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ISR Issue 46, March–April 2006

Race, class, and "whiteness theory"


Adapted from Sharon Smith’s new book, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Haymarket Books, April 2006). Sharon Smith is also the author of Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2005). Her writings appear regularly in Socialist Worker newspaper and the ISR.

GIVEN THE depths of racism in U.S. society, it is not surprising that Black separatism is an important political current historically. Black nationalism is a legitimate response to the colossal and sustained level of racism directed against African Americans since slavery. Black nationalism has risen in influence among African Americans particularly when the level of class struggle is low and the possibility for multiracial class unity appears hopeless. As Ahmed Shawki argues in Black Liberation and Socialism, “Above all, the main factor that gives rise to Black nationalism is white racism.”1

The notion of “white skin privilege,” that all whites share a common interest in upholding a system of white supremacy, has provided the unifying core for Black nationalism—from the conservative nationalism of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement in the 1920s to the revolutionary nationalism of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers that launched the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) in the 1960s.

But who is responsible for the perpetuation of racism—both ideologically and structurally—in U.S. society? And who stands to benefit? In recent years, the notion that all whites gain from racism and are equally responsible for Black oppression has gained acceptance, especially in academic circles. “Whiteness theory” now in vogue among many current labor historians also strikes the theme of white skin privilege. But the theoretical framework of “whiteness theory” has more in common with postmodernism than with the ideas or politics of Black nationalism. Historian David Roediger helped launch this academic trend with the publication of his 1991 book, The Wages of Whiteness. Despite the legally sanctioned and violently enforced system of white supremacy, backed by both political parties after Reconstruction, Roediger asserts, “working class ‘whiteness’ and white supremacy [are] creations, in part, of the white working class itself.”2

Roediger accuses Marxists of reducing racism to something that merely “trickles down” from on high, and criticizes Marxists’ tendency “to concentrate on the ruling class’s role in perpetuating racial oppression and cast white workers as dupes, even if virtuous ones.”3

To be sure, Roediger pays homage to revered civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois. Indeed, the phrase “wages of whiteness” harks back to DuBois’ classic work, Black Reconstruction in America, noting the effects of racism on Southern white workers:

[T]he white group of laborers, while they receive a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools.4

But Du Bois’ quote, taken out of context, is misleading. Du Bois positions the above comment between two others that clearly show his intention to explain how the ideology of white supremacy prevented Black and white workers from uniting as a class, to the detriment of both. First, Du Bois argues, racism

drove such a wedge between the white and Black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.5

A few paragraphs later Du Bois adds, “The result of this was that the wages of both classes could be kept low, the whites fearing to be supplanted by Negro labor, the Negroes always being threatened by the substitution of white labor.”6

For Roediger, in contrast, the “psychological wage”—and psychology generally—is paramount. Roediger argues, “working class whiteness reflects, even in the form of the minstrel show, hatreds that were profoundly mixed with a longing for values attributed to Blacks.”7 Labor historian Brian Kelly remarked that this emphasis by the whiteness wing of labor historians “leaves one wondering whether white supremacy served any function other than defending the material and psychological interests of working-class whites.”8

But the important instances of racial unity even during the era of segregation merit explanation. Roediger himself admits,

The popular working class consciousness that emerged during the later stages of the Civil War, especially in the North, saw the liberation of Black slaves as a model, and not just as a threat. Like freedpeople, white workers came to see the Civil War as a “Jubilee” and, in the words of Detroit labor leader Richard Trevellick, to hope that “we are about to be emancipated.”9

Nevertheless, Roediger concludes, “The meager record of biracial organization does not allow us to fall back on the generalization that Black-white unity automatically places labor in a better tactical position from which to attack capital.”10

Although Roediger claims otherwise,11 the political framework for whiteness theory appears deeply indebted to an offshoot of postmodernism known as “identity politics,” popular among much of the post-1970s academic left.12

Whiteness theory and the politics of “difference”

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe—self-described post-Marxists—first articulated the theoretical framework for identity politics in their 1985 book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics.13 Laclau and Mouffe’s (extremely) abstract theory divorces every form of oppression not only from society generally, but also from each other. As they put it, society is a field “criss-crossed with antagonisms” in which each form of oppression exists as an entirely autonomous system.

According to this schema, social class is just another form of oppression, separate from all others, leaving the system of exploitation equally adrift. Furthermore, each separate system of oppression has its own unique set of beneficiaries: all whites benefit from racism, all men benefit from sexism and all heterosexuals benefit from homophobia—each in a free-floating system of “subordination.”

Not surprisingly, Laclau and Mouffe argue,

[T]he possibility of a unified discourse of the left is also erased. If the various subject positions and the diverse antagonisms and points of rupture constitute a diversity and not a diversification, it is clear they cannot be led back to a point from which they could all be embraced and explained by a single discourse.14

So identity politics, the politics of “difference,” seeks to refute the unifying potential of working-class interests.

Significantly, Laclau and Mouffe insist that the state itself is autonomous, and take great pains to refute the Marxist assumption that the state consistently acts on behalf of society’s ruling class.15 This theory, if it were grounded in reality, would have enormous implications for the origin of white supremacy. White supremacy then could be a creation “in part, of the white working class itself,” as Roediger asserts.

But, as historian Gregory Meyerson responded to this analysis,

[W]hile it is true that the various identity categories intersect—class is lived through race and gender etc.—and while I am also willing to accept that no experience of oppression should be privileged over another, it does not follow that multiple oppressions require multiple structural causes.… [Roediger’s] working class appears too autonomous, at times nearly sealed off from ongoing processes of class rule. This autonomy, inconsistently maintained…requires Roediger to supplant class analysis with psychocultural analysis.16

Who benefits from racism?

Central to Roediger’s critique is the notion that Marxism minimizes the importance of race:

The point that race is created wholly ideologically and historically, while class is not wholly so created, has often been boiled down to the notion that class (or “the economic”) is more real, more fundamental, more basic or more important than race, both in political terms and in terms of historical analysis.… In a quite meaningless way, the “race problem” is consistently reduced to one of class.17

But Roediger’s analysis is flawed on several counts. First, he appears to assume that working-class interests have been defined historically only by the actions of white males, as if women and African Americans—not to mention other oppressed populations—have not played an active role in defining working-class identity. Second, Roediger falsely assumes that by designating class as the primary antagonism in capitalist society, Marxism discounts the importance of race. Most significantly, Roediger’s entire thesis rests on the assumption that white workers benefit from the existence of racism.

Meyerson counters this set of assumptions, proposing that Marx’s emphasis on the centrality of class relations brings oppression to the forefront, as a precondition for working-class unity:

Marxism properly interpreted emphasizes the primacy of class in a number of senses. One, of course, is the primacy of the working class as a revolutionary agent—a primacy which does not, as often thought, render women and people of color “secondary.” Such an equation of white male and working class, as well as a corresponding division between a “white” male working class identity and all the others, whose identity is thereby viewed as either primarily one of gender and race or hybrid, is a view this essay contests all along the way. The primacy of class means that building a multiracial, multi-gendered international working-class organization or organizations should be the goal of any revolutionary movement: the primacy of class puts the fight against racism and sexism at the center. The intelligibility of this position is rooted in the explanatory primacy of class analysis for understanding the structural determinants of race, gender and class oppression. Oppression is multiple and intersecting but its causes are not.18

Designating class as the primary antagonism in capitalist society bears no inference on the “importance” of racism, as Roediger claims. Marxism merely assumes a causal relationship—that white supremacy as a system was instituted by capital, to the detriment of labor as a whole. Marxist theory rests on the assumption that white workers do not benefit from a system of white supremacy. Indeed, Marx argued of slavery, the most oppressive of all systems of exploitation, “In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”19

Marx was not alone in assuming that racism, by dividing the working class along ideological lines, harmed the class interests of both white and Black workers. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass stated unambiguously of slaveholders, “They divided both to conquer each.”20 Douglass elaborated, “Both are plundered and by the same plunderers. The slave is robbed by his master, of all his earnings above what is required for his physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages.”21

Capitalism forces workers to compete with each other. The unremitting pressure from a layer of workers—be they low-wage or unemployed—is a constant reminder that workers compete for limited jobs that afford a decent standard of living. The working class has no interest in maintaining a system that thrives upon inequality and oppression.

Indeed, all empirical evidence shows quite the opposite. When the racist poll tax was passed in the South, imposing property and other requirements designed to shut out Black voters, many poor whites also lost the right to vote. After Mississippi passed its poll tax law, the number of qualified white voters fell from 130,000 to 68,000.22

The effects of segregation extended well beyond the electoral arena. Jim Crow segregation empowered only the rule of capital. Whenever employers have been able to use racism to divide Black from white workers, preventing unionization, both Black and white workers earn lower wages. This is just as true in recent decades as it was 100 years ago. Indeed, as Shawki points out of the 1970s, “In a study of major metropolitan areas Michael Reich found a correlation between the degree of income inequality between whites and Blacks and the degree of income inequality between whites.”23 The study concluded:

But what is most dramatic—in each of these blue-collar groups, the Southern white workers earned less than Northern Black workers. Despite the continued gross discrimination against Black skilled craftsmen in the North, the “privileged” Southern whites earned 4 percent less than they did. Southern male white operatives averaged…18 percent less than Northern Black male operatives. And Southern white service workers earned…14 percent less than Northern Black male service workers.”24

Racism against Blacks and other racially oppressed groups serves both to lower the living standards of the entire working class and to weaken workers’ ability to fight back. Whenever capitalists can threaten to replace one group of workers with another—poorly paid—group of workers, neither group benefits.

Thus, the historically nonunion South has not only depressed the wages of Black workers, but also lowered the wages of Southern white workers overall—and prevented the labor movement from achieving victory at important junctures. So even in the short term the working class as a whole has nothing to gain from oppression.

A question of consciousness

But Marxist theory is careful to distinguish between material benefits and the psychology, or consciousness, regarding race. Whereas material (i.e., class interests) are fixed and objective, consciousness is fluid and subjective.

When Marx identified the working class as the agent for revolutionary change, he was describing its historical potential, rather than its actuality or as a foregone conclusion. Without the counterweight of the class struggle, competition between groups of workers can act as an obstacle to the development of class consciousness, and encourage the growth of what Marx called “false consciousness.” Marx did not regard white workers as “dupes” as Roediger claims in his caricature of Marxism.25 Rather, Marx merely understood, as he argued in the Communist Manifesto, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”26

Ruling-class ideology in its various forms serves to justify the class status quo, pitting workers against each other, and impeding workers’ ability to unite in struggle against their employers. Racist ideology, so strongly asserted by Southern and Northern rulers alike, did exercise a strong deterrent to class unity at its height. And racism remains the key division within the working class.

But consciousness is a changing, not static, phenomenon. The dynamic is such that workers’ objective circumstances are always in conflict with bourgeois ideology, as evidenced by the exceptional instances of multiracial unity even in the South during Jim Crow.

Roediger’s analysis misses this active dynamic of class struggle central to Marxist theory—in which workers’ objective class interests collide with “the ideas of its ruling class.” New Orleans workers demonstrated the volatility of this dynamic, in a racially united general strike in 1892, followed by murderous race riots in 1900, and then a successful union struggle of white and Black workers in 1907. Marx described in the Communist Manifesto: “This organization of proletarians into a class…is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.”27

Much as the Knights of Labor contradicted itself by campaigning against Chinese immigration while welcoming women, Blacks, and most other immigrant workers into its folds, individual workers also hold contradictory ideas inside their own heads. Workers are neither dupes nor romantic heroes, but active agents in a process of determining their genuine class interests.

Because consciousness is subjective, no segment of the working class can be expected to behave in a predetermined way. Marx distinguished between a class “in itself” and a class “for itself,” which has reached broad class consciousness. The political intervention of radicals within the working class movement has frequently played a crucial role in advancing class consciousness.

As Marx wrote, “The revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown any other way, but because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the old crap and become fitted to found society anew.”28 Racism and segregation have historically been the key obstacles to working-class unity in the United States—the worst of the “old crap” that must be conquered if the labor movement is to succeed.

1 Ahmed Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 249.

2 David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991), 9.

3 Ibid.

4 W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1965), 700.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 701.

7 Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 176.

8 Brian Kelly, Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908–1921 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 8 (emphasis in original).

9 Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 175–76. Emphasis in original.

10 Ibid., 170.

11 Ibid., 14–15.

12 For a detailed analysis of identity politics, see Sharon Smith, “Mistaken identity,” International Socialism 62 (Spring 1994): 3–50,

13 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985).

14 Ibid., 191 (emphasis in original).

15 Ibid., 180, 184.

16 Gregory Meyerson, “Rethinking Black Marxism: Reflections on Cedric Robinson and others,” Cultural Logic: An Electronic Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice 3, no. 2, (Spring 2000),

17 Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 7. Emphasis on original.

18 Meyerson, “Rethinking Black Marxism.”

19 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, chapter 10 “The Working Day,” section 7 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 301.

20 Frederick Douglass, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” in The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 267.

21 Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, ed. William L. Andrews (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 188.

22 Jack M. Bloom, Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 40.

23 Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism, 244–45.

24 Michael Reich, “The Economics of Racism,” in The Capitalist System, eds., Richard C. Edwards, Michael Reich, and Thomas E. Weisskopf (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 316, 318.

25 Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 9.

26 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document, Phil Gasper, ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 68.

27 Ibid., 53.

28 Karl Marx, The German Ideology (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 95 (emphasis in original).

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