David T. Roediger on How Race Survived U.S. History


David R. Roediger, an author and professor, is a leading scholar of race and class in the U.S. today. His latest book is How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon (2008). Roediger’s previous books are Working Toward Whiteness (2005), History Against Misery (2005), Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past (2002), Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (1994), and his classic work The Wages of Whiteness (1991). This interview was conducted via email.

Sandronsky: Your new book looks at the language of transcending race in the U.S., as the racial gap widens for employment, imprisonment, and wealth. How does the election of Barack Obama to the White House change this rhetoric and reality of skin color and social class?

Roediger: When giving talks as I started writing the book some years ago I’d sometimes encounter progressives who were very eager to say we could begin to put race behind us. They had all sorts of often well-motivated reasons for thinking that way: weariness, hope, desire to focus on the class divisions manifestly being ignored, reflecting on the real progress they’d seen in their lifetimes and often in their families.

In respectfully disagreeing that racism was almost over, I often encouraged people to focus on the "two sevens" of white supremacy. At that time, white family wealth was seven times higher than African American family wealth on average and Black male teens and young adults were seven times more likely to be imprisoned than white male teens and young adults. Did it really seem likely that amidst such glaring material inequalities that the three centuries-old ideology of race, honed to explain and justify such terrible inequalities, would disappear?

When I finished the book, as Obama was being nominated for president, those inequalities were worse, with the white family wealth/ African American family wealth gap reaching nine to one and similar figures describing the relative lack of wealth of Latina/os and American Indians. Yet, astonishingly, we live in a nation in which a large enough minority of whites joined huge majorities of voters of color to elect a Black president, something unfathomable in the 1950s.

So we need to find ways to think about both what has changed and what has not—to be proud of the role of social movements, popular creativity, and day-to-day challenges to racism in making such change possible—even as we live in a nation that still is highly unequal racially and deeply committed to empire. In particular the growth of immigration, of interracial families, and of a Black middle class is embodied in Obama’s triumph, as is a deep association of the heritage of Black freedom politics with the possibility of change in all of the United States.

You write that European immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries whitened over time. That formative era of white supremacy reveals how race was more than an issue of skin color. Please comment.

A century ago, worried predictions held that the U.S. was about to lose the alleged racial excellence of its population. New races were arriving and crowding out the old "superior" and "American" ways. Those worrisome "races" were Slavs, Greeks, Jews, and Italians, for example, folks now considered fully "white." At the time a few visionaries, and not a few employers, supported open immigration of these groups. The visionaries stressed the cultural "gifts" new immigrants brought; the employers wanted not only their labor, but also the ability to play various groups of workers against each other on the job.

We live with similar predictions—sometimes dire and sometimes optimistic—that in a few decades the U.S. will no longer be a white-majority nation. The demographic trends and the loose idea that U.S. history shows that assimilation of immigrants is just a matter of time can lead even the optimists among us to minimize issues of anti-immigrant racism.

Both similarities and differences with the early 20th century need to be accounted for. Importantly, most immigrants entering now are members of populations long defined as "nonwhite" and are victims of exclusion. Secondly, U.S. police agencies and bureaucracies have increased the ability of the state to declare huge numbers of working people of color "illegal" migrants as the 20th century progressed. The critical similarity of the two histories, too often overlooked, is that employers are very much engaged in exploiting "racial," national, and religious differences—as well as differences in immigration status and "legality"—in managing immigrant workers by pitting them against each other and against native-born workers, especially in the nation’s most dangerous and exploitative jobs.

White patriarchy and supremacy grew after the American Revolution, you write. How did these ideologies mesh with a regime of private property and post-revolutionary activity in the new republic?

At every turn from the late 1600s—with tying the racial slavery of newborn children to the status of the mother and with a series of laws inventing a color line in order to punish those crossing it—race in the U.S. has been intimately tied to gender and reproduction. The mid-19th century and the late-1960s are the best examples of how challenges to patriarchy and to white supremacy matured together. Not only did abolitionism express feminist goals and help solidify the first women’s movement, but recent scholarship shows that campaigns against Indian removal were also central points of origin for women’s rights in the U.S.

However, expansion of settlements, slavery, and capitalism also could and did solidify new and powerful forms of patriarchy, oppressing people of color and white women together, but in quite distinct ways. The American Revolution created a politics of hope (and a fear of slave revolts) that led to a brief period of possibility for raising antislavery politics and for discussing women’s freedom. However, the result in short order was a reconsolidation of white supremacy and of patriarchy. When the new nation extended the "empire of liberty" with the Louisiana Purchase, it created the conditions for producing for decades mutating forms of the patriarchal "Indian-hater," so brilliantly captured on gender terms in Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. A tripled population of slaves would be sexually exploited and threatened with sale in new forms of patriarchal management in the period between the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War.

The capitalist production chain featured Southern, slave-grown cotton and Northern textile factories directly exploiting white women workers, creating new patriarchs in the factories. At the same time, it made the work of the vast majority of women in white households less valued than home production had been before the market so fully dominated society. As white men lost the capacity to fulfill the revolutionary dream of self-employment through "free labor," and were reduced more often to lifetimes of wage work, they increasingly claimed status as both "white workers" and patriarchal breadwinners in new ways. The forging of alliances between Black abolitionists—often escaped slaves—and radical middle class women should be no surprise. But neither perhaps should the difficulties of maintaining alliances among those oppressed in very different ways.

An "anti-racist rainbow" after the U.S. Civil War met capitalist production and new forms of workplace control. You write of slavery and plantations giving rise to industry and plants. This process divided and in some cases united workers across gender and race lines. How does this history open our eyes to directions and solutions to such divisions today?

While arguing for the deep structural and ideological persistence of race and racism in U.S. history, I would emphasize that white supremacy survived only by changing, often in the face of stirring challenges. When slaves transformed the Civil War from one seemingly over constitutional issues to one effecting emancipation, their freedom struggle provided what Marx called a "moral impetus" to workers and dreamers generally. Among whites, demands for an eight-hour day and for women’s suffrage went from being utopian hopes to the objects of electrifying struggles.

However, even as terror and the successful courting of capitalist interests allowed for a turning back of the "jubilee" of Black emancipation in the South, wedges between labor’s, women’s, and African American’s struggles appeared nationally. Moreover, post-Civil War Republicans, seemingly a promising vehicle for abolition-democracy, proved far more a party of capital and rapid expansion onto Indian lands.

Many of the new unities that were forged, for example among workers from countless European nationalities coming to think they had things in common, stopped short of challenging the inequalities of the whole social order—so that they might be tempted to see themselves as not only Americans, but also white Americans, not only homeowners, but white homeowners, not only as workers, but as white workers.

We live with the results of the incompleteness of the advances, and the fact that some unities have been premised on exclusions of those most oppressed.

American capitalism, begun with the theft of African labor, has mainly reproduced what you term "race thinking," and not transcended it. This trend stands in contrast to mainstream and some Marxist theories of the system. In your view, Marxism is "both indispensable and inadequate to addressing the history of the U.S. and of the embodied labor that built it." Please sum up these strengths and weaknesses.

Not only did Marx provide the tools to argue, at a time when Harvard scientists were busily measuring skulls to "prove" biological differences in racial abilities, that "race" was made within social processes of exploitation, but Marx also showed how central those processes of racial exploitation were to the growth of capitalism as a whole. Moreover, Black Marxists and socialists—in the U.S. context one thinks of WEB Du Bois, CLR James, Claudia Jones, Angela Davis, and others—have built on the idea that race is materially based to probe the extent to which race is nevertheless not reducible to class and is always and everywhere made in intersections with gender and sexuality.

At times Marxism, beginning with Marx, has overstated the homogenizing impact capitalist relations could be expected to have on national and racial differences. Some of its leading theorists have sought to develop a picture of capital as an ideal type, with capitalists interested in exploiting more or less abstract units of labor and preferring normally a free wage labor system over coercive, often race-based forms such as slavery and peonage. Capitalist management, on this view, becomes a realm of rational, efficiently maximizing productivity and profit, while racism belongs to the realm of the irrational and atavistic. Modern management is then seen as beginning with giant factories employing European workers in the 1880s, not with the physically coercive and racially inflected labor regimes on ships and plantations a century and more before. How Race Survived U.S. History seeks to restore the earlier blood-soaked history of "race management" to the history of race and capitalism and to show that "race management" continued as a rational form of capitalist exploitation well after slavery and indeed continues today.


Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento.