restricted access 26 The Antidemocratic Power of Whiteness
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26 The Antidemocratic Power of Whiteness KATHLEEN NEAL CLEAVER Like the formally neutral concept of "civil rights," II race" usually makes one think of blacks. To link the idea of race with the social construct of whiteness is uncommon . As a rule, white Americans no longer see race in relation to their own identity, and genuinely believe that racism poses a problem for "others." A widespread failure to acknowledge that whiteness conveys internal meanings at the same time it fulfills anti-black functions helps frustrate programs that seek to eliminate racism's pernicious legacy] Thus, The Wages of Whiteness, a sophisticated analysis of the significance of racism in the formation of the nineteenth-century white working class, offers a welcome addition to the emerging literature interrogating whiteness. Labor historian David R. Roediger draws upon recent scholarship in social history, such as the study of gender roles, industrial discipline, and popular republicanism, in examining the specific ways that beliefs in white racial superiority became part of the consciousness of working men. Going beyond the obvious results in order to understand the motives of their choices, Roediger does not focus on the material benefits of "white skin privilege." Instead, he looks at the agency of working men themselves in constructing the meaning of whiteness. Understanding this process is crucial, because Roediger shares African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois's conclusion concerning the deepest injury that white supremacy caused. Du Bois wrote that though "the consequences of [racist] thought were bad enough for colored people the world over," they were "even worse when one considers what this attitude did to the [white] worker. ... He began to want, not comfort for all men but power over other men.... He did not love humanity and he hated niggers."2 This passionate devotion to white supremacy partially explains the failure of the post-Civil War Reconstruction and the collapse of its legal framework for black freedom. Indebted to the dialectical study of race and class that W.E.B. Du Bois pioneered,3 Roedi- .ger adopted Du Bois's formulation that the status and privileges conferred on the basis of whiteness provided compensation for exploitive and alienating class relationships, that even when white workers were paid a lowly wage, they were"compensated in part by a ... public and psychological wage."4 Du Bois concluded that nineteenth-century workers prized whiteness to such an extent that instead of joining with black workers with whom they shared common interests, they adopted a white supremacist vision that approved of capitalism and "ruined democracy."s White supremacy served as the unifying theme of the militant resistance that defeated Confederates mounted against the revolution that ended the political and legal structure of slavery. The triumph of white supremacy helped destroy 70 CHI-KENT L. REV. 1375 (1995). Originally published in the Chicago-Kent Law Review. Reprinted by permission . Copyrighted Material 158 Kathleen Neal Cleaver the legal transformation of the entire political system that Reconstruction initiated and eviscerated the laws of freedom that would have extended democracy to freed slaves. Until the 1860s, the United States was not only an expanding but also a slaveholding nation . In the republican vision of a nation composed of small independent.producers, suspicion ran deep both against the ranks of the powerful and the powerless. One rarely sung verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that Francis Scott Key based on the British military's use of mercenaries and freed slaves to burn down the White House during the War of 1812 says: No refuge could save the hireling and the slave From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave6 Back when this verse was written in 1814, "hireling" was a term of disgrace. Those gradations of dependency that whites experienced during the eighteenth century, such as apprenticeship , impressment, indentured servitude, farm tenancy, and convict labor, Roediger argues, prevented the drawing of hard distinctions between an "idealized white worker and a pitied or scorned servile black worker." Many eighteenth-century whites worked as servants, the same term used with the modifier "perpetual" or "negro" to describe blacks.? Racial attitudes during the eighteenth century were more contradictory and promiscuous than they later became given the galling varieties of "unfreedom" whites experienced as well as the popular denunciation of "slavery" which flourished in anti-British rhetoric of the revolutionary era. From 1800 to 1860, the gradual transition into an economy in which wage labor became widespread, and the class of "hireling" expanded dramatically, produced...


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