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The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class

An original study of the formative years of working-class racism in the United States.

Combining classical Marxism, psychoanalysis, and the new labor history pioneered by E. P. Thompson and Herbert Gutman, David Roediger’s widely acclaimed book provides an original study of the formative years of working-class racism in the United States. This, he argues, cannot be explained simply with reference to economic advantage; rather, white working-class racism is underpinned by a complex series of psychological and ideological mechanisms that reinforce racial stereotypes, and thus help to forge the identities of white workers in opposition to Blacks.

In a new preface, Roediger reflects on the reception, influence, and critical response to The Wages of Whiteness, while Kathleen Cleaver’s insightful introduction hails the importance of a work that has become a classic.

Reviews

  • “The Celestine Prophecy of whiteness studies.”
  • “An extremely important and insightful book.”

Blog

  • Labor in White Skin: Race and Working-class History

    This essay was first published in The Year Left Vol. 3: Reshaping the US Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s, edited by Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker, and published by Verso in 1988. It was later reprinted in Roediger's Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History.



    The reality, the depth, and the persistence of the delusion of white supremacy in this country causes any real concept of education to be as remote, and as much to be feared, as change or freedom itself. What Black men here have always known is now beginning to be clear to the world. Whatever it is that white Americans want, it is not freedom — neither for themselves nor for others.

    ‘It’s you who'll have the blues,’ Langston Hughes said, ‘not me. Just wait and see.'

    James Baldwin (1980)[1]

    Despite the fact that the nineteenth century saw an upsurge in the power of the laboring classes and a fight toward economic equality and political democracy, this movement . . .  lagged far behind the accumulation of wealth, because in popular opinion labor was fundamentally degrading and the just burden of inferior peoples . . . It was bad enough to have the consequences of [racist] thought fall upon colored people the world over; but in the end it was even worse when one considers what this attitude did to the European worker. His aim and ideal was distorted. . . . He began to want not comfort for all men but power over other men. . . . He did not love humanity and he hated 'niggers'.

    W.E.B. DuBois (1946)[2] 

    “Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.”[3] That line from an 1866 letter to François Lafargue, and repeated in Capital, is perhaps the most quoted of Karl Marx’s observations about the United States. But the work of our labor historians, past or present, has done little to illuminate why Marx's aphorism not only has the ring of truth but that of a ringing truth, though one Marx did not pursue much in later years.

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  • Australia Day: Patrick Wolfe on the Racialisation of Indigenous People in Australia

    On the 26th January every year, people from all over Australia celebrate the founding of the British colony there. But what about the indigenous people who came before the British?

    In this unsettling extract from Patrick Wolfe's new book Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Racism, Wolfe focuses his attention on the process of racialisation of the indigenous people of Australia. This racialisation was a product of Britain's insatiable lust for land which would be used to cultivate the raw materials needed for the booming Industrial Revolution. In this way, settler colonialism was intrinsic to modernity. Yet, as Wolfe notes, "for Indigenous people, the concept of settler democracy can only be an oxymoron. Their attrition at the hands of that democracy reflects the core feature of settler colonialism, which is first and foremost a project of replacement. Settlers come to stay. In relation to Natives, as I have argued, settler colonialism is governed by a logic of elimination."



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  • Seizing Freedom—A Symposium

    The latest edition of the journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies includes a symposium on David Roediger's award winning radical history of Emancipation, Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All. David is Foundation Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Kansas. In 2015 Seizing Freedom was the winner of the Byron Caldwell Smith Book Award.


     

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Other books by David R. Roediger Introduction by Kathleen Cleaver Series edited by Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker