Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 98-99
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The Politics of Whiteness Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South. By Michelle Brattain. Princeton University Press, 2001. 301 pp. Cloth $35.00
For decades, outside observers have wondered why white southern workers in the twentieth century have so willingly supported demagogues and reactionaries who offered them nothing but appeals to racial pride. In particular, many have asked, why did working class southerners follow a couple of decades of support for New Deal liberalism with a virulent, and sometimes violent, swing to the right? For most commentators, an unthinking racism blinded whites to their true economic interests. In The Politics of Whiteness, Michelle Brattain challenges this assumption by focusing on the ways that white supremacy brought genuine economic and psychological benefits to cotton mill-hands in Rome, Georgia. Using union records, newspaper articles, and government documents, Brattain argues that whiteness, far from being a troublesome distraction, was at the core of the white worker's place in the South.
In a narrative that is briskly written, closely argued, and generally persuasive, Brattain follows white mill workers through some of the most volatile periods in southern politics—from the general strikes of the depression years to wartime mobilization, postwar labor militancy, and into the Civil Rights era. To unravel this tangled political thread, she concentrates on white mill workers in a particular place—Rome, Georgia. This community focus allows Brattain to explore differences between firms and even individual workers, and it also allows her to include actors who are often slighted in labor histories. Local newspapermen, politicians, black activists, and town merchants all play an important part in this story of working class racial identity.
As The Politics of Whiteness moves forward, we learn why so many mill-hands cheered for Eugene Talmadge, sat out the 1934 General Strike, ignored race baiting, supported the liberal Congress of Industrial Organizations (cio), crossed picket lines, and campaigned for George Wallace. The thread that holds these stories [End Page 98] together is Brattain's argument that race, and whiteness in particular, defined wage work for most southerners for historical and structural reasons. As early as the 1880s, industrialists and town boosters justified mill-building campaigns as a way to improve the economic lot of local whites. Thus, wage work, racial solidarity, and company paternalism were interrelated from the beginning. Over the years, the racial make-up of the industrial workforce—the textile industry reserved all non-custodial jobs for white workers—gave race a special economic reality. It also gave white workers a stake in the racial status quo. This intraracial bargain meant more than just not having to compete with African Americans for jobs; it also implied that mill owners had a duty to consider the welfare of the (white) community along with their profit margin. So central was race to southern conceptions of industrial wage work, Brattain maintains, that it often remained, at first glance, implicit.
The whiteness of millwork had an added side effect. During the heyday of the cio in the 1930s and 1940s, white workers were able to ignore management attempts at race baiting during battles over unionization. They knew that in an all white industry, an organized workforce was likely to protect white jobs. "Race mixing" was simply not an issue. In the years that followed, the organization of even a few mills produced surprising results. Even in a region replete with desperate poverty, intransigent mill owners, and hostile judges, unions were able to transfer their gains in the workplace to the political realm. Indeed, one of Brattain's biggest contributions is her discovery that even politicians who castigated "Big Labor" on the stump were willing to quietly pull strings, pressure judges, and call in favors to help what was, after all, an organized bloc of voters. In this instance, at least, the Georgia Democratic party was expansive enough to include a liberal organization, even if this inclusion was often covert.
In short, Brattain argues that white workers had a big investment in Jim Crow. No wonder...