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The Wages of Whiteness (Review Essay)

Further toward the center, the politics of whiteness has disrupted journalism and academia, with opposition to it coalescing around the defense of free speech, an issue that has united right-wingers with centrist liberals. The spectacle of American conservatives wringing their hands about being unfairly profiled on the basis of race may seem to an observer like watching a very drunk person trying to fit a key into their front door—so close to getting it, this time!—but after four years of Trumpism, even the most trusting establishment Democrat must suspect that the Republican Party’s commitment to campus debate contains an element of bad faith. Could the elevation of “cancel culture” from irritation to existential threat be just a bit of business, a sleight of hand to divert the free-expression crowd at this crucial moment, getting them to punch left instead of right? Though some of the objections to the politics of white privilege are clearly performative, there is reason to be wary of this politics, particularly now that these ideas are being refashioned by corporate America. Whiteness is a concept that can be made to serve many interests and positions, not all of them compatible.


Allen’s paper was hugely influential. Racism had been thought of as a question of beliefs and practices—beliefs about racial inferiority and actions taken as a result of those beliefs. Now there was a shift toward a consideration of what might be thought of as the pleasures of whiteness, satisfactions derived from a position of structural superiority that might not align at all with conscious intent. The conceptual groundwork was laid for what is now called “unconscious bias,” a notion that has trod a long and rather crooked path from its origins in the 1960s conjunction of Marxism and psychoanalysis to its current perch in the lexicon of corporate “diversity training.”

Allen’s essay was published in conjunction with a text by a younger activist named Noel Ignatiev. “The US ruling class,” wrote Ignatiev,

has made a deal with the misleaders of American labor, and through them with the masses of white workers. The terms of the deal, worked out over the three hundred year history of the development of capitalism in our country, are these: you white workers help us conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force, and we will repay you with a monopoly of the skilled jobs, we will cushion you against the most severe shocks of the economic cycle, provide you with health and education facilities superior to those of the non-white population, grant you the freedom to spend your money and leisure time as you wish without social restrictions, enable you on occasion to promote one of your number out of the ranks of the laboring class, and in general confer on you the material and spiritual privileges befitting your white skin.

In 1969, when SDS disintegrated, one faction (including Boudin and the other future Brink’s robbers) became the Weather Underground. Another, known as the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), disillusioned with the direct-action antics of the student milieu, set up in the Midwest, determined to build a base among the urban working class. Ignatiev was one of around fifty STO members who took factory jobs in Chicago and Detroit to be close to the “point of production.” In the early 1990s he cofounded a journal called Race Traitor, under the slogan “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” The betrayal of whiteness was now firmly understood not as a repudiation of biology, or even culture, but of a particular kind of social contract. As the editorial for the first issue of Race Traitor put it:

The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender, or any other interests they hold. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a determinant of behavior will set off tremors that will lead to its collapse.

This understanding of whiteness has had significant influence on today’s movement politics. In the streets it is embodied in the practice of white protesters moving in front of Black comrades in confrontations with police. But like many aspects of leftist thought, it also has a parallel life in academia, notably in the study of history. In the early 1990s, as Ignatiev was working on Race Traitor, the historian David Roediger published The Wages of Whiteness, a book that expanded Theodore Allen’s account of whiteness as an organizing principle of American society, arguing that as new immigrant groups like the Irish arrived, they learned how to “become white” by aligning themselves with “white” interests. It was not just a question of adopting the manners or even displaying loyalty to the political priorities of the Anglo elite. Whiteness was earned by displays of performative “anti-blackness” (riots, lynchings, and so on), constituting and reinforcing a community that depended for its identity on differentiation from Blacks.

That account has always been looked on skeptically by some labor and social historians, who see it as inattentive to the particularities of time and place. Has whiteness really been experienced in a consistent way from Jamestown in 1676 to Tulsa in 1921 to Charlottesville in 2017? The Marxist historian Adolph Reed chides that “appropriations of Du Bois aim to validate effectively ontological arguments about the primacy and impermeability of whites’ commitment to white supremacy.”

In an essay called “The Wages of Roediger: Why Three Decades of Whiteness Studies Has Not Produced the Left We Need,” Cedric Johnson argues that the American labor movement of the earlier part of the twentieth century was forged in struggles that relied on interracial coalitions, but by the 1960s, under the pressure of antiunion laws, McCarthyism, and the increasing spatial segregation of suburbanization, those coalitions splintered. “Whiteness discourse,” he writes, “misdiagnoses the Cold War disintegration of the Left, treating the symptoms as the disease itself.” For Johnson, whiteness is not a motor of history, but an epiphenomenon, an “amalgam of underlying, disparate class positions and interests” that does no useful conceptual work. It should be retired and replaced by “historical-materialist analysis that begins with the careful examination of society as it exists, and that does not reduce complex motives and material interests to markers of identity.”

In Roediger’s 2008 book (revised in 2019), How Race Survived US History, he rebuts what he sees as the unfair charge that race is not real or material, pointing out “Marxist historians’ tendency to divorce the concept of labor from the bodies and cultures of those performing it,” and reminding us that the tradition of European political economy underlying Marxism is itself one of highly refined abstraction.

The “1619 Project” of The New York Times, created and led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which owes much to Roediger’s understanding of whiteness, asks what happens if we use the date of the arrival of the first Africans in the Jamestown colony to replace 1776 as the key to reading American history. Whether or not this thought experiment counts as “history” in an academic sense, the substantial claim is that if we look at the American story as one of violent struggle and contestation, formed to some large measure through the Atlantic slave trade, we arrive at a very different picture from the one that starts with a formal claim of rights and expands in the direction of an “ever more perfect union.” Opposition to the project, loud and histrionic, has come from a variety of quarters. From the Miss Scarlett fainting fits of Tom Cotton and Newt Gingrich (“a lie”) to Adolph Reed’s class-first dismissal of it as a “race-reductionist” “just-so story,” the 1619 Project has sharpened some contradictions, forcing a lot of people to be clearer about their political preferences in the study of American history.

Outside the library, it is clear that since the Ferguson uprising of 2014, we have been living through the most sustained and broadly supported civil rights movement since the 1960s. Notably, it is a movement initiated and largely led by Black women, operating in a theoretical tradition derived from the work of Black women. In its focus on dismantling the machinery of policing and incarceration, it is abolitionist, drawing on the perspective of contemporary activists such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba. One part of the program of the Movement for Black Lives, the organization that grew from the work of Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, states that:

We believe in centering the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are trans and queer, women and femmes, currently and formerly incarcerated, immigrants, disabled, working class, and poor.

The identification of the wretched of the earth as the revolutionary vanguard is as old as the sansculottes, but in this specific form, it’s a position originally outlined by the Combahee River Collective (CRC), a radical Black feminist group formed in 1974 from the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization. Disillusioned with a Black Nationalist scene marked by extreme misogyny, and alienated by white feminist groups that did not see racism as a priority, the CRC named itself after the site of an 1863 raid led by Harriet Tubman that freed 750 slaves.

Read entire article at New York Review of Books