Whiteness Studies

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Cedric Johnson:

"Whiteness studies has produced a form of anti-racist politics focused on public therapy rather than public policy, a politics that actually detracts from building social bonds and solidarity in the context of actual organizing campaigns, everyday life, and purposive political action. This political problem is not strictly Roediger’s, but is one that besets the contemporary left more generally and is derived from the cultural turn within Western academe and the U.S. Left since the sixties, the rejection of modernist political projects as irredeemably tarnished by histories of racism and imperialism, and a resulting deep, pervasive suspicion of constituted power. Whiteness studies, as Roediger illustrates, had its origins in the distinctive needs, challenges and aspirations of white New Leftists, who sought to bridge their own alienation within the affluent society and their social justice commitments with the shifting black nationalist sensibilities that transformed black political life from a focus on defeating Jim Crow and securing full citizenship towards demands for self-determination from the middle-sixties onwards. The problems of white middle-class conservatism and quiescence that New Leftists ran up against during the Cold War were conjunctural. The petit-bourgeois politics analogized as “whiteness” were the result of the institutionalization of trade union victories and defeats during the middle decades of the twentieth century and concomitant transformations in state-market relations, urban space and residential settlement that accompanied the postwar housing revolution. These historical processes had the combined effect of reorienting popular sentiment towards an acceptance of capitalist class interests as those of Americans writ large.

The interpretive problems and faulty political assumptions of whiteness studies have become entrenched through the emergence of a therapeutic industry dedicated to rehabilitating interpersonal racism and addressing white privilege through acts of contrition, and have grown more dangerous as they have been amplified and degraded via social media. There is not much evidence that the expansion of this mode of anti-racist trainings over the last few decades has produced a different politics, a willingness to take risk, to sacrifice one’s privileged position to make substantive changes in society, or even altered day-to-day behavior. In 2017, after a suburban Chicago teen posted a Snapchat photo of himself in blackface, causing a furor at his high school, his mother defended the integrity and tolerance of their household saying she had just read Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, and that Coates’s Between the World and Me had been on her son’s “reading shelf forever.”56 If anything, whiteness deprogramming provides a ready means of egress, a way to demonstrate sympathy without making more difficult, sustained political commitments that might entail contesting institutionalized power. Neither does it require shedding or sharing the actual trappings of middle class privilege, i.e. better salaries, savings and assets, high performing schools, the capacity to travel, social networks, etc., which are codified in popular speech as white privilege, even though these same goods may be shared by other middle class and wealthy ethnics. Whiteness training encourages sharing one’s origin story, failings and sense of torment, but beyond charitable giving, it does not necessitate sharing resources at the level of redistributive public policy, i.e. through expansion of the universal social wage, commuter taxes, consolidation of urban-suburban school districts, revenue sharing across metropolitan divides, federally-managed public works projects etc. There is also a millenarian and liberal individualist dimension to the kind of anti-racist politics embodied in whiteness studies, notions of white privilege and the like. We are told individuals must correct their flaws before they can participate with others, a view that runs counter to what should be conventional wisdom about human behavior and social movement dynamics. The assumption that the therapeutic work needs to happen first is simply wrong, and there are plenty of examples throughout history and in our own times where we can find imperfect people working to realize and advance their common concerns.

The work of building solidarity lies elsewhere, not in therapy aimed at self-actualization, but in lived social relations and sustained political work that transforms participants’ social consciousness and collective sense of historical possibility. Those everyday social relations and the context of political work are always defined by the presence of differences, whether those are differences of background, perspective, maturity, knowledge, insight, power, capacity, and passions, and none of these are calibrated strictly in concert with racial, ethnic, gender or other corporeal identities. Although Roediger and others condemn “class reductionism,” their work too often succumbs to a reductionist view of black political life that does not comprehend different material interests and ideological positions among African Americans. What is lost in the din of whiteness discourse, and certainly in the reparations hustle that Roediger defends, are the strategic choices made by black people who have sought working-class solidarity and action, despite the fact of political disenfranchisement, segregation, and repression. It would seem that latter-day historians, activists and bloggers are more preoccupied with difference than those black teamsters who joined the 1892 general strike in New Orleans, or those African American and Puerto Rican parents who fought alongside white teachers, social workers and community organizers to end lead poisoning in Rochester. We should be able to talk about situated-class experiences, i.e., ascriptive gender and racial hierarchies, sectoral and regional variations in working lives, unique occupational subcultures, idiosyncratic worker concerns and daily issues, without losing sight of the fundamental capitalist class relation of exploitation, and the dependency on wage labor endured by the vast majority of the U.S. population. Moreover, when we discuss what are often treated as discrete identity-based issues, i.e. matters of hyperpolicing, health disparities, urban unemployment, environmental racism, the gender gap in wages, affordable housing crises and gentrification, we should be clear that those problems originate from the tremendous power capital wields over all of our lives, and contesting that power is essential to addressing those specific concerns and creating a more just state of affairs.

As it took formal shape during the Reagan-Bush years, whiteness studies set out to counter the myth that working-class solidarity springs organically from shared oppression, and to show that such solidarity is always contingent. In the process, however, whiteness studies has painted working-class solidarity into a corner analytically, treating solidarity as always and everywhere hemmed in by racial difference. From the most cynical view, the pursuit of a working-class, anti-capitalist politics is always elusive and impotent. Working-class solidarity, however, like all other forms of alliance and common cause, is forged through politics, an imperfect and unwieldy process of discovering and advancing common interests through debate, conflict, bonding, experimentation, sustained work, failures and victories. Such solidarity is not given, nor permanent. Its value is not intrinsic, but rather its worth should be measured by the degree to which anti-capitalist solidarity alters the balance of class forces in a progressive way, and imposes more just, non-alienated, non-exploitative modes of working and living. Differences of opinion and passion are preconditions of political life. We should not be uneasy about these social realities, or unnerved by the difficult work of building counterpower. The only ones who should be uneasy about solidarity are the bosses." (https://nonsite.org/the-wages-of-roediger-why-three-decades-of-whiteness-studies-has-not-produced-the-left-we-need/)


Cedric Johnson:

"Whiteness studies as an academic field of inquiry was born in the waning years of the Reagan-Bush era, and its creators’ motives were earnest and well intentioned. They were preoccupied with how to reverse the trend of neoconservativism and revitalize the American Left. The New Right was built in American suburbia, the southern states, and the shuttered manufacturing towns stretching from the eastern seaboard across the Midwest, and at the heart of the New Right’s campaign playbook and governing agenda was the assault on the egalitarian reforms of the civil rights and second wave feminism, such as affirmative action and reproductive rights, as well as those targeted programs of the welfare state, e.g. AFDC, public housing, which were portrayed as giveaways to the undeserving black and brown poor. The problem, many would argue, lay in whiteness, as a category of material advantage and political affinity, or put another way, the New Right had emerged through conspicuous appeals to whites as a group and against urban blacks and Latinos, who were portrayed through underclass narratives as an inferior caste, lacking a work ethic and delayed gratification, immoral, prone to criminality and self-sabotage, and in the most racist articulations, biologically inferior, lacking the intellectual and social capacity that might enable assimilation as citizens.

Whiteness studies had important precursors. In 1987 black political scientist Ronald W. Walters published a pamphlet titled, “White Racial Nationalism in the United States” as part of the Without Prejudice series of the United Nations’ International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Seeing a clear connection between Reagan’s conservative policies and the rising violence perpetrated by white supremacist organizations and vigilantes, Walters concluded that “the current wave of American nationalism is chauvinistic not only because it is American, but also because it is white.” In 1989 feminist educator Peggy McIntosh’s published “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” an abridged version of an article she penned a year prior. But it was Roediger’s 1991 book, The Wages of Whiteness, that quickly gained influence within academia and beyond, establishing the new beachhead of anti-racist thinking and activism. More than any other single figure, Roediger has helped to advance the study of whiteness as a central problem in American history and politics, having published and edited numerous books on the subject, including his Toward the Abolition of Whiteness (1994), Working Towards Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (2005) and How Race Survived U.S. History (2010).

In the three decades since Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, dozens of books have explored the historical process of white identity formation, such as Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995), Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1996), George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (1998), Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (1998), Grace Elizabeth Hale’s Making Whiteness (1998), dozens of scholarly and popular articles, as well as the independent left journal Race Traitor. A one-man brand, Tim Wise has become a routine fixture on the college lecture circuit, national news and radio programs, and authored numerous best-selling books including, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (2008) and Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority (2012). McIntosh and Wise represent a more therapeutic, consciousness-raising approach to whiteness that has spawned a cottage industry of professional trainings, national conferences, study guides, manuals, and curricula targeting white audiences and intended to spark dialogue, personal reevaluation and behavioral modification, all in the hopes of reducing racism in its various manifestations, i.e. micro-aggressions, institutional racism, and white privilege. Such projects include the United Church of Christ’s White Privilege: Let’s Talk—A Resource for Transformational Dialogue, the film, Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, produced by World Trust Educational Services, and the Whiteness Project, an on-line interactive platform built around interviews, among scores of similar initiatives.

As historian Eric Arnesen pointed out in a critical overview of the whiteness studies literature, “Whiteness is, variously, a metaphor for power, a proxy for racially distributed material benefits, a synonym for ‘white supremacy,’ an epistemological stance defined by power, a position of invisibility or ignorance, and a set of beliefs about racial ‘others’ and one-self that can be rejected through ’treason’ to a racial category.” The promiscuity of the concept of whiteness, and related notions of white privilege and white supremacy make it a difficult concept to criticize, as Arnesen adds, “it is nothing less than a moving target.”

Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness was unique in its focus on the complicity of white workers, and its rejection in part of earlier Marxist arguments that pinned the creation and circulation of racist ideology on ruling elites. Published a decade into Reagan-Bush’s neoconservative reign, Roediger’s opening salvo posed the question that many still asks about white workers’ commitments to the GOP— “why do white workers vote against their interests?”—with the speaker almost always assuming that working-class interests are already self-evident, unified and simply waiting to be advanced. “White labor does not just receive and resist racist ideas but embraces, adopts and, at times, murderously acts upon those ideas,” Roediger argues in that now classic book, “The problem is not just that the white working class is at critical junctures manipulated by racism, but that it comes to think of itself and its interests as white.”

This essay takes aim at this central premise regarding “white interests” running through Roediger’s oeuvre, from The Wages of Whiteness to his most recent book, and widely adopted by other academics, professional trainers, activists and citizens. The academic and popular discourse of whiteness is concerned with the “souls of white folks” if you will, their predilections, behaviors and reactionary tendencies, often relying on retrospective psychoanalysis to discern the interior lives and private motives of the antebellum crowd, the minstrel show audience, southern lynch mobs and middle class suburban strivers alike, even when evidence of those motives and interests is scant.

The historian Barbara Fields once remarked that “Whiteness is the shotgun marriage of two incoherent but well-loved concepts: identity and agency.” That said, this essay seeks to begin divorce proceedings because a keen sense of historical interests, the shifting, territorial demands and worlds people fight to realize in their times, is lost in the common inferences made through psychohistory and the false equation of identity and political interests, analytical moves which are central to whiteness studies, and for that matter, much contemporary thinking on blackness and race in the US. As Fields reminds us, whiteness acts as a thimblerig that “performs a series of deft displacements, first substituting race for racism, then postulating identity as the social substance of race, and finally attributing racial identity to persons of European descent.” And I would add, the same thimblerig enables attributing political interests to whites (and blacks) without the critical analysis and investigatory rigor that might sharpen our understanding of class and power in American history." (https://nonsite.org/the-wages-of-roediger-why-three-decades-of-whiteness-studies-has-not-produced-the-left-we-need/)