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  • American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor
  • Bruce Laurie
American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor. By Jacqueline Jones (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 1998. 543pp. $29.95).

American Work is a bold and ambitious synthesis of African-American experience on the job from Jamestown to the present. Based on an exhaustive reading of a vast secondary literature in conjunction with primary materials, it offers an unusually rich and singularly comprehensive picture of African Americans at work, thanks to Jacqueline Jones’s gift for weaving the parts into the whole. The [End Page 199] density of the text alone—its sharp cameo sketches and engaging stories—make this well worth the lengthy read that it is. Its consistent and unerring focus on the effects of different expressions of white racism makes this book an important addition to the voluminous literature on our most stubborn and controversial problem. Jones does not shy away from such controversy. An intrepid egalitarian and racial liberal who writes from conviction, she condemns the white racism she brings into view and forthrightly engages recent criticism of the modern civil rights movement and affirmative action programs.

The most rewarding sections of American Work have to do with the origins and development of chattel slavery, the immiseration of black workers in the antebellum North, and the reversal of economic fortune faced by black workers (who had tasted some post-World War II prosperity) following the urban crisis of the 1970s. The treatment of slavery’s antecedents and development is simply masterful. Having digested the daunting body of literature on the topic, Jones hews a thoughtful and inventive path between those who argue that racism “caused” slavery and those who argue that slavery “caused” racism by deliberately working through the dialectical relationship between these categories. She reminds us that modern slavery followed over a century of experimentation with other forms of labor dependency from indentured servitude to imported contract labor, stressing the “piecemeal” development of African American enslavement in the South following the 1660s. She historicizes slavery based on race by emphasizing its shifting economic and demographic context, by calling attention to the doubts and fears it initially evoked, and by stressing physical force and cruelty, and not paternalism, as the primary means of discipline and control once it took root. Paternalism, she argues, came later in the 18th century in response to the growing racial divide in the South. Her discussion of the social decline of free blacks in the antebellum North in the beginnings of the market revolution and subsequent influx of European immigration is arguably the most elegant tableau of its kind currently in print. It profusely and carefully documents the making of a “separate black labor market” (p. 258), as well as the attendant protest from such activists as Frederick Douglass. Along the way Jones rejects the current fashion of blaming Northern white workers and them alone for the region’s emergent racism by demonstrating independent and convergent sources of white supremacy on the part of opportunist politicians as well as bourgeois urbanites fearful of “disorder,” among other actors.

No less impressive is Jones’s comprehensive picture of the status of African Americans after World War II. She assembles a complex but accessible pattern of deepening social and economic segregation followed by some occupational improvement in the vaunted post-war boom coincident with the massive outmigration of blacks from the South and the subsequent civil rights movement. She argues that the major New Deal labor reforms didn’t apply to occupations laden with African Americans, that even the most liberal industrial unions didn’t help black labor much, and that African Americans didn’t benefit substantially from new opportunities in defense work. In addition, and perhaps most tragically, the entry of African Americans into unionized and remunerative jobs in industry after the war was followed around 1970 by massive disinvestment of capital in cities and by accelerated suburbanization of jobs, which stranded blacks in urban [End Page 200] squalor. Readers will have to search hard for a better overview of this disastrous chapter in African-American history.

It is safe to say, however, that the vigorous defense of...

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