Roediger on How Race Survived US History

7986411This was quite a brilliant look at how and why the idea of race has developed in the United States. I haven’t read Roediger before so I can’t really compare it to his previous work, but given it’s written for a more popular audience, which I think is important, I did not mind the lack of footnotes. While it was reasonably short, I confess it took me a long time to get through and I’m not sure if that was because of the language or the weight of the ideas, but I didn’t regret a second.

It begins with a definition of race. For Roediger race is not a natural category, it is something new. It has been laboriously constructed to divide and sort people and thereby define how they relate to property, management, punishment and citizenship. The first of the two clearest examples of how this works is of course slavery, which took many different people of many different languages and cultures and defined them as black, as uncivilised and less than Europeans if not less than human, and only worthy of being slaves. The second is in the conquest and genocide of the Native Americans. Initially seen in the period of British rule as tribes with whom to ally with or fight against in the wars against other European powers, as a new nation began to create itself and push its boundaries they quickly became defined as red, as savages, as shiftless and lazy, and therefore worthy of being dispossessed of their lands. When they fought back? Jefferson himself argued shortly before his death that they be exterminated.

Through these stories we begin to come to grips with the two other key ideas about race contained in the book. The first is that of ‘whiteness as property’. Skin colour comes to define almost everything about an individual: where they live and work, what they can aspire to, the texture of their everyday life. When all else fails you can still cling to whiteness to put yourself above other people. You are a citizen. You cannot be enslaved. You are better than others. Your skin colour has a value, whiteness comes to be worth something in itself, something that distinguishes you and puts you above others. There was a time before this was true, when indentured servants and slaves escaped together, when the mixing of races was voluntary rather than from the rape of slaves. Laws made of whiteness something to be defended: banning interracial marriage, penalizing indentured servants who run in the company of a non-white, ruling that children share the freedom or the servitude of their mother, ruling people of color less than human and non-citizens. It was a combination of enticement and terror, whites either acted to their own benefit by buying into it or were punished severely for its transgression.

On the opposite side you found a law in Barbados from 1668: “An Act declaring the Negro-Slaves of this Island to be Real Estates.”

The second point is based on Stuart Hall (who I love). As Roediger says of him, he “acutely points out that racism emerges and is recreated from the imperatives of new sets of realities, not just from the bad habits of the past” [xiii]. The first key is that there are imperatives that drive this social construction of race, such as the desire for free labor to develop open land, the greed for land and expansion both in terms of speculation and profit, and to vent the building anger of the working white classes who are not finding in America their promised prosperity and demanding free land while threatening revolution. The second: that these imperatives do not just happen in some past time and continue on through inertia or habit (though the weight of the past cannot be treated lightly). The key is that racism still exists because new imperatives exist to ensure that it does. Until we understand them, we cannot end racism.

In a nutshell: “White supremacy persisted not only by working against the forces of freedom, of openness, and of economic rationality in US history, but also by working through them. Such complexities complicate the verb ‘survive’ in this book’s title, in that many of the forces pushing against the logic of racism at the same time validated, created, and recreated white supremacy.” [xv]

He goes on to explore and draw out these ideas through American history, looking at 4 key points where racism could have ceased, but didn’t. In very simplified terms:

How did it survive a revolution? Because honestly, it’s a bit ingenuous to revolt in the name of ideals of liberty and self-determination against British oppression while you yourself hold slaves. This is the classic ‘American dilemma’, which Roediger argues to be false. The revolution was funded by slavery, and Du Bois noted that the Constitution was in fact a huge blow to the slave liberation movement, Roediger sums it up succinctly: “[the constitution] made even indentured whites (their race unnamed) into “free persons”, it read Indians (who were named) out of citizenship, and it counted enslaved “other persons” (named neither racially nor in their servile position, by what one delegate called an “ashamed” constitutional convention) not as holders of political power, but as sources of such power for their own enslavers.” [51] Thus America becomes a white man’s country, welding together large and fractious class divisions through the imperative of expanding into Indian territory and maintaining race status.

How did it survive capitalism? Because even the Marxists argued that race would dissolve in the crucible of the working class. But in fact capital thrives on having different groups of workers in a hierarchy and in competition with each other, and it became policy to play these groups off one another. And slavery was not some pre-capitalist formation, it grew up with capitalism.

How did it survive jubilee and the abolition of slavery? That was the moment there was the most hope…but “Jubilee did not collapse under the weight of internal contradictions, but under extended assault.” The rise of the KKK, in one small town in Louisiana 60 republican party members were murdered during reconstruction. And then the fateful election where the Republicans gave up reconstruction all together and abandoned blacks to their fate for an uncontested election. Hayes almost certainly lost the popular vote, but he became president anyway.

How did it survive the immigration of those white Europeans most discriminated against? Through a process of coercion and aspiration and immense exploitation they slowly became accepted as white. In a sense they thus agreed to accept the rules of privilege rather than struggle against them.

And so it is still with us, Obama notwithstanding. The main point is “how unlikely it is that a force so longstanding, formative, and persistently recreated as white supremacy has been in United States history will be abolished by accident, as a result of the momentum of forces like capitalism or immigration that themselves have no anti-racist agenda.” [xv] We have to actively fight it, and to do so we have to understand it. This book takes us a great deal of the way I think. It is very US specific, while the drama of race has played out globally (as has the US role) and yet none of that is connected here which I found an absence. But this is an important book.

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