Free Essay Sample «The Wages of Whiteness»

«The Wages of Whiteness»


According to David Roediger, the years 1800-1865 saw the rise of the working class consciousness that based on race and class. He discusses the development of white workers who actively shape their personalities as working class people, whites and non-slaves. According to the author, the formation of this society layer  only took effect after the onset of republicanism and due to its emphasis on independence. With these changes in place, white workers began to posit themselves in relation to black slaves. At the time, white workers used language to distance themselves from the blacks. It was then that the terms ”slave” and “hireling” became decoupled while “boss” rose to replace the “master” word. In his book, the author brings out the complex relationship between the formation of the working class of America and the white race identity. To mitigate the disparities that existed between republican ideology and the changing economic conditions, one had to be identified with whiteness. Whiteness, according to Roediger, grew out of fear from the increased dependence on labor.

Roediger openly challenges the Marxist concept, which states that “race problem” is only an extension of class antagonisms.  He goes ahead to argue that the language has affected the white workers’ conceptions of themselves filled with racial difference that developed in the circumstance of a slaveholding nation.  The language that emerged trickled not only from racism of the leading class levels but also out of white workers’ creation of their personal identity.  Although he challenges some of the Marxist analyses, Roediger bases his thesis on reading Marxist theories.  Capitalistic reorganization of the relations of production seems to appear at the base of white workers’ racial identities, which were vital in shaping workers’ responses to the existing wage labor system. America, like other nations of the time, having become class-conscious, had the institution of racism and slavery, which did not dignify the psychosomatic value of whiteness within the American working class.

a. Why according to David Roediger, did “working class formation and the systematic development of a sense of whiteness go hand in hand for the US white working class” in the 19th century?

The concept of whiteness according to Roediger emerged with the changes in the economy that had effects on the skilled laborers at that time. It was accompanied by the realization that, like the previous generations, they would end up laboring for wages in the same harsh conditions set by their employers. With these adverse changes, people sought the pleasures of whiteness in wages for the white workers. Their reasoning was that privileges and status conferred by race were important when it came to making up for the exploitative and alienated class relationships. At the same time, the qualifications of property fell thus allowing the white workers to go into politics. It resulted to the imposition of new and explicit racial bars that prevented the exercises of franchises by free blacks.

Additionally, this was covered by the existence of gendered and racial exclusivity. The author explains the class formation concept as a process of sustaining and constructing white racial identity and its new forms. Whiteness at the time served as a marker of privilege and an identity that resulted to the demarcation of republican virtue. The “whiteness” aspect in the “freemen” title assured the workers that they were always considered whites despite the experiences in downward mobility that resulted from the economic change. In the 19th century, the US underwent extraordinary changes that greatly contributed to the systematic development of whiteness. With transportation and other economic developments, there was a great imposition on the style, pace and labor transformations. The existence or rapid urbanization changed the work of artisans that were independent at the time to wage laborers thus resulting to the discourse of white slavery. White slavery arose as a classification in disparity with black slavery. The system saw the fastening of wage laborers to the dependency of the slaves on their masters. Here, white labor viewed the slaves as entities that mobilized the blackness element as an anti-citizenship model.

According to Roediger, the “psychological wages of whiteness” enabled the majority of white workers in the working class category to ignore their oppression. The order of the day was claiming whiteness and supporting racism to assert their social and political places in the public eye. There was also the formation of unions that provided the US with large organized labor movements. In the end, the movement created a large gap between the white people and non-whites.

b. Explain and evaluate how he tries to prove this argument by analyzing either his history of “the language class”(chapters 3-4), or his history of popular culture (chapter 5-6) in urban north before civil war

In the book, Roediger brings out his arguments through the analysis of the language class and history of popular culture. Using the language class, Roediger discovered a change in labor languages. It is evident in the transformation of titles like masters to bosses and that of white slaves or servants to workingmen or freemen. This in turn resulted to the formation of racial hierarchies that represented the different class formations. At the time, there was a shift from the white slavery to free labor or free men. It came because of the awareness of the slavery oppression and horrors in some of the works of blacks and a rejection resulting from language defeat. White labor became free to focus on their own problems when they found it hard to compare themselves with the black slaves.

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The new titles of slaves were used because the state had taken up the role of depriving them their freedoms and other conditions necessary for defending and fighting for their rights. The use of class language and metaphors had their discussions focused on the wage labor system and the treatment of the white workers while comparing their working and living conditions with those of the black slaves. The author also states that whites from different backgrounds were held together by the constant image of blackness that symbolized life in the pre-industrial and white society that they all hated and missed. From this, blacks in the American economy before the civil war became objects of playful nostalgia and signs of economic and social image of the white past. When it comes to analyzing class relations today, Roediger’s argument is not as useful as it used to be in the 19th century.



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