David Roediger teaches history and African American Studies at the University of Illinois. He has written on U.S. movements for a shorter working day, on labor and poetry, on the history of radicalism, and on the racial identities of white workers and of immigrants. His books include Our Own Time, The Wages of Whiteness, Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, How Race Survived U.S. History, and most recently The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History (co-authored with Elizabeth Esch). Roediger has been active in the surrealist movement, labor support, and anti-racist organizing. He is considered one of the founders of critical whiteness studies.
Jesse Phillippe: Prof. Roediger, thanks so much for taking the time to discuss your work with me. Many Americans think our country’s racist past is long gone, especially after Obama’s two election victories. But the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and Georgia’s 2011 execution of Troy Davis indicate maybe it isn't. What are your thoughts on where we stand today?
Roediger: Such tragedies as those of Davis and Martin remind us of the continuation of racism dramatically. Both such instances and the broader trends that produce them are important. When I wrote How Race Survived U.S. History in 2008 I kept near my computer a post-it note with just two social facts scribbled on it. The disparity of white wealth to African American wealth was seven-fold in favor of whites and the disparity in incarceration rates for young men across racial lines made American Americans seven times as likely to be imprisoned. Today the wealth gap is greater still and the prison gap remains obscene. With such continuing patterns in place it is very unlikely that a nation with such a long history of white supremacy could somehow become “colorblind.”
JP: What are the major themes of your recent (May 2012) book The Production of Difference: Race and The Management of Labor in U.S. History? In what ways does race management still factor into labor management today, and how can understanding this history help us now?
Roediger: That book looks at the history of management from about 1830 to 1930. In it, my co-author Elizabeth Esch and I examine how masters of slave plantations, railroad builders in the U.S. West, those running U.S. factories and mines with overwhelmingly immigrant labor forces, and U.S. managers operating overseas consistently claimed that knowledge of race mattered in the extraction of increased production. Often this meant, as John Commons, the founder of labor history in the U.S. put it a century ago, “playing one race against the other.” While the book stops well short of the present, it was very much inspired by thinking about the patterns of management we see in low-wage and high risk work in the present. In such labor astonishingly diverse labor forces are pushed for ever-increasing productivity, for example in meatpacking, hotel and restaurant labor, and agriculture—now with the added dimension that the workers involved can often be victimized because they are “illegal.”
JP: The Production of Difference talks about the early beginnings of a faux-color blindness in the labor management practices of Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford. Please summarize your views on the historical effectiveness and significance of colorblind policies.
Roediger: Colorblind remains an oddly revealing word. On the one hand it suggests that differences really exist regarding race and color but that liberalism or fairness in seeing only merit and productivity override or even annul differences. The historical pattern of Ford, for example, was different. He created multiracial workforces, though only in some plants, and at times pledged that since only the work mattered everyone was treated the same. But mostly he very much exploited Black workers differently from white workers, concentrating them in the hot, dangerous work of the foundry, respecting color bars in housing in neighborhoods near the plants and in the South, and meddling in the private and community lives of African American workers long after his company had largely stopped doing so for immigrant workers.
JP: Your most famous book, Wages of Whiteness (1991), discusses W. E. B. Du Bois’ concept of a “psychological wage” that white working people receive from racism. How has this psychological wage changed since the official end of Jim Crow segregation?
Roediger: Du Bois mentioned some practices, such as admittance to better public facilities, clearly tied to Jim Crow as part of the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness. At law, those absolute color bars no longer exist but the United States remains an overwhelmingly segregated nation in which dwindling public services and good jobs are still distributed along racial lines, even as they get less and less good for almost everyone.
JP: That book quotes Du Bois as suggesting that white Southern workers forget their interests which are “practically identical” with those of Black workers. To what extent have their interests been similar, and to what extent have they diverged, over the years? What’s been the trend in recent years?
Roediger: The question requires some care. The interest in overturning a regional social order in the South that was (and is) highly unequal even by U.S. standards was (and is) ‘practically identical” across the color line. Likewise the interest in a good city, a militant union, and a just society. But, as Du Bois understood, the appeals to poor whites did involve their getting some relative benefits. At the time he wrote many white textile workers employed African American maids in their homes. The color bar in textiles reserved those jobs, which were terrible in terms of wages, occupational health, and repression of labor organization, for whites. The color bar also channeled Black women workers into even more exploitative domestic service jobs, at times in working class white households. White workers had an interest in the arrangements of the Jim Crow order and an interest in breaking from them.
JP: You’ve been known to apply psychoanalytic theory to questions of race and racism; in 2013 America, how widespread do you think unconscious and subconscious racism are? What are some good examples?
Roediger: My use of psychoanalysis—Du Bois by the way was quite influenced by Freud when he wrote of a “psychological wage”—is more geared to understanding the excess of commitment, and violence attending that commitment, to white supremacy at times shown by working people getting little materially out of the social order. I think it is true that well-meaning people often subconsciously hold racist views but that’s not a focus of my writing. Instead I have tried, like George Rawick and James Baldwin, to think about how projecting a desire for joy and a hatred of work onto Blacks has been complicit in making whites not come to terms with the miseries of alienated labor in their own lives.
JP: Wages of Whiteness also described the phenomenon of “blackface-on-black” violence, in which mobs of white men sometimes wore blackface when terrorizing Black communities. I find this particularly puzzling. You hypothesize that this was done out of a deep self-hatred among the white population resulting from their hidden admiration for Black culture. What new insights can you provide on this phenomenon since the publication of Wages? And how does it factor into your larger psychoanalysis of racism?
Roediger: Psychoanalytically, there was a lot going on with blackface. In its main nineteenth century form—at times as the most popular U.S. entertainment—it involved professional and amateur performers smearing greasy black substances on their bodies in order to borrow from, profit from, have fun with, and degrade African American culture. The smearing, some scholars argue, recalled infantile polymorphous sexuality, including playing with excrement. The shows more simply reflected a projection onto Blacks of all sorts of longings and fears that white workers undergoing the wrenching new discipline of industrial capitalism themselves felt. In disguise they could be cross-dressed, footloose, near to nature, openly sad and vulnerable, homesick, sexual, uncaring about work, profligate in spending—all the things their culture made it hard to express—by being Black for a moment. They could then wipe that identity off. Such projection, while often admiring of African American culture, was itself an act of white violence, making the racial other a plaything. It was also deeply associated with misery as it evaded the real problems of proletarianization. When racist mobs at times adopted blackface in the pre-Civil War years, as did the Klan in the South at times after the war, the claims to fashioning a racial order with no regard for African Americans themselves eventuated in literal violence as well.
JP: Now that Latinos are an increasingly important third community in the US, what ideas from your works are most useful for understanding this more complex contemporary scene?
Roediger: My recent work on race and management includes, for the period from 1917 until the Great Depression especially, substantial material on racialized management of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and the use of border controls and deportations against Mexicans. Much of my recent speaking is also attempting to argue that Black-Latino solidarity (and that among other groups not categorized as white) may now be the most important form of interracial solidarity. While whiteness is historically important, and still important, to how class domination unfolds in the U.S., to place it always at the center distorts matters, especially now.
JP: There are Black intellectuals and public figures, like Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Julianne Malveaux, who are frequently critical of Obama’s policies. How does such criticism affect public consciousness generally and minority communities in particular?
Roediger: I think this criticism is important even when it does not immediately win people over, and even when it may not exactly know what it wants to win people over to. It is honest and courageous and often moves us toward an understanding that structural and systemic problems are more vital than personal appeals of a leader.
JP: How do you view the Occupy Movement, the Chicago Teachers strike, protests against school closings, and other recent social movements?
Roediger: I think Occupy was a very important expression of many things—reaction to the incredible accumulation of wealth at the top of a miserable social order, debt, unemployment, new patterns of precarious lives reaching far into the middle class, the pressing need for Marxism and anarchism to speak to each other, a real desire for a new society, and more. Forms like it will be back and in many cases have not gone away. I know many of the exemplary activists in the Chicago Teachers Union struggle and other struggles in the state’s educational system, including an organizing drive at my university. It does not diminish the importance of what is being done to say that without decisive motion outside public sector unions, the best of struggles will still be largely defensive ones. I especially applaud the community base that so energized the Chicago strike.
JP: What organizing and/or protest methods do you predict will be used in the near future to combat the social ills that continue to plague minority communities?
Roediger: I think and hope that, as the courts shred the last bits of affirmative action as a policy, a strong movement for reparations for slavery will mature. If that movement includes a call to make the places where the minority poor live into healthy environments it can produce results that unite working people across lines of race. It may also be—that is, one hopes—that the now nearly total defeat of private sector unions will create space for new forms of militant working class protest led by the working poor and far less attuned to business as usual in terms of tactics.
JP: Thank you for your time. Your comments have been very enlightening.
Roediger: Thanks for your very thoughtful questions.