- The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South
Michelle Brattain’s new book The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South addresses race, work, and politics in Rome, Georgia with the reminder that whiteness is as much a social invention as is any other marker of [End Page 798] human characteristics, and it is one that can and has been used for economic and political purposes. Brattain argues that the politics of whiteness benefited white textile workers in Rome, Georgia, and that workers were aware of the benefits of whiteness. The book’s seven chapters take readers from the initial local excitement of introducing mill work to Rome, Georgia, to the 1934 strike, unionization for two of the mills in the 1940s, political action by the TWUA in the 1940s and 1950s, one unsuccessful and one successful strike in 1948, and the multiple responses to civil rights and to the downsizing of mills in the 1960s and beyond. Racial privilege is always either in the background or is explicitly used as leverage in struggles over work and unionizing.
Brattain discusses the textile industry in and around Rome, Georgia from the 1880s to the 1960s. She weaves the ideology of town boosters, union organizers, and textile workers into a piece that suggests that whiteness subordinated other political or economic factors. Whiteness protected jobs from black competition until the late 1960s, and for practical purposes, beyond that. Town boosters proudly claimed that Rome was a fine place to work, as evidenced by the overwhelming presence of Anglo-Saxon textile workers in the factories. More often than not, the Textile Workers Union of America acceded to southern segregation, hoping thereby to avoid the divisiveness of racial politics and gain white union representation in the textile mills. When workers did unionize, they did so knowing that white privilege was not threatened by union membership. Successful political campaigns played both to whiteness and to regionalism. By the end of the book, Brattain has convincingly demonstrated the power of whiteness to transform itself from an overtly racist concept to one that still uses conservative concepts to maintain its position of privilege.
Brattain primarily focuses on the Anchor Duck and Tubize mills in Rome and the Pepperell mill in Lindale as the sites where race, politics, and worker decisions were played out. While all three mills employed paternalism in worker/manager relations, Lindale did so most successfully and for the longest period of time. Workers in the Anchor Rome and Tubize plants unionized in the 1940s, while Lindale workers resisted unionization until the mid 1960s. Race-baiting was used to prevent unionizing at the Anchor Rome mill, but was unsuccessful because white workers knew that segregation was firmly in place in the mill. The threat of integration if a union was formed did not convince workers who believed integration was unlikely to occur, and who therefore discounted the racial rhetoric of union opponents. In other situations, however, the threat of potential racial integration effectively thwarted union programs or political goals. In 1950, the TWUA’s Political Action Committee tried to convince Floyd County voters to oust Judge H. E. Nichols, a bitter enemy of the union. With reason to remember Judge Nichols’ legal maneuvers in opposition to the union during the 1948 strikes, union members did vote against the judge, but lost the election and the judge maintained his office. During the campaign, Judge Nichols painted the TWUA as outside foreigners, most likely communist in affiliation, and likely to end segregation. These tactics worked in the county, although Brattain says that the union won more votes than they had in the past. Workers in the Pepperell plant, who were not unionized, voted for Judge Nichols, apparently concurring with the negative view of the TWUA. Workers voted according to their perceived interests, which were not always those of the union, for example, [End Page 799] workers supporting Eugene and Herman Talmadge when it appeared to not be in their best interest...