Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past, by David R. Roediger (University of California Press, 2002), 288 pp., $16.00 pb.
In Colored White, his essays cover a wide range of topics, from labor history to popular culture. In Roediger’s words, “The essays seek to place race in dialectical relationship to factors such as class, ethnicity, gender, age and sexuality in the belief that doing so enhances our understanding of the pervasive presence of race in the United States.” His special focus is on the causes and consequences of white racial identity under American capitalism. Roediger skillfully uses dialectics, the study of change, to develop, persuasively, the powerful idea of whiteness in the context of white racial domination. For Roediger, American whites have been and are active agents in accepting and perpetuating racism. They are not just dupes of a power elite who use skin color to divide and conquer America’s working class. This is not an academic debating point.
The book has three sections. Part one is “Still White.” The lead essay looks at the arguments for and against the idea that America is undergoing a demographic transformation to a “raceless nation.” Some mainstream critics have cited changing marriage and migration patterns as proof of a shift away from rigid divisions of race. Presumably, Americans are slowly moving towards a society in which the color of their skin will be no more important than what clothes they choose to wear. Opponents of affirmative action such as Ward Connerly in California have used this argument. It is simple, and simply misleading. Without question, the end of racial inequality is appealing. However, Roediger argues that simple formulations on creating a nonracial future in a nation shaped so deeply by skin color sidesteps the processes of overcoming deep-seated racism and sexism. Both are deeply irrational, hence not easily eradicated. To that end, he maintains that race can not fade into class, nor can race be reduced to class. Roediger believes that white racial identity should be widely debated and discussed.
Politically, this stance is intellectually stimulating, and liberating.
Roediger delves deeply into race and class in an essay on talk show host Rush Limbaugh. His reactionary popularity resonates widely in U.S. society. Roediger begins his essay on Limbaugh by considering a Eugene O’Neill play. In it, a white elite uses an imperial gaze on a white laborer. The worker drops to a nonwhite status. The play is set during a time of “scientific” racism in the U.S. aimed at southern and eastern European immigrants. Eventually, they would whiten. Karen Brodkin details some of this white ethnic and racial history in How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race in America (Rutgers University Press, 1999).
Similarly, Noel Ignatiev examines Irish immigrants’ journey from American outcasts to white citizens in How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995). Roediger cites Brodkin and Ignatiev favorably. A political point being made by all three writers is that racism need not be a skin color issue. Yet that is the enduring legacy of race in America, the presumed land of liberty for its people.
Roediger next turns to a short story by Mark Twain that dramatizes the life of a black slave woman. Her tale of resistance to slavery is hidden though she was in plain sight to whites. The woman’s narrative reveals a critique of whites’ partial vision rooted in racial relations of power and the powerless. On Limbaugh’s TV show, he occupied a small box in the lower screen, and used it to parody high-profile blacks. They included Dr. Jocelyn Elders, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Congressman Kweisi Mfume. Because of and despite his diminished presence, Limbaugh “cultivate(d) the reciprocity of white entertainer, white studio audience, and white reviewers to endow his look with awful power,” Roediger writes. Racial relations between white entertainer and white viewers showed a shared awareness of their imagined racial superiority.
Such white racial vision conceals and reveals much. For Limbaugh the multi-millionaire showman and his audience, a mutual understanding of white-skin privilege apparently smoothed over their two quite different class positions. On that note, Roediger suggests that such white workers in America who do not “get” race likely fail to grasp the concept of economic class. Precisely.
Further, Roediger puts Limbaugh’s lampooning of prominent blacks in the tradition of the minstrel shows of the 19th century. Then, white male performers “blacked up” to imitate and ridicule African Americans.
Blackface minstrelsy provided psychic relief to mostly white men being slowly turned into urban wage workers during the shift from manufacture to industry in America. “For half a century minstrel shows provided a nationwide medium of mass entertainment, and at the end, far from fading away, they merged into vaudeville and the beginnings of cinema,” writes Alexander Saxton in The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Verso, 2003). Roediger puts Limbaugh, minus the black makeup, in that tradition of popular white culture.
The second part of Roediger’s book is “Toward Nonwhite Histories.” An essay titled “White Slavery, Abolition, and Coalition: Languages of Race, Class, and Gender” looks at the usage of the slavery metaphor in antebellum America. It was a popular rhetorical device for white feminists and white labor reformers. Yet such feminists were more judicious in their use of “white slavery” to politicize their substandard status under patriarchy.
Also, white feminists worked closely with the black freedom movement. In contrast, white male labor reformers saw similarities where none existed between slave and wage labor. These reformers used the “white slavery” metaphor loosely. Black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass avoided the metaphor of bondage to describe the life conditions of whites in America. Why? The lives of enslaved blacks could not compare with those of white women and men in matrimonial and occupational relations of inequality. Roediger deepens our understanding of the central role the “peculiar institution” of slavery created and sustained by white terror against blacks played in forming a kind of gendered white class consciousness. His analysis also sheds light on lessons of social unity that were learned and unlearned in a time of economic restructuring a century and a half ago.
Roediger’s next essay is “The Pursuit of Whiteness: Property, Terror, And National Expansion: 1790-1860.” Of specific interest are white expectations of acquiring property. The equation of happiness as property ownership was the rhetoric of American elites in colonial days who cut their links to British imperialists. This process set into motion a kind of revolution that spawned one form of freedom for whites. This ideology, however, was based on the few with white skin dominating the ownership of land and labor.
Carnage and pillage ensued, and was widely supported by lower class whites.
Natives were dispossessed and Africans were enslaved. Whites of all classes participated.
Meanwhile, the lack of property owned by many whites was an issue. Roediger fleshes out such contradictory class relations within a racial social order. In compensation for the lack of property ownership, many of these white workers received what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “public and psychological wage” for being members of a dominant race. Like Roediger, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, in Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), considers how and why white racial identity was and is self-defined by negation, what whites are not (black, brown, red and yellow).
Roediger’s final essay deals with the concept of racial crossover. His “retrospective” of entertainer Elvis Presley, a white Southerner heavily influenced by African American culture, considers the racial and social context of Presley’s rise to fame in the Jim Crow era. In Roediger’s view, Presley is a predecessor to some white youth (wiggers) now who emulate and imitate African American entertainers, especially hip hop artists. Many white youth of both genders idolize them. Other racial crossovers (i.e., Asian-Black, Caucasian-Latino) exemplify the culture of racial politics and the politics of racial culture in an era of diminished expectations for the future. Roediger drives home the point that such trends diverge and overlap. They are subject to particular factors and forces, and not frozen in time. Crucially, today’s racial crossovers take place in the absence of a national push for racial justice. As a result, some commentators wrongly romanticize youth crossing the color line as being a vanguard of racial change, Roediger observes. Such young people surely may point the way towards a nonwhite, or all racial, American society. However, this younger generation as politically constituted in 2004 is not a proxy for a mass social justice movement.
The essays in Colored White are free of cant, full of rigor. They are essential reading for those who seek to deepen their understanding of racial capitalism in America. Roediger is an important social critic who has much to say on the meanings of whiteness, and says it well.
Seth Sandronsky is a member of Peace Action and co-editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Recent Articles by Seth Sandronsky
A March of
a Million American Workers
America, Can I Get A Whiteness?