Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past by David R. Roediger (University of California Press, 323 pp., $29.95)
"What is a White Man?" asked Charles Chesnutt in the pages of the Independent, a mass-circulation weekly, in 1889. This was no mere academic question. "The fiat having gone forth from the wise men of the South that the 'allpervading, all-conquering Anglo-Saxon race' must continue forever to exercise exclusive control and direction of the government" made it imperative for "every citizen who values his birthright to know who are included in this grandiloquent term." And the African American writer ventured a straightforward answer. It was "perfectly obvious" to him that a white Southerner who invoked the expression "Anglo-Saxon race" surely did "not say what he meant." In Chesnutt's view, it "is not probable that he meant to exclude from full citizenship the Celts and Teutons and Gauls and Slavs who make up so large a proportion of our population; he hardly meant to exclude the Jews." Rather, what was "really meant by this high-sounding phrase was simply the white race," and no further explanation was needed. Anglo-Saxon supremacy implied "that for the good of the country the Negro should have no voice in directing the government."
Judging by the work of certain contemporary historians of race and racial classification in America, things are no longer so straightforward. What was self-evident to Chesnutt, an on-the-scene student of American race relations, is commonly rejected by many of today's students of the history of race. The very solidity of language, of clear-cut and well-understood categories and definitions of who was black and who was white, has given way to the widely accepted notion that race is not a biological category or a trans-historically fixed phenomenon, but is itself socially constructed. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find credible humanists or social scientists who would claim otherwise. (The few who attempt to resuscitate the old concept of race as biologically or genetically based, like Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve, find their spurious arguments immediately demolished by a small army of critics.) But some have gone further, posing a variant of Chesnutt's "What is a White Man?" question: if race is socially constructed, then so, too, are the categories into which people are classified and the categories into which they place themselves. "With biologically based racism in retreat," David R. Roediger asserts, "it has become possible to ask bedrock questions such as 'What makes some people think that they are white?' and 'When did white people become white?'"
These are not trivial questions to recent scholars of "whiteness," who have spent the past decade or so producing a stream of books and articles purporting to address them. The last question implies that some white people today were not white at some point in the past, a proposition that whiteness historians have set out to prove. First there was Roediger's seminal The Wages of Whiteness (1991), followed by Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White (1995), both of which argued that the American public did not see early nineteenth-century Irish immigrants as white, and that the Irish had to fight their way into the more elite category of whiteness. Karen Brodkin then did for Jews what Ignatiev did for the Irish in How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (1998). Roediger and James Barrett boldly argued in an essay called "Inbetween Peoples" that the millions of Eastern European and Southern European immigrants who settled in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not-quite-white, while the labor historian Bruce Nelson and others have applied that notion to the same immigrants and their children as late as the 1940s. Whiteness, some argue, is not just a one-way street, for the process of "becoming" could work both ways: groups recognized as white could be demoted to non-white status. When Texas cotton farmers lost their land and economic independence in the era of the New South, Neil Foley contended in The White Scourge (1997), they lost more than their property--they lost their whiteness, too.
These findings, if they are valid, would promise to revolutionize our understanding of the immigrant and working-class experience, and of the history of race in America. Indeed, for some historians on the left, they offer nothing less than a new framework for interpreting the American past, with race--or one version of it--explicitly at its center. And this perspective comes complete with a double dose of moral indictment: the first castigation aimed at those unquestioned whites (Anglo-Saxon types, for instance, whose whiteness was never in question) who racialized new immigrants and denied them the privileges of whiteness; and the second castigation directed at the new immigrants themselves, who climbed their way into whiteness through the adoption of white identities and racist practices that were aimed at increasing the distance between themselves and African Americans (or Asian Americans or Mexican-Americans).
And yet, all their boldness and their buzz notwithstanding, these startling claims have generated more historiographical smoke than fire. More archivally grounded historians of American immigration have remained largely and appropriately immune to the trend, though they have yet to articulate a forceful response to the interlopers in their field. Their reluctance to engage with the arguments of the whiteness historians has permitted an unfortunate "jargon creep" in scholarly discussions about race in America, which has passed unchallenged into broader and more traditional scholarship. It is now not uncommon to stumble upon the phrase "how the Irish became white" and the assertion of Irish non-whiteness in writings by scholars of a "progressive" orientation who are not specialists in immigration history.
After a decade of growing popularity, however, whiteness studies--or "critical whiteness studies," as Roediger prefers--remains a vague and intellectually incoherent enterprise. Its core concept of whiteness defies singular definition. On one level, whiteness is about "identity": how those in power identify a subordinate group, and how that subordinate group identifies itself. Elites rarely if ever employed the terminology of whiteness, so whiteness scholars presume to deduce from their statements their true intent. (Since antebellum elites constructed whites as clean, superior, and civilized, presumably those whom they perceived as dirty, inferior, or uncivilized--such as the Irish--were not white.) For members of the subordinate group, by contrast, whiteness might mean claiming the term "white" for themselves, but it also evidently includes articulating anti-black sentiments, participating in anti-black violence, and otherwise subscribing to the tenets of white supremacy. The whiteness scholars do not make rigorous distinctions between the stigmatization of a group, a group's self-characterization, racial thought generally, and discriminatory or other racist behavior. They live in a simple world, chromatically and morally.
On another level, the concept of whiteness denotes power and privileges that are supposed to inhere in an individual's whiteness. Being white gains one access to mortgages, bank loans, and education; it means not being stopped by police for "driving while black." Pointing out not just the effects of discrimination on minorities, but also the affirmative benefits that accrue to many, if not all, members of a majority group, has a certain pedagogical value, to be sure. But whiteness scholars' extreme and essentialist formulations make their categories and contributions analytically quite useless. Roediger recently maintained, for example, that whiteness somehow involves "terror" as integral to the "construction of white identities." What this means is by no means evident. No reputable scholar would for a moment deny the long history of racist violence in the United States, but how "terror" informs the identity of all whites today, or constitutes contemporary whiteness, is a wholly different and unexplained matter.
Being white, then, is a position of power, and an expectation of access to material and psychological resources, and the constitutive element of a group identity that requires an "Other" to disparage. "Whiteness demands that all Whites denigrate, at least passively, those constructed as non-White," concludes the legal scholar Ian F. Haney López in his White by Law (1996). "As a category, it depends on a demonization of non-Whites so that by comparison Whites are deified." Whatever else one may think of this line of argument, it is not subtle. Indeed, it may be that the very coarseness of this concept of whiteness, its bluntly totalizing vision, its categorical rejection of ethical and historical ambiguity, is the reason for its widespread appeal. The scholars of whiteness seek not merely to understand the meanings of race in American life, but also to achieve a greater degree of social justice. They are motivated by more than disinterested scholarly inquiry for its own sake; they aim to locate a "useable past" and a "useable present," in Roediger's words. Engaged or impassioned scholarship is not inherently problematic, of course; but light is as important as heat. In the case of the scholarship of whiteness, a politics built on so flimsy a conceptual foundation is sure to consign itself to irrelevance with little help from those whom it seeks to oppose.
The most influential proponent of the concept of whiteness today is David Roediger. His work has generated interest across disciplinary boundaries and among educated progressives beyond the academy. Roediger inaugurated the examination of whiteness in American labor history in 1991 in The Wages of Whiteness, a collection of essays that explored, as its subtitle indicated, "Race and the Making of the American Working Class" in the nineteenth century. His next book, Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, which appeared three years later, combined his reflections on the history of race in working-class history with explicit political calls for social transformation. The notion of the "social construction of race" is a "vital intellectual breakthrough," Roediger maintained, but it is "so sweeping that by itself it implies few specific political conclusions." The goal of radical intellectuals, therefore, must be to "suggest where we think that breakthrough may lead politically." For Roediger, that solemn duty translates into the "specific need to attack whiteness as a destructive ideology." Not merely a call to the discursive barricades, this means an "assault on white supremacy" in the real world.
Colored White is Roediger's third collection of essays in just over a decade, and it is his most wide-ranging. It is hard to imagine another academic today who has more to say about more subjects, a point confirmed by this latest pastiche of cultural criticism, labor history, and political exhortation. Its historical essays address the antebellum languages of wage slavery, black and white trade unionists' relations in the post-Civil War era, the "nonwhite radicalism" of Roediger's hero John Brown, the supposed "inbetween" racial status of Southern European and Eastern European immigrants in the Progressive era, and the anti-Eurocentrism of the 1929 Surrealist map of the word. In his pieces on contemporary politics, Roediger endorses the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal as a far superior model for the labor movement's renaissance than the reform efforts of AFL-CIO president John Sweeney; and he castigates New Democrats and neoliberals for their appeals to the white male working class, their rejection of "race-specific" policies, and their embrace of ostensibly race-neutral strategies. In the essays on culture and politics, Roediger approaches Rush Limbaugh's racism through the prism of the postmodernists' fixation on the colonialist "gaze," and examines the "raceless" appeal of O.J. Simpson in the years before the murder and trial, and lambastes Rudolph Giuliani for his "racist" attack on artist Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary, and ponders the political implications of the emergence of "wiggers" (white teens who say they want to be black) by means of a a detour into Elvis Presley's racial "crossings." What is common to all these discussions is Roediger's insistence that all of these things are about race, and that "critical whiteness studies" can make sense of them all.
Much of whiteness scholarship, Roediger's included, is thematically rooted in labor history, and, as Roediger acknowledges, it is "much influenced by Marxism." Classical Marxism was never overly concerned with race, as is well known; and Roediger has long argued against what he sees as its subordination of race to class. Yet the historians of working-class whiteness have not broken with Marxism as cleanly as they imply. Although employers and the state virtually vanish in their accounts of labor-market discrimination, whiteness scholars accord the white working class nearly complete "agency" in its own "making" (the complexities of E.P. Thompson's notions notwithstanding). Free to make themselves, white workers do so by incorporating whiteness into their self-conception. That is, they define the working class as white and set their own interests apart from those of blacks. To compensate for their lowly class position, they seize the "wages of whiteness," or what Du Bois famously described as a "public and psychological wage."
As much as Roediger suggests otherwise, it is not true that historians have ignored the ways in which white workers often held themselves aloof from, or even positioned themselves in opposition to, African Americans. The literature on the theme is extensive, rich, and varied. What sets the whiteness historians apart from other social historians of working-class race relations is their insistence that, the divisions of race, gender, and skill among workers notwithstanding, workers should have made common cause with one another. They assume that another path--the path of interracial working-class unity--was available to white workers, and they chose not to take it. The whiteness historians require some explanation to account for the failure of workers (particularly white workers) to fulfill their assigned historical mission. And so they lower the "public and psychological wage" onto the historical set as a deus ex machina, providing the long-awaited explanation for the failure of unity in this model-driven historical tragedy.
The forays of whiteness historians into the realm of cultural analysis are less encumbered by pseudoMarxist presumptions, and they reveal a different set of methodological and conceptual issues. The Lincoln-Douglas debate in Freeport, Illinois in 1858 furnishes Roediger with an opportunity to demonstrate his approach. Present at that debate was a boisterous crowd chanting "white men, white men" and "white, white," and Roediger feels that the crowd's choice of words must be explained. In the original version of his essay, which was first published in the Journal of the Early Republic, Roediger has the Douglas backers chanting "white men, white men" "over and over": this, he concludes, gave "voice to the popularity of white identity in the late antebellum United States." Whiteness "among midwesterners, and among rural populations generally," is "so understudied," he asserts; but the "recent and much celebrated historiography on whiteness ... effectively positions us to understand that shouting crowd."
So how does it do that? According to Roediger, the Democratic Party's base of support "depended on the incorporation of the Irish and other immigrants as white voters." Drawing enthusiastically on Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White, Roediger reminds us, well, how the Irish became white. This racial transformation, Roediger reasons, compelled the Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas to go beyond an "Anglo-Saxon whiteness to posit a pan-white 'American race' that could resonate dramatically." Roediger adds that recent analyses of minstrels have thrown light on the "homosocial habit of affirming white maleness in public," and this "goes to the heart of how Douglas's auditors rehearsed their chants and knew their lines." And finally, Roediger maintains, cross-class alliances--including those of the Democratic Party--were facilitated by white identity, which provided "real and psychological payoffs to the poorest Douglas Democrats"--a subject that is "central to the agenda of studies showing what it mean to be 'not a slave' in an increasingly class-divided and proletarianized labor force."
What is wrong with this picture? A lot, I think. For a start, there is the rather insurmountable problem that David Brion Davis pointed out in a rejoinder to Roediger's original essay: the Freeport crowd did not do precisely what Roediger says it did. "White men, white men" was heard but once over the course of the long speeches delivered that day, along with "white, white" and various anti-black retorts, and--this is especially significant--heckling by Lincoln's supporters that mocked Douglas's anti-black remarks. In the revised version of his essay in this book, Roediger modifies his narrative slightly to remove references to the chanting of "white men, white men." The fact remains that the Freeport debate, as recorded by contemporaries, appears rather different than Roediger would have us imagine it.
Then there is the issue of just what it is that we do not understand about those "chanting" or "shouting" white men that critical whiteness studies enables us to understand. The racial views of mid- nineteenth century Americans--Midwesterners included--have received more than their fair share of attention from several generations of historians. Roediger is not as revolutionary or as innovative as he thinks he is. Some of his questions about the motivations of the white crowd in Freeport, and even about its use of language, have been satisfactorily addressed by numerous scholars over the past decades. Eric Foner's classic Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, for example, systematically and eloquently explored antebellum white Northerners' views of themselves, their society, slaves and slavery, and the white South, and Foner's book was published in 1970, well before the advent of whiteness studies and its irritating jargon.
And then there is the sweeping character of the alleged insights of critical whiteness studies. These generalizations require a willful suspension of disbelief to retain their plausibility. At a minimum, sustaining them would require knowing something--knowing anything--about the two thousand men who attended the debate in Freeport, a community in northwest Illinois near the Wisconsin border that was, in fact, a center of Republican Party strength. Were they farmers, or members of a proletarianized labor force, or shopkeepers? Were they native-born Americans, or Irish or German immigrants? Had the men in the crowd regularly, or even occasionally, attended minstrel shows? For Roediger, these are irrelevant incidentals to the great whiteness story, which is less about actual human beings in concrete historical circumstances than it is about the selling of an idea. In Roediger's version of American history, if something happened somewhere (or could be imagined to have happened somewhere), it could happen anywhere. Did white workers attend minstrel shows in New York? Then they must have attended them in Freeport. Unencumbered by the evidentiary rules of history, Roediger replaces the old-fashioned toil of historical reconstruction with the glib and equally unsubstantiated insights of tendentious academics purportedly demonstrating a causal connection.
Roediger's book moves forward and backward in time in an apparent effort to demonstrate the relevance of critical whiteness studies to both history and contemporary society. In "Smear Campaign," one of the volume's previously unpublished and more far-fetched essays, Roediger turns his attention to Rudolph Giuliani's notorious attack on Chris Ofili's notorious painting Holy Virgin Mary, which was displayed in 1999 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art's self-fulfillingly named show "Sensation." Roediger acknowledges the overt political explanations for Giuliani's crusade: engaged in a bitter fight with Hillary Clinton for a Senate seat, the mayor of New York City seized an opportunity to court upstate conservative and Catholic voters, as well as the support of the state's Conservative Party and Catholic hierarchy (who were unimpressed with Giuliani's pro-choice and gay rights stances). But this straightforward analysis takes us "only so far in understanding either the form or the content of Giuliani's campaign against Ofili's work," Roediger insists. Once again the critical study of whiteness comes to the rescue. No matter what the subject, whiteness lurks at its heart.
Neither Giuliani nor the media amplified what for Roediger is the central point: that the Madonna in Ofili's painting is a black Madonna. Nor did they properly acknowledge that Ofili himself was Catholic; this was not, as Giuliani claimed, a matter of an attack on "somebody else's religion." For Roediger, Ofili's black Madonna, "and Giuliani's reaction to it, may profitably be placed in a long tradition of artistic challenges to the idea of an 'extreme white' Holy Family." Giuliani's response can better be explained, according to Roediger, by restoring his Italian-American background to the narrative. The mayor grew up in an all-white Long Island community; his grandparents came to a "nation in which immigrants from Italy were lynched, excluded, called 'guineas,'" and they were themselves not-quite-white upon arrival in the United States. Moreover, in ways that "could not have been lost on Giuliani," black Madonnas were common in Sicily, despite official church efforts to margina lize them. In the United States, Roediger suggests, putting the black Madonna behind them may have been part of an "'assimilation' into U.S.-style whiteness" by Italian-Americans.
Did Giuliani know about any of this? Evidence is irrelevant here, as it is wherever hidden causalities are preferred. "Whether Giuliani was denied an experience with black Madonnas in New York's Catholic churches and schools or heard dark rumors of their existence," Roediger concludes, "he clearly would have known about New York City's most celebrated Italian-American shrine, the Madonna of 115th Street in East Harlem," and its annual festa. But what is the relevance of the Madonna of 115th Street to the mayor and the painting? According to Roediger, Italian-Americans felt their whiteness threatened by Puerto Ricans moving into the neighborhood; and a nearby church had a statue of a black Italian saint, suggesting the "possibility of a road not taken, toward an egalitarian pan-Latin challenge to the hyper-whiteness of holiness." But alas, Italian-Americans "more typically took a road to white identity." For Roediger, Giuliani's "ethnicity and location prepared him well to see the need to draw tight the racial boundaries surrounding Mary." Guilt not just by association, but by social and geographic location!
And then there was the "state-sponsored effort to stigmatize Ofili's work as 'shit'" brought in by "outsiders." Roediger goes to some lengths to denounce Giuliani's misrepresentation of Ofili's use of elephant dung, but he fails to recognize the irony or the artist's crass self-promotion for what it was. How else to interpret the fact, reported by Roediger, that Ofili himself took out large ads "in trendy arts publications simply stating 'Elephant Shit'"? Roediger understands the mayor's obsession with "shit" as being symbolically linked to his "larger and long-standing campaigns to 'clean up' the city by removing its homeless and its sex workers from sight." What does this have to do with race, or with whiteness? Everything, as usual. Roediger's penchant for pseudo-psychoanalysis leads him to conclude that the mayor's "'pro-civilization' offensives against Ofili and other putative impurities in the city evoke rich connections among excrement, smearing, savagery, blackness, and white self-images regarding control, anality, and capital accumulation." Indeed, he suggests that "they could themselves be the subject of a psychoanalytically informed essay." Mercifully, we are spared that essay.
Finally, we are told, whiteness is also evident in the "content of Giuliani's vote-catching appeals." In attacking a black Madonna without resorting to overt racist language, Giuliani was fishing not just for Catholic and conservative votes, but for white votes as well. When it was all over, in Roediger's view, whiteness chalked up the larger victory when "any serious discussion of religion, gender, race, and power" was dismissed from the agenda. No African artists or critics were consulted by the mainstream media, and the "racism of Giuliani's efforts to restrict free expression has gone largely unremarked." The score is clear: Giuliani zero, whiteness one. Or, rather, whiteness won.
By turns self-congratulatory and defensive, Roediger is on the lookout for those threatening the true path of racial justice. And lurking out there in the sinister realm of print journalism are individuals who advance theses that promise to denigrate the efforts of today's anti-racist activists or lull us into optimism about the demographic changes that are ostensibly easing us toward a hybrid future in which race, as we know it today, becomes less recognizable and potentially less salient. Roediger does not want race, or race consciousness, to disappear. He has bet everything on it.
The guilty parties are easy to identify. Roediger begins his polemic by taking aim at "The New Face of America," an issue of Time magazine that appeared in 1993 and featured the efforts of the magazine's computer technicians, who, using Morph 2.0 software, projected the face of "Eve," a multi-racial woman and conceivably the nation's "new face" at some point in the twenty-first century. That attractive face functions "to mock allegedly outmoded emphases on the ugliness and exploitation of race relations in the United States." Orlando Patterson's brief speculative foray into a possible multi-racial future in the pages of The New Republic in 2000 comes in for a similar drubbing. Patterson's sin was to predict that the race problem will disappear over the next century as new hybrid groups appear and as class distinctions sharpen. The "'race is over' school," Roediger argues, "tends to cut off the present and the future from any serious relationship to the past." Race is not "over," he declares, and it will not be over for a long time. (Never mind that the inter-racial or post-racial future provocatively pictured by Patterson was by no means a utopia, but a place full of conflict and violence.)
For Roediger, the problem with any hypothetical musings about the racial configuration of the future or the growing hybridity of the population is that they seem to imply a painless passage to a happy, multicultural America that he believes cannot come to pass, or at least without ceaseless struggle. He knows that the world has changed; he admits that scientific racism, segregation, disfranchisement, and other barbarisms are gone. But he insists that white supremacy remains nonetheless. (Roediger cites approvingly George Lipsitz's remark that the anti-immigration and anti-affirmative action laws of the 1990s rendered California the "Mississippi of the 1990s.") The more race things change, the more race things stay the same. Roediger's ultimate problem with "Eve" and the "race is over" proponents is that in the face of persistent racial inequality they "mock antiracist initiatives as anachronistic and wrong." They "ask us to practice (or abandon) the politics of racial justice in the shadow of someone who does not exist." They suggest that "antiracism is therefore irrational, counterproductive, or even itself racist." Roediger's imagination gets the best of him here, as he implicitly equates any criticism of his own strident political stance--or any debate about other paths to equality--with a denial of the persistence of racism or an endorsement of the racial status quo. It is simply false that those who speculate that "Eve" will emerge naturally from inter-racial and inter-ethnic marriages are sending the message that "attempts to build coalitions that address racism and sexism together" should be abandoned.
To acknowledge that our national discourses on race are complex, contradictory, and evolving would be to undermine the morality tale contained in Roediger's book. The media hardly brings only good news about race in America. There are innumerable stories (not to mention the steady spate of scholarly studies) on the persistence of discrimination in housing and employment, on racial profiling and police brutality toward minorities, and on enduring poverty among urban African Americans. Racism is hardly becoming a taboo subject, as Roediger believes. To cite but one conspicuous example: race "is still very much lived in America," Joseph Lelyveld concludes in the introduction to How Race Is Lived in America, a compilation of The New York Times's much-admired series of articles in 2000. The "story of our struggle to become one nation is far from over ... the challenge has not receded." This does not exactly suggest that race is over. I do not doubt that Roediger would have complaints with the Times articles; but a serious analysis of the honest, if often flawed, efforts at grappling with the meanings of race--and, yes, power--in American society would require more than the shallow slogans served up in Colored White.
If Roediger's book consists largely of old arguments applied to new examples, in one respect it introduces a conceptual innovation in his approach. In addition to whiteness, he maintains, we need now to "theorize and historicize the concept of nonwhiteness in thinking about race in the United States." And just what is "nonwhiteness"? First there is the anticipatory disclaimer that "nonwhiteness is an offensive term"--to whom?--in that it "exemplifies the tendency to place whites at the normative center of everything and to marginalize everyone else." But the utility of the term "nonwhiteness" is owed to the fact that it allows us to think about "how the nation can become something other than white." This means "creating space for nonwhiteness" and "expanding the opportunity to live in nonwhite spaces" in a way that "encourages us to support initiatives attacking institutional racism." Such a "theoretical" concept, in Roediger's mind, has the "potential to remind us that coalitions between whites and people of color need not always and everywhere be the key to social transformation. Coalitions among people of color also represent a critical route to nonwhite politics."
Come on. Does any genuine student of American politics and society really think that inter-racial coalitions are "always and everywhere" the key to social transformation? These arguments in support of "nonwhiteness" are even more garbled than Roediger's arguments for "whiteness." The essays in his book's second section, titled "Toward Nonwhite Histories," invoke the past to "show that the sway of whiteness is not inevitable, unalterable, or simple. It was never the whole story of U.S. history." The first essay lionizes John Brown for his uncompromising commitment to "struggling alongside Black freedom fighters." (Brown's resort to what we now might call terrorism at Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas finds no mention in Roediger's hagiography.) A second essay examines the use of the term "slavery" by white workers and women's rights activists in the antebellum era, and a third essay, called "The Pursuit of Whiteness," concerns itself with "property, terror, and national expansion," in the words of its subtitle. The final piece, "Inbetween Peoples," attempts to establish--unsuccessfully--the non-white status of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. What any of this has to do with non-white spaces is anyone's guess. Contemporary historians certainly do not need Roediger to instruct them that abolitionism was "in some senses not white" and that the movement drew membership and inspiration from African Americans.
If, after a decade of "theorizing," the concept of whiteness remains a muddled catch-all, something that seeks academic and political legitimation as a cover for its intellectual incoherence, its proponents' goals, too, remain unclear. In response to the left's perennial question--"What is to be done?"--Roediger might answer: bring about a withering away of whiteness, or alternatively, an abolition of whiteness. Ian F. Haney López has argued that whiteness, since it "perpetuates injurious racial identities," "should be abandoned." Whites should "renounce their racial identity as it is currently constituted in the interests of social justice."
That scholar-activists of whiteness and its abolition can seriously advocate these outlandish propositions is surely a reflection of their disillusionment with the often naíve class politics that they once advocated, and a rejection of the romanticized white working class that they once championed. It also reflects, to some degree, a methodological preference among some segments of the academic left for the cultural studies-ish interpretation of texts over "old-fashioned" archival research. Over the past decade, "whiteness" has emerged as an all-purpose, pre-fabricated category that has been retailed aggressively, and successfully, in the academic marketplace. But given how little substance there is in the histories of whiteness, and how irrelevant are the scholarly programs of the category's practitioners, the defenders of white power and white privilege will continue to sleep easy.
Eric Arnesen is professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author most recently of Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality (Harvard University Press).
This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.