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Peter A. Chvany What We Talk About When We Talk About Whiteness (on David R. Roediger, The Wages ofWhiteness: Race and theMaking ofthe American Working Class [New York: Verso, 1991]; and Towards the Abolition ofWhiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History [New York: Verso, 1994]) Historian David Roediger's work on "whiteness" stakes out interesting and fruitful ground in a provocative, and by recent indications, burgeoning field of scholarship. I hope to outline some of that work's most useful features. But I also want to consider some historical and practicalquestions recentstudiesofwhiteness tend notto ask, or which they raise only to defer with varying degrees of optimism or anguish. What, if anything, about the current historical conjuncture helps explain the recent spate ofinvestigationsof"whiteness"? Whatis at stake in raising this topic now? What kind of study of whiteness is useful? Is there a politics associated with studying whiteness—and if so, what politics is it? What real leverage does the study of "whiteness" give a committed scholar, when the tendency of dominant cultures is to put serious questions about oppression—racial or otherwise—aside in favor of getting down to business as usual. The earlier of Roediger's two texts, The Wages ofWhiteness, is a unified book-length historical study which explores the fact that the radical workers' consciousness and practice of antebellum nineteenth-century working-classAmericans—not exclusively males—was often constituted by the assumption and maintenance of white supremacy. Political gains made by white lower classes thus often went hand in hand with extreme ideologies of racial oppression; by the same token, white workers often traded away opportunities for economic justice rather than lose race privilege. Though these observations are not entirely new—Roediger throughout acknowledges the influence of Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in identifying whiteness as a compensatory but illusory "wage"—their centrality to the analysis of labor history is. Serious consequences, for workers' movements and forAmerican culture at large, followed from such a "herrenvolk republicanism" (Wages 59). With this term Roediger adjusts Pierre L. van der Berghe's characterization of the racial hierarchy of modern apartheid states—by which those above the color line enjoy equalityprecisely because those below it do not—to the particular conditions of nineteenth-century U.S. society . Ultimately, Roediger argues not only that "working class formation and the systematic developmentofa sense ofwhiteness wenthand 50the minnesota review in hand for the U.S. white working class" (8), but that "working class 'whiteness' and white supremacy [were] creations, in part, of the white working class itself" (9). White supremacy thus has everything to do with the persistent failure of U.S. labor movements to produce fundamental and lasting social transformation. At the same time, Roediger shares with Du Bois an interest in repeated attempts by white workers at crucial points in history to understand, critique, and perhaps even repudiate their white privilege rather than exploit it against other groups. Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, the more recent volume, collects essays which extend these insights to reviews of "old" and "new" labor historiography (HerbertGutman, the Genoveses, Robin D.G. Kelley) and to a selection of further historical studies, some of which move into the early decades of the twentieth century. Beyond demonstrating that white people have a racial identity, and that this identity is socially, historically, and ideologically constructed—a sticking point of much of the recent work on whiteness—Roediger also begins to talk about how such constructions happen, and why, and what might be done about them.* What's most important about Roediger's work is the way it anticipates , synthesizes, and extends the insights and methods of other recent studies of whiteness. That his work overlaps with Alexander Saxton's and Ted Allen's is clear: all three authors share both a concern with the cardinal role of white racism in shaping U.S. history and a methodological commitment to non-reductive modes of class analysis. But despite their focus on race and class, both The Wages of Whiteness and Towards the Abolition ofWhiteness take care, like the work of Morrison or bell hooks, to investigate the role of gender oppression in the construction of race and class...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 49-55
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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