Wages of Whiteness Research Proposal

Pages: 6 (1543 words)  ·  Style: Chicago  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Race

¶ … Wages of Whiteness, David Roediger analyzes the growth of a white identity among American laborers from the time of the Revolution through the modern era. He accounts for the growth of a tendency towards racism among white immigrants who entered the workforce in the U.S., which eventually developed into a leading force in the labor movement, by analyzing the psychology and cultures of those laborers. In doing so, he shows how these laborers' acceptance of the universal nature of working class brotherhood was complicated by their own individual and group needs to feel special in their own rights, and argues that their ultimate settling on issues of race was an attempt to gain such differentiation.

In this report, Roediger's primary arguments will be outlined and analyzed in summary fashion in order to weigh the validity of the argument and to suggest areas for further consideration in the Marxist literature regarding the American labor movement. The report will lay out the main arguments Roediger makes, outline the structure of the book in a discussion of how the arguments proceed, and summarize the effect of both the arguments and book's structure as they pertain to proving the author's case.

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Roediger's main arguments revolve around the notion that European workers who migrated to the U.S. from the earliest days of the republic came over as skilled craftsmen, only to find themselves caught in and frustrated by the machinery of the American movement toward industrialization. From the earliest workers who had to undergo indentured servitude, to later workers who were locked into harsh urban tenant communities or sharecropping farming lifestyles or monopolistic company towns, these workers found themselves facing lives that required strict discipline in order to merely achieve survival. Facing such hard lives, the workers struggled through, but they began to search about for some means to justify their existence as more than merely workers. They found such justification in racism.

TOPIC: Research Proposal on Wages of Whiteness Assignment

Roediger's book is divided up into four main parts. In part one, he discusses the earliest beginnings of the development of white identity as workers arrived in the U.S. And began to work and live in the communities that shaped their lives. Laborers worked long hours during the day and then retuned to their various ethnic enclaves to socialize. As they did so, they began to develop feelings of identity that were based more upon their moments of leisure, their interactions with friends, family, and citizenship than upon their difficult work. They came, that is, to see themselves as white European-Americans first, and workers second. Roediger argues that among his primary concerns in the book is "the role of race in defining how white workers look not only at Blacks but at themselves."

He argues that they came to make these distinctions so that they could look at themselves more favorably.

In the second part of the book, Roediger claims that a language of laborers evolved in which workers defined themselves as free citizens who were something more than, something better than, slave laborers. Perhaps as a means of convenience in making these kinds of self-justifications, they came to identify black men as those who were willing to settle for a worker-wage relationship that was somehow less authentic and less evolved than their own. Race came, therefore, to be a driving force in the establishing of their individual and community identities. The language of labor came to be intertwined with the language of race, and workers used terms which emphasized their associations as free white men, setting themselves apart from black slaves.

In part 3, Roediger analyzes the antebellum period in which a nationwide discussion of race was underway and white immigrant workers reacted to these discussions partly from their own now-developing feelings of superiority, and partly out of a fear of what might happen to their own livelihoods if black slaves were freed, thereby coming to compete with them in the labor markets. White immigrants were arriving daily and assimilating into the European ethnic enclaves, so that workers began to worry not only how they would compete against new arrivals but also how they would compete against the black men about to enter the market should slavery be ended. Roediger claims that a reaction of unthinking fear led to a kind of hateful resentment of blacks among whites that manifested itself in a number of racist ways. Minstrel shows were perhaps the most egregious of these outward showings, as white working classes came to fetishize white and black skin and set in stone the very terms of their growing identity movement in clear, stark terms. Roediger argues that Irish workers also came to hold a sexual fear of blacks, as they were afraid of, not only equality in the workplace, but sexual "amalgamation" if their communities were forced to come into regular contact with black communities.

(Theodore Allen makes the interesting point here that Roediger apparently misses the point of this concern, which is that Irish males, in fearing the possibility of black men getting at their women, are displaying male paternal supremacy and much as racist supremacy.

In the fourth section of his book, Roediger argues that there was some moderation of white workers feelings of superiority over and fear of the black man as the labor union movement began to develop in earnest during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, much of the damage had been done by then, he suggests, so that white identity had come to form a kind of racist wall that would perpetuate itself in feeling and interactions between white and black workers, even though there could have been a natural kinship between the two groups that might have otherwise led to a stronger union movement for both groups.

Roediger calls his own early indulgence in racism, growing up in a labor union community inhabited by mainly German-Americans, "prepolitical."

Throughout his book, he suggests that the concept of white identity existed in a mental space for the early workers formulating the labor union as a naturalistic formulation that had very little to do with class. In other words, the workers did not merely accept the class-based racism of the owning class. They formulated their own brand of racism, as a means of identifying psychically with their fellow men as they survived physically in the alienating industrialized, capitalistic environment they found themselves in. There is, therefore, a certain amount of sympathetic treatment of the white workers, as they were struggling against the evils of the capitalist system, and their evolution of racism as a means of survival was simply a coping mechanism.

Because Roediger is a Marxist labor historian, he begins from a perspective in which class issues are among his primary motivations for writing. He finds, however, that traditional Marxist literature does not adequately describe what he believes to be the main reasons that white identity grew up in the labor movement, and he provides what he thinks is a better answer. However, in providing that answer, he seems to prove himself an unknowing proponent of that "prepolitical" white identity. How, for example, can the treatment and abuse of enslaved blacks by white workers -- even if those white workers are harshly treated themselves -- be discussed in any terms but the most rejecting? Roediger seems to admit this himself in the "Afterword" of his book, as he claims that by initially thinking of the white workers as the proper embodiement of the working classes, he fell prey to the very racism that he was trying to depict. Walter Johnson, in a book analyzing the slave trade in the antebellum South, a period that covers roughly the same period as Roediger's books, argues that slave buyers were exercising their own form of bourgeois behavior by acting out their manhood in showy… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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