David Roediger is the Kendrick C. Babcock Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is more widely known as the "the leading US historian of racism" (as Joe Feagin puts it), as well as the most productive and influential figure in "critical whiteness studies." Roediger defines this area of analysis this way:
The critical examination of whiteness, academic and not, simply involves the effort to break through the illusion that whiteness is natural, biological, normal, and not crying out for explanation. Instead of accepting what James Baldwin called the "lie of whiteness," many people in lots of different fields and movement activities have tried to productively make it into a problem. When did (some) people come to define themselves as white? In what conditions? How does the lie of whiteness get reproduced? What are its costs politically, morally and culturally?
Roediger's many books and articles include the groundbreaking The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History; Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past; and Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Become White.
His most recent book, and the occasion for this interview, was published this month by Verso: How Race Survived US History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon.
macon: Your new book seemed very rich in detail and information—I learned a great deal from it—but at 240 pages, it’s also pretty short. Did you sometimes feel as you were writing that you were leaving too much out?
david: I began with the idea of writing a very short introductory book on race in the U.S.—perhaps 125 pages—and an editor who maintained that there was a much bigger audience willing to spend three hours reading such a short book on race than one willing to spend six hours on a longer book. In the end it proved impossible to keep to that very brief length, though the book still tries for an easy accessibility, and it’s without footnotes.
One reason it had to be a “six-hour” book is that I very much wanted it to treat more than the African American/white color line and to include the history of settler colonialism and American Indians, of anti-immigrant racism, of empire and race, and of the deep connections between race and gender in the U.S. past. With so much on the table, it did feel at times that there was also more to say. In particular the book speaks more to the roots of race thinking in unequal social relation—in what white people do, to use your terrific blog’s language—than to the intellectual history of race.
macon: This book takes an approach to race and history that I don’t think I’ve seen before. Like many other recent historians, you do explain how the artificial concept of race gained such salience and power, and then how it’s privileged white people and harmed non-white people in many ways throughout U.S. history. But you’re more focused here on how the concept of race has “survived” a series of apparent threats to its existence. The book also focuses less centrally than much of your previous work has on whiteness in U.S. history. Can you explain what led you to this different approach?
david: Popularly, and the book is meant for a popular audience, I think that a major prop of white supremacy has become the sense that race is over, or almost over. I wanted to look at the evidence of deep inequality suggesting that it isn’t, and also to show how much of U.S. history has featured dynamics—a revolutionary tradition, emancipation of slaves, mass immigration, the need for multiracial labor, civil rights legislation—that seemed to challenge and potentially undermine, race. The ways in which race mutated and persisted therefore command our attention and they suggest that premature obituaries for race have long been written.
macon: Okay, I’d like to ask, In a more or less chronological way, about some of the book’s moments that stood out for me, and then later about how you see race still surviving today, and into the future, especially in light of “the Obama phenomenon.”
You point out that in the 1600s, Christianity played a big part in the establishment of racial difference, and especially of white supremacy. You even write at one point, “The term ‘Christian’ increasingly meant ‘white.’” Could you summarize how that happened, and how Christianity and race were sort of tied together?
david: Taking the labor and land of colonized and enslaved peoples could be justified either by the sense that victims were “heathens” (not Christian) or “savages” (not using land for farming and especially for commercial agriculture). While separate, these rationales overlapped. In the colonial period few attempts were made to converts slaves to Christianity, again making for a symmetry between white and Christian.
macon: I thought your focus on “contagious liberty” was very revealing. Could you explain how freedom, which is still so fundamental to how America thinks of itself, was thought of at the time as “contagious”?
david: Many revolutionaries reported, either with alarm or joy, that the idea of freedom spread into the minds of slaves, women, sailors, and the poor generally as the nation was founded. However those groups were often repressed by powerful forces and kept apart and powerless. Some liberatory contagion did occur, with the Northern states mostly moving at least gradually to abolish slavery for example, but the contagion of expansion onto Indian land, increasingly justified by a sense of revolutionary mission, was the more tragic result.
macon: Many different factors influenced the establishment of what you write of later in the book as the ongoing fact of white supremacy today. Aside from Christianity, two other factors that seem central to your argument about how race took on such significance are gender and labor. How did these elements play a part before America was even a country?
david: Though brutal from the outset, New World slavery, as the great historian C.L. R. James long ago remarked, was not originally based on notions of African inferiority. Slaveowners acknowledged the abilities of African workers—and the skills of specific ethnic groups in Africa—and acted on a desire for African labor, even at great expense. Nor did the white poor in say, 1650, think that they were so different from Africans they labored beside as to preclude socializing, sleeping, marrying, fleeing and rebelling together.
To control rebellious labor of both races, authorities in the key colony of Virginia turned to greater use of African slave labor and greater elaboration in laws of the relative privileges of white labor, creating a new racial divide, before and after Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. To define the intersections of race and gender was a central part of the process. Interracial relationships were criminalized harshly and the fact that children’s status followed that of their mothers was made clear. African women typically could give birth only to slaves and “white” women would give birth only to free people.
macon: I found your analysis of different drafts of the Declaration of Independence revealing about how race was already helping to frame political thought at the time, especially about the identity of the U.S. itself, about what kind of country its elite makers wanted it to become. What did you find about the significance of race at the time by looking at different drafts of this foundational document?
david: A few textbooks mention that Jefferson’s draft Declaration culminated in antislavery language, albeit displacing blame onto England and away from American slaveholders. But the ease with which even such self-interested language was jettisoned in the interest of placating slaveholders is seldom examined, and the anti-Native American language of the Declaration almost always goes unremarked.
macon: As your book moves on into the industrial revolution, you focus on the connections and parallels between two spheres of sorts that are normally thought of as separate—the agricultural, slave-owning economy of the South, and the industrial, worker-driven economy of the North. In particular, you point out the North’s admiration for slave management practices, and the idea of “management” and race becomes a central focus of this chapter. Why does the management of workers play such a big part here?
david: The chapter on race, capitalism and management argues against the idea that because capital cares mostly about rational matters like efficiency, productivity and profit, it is therefore somehow an enemy to the irrationality of race-thinking and to color bars keeping people of color out of some jobs. From slavery and the fur trade forward, managers thought of the working bodies that they attempted to control as raced, not as abstract units of labor. They often pitted workers of one race or ethnicity against others in managing labor. This pattern increased in later periods of expanding immigration, empire and industry.
macon: The end of slavery would obviously seem like an event that really challenged white America’s ideas about race, as well as changing the fate and circumstances of black people. Yet again, though, race “survived” this historical moment, and in many ways things didn’t get better at all—they just changed. Which of the aspects or events of the Reconstruction era that caused that to happen especially caught your attention?
david: For me the extent and effectiveness of white supremacist terror, particularly targeting political activists and successful figures in the Black community, remains the untold story of Reconstruction. Because the early Republican Party so featured people who were on fire about profit, this terror (and the promise to turn it off) became a way to convince enough Republicans that a stable, governable and profitable South had to involve a return to white supremacy.
macon: I noticed that you didn’t go so far as Douglas Blackmon does in his recent book, Slavery by Another Name, in directly stating and illustrating ways in which slavery didn’t really end with the Emancipation Proclamation. If you’re familiar with Blackmon’s work, do you think he overstates his case? Or do you agree, but maybe just put what happened in different terms?
david: I think the emancipation, even with the tragic backward motion of the 1870s. 80s and 90s, actually mattered greatly. It was the force of freedom—largely won through slaves’ own efforts-- and its long-lasting possibilities that made the turn to new regimes of racial terror, incarceration and segregation necessary to maintain elite white rule. Even the horrors of sharecropping differed much from slavery, in that workers were no longer routinely whipped in the fields, and freed people often elected to withdraw the field labor of women workers.
macon: The subtitle of your chapter that moves into the twentieth century is, “How Race Survived Mass Immigration.” How did the waves of immigration, especially the ones that we in this so-called “nation of immigrants” hear so much about from Europe, threaten the idea of race? And also, how did they instead solidify it?
david: What a great pair of questions! The fact that elites, and sometimes working people themselves, made invidious racial distinctions among Europeans potentially fractured whiteness. All such immigrants, including those especially suspect ones from Ireland and later from eastern and southern Europe, were “white” according to naturalization law, but in accessing jobs, good schooling and neighborhoods, they were often treated as much “less white” than the native-born. Getting firmly on the more favorable side of the color line often became a conscious effort among immigrant communities as they learned the racial hierarchies of the U.S.
macon: You write that the “Irish became white—twice.” How did that happen, and why do you find that significant?
david: Sharply under suspicion of being racially inferior in the eyes of their British colonizers, the Irish coming to the early U.S. were considered, Catholic or Protestant, to be white under naturalization law of their new country. But by the 1840s and 50s, with the mass migration of mostly Catholic Irish, often under dire, desperate conditions, the question of whether the Irish were fully white reemerged in the U.S., only to be solved over a period of decades as the Irish took advantage of voting rights to build alliances and political power in U.S. cities to establish their whiteness a second time. The case of the Irish suggests that being from Europe did not wholly prevent “racial” slights, but that it did confer political privileges vital to leaving such slights behind.
macon: In your overview of the mid-twentieth century, you discuss the connections between “liberalism,” “colorblindness,” and white supremacy. I think those two terms, liberal and especially colorblind, have a much more recent, contemporary feel for a lot of Americans, but you show that they already had a lot of currency back then. Could you explain these earlier uses of these terms, especially colorblindness, and what they said about race back then?
david: In the 1800s “liberal” referred to a supporter of a society based on contracts and self-interest more nakedly than “republicans,” who valued the possibility of a post-Revolution U.S. built on community and sacrifice, did. The modern usages of “liberal” and implications of colorblindness get interesting in the 1930s though. New Deal reformers, in need of the votes of white segregationist Democrats, capitulated to leaving the contours of Southern, and much of Northern, racism intact. What modern racial liberalism offered then was inclusion in some welfare programs, and some industrial unions, but on unequal bases. Indeed when the logic of colorblindness was invoked it did not imply equal treatment but rather a denial of any need or possibility of taking specific matters to more fully include people of color.
macon: Late in your book, you see a lot of historical resonance in John McCain’s defense, all the way up until 2000, of the term “gook.” What can an understanding of history teach us about that term, and more generally perhaps, about recent political deployments of Asian American stereotypes?
david: I wrote a short history of “gook” some years ago in Monthly Review, emphasizing that its long history, probably dating from the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, featured the dehumanizing racial slur following imperial adventures around, sometimes being applied in Central America as well as in Asia. McCain’s long-time insistence on using the term to refer to the people whom he bombed seems never to have hurt his political prospects. Among the many dangers of new anti-Asian attitudes is that they coincide with massive U.S. debt to China and great potential for conflict when that debt is collected.
macon: You’ve written before about Rush Limbaugh’s racist handlings of black politicians, and African Americans more generally. He’s extreme, but I think his methods are pretty typical of right-wing pundits and talk-show hosts—people like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Michelle Malkin, Michael Savage, and so on (it’s interesting how impossible it is to come up with anything like a similar list of well-known left-wing pundits) . If Obama wins the election, do you think it will cause such people to skulk off in defeat in terms of race, or will they instead change their tactics? Or might they just continue with the same ones?
david: There has been a ratcheting-up of racist and xenophobic appeals during the campaign. Obama, as Pedro Caban argues, is subject not only to anti-Black racism from the right but also to an association with closeness to immigration and to being “not one of us”--the flag pin, Limbaugh’s conflations of his name with Osama, the falsities circulating over his religion. The economic crisis is already now and will be increasingly the focus of scapegoating of people of color, as in the recent attempts to lay the subprime crisis at the doorstep of people of color, characterized as “undeserving” of the loans they got.
macon: An Obama presidency will obviously be a “game-changer” in terms of race in America—another of the kind of potential watershed historical moments that structure your book. Do you think he’s shown promise so far as a leader who can really make a difference in how race survives, and in the ongoing prevalence of white supremacy?
david: This is an election of great symbolic import and the possibilities it shows, for example, in Black-Latino unity defeating the white right-wing will inspire struggles at all levels. The extent that the Republican coalition of investors and the religiously saved, of the money-changers and the born-again, is rapidly unraveling in the face of connected crises of empire and economy will become clear.
On the other hand, Obama has so far shown little ability to separate himself from the politics of corporate bailouts and imperial investments. More specifically, he has apparently felt constrained not to dwell on the tremendous gaps between white wealth and that of people of color in campaigning, and has proposed very little that is concrete in policy terms to close such gaps. Presidential two-party politics may be the absolute worst place to build a movement meaningfully, and one that would specifically address the plight of the African American and immigrant poor. If Obama is to be “forced into glory” of articulating reforms improving the lives of those at the bottom of society, lots of organizing from below will be needed.
macon: Towards the end of your book, you refer at one point to “affirmative action’s ghost.” Do you think this strategy toward equity still has any life in it that could be resuscitated? Or do you think newer or different strategies should be pushed for?
david: Affirmative action seems likely to survive in some corporations and in the armed forces, but it is greatly hamstrung in public institutions, including educational ones, by court decisions and the lack of any vigorous defense of the policy by political leaders. The recent split Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action in higher education defined permissible continuation of the policy not mainly in terms of racial justice, but rather of temporarily providing diverse educational experiences for majority students. Agitation, it seems to me, should increasingly turn to going on the offensive regarding issues like reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, federally engineered housing discrimination, and color bars in employment, than on staying on the defensive regarding affirmative action.
macon: As a historian, you’re obviously used to taking the long view, and I’d like to ask about your long view of the future. In your book’s afterword, you cite some recent prognostications by Orlando Patterson in the New Republic and the New York Times. In the course of pointing out several contradictions in his logic, you summarize the main points of his two articles this way: “Race will vanish—but whiteness will persist.”
How did he end up making such contradictory points? And is this kind of paradoxical thinking about race widespread now? If so, where else do you see it happening?
david: I think Patterson, often an acute writer, sometimes loses track of the fact that whiteness is itself a racial position. He writes, for example, of people of color in some utopian/dystopian future being able to alter their appearances to not be recognizable as nonwhite. To me this signifies a continuation of race, not its disappearance.
The confusions and contradictions regarding race abound. Take, for example, the writing by pundits on the presidential campaign. On the one hand, since Obama’s early triumphs in Iowa, there’s been much talk of his popularity heralding an “end of race.” At the same time, voting behavior by people of color has been reduced to ridiculous, unexamined stereotypes. When polls showed majority Black support for Clinton over Obama early in the campaign, we were told that his mixed race status made him “not Black enough” in African American voters’ eyes. When he did get the huge majority of Black votes, the equally oversimplified story became that Blacks vote on racial lines for other African Americans. In the primaries, Clinton’s edge over Obama was said to reflect an insurmountable Black-Latino divide. Now that Obama seems poised to win the huge majority of Latino votes, we don’t hear so much about that.
macon: Finally, your book’s ending implies that despite the Obama phenomenon, race is going to survive for a long time to come. Is there any hope for at least ameliorating some of its more pernicious effects? If so, do you have hope for any concrete forms of resistance and/or change?
david: As much as the economic crisis—and the huge outlays already made to corporations and banks—promise to create a logic that says little social spending can occur, we must make an alternative case that the austerity absolutely requires bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, cutting military/imperial spending dramatically, and ending the scandalous expenditures for prison expansion. To link these demands with spending to rebuild urban communities and to provide relief for people of color hit disproportionately hard by the subprime mortgage crisis would bring together social forces promisingly. The wonderful New Orleans slogan MAKE LEVEES NOT WAR, is, in the context of white supremacy’s role in the neglect and the selective rebuilding of that city, something of a model of connecting issues and people simply and practically.
macon: Thank you so much for your time, Professor Roediger.
Online items of interest by David Roediger:
- "What Effect Would Obama's Election Have on Race Relations?" (History News Network)
- "Race Will Survive the Obama Phenomenon" (The Chronicle Review)
- "Gook: The Short History of an Americanism" (Monthly Review)
- "An Interview with David Roediger: Working Toward Whiteness" (Counterpunch)
- "Understanding Racism Today: an Interview with David Roediger" (Political Affairs)