minstrel show audience, southern lynch mobs and middle class suburban strivers alike, even when evidence of those motives and interests is scant.

The historian Barbara Fields once remarked that “Whiteness is the shotgun marriage of two incoherent but well-loved concepts: identity and agency.’ That said, this essay seeks to begin divorce proceedings because a keen sense of historical interests, the shifting, territorial demands and worlds people fight to realize in their times, is lost in the common inferences made through psychohistory and the false equation of identity and political interests, analytical moves which are central to whiteness studies, and for that matter, much contemporary thinking on blackness and race in the US. As Fields reminds us, whiteness acts as a thimblerig that “performs a series of deft displacements, first substituting race for racism, then postulating identity as the social substance of race, and finally attributing racial identity to persons of European descent.” And I would add, the same thimblerig enables attributing political interests to whites (and blacks) without the critical analysis and investigatory rigor that might sharpen our understanding of class and power in American history.

Marxism is a diverse, contradictory and evolving body of thought and practice, but its impetus in the historical writings of Marx and Engels, lies in the critique of capitalism, and the political project of abolishing the capitalist class relation, the production of surplus value. Analysis of historically contingent interests should lie at the heart of the project of historical-geographical materialism — to borrow David Harvey’s more precise phrasing. I do not question Roediger’s political commitments here, only that his arguments regarding whiteness, and approach to thinking about how class interests are actually formed, articulated and advanced, particularly among white and black workers, do not help us to advance the intellectual and political project of anti-capitalism. Whiteness has come to function not so much as an analysis of interests in historical motion, but rather, it functions as catechism — America’s original sin is racism and redemption in the post-political hereafter lies in white atonement. With respect to class struggle and the maintenance of consent and order by dominant classes, the devil is in the details of history, details that fall out of focus when we evoke “white interests” as a metanarrative of what is wrong with American politics. Roediger’s work has advanced an approach to thinking about history and contemporary politics that reifies whiteness, even as it explores its social construction, presupposes that racial identity is the foremost shaper of working-class thought and action, and silences interracial solidarity.