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  • Up From Exclusion: Black and White Workers, Race, and the State of Labor History
  • Eric Arnesen (bio)

Over a quarter century ago, historian Herbert Gutman complained with good reason about the “absence of detailed knowledge of the ‘local world’ inhabited by white and Negro workers” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 1 The studies of black urban communities that were proliferating within African-American historiography had relegated black workers to the margins of community development led by black professionals and middle-class activists. Within labor history, an older tradition influenced by industrial relations scholarship emphasized institutional union structures and paid little attention to rank-and-file workers of any race. With the exception of a few studies, black workers remained largely outside the traditional narratives of labor history, entering the picture only as strikebreakers or as a “problem” that white labor had to confront. Writing in 1969, a year after Gutman, James Gross similarly complained that a quarter century’s scholarship on the subject merely “amounted to classifications of the racial practices of organized labor: laissez faire, equalitarian, discriminatory, or those unions excluding Negroes by constitutional provision or bylaws.” What was needed, Gross proposed, were explorations not of “attitudes toward the Negro workers . . . but the ideas and ideals of the Negro worker.” 2 In the ensuing decade, the first flowering of the new labor history revolutionized the study of the American working class, but through the early 1980s, its emphasis lay with skilled artisans, white industrial workers, and immigrant communities. With few exceptions, neither black workers nor race were the focus of attention, and the agenda proposed by Gutman and Gross remained unaddressed. 3

Since the late 1980s, labor historians themselves have grown increasingly critical of their field’s failure to address issues of race. Inspired in part by the writings of the former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) labor secretary-turned-academic, Herbert Hill, they charge that labor history has a serious “race problem.” Over the years, Hill has offered the strongest academic criticism of the American labor movement’s racial practices and, recently, of the new labor history for its treatment of race and racism. Hill has repeatedly denounced white trade unions as racist [End Page 146] vehicles for excluding black, Asian, and other minority workers. At the same time, he charged labor historians with denying the centrality of race because of their blind devotion to Marxist social theory. 4 Hill’s charges have struck a deep chord. The new labor history, Noel Ignatiev similarly argues, has treated racism as “peripheral to the main line of working-class formation and struggle.” Historians’ search for “the famous ‘usable past’” has led them to “denial, and denial [has] led to apologetics.” 5

If the late 1960s complaints of Gutman and Gross accurately reflected a paucity of scholarship, the same cannot be said of the 1990s charges. The characterizations of labor history’s encounter with race by such writers as Hill, Ignatiev, and David Roediger are, to say the least, overdrawn. There is no denying that the first generation of new labor historians did not put white labor’s racial practices and beliefs or minority workers’ perspectives and strategies at the top of its research agenda. Today, however, these issues are central topics in their own right. Since the mid 1980s, labor historians have begun to engage issues of race in significant ways. The past decade has witnessed a veritable outpouring of new scholarship on trade union racial practices, black and other minority workers’ experiences and activism, and on white working-class racial identity. Far from being the academic backwater it was in the late 1960s, the study of race and labor has become an academic growth industry. “Scholarship on race in American labor history steadily grows in quantity and quality,” concluded Joe Trotter, Jr. and Alan Dawley in a recent special issue of Labor History devoted to race and class. “Every month seems to bring added understanding of the intersections of race and class, racial segmentation of the labor market, and the impact of race on culture and community.” 6 What is striking is not only that the scholarship on race and labor is...

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pp. 146-174
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