The History of a Bad Idea

Bill Stamets

David Roedi­ger – author of The Wages of White­ness and Towards the Abo­li­tion of White­ness–comes from Rush Limbaugh’s neck of the woods in down­state Illi­nois riv­er coun­try, but looks at his skin col­or quite differently. 

In his 2002 book Col­ored White, the 52-year-old his­to­ri­an from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois, Urbana-Cham­paign, notes that he hails from that part of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er which divides Mis­souri from Illi­nois … the lone por­tion of the Mis­sis­sip­pi to divide slav­ery from freedom.”

Genius­es such as Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Scott Joplin, Kather­ine Dun­ham, Redd Foxx, Tina Turn­er, Quin­cy Troupe, Josephine Bak­er, Maya Angelou, Ntoza­ke Shange and Mark Twain have drawn on expe­ri­ences along the riv­er to chart, move, explode and ignore the col­or line,” Roedi­ger writes. And then there’s Rush Lim­baugh from Cape Girardeau: He is my age and, as I grew up in cities north and south of the Cape, his type was all too famil­iar to me.” When­ev­er he heard the radio pun­dit and tele­vi­sion per­son­al­i­ty laud­ed as a media genius,” writes Roedi­ger, he recoiled. He says that such praise over­looks how thor­ough­ly [Limbaugh’s] genius’ rests on an utter­ly unre­flec­tive and banal per­for­mance of whiteness.”

Tran­scend­ing the com­mon­place it takes one to know one,” Roedi­ger has spent his career dig­ging into the his­to­ry of white­ness as an Amer­i­can cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty in oppo­si­tion to black­ness. His new book, Work­ing Toward White­ness: How America’s Immi­grants Became White, unearths loaded phras­es – from the 1820s epi­thet red nig­gers” for Native Amer­i­cans, to Hyde Park’s racial fron­tier” marked by anti-black redlin­ing in the 1920s – with a decon­struc­tion­ist agenda.

White­ness is, among much else, a bad idea,” he writes. Sur­vey­ing labor his­to­ry – with scabs brand­ed white Sam­bos” and blacks called smoked Irish­men” – Roedi­ger imag­ines a post-racial polit­i­cal cul­ture. The white­ness of white work­ers, far from being nat­ur­al and unchange­able, is high­ly con­flict­ed, bur­den­some, and even inhu­man,” he con­tin­ues. The idea that it is desir­able or unavoid­able to be white must be exploded.”

Work­ing Toward White­ness asks what hap­pens when we think of assim­i­la­tion as whiten­ing as well as Amer­i­can­iz­ing.” Gov­ern­ment agen­cies and labor unions clas­si­fied cer­tain Amer­i­cans as new immi­grants” and lat­er as white eth­nics” – always to the detri­ment of African-Amer­i­cans, he finds. As a cul­tur­al his­to­ry of slurs, and metaphors, the book reports that advo­cates of a 10-hour work­day in the 1830s called them­selves white nig­gers,’ though not in sol­i­dar­i­ty with real slaves.” One Con­gres­sion­al immi­gra­tion hear­ing in 1912 includ­ed tes­ti­mo­ny call­ing Ital­ians full-blood­ed Cau­casians” while the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor called them white coolies.” 

Teach­ing Amer­i­can­ism, the labor move­ment also taught white­ness,” writes Roedi­ger, who coun­ters that lega­cy by giv­ing work­shops at union sum­mer schools. His­tor­i­cal­ly, gate­keep­ers expand­ed the rubric of white” to include more and more off-the-boat Euro­peans – our tem­po­rary Negroes” as one social sci­en­tist put it in 1937 – whose pri­ma­ry qual­i­fi­ca­tion was pos­sess­ing a skin col­or lighter than America’s descen­dants of African slaves.

Roedi­ger pon­ders the irony that in the 1920s, immi­gra­tion quo­tas cut the influx of for­eign­ers, while those already here were unit­ed into fronts of home­own­ers stak­ing out Amer­i­can” neigh­bor­hoods and Yan­kee­lands.” A num­ber of Chica­go-based home­own­er asso­ci­a­tions pro­mot­ed restric­tive covenant agree­ments.” Those who signed these legal promis­es to not sell res­i­den­tial prop­er­ty to blacks cre­at­ed a mar­velous del­i­cate­ly woven chain of armor,” thumped the Hyde Park Her­ald.

Even street gangs of the time reflect­ed the trend to embrace eth­nics and ban­ish blacks. Dur­ing Chicago’s 1919 race riot, an Irish gang tried to enlist allies among east­ern Euro­pean immi­grants liv­ing near the stock­yards by scape­goat­ing blacks. Under cov­er of night, in the ear­ly hours of August 2, mem­bers of the gang put on black­face and torched hous­es, leav­ing 948 Lithua­ni­ans and Poles home­less, yet fail­ing to incite anti-black retal­i­a­tion. Pol­ish and Jew­ish news­pa­pers took nei­ther side since their read­ers were not yet life­time sub­scribers to whiteness.

Roedi­ger him­self was not born with a nuanced under­stand­ing of race. Grow­ing up in all-white Colum­bia, Illi­nois, he picked up such expres­sions as Eeny, meany, miney, mo/​Catch a nig­ger by the toe.” He nev­er ques­tioned the so-called Sun­down law that kept blacks off the streets at night. But Roedi­ger spent sum­mers in his mother’s near­by half-Black” home­town of Cairo, where he went to a black church for the sake of increas­ing his leisure time: Its mass­es were the fastest, like only 25 min­utes,” he recalls.

Pop­u­lar TV gave me a way to talk to my fam­i­ly about race,” says Roedi­ger, a fan of All in the Fam­i­ly.” He brought up race with his Aunt Anna Mae, the town phone oper­a­tor, when watch­ing San­ford and Son.” She loved those shows but refused to work along­side blacks. Con­tra­dic­tions abound­ed in Colum­bia. We all hat­ed Blacks in the abstract, but our great­est heroes were the Black stars of the great St. Louis Car­di­nals base­ball teams of the six­ties,” Roedriger writes. 

He remem­bers white friends embrac­ing tunes by the Temp­ta­tions and Jimi Hen­drix while acces­soriz­ing with Con­fed­er­ate motifs. Rush Lim­baugh was then spin­ning wax at KGMO in Cape Girardeau as Rusty Sharpe.” The most racist kids were the most attract­ed to Motown music – and cer­tain­ly attract­ed to Tina Turn­er, who was liv­ing in East St. Louis then,” Roedi­ger says.

Rad­i­cal­ized in high school, Roedi­ger grad­u­at­ed from North­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty in 1975. He con­tin­ued on to grad school at North­west­ern, where he wrote his the­sis on the fight for an eight-hour work­day. After a year at Yale edit­ing the Fred­er­ick Dou­glass papers, he returned to North­west­ern in 1980 to teach labor his­to­ry. He picked white­ness’ as a spe­cial­ty after Rea­gan was elect­ed and com­men­ta­tors chris­tened new elec­torates – the Rea­gan Democ­rats” and white workers.”

His­tor­i­cal­ly, I won­dered what’s the root of this idea of think­ing of your­self as a white work­er,’” says Roedi­ger. The only intel­lec­tu­als writ­ing books for whom white­ness was a prob­lem were intel­lec­tu­als of col­or. White­ness real­ly wasn’t a prob­lem for white peo­ple. Most schol­ars would say well, they are white so of course they think they’re white workers.’”

That tru­ism might do for Limbaugh’s demo­graph­ic, but not for Roediger’s cohort of labor his­to­ri­ans. White work­ers are not born that way. Nor are schol­ars of whiteness.

Bill Stamets is a Chica­go-based free­lance writer who once took 10 grad school cours­es in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago.
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