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The Journal of African American History on David Roediger's How Race Survived US History

Clara Heyworth 4 April 2011

In a recent review for The Journal of African American History, Gerald Horne recommends David R. Roediger's How Race Survived US History as a book to be relied upon for "much needed historical perspective" as the Obama presidency plays out. And with Obama's 2012 reelection campaign having officially kicked off today (and with The Hill suggesting he "would probably do well to steer clear of race in general during his upcoming reelection season"), now seems as good a time as any to pick up How Race Survived US History ...

Historian David Roediger has a rare scholarly distinction for it is he who invented—almost by himself—a discrete field of scholarship: the now proliferating field of "whiteness" studies. It is Roediger who dared to pose the freighted question that had eluded so many others: how was it that those who had been warring on the shores of Europe—English versus Irish; French versus German; Russian versus Pole; Serb versus Croat—became "white" upon reaching the US shores, thus lessening the tensions that had plunged them previously into massive bloodletting? This process was inextricably connected with another quite familiar to readers of this journal: i.e., the lessening of tension between and among those of European descent on the altar of distinguishing themselves sharply from—and shamelessly exploiting—those of African, indigenous, and Asian ancestry.

Roediger has explored this fraught topic in a celebrated series of books and articles and, to be fair, has invented this field in conjunction with an array of other progressive scholars, including Theodore Allen, Alexandor Saxton, Noel Ignatiev, and others. And to be even fairer, these writers have all been inspired by an assertion made by W. E. B. Du Bois almost a century ago that underpinned his own considerable body of work: "The discovery of personal whiteness among the world's peoples," he said, "is a very modern thing," as "the ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction."

In [How Race Survived US History], his latest work, Roediger builds upon this original insight of Du Bois and, in the process, expands his consideration of a concept that has occupied a good deal of his worthy career. He does this by exploring the interlinked concepts of "race" and its evil twin, "racism," over the centuries in the United States, and, like many who have trod this path, he begins by expending considerable energy in excavating colonial Virginia, the dispossession of indigenes, the enslavement of Africans, and the resultant tensions with elites of European origin.

Roediger then traces this skein over the centuries, ending with the November 2008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency, a race which featured a quite striking primary in South Carolina—of all places—where supporters of the candidate chanted "Race Doesn't Matter." Despite the verbal tense of this curious phrase, it may be best to see it as representing aspirations, rather than a description of today's racist reality. Still, Roediger is correct to raise a red flag about this episode—and what it may portend. For example, those of us who know of the tenure of the first Jewish prime minister of Great Britain, Benjamin Disraeli, remember all too well the inordinate pressure placed upon him by Christian elites (in particular) to demonstrate his sympathy for them by displaying a maximum aggression towards their real and imagined foes such as during the Bulgarian crisis with predominantly Islamic Turkey in the 1870s. The previous Democratic Party presidential victor, Bill Clinton, felt compelled to demonstrate that he could "stand up" to African Americans in the despicable controversies involving the state-sanctioned murder of Ricky Ray Rector and a contretemps with the rapper then known as "Sister Souljah." Scholars and activists will have to pay close attention to ensure that such pressures are not placed on the current occupant of the White House to display his alleged mettle by assaulting those most responsible for his victory.

And as this process unfolds, these scholars and activists will be able to rely upon this book for much needed historical perspective. Based heavily on an acute reading and insightful interpretation of a vast array of the secondary literature, this book is a worthy addition to Roediger's formidable oeuvre.

Visit The Journal of African American History to subscribe to it in print. For more on the work and influence of David R. Roediger, see also the article published in the New Yorker in April 2010 entitled, "Beyond the Pale: Is White the New Black?" For more on Obama, see Tariq Ali's The Obama Syndrome—new and fully updated paperback edition forthcoming from Verso in the Fall. Also forthcoming in the Fall from Verso are new editions of Theodore Allen's The Invention of the White Race, volumes one and two.

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