Monday, September 16, 2013

The Wages of Whiteness

I.                   Race and Language  -- the usage of language is constructed in the antebellum period which promotes the idea of workers, and worthwhile work, being done only by  white workers.

A.    “Neither a servant nor a master”

1.     Master/Boss – during the pre-industrial time period—indeed, into the early years of industrialization—the term master meant a skilled craftsman who owned his own place of business, and who hired journeymen and trained apprentices in that place of business; in addition, of course, masters in the South owned slaves.  As the idea of drawing a greater distance between African slaves and white wage workers gains greater influence, whites begin to insist upon using the Dutch term for master—“boss.”

2.     Servant/Help—Hands – in the antebellum time period, white servants in households begin to insist on being called “help,” rather than servant, again to differentiate themselves from servile African slaves.  The word servant soon only applies to slave servants; all other servants are called “hired men, women, or girls” (for servants who were unmarried and/or younger women).

a.      Blackness and servility – become intertwined in the white mind; even though whites continue to be employed in servile positions—most employed Irish women at this time are employed as maids in homes, after all—whites are able to disassociate the job of servant from being servile by insisting that those kinds of positions are only held by African Americans.

B.     Wage Slavery and Free White Labor – while dissociating the work of whites from labor performed by African Americans, whites also used the degraded position of African American slaves to compare their own condition (usually unfavorably) to.

1.     White slaves – white workers, in comparing their condition to that of African American slaves, always compared their condition as being worse than slaves in the South.  In many ways, this was an attempt to make appeals across class boundaries for white solidarity, since the condition of slavery was one that no white should have to fall into.  The closeness of this comparison was too much for white men, and the preferred term became wage slaves.  The term white slaves and white slavery continues on in our language as the term for young women who are forced into prostitution—stripped of the masculinity that the term originally had.

a.      White slavery as proslavery – the dichotomy that the term white slavery hints at—the impact of the term white slavery lay in the recognition that whites should not be slaves—can only exist as long as the “normal” condition of African Americans is that of chattel slavery; only then can the alleged slavery of whites be seen as oppressive.

b.     Mike Walsh – Irish immigrant who became U.S. representative from NYC, and in many ways the leading proponent of the fight against “white slavery,” but supporter of the continuation of chattel slavery for African Americans.
c.      George Henry Evans – leading figure among pro-labor abolitionists, who had a long career in the labor movement; in the early 1830s Evans is among the most militant of abolitionists; by the 1840s, however, Evans advocates eradicating “white slavery” as a precondition of ridding the country of all slavery.

2.     Wage slaves – became the preferred term to describe the plight of whites who worked for wages.  While the comparison to the plight of African American slaves remains—and the comparison between the two ways of life still favors the material condition of chattel slaves over wage slaves—by removing the racial designation “white” this term makes the condition “wage slave” the norm only for the white working-class, because wage slavery is understood to include only free whites, even though free African Americans worked for wages in the North as well.

3.     Free white labor – the preferred state of white labor, obviously.  To define itself, however, free white labor needed an antithesis, which was unfree black labor.

a.      Herrenvolk republic – a republic for the master class.  Herrenvolk is a German word meaning master people, and came into prominence, of course, during the rule by the Nazi party in that country.  Herrenvolk democracy was a term used by South African sociologist Pierre van der Berghe to describe the government of that country until recent times.  Roediger borrows and amends the term to describe the government in the US during the antebellum period (the era preceding the Civil War)

II.                Work, Culture, and Whiteness in Industrializing America

A.    Minstrel Show – by “blacking up” workers could critique society, as well as mourn the loss of cultural norms that industrializing society forced them to give up.

1.     White appropriation of African American culture – minstrelry allowed white performers to appropriate and satirized aspects of African American culture.  It also allowed whites the opportunity to mourn the loss of their own traditional cultures.

a.      Stock characters and “vernacular” language – minstrel shows perpetuated racial stereotypes that whites held of African Americans – laziness, licentiousness, easily frightened, child-like.

b.     Performance as a critique of society – in their portrayal of African Americans, however, minstrel performers were also able to give voice to critiques of ruling class whites, as blacked-up performers “put on airs” of supposed respectability.

III. The Irish as a Case in Point

A.     Group Solidarity – in part because the widespread prejudice that the Irish faced, and in part through their affiliation with institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church, the Irish created amongst themselves a strong national identity.

1.      Historic antecedents – various Irish institutions and cultural practices helped create the environment that shaped this group identity.

a.       Whiteboys and Ribbonmen – groups of Irish peasants had grouped together to form secret societies in Ireland to resist the collection of rents and other practices thought to violate cultural norms.  These groups formed at the village level, or at times at the county level.

b.      Canal riots – groups of Irish workers fought against other groups of Irish workers (those from other villages, or from other counties) who they were afraid would compete for sometimes scarce jobs digging the canals.  This action expanded to fighting other ethnic groups (like the Germans) who also worked on these canal projects.

c.       Movement of these practices to urban centers – when the Irish moved into cities in large numbers, they brought this practice of group solidarity with them; by the use of this group solidarity, Irish workers were able to obtain positions for relatives, friends, and neighbors.

2.      Replacement of African Americans by Irish workers – because the Irish were seen during this time period as non-white, they competed for jobs with other non-whites—namely, African Americans.

a.       Irish and African Americans – only able to obtain positions that other workers—the “whites”—did not want to compete for (usually the dirtiest or hardest jobs).

b.      “White Men’s Work” – after eliminating competition from a particular kind of work, Irish workers in a particular occupation declared that the occupation was “white men’s work.”  This helped them to often limit the options for African Americans to compete for a particular position, because the Irish would appeal to a wider “white” solidarity.

B.     Irish as Citizens – Irish able to make this appeal to wider white solidarity because of their participation in politics.

1.      The Irish democracy – although the Irish were scorned by nativist groups, and by evangelical Protestant groups, they were courted by the Democratic Party.  The Democratic Party, the party of slaveholders, rejected much government interference in daily life, and so was more often anti-prohibition, and often pro-immigrant.  The concentration of Irish immigrants in Northern cities often meant that the Irish were a counterbalance for the strength of the Whig party, which was the northern section of the country.

a.       Irish support of political machines – the support supplied Irish immigrants by Democratic Party political machines, was often returned by Irish voters on Election Day.

2.      Irish identification as Americans – Although Irish proclaimed continued allegiance to Ireland, almost all immigrants chose to remain in their adopted country—and, indeed, proclaimed themselves to be Americans.

Adoption of a pre-existing condition – Irish did not invent racism, or white identity; they merely learned to manipulate that pre-existing condition in their favor.  The ethnic immigrant groups quickly learned to follow the Irish example

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