Saturday, September 8, 2012

the whiteness of whiteness studies: David Roediger

I've written elsewhere about Judith Katz, who promoted "racism = power + prejudice", Peggy McIntosh, who wrote "The Invisible Knapsack", and Tim Wise, star of the lucrative private school anti-racism lecture circuit. Now it's time for David Roediger, one of the white creators of whiteness studies. Whiteness studies and Critical Race Theory are closely related, but they differ in that Critical Race Theory was developed by capitalists, while Whiteness Studies is the creation of socialists who accept many of the tenets of CRT.

Sharon Smith's 'Race, class, and "whiteness theory"' is my favorite refutal, perhaps because it's written for general readers. She observes:
....the theoretical framework of “whiteness theory” has more in common with postmodernism than with the ideas or politics of Black nationalism. Historian David Roediger helped launch this academic trend with the publication of his 1991 book, The Wages of Whiteness. Despite the legally sanctioned and violently enforced system of white supremacy, backed by both political parties after Reconstruction, Roediger asserts, “working class ‘whiteness’ and white supremacy [are] creations, in part, of the white working class itself.”

...Roediger’s analysis is flawed on several counts. First, he appears to assume that working-class interests have been defined historically only by the actions of white males, as if women and African Americans—not to mention other oppressed populations—have not played an active role in defining working-class identity. Second, Roediger falsely assumes that by designating class as the primary antagonism in capitalist society, Marxism discounts the importance of race. Most significantly, Roediger’s entire thesis rests on the assumption that white workers benefit from the existence of racism.
Smith points to two earlier white writers who helped lay the groundwork for Roediger: 
...Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe—self-described post-Marxists—first articulated the theoretical framework for identity politics in their 1985 book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Laclau and Mouffe’s (extremely) abstract theory divorces every form of oppression not only from society generally, but also from each other. As they put it, society is a field “criss-crossed with antagonisms” in which each form of oppression exists as an entirely autonomous system.

According to this schema, social class is just another form of oppression, separate from all others, leaving the system of exploitation equally adrift. Furthermore, each separate system of oppression has its own unique set of beneficiaries: all whites benefit from racism, all men benefit from sexism and all heterosexuals benefit from homophobia—each in a free-floating system of “subordination.”
Smith quotes another of Roediger's critics, Gregory Myerson:
[W]hile it is true that the various identity categories intersect—class is lived through race and gender etc.—and while I am also willing to accept that no experience of oppression should be privileged over another, it does not follow that multiple oppressions require multiple structural causes.… [Roediger’s] working class appears too autonomous, at times nearly sealed off from ongoing processes of class rule. This autonomy, inconsistently maintained…requires Roediger to supplant class analysis with psychocultural analysis.
I read The Wages of Whiteness when it came out. I vaguely remember Roediger's psychocultural riffs. Those sorts of things can be very entertaining, but they always tell you more about the writer than the subject. If you think I'm suggesting that whites who write about racism using the language of psychotherapy may be analyzing themselves rather than the people they call white, yes, I am. That doesn't mean the work is not worth reading—it can be very much worth reading because people who write about whiteness call attention to a part of history that too many historians neglect.

But you need to remember when you're reading that the writer has an agenda. Roediger has said Wages of Whiteness "was designed as a provocation."

For a rigorous socialist criticism of Roediger, read "On Roediger's 'Wages of Whiteness'" by Theodore W. Allen, author of The Invention of the White Race. Allen notes,
In his "Afterword" to the second edition, Roediger, with exemplary professional courage and integrity, acknowledges errors committed in the original edition. Some unspecified sections of the first edition, he notes, were "embarrassingly thin." He refers to "many shortcomings," for which he presumes others will be able to make amends without much difficulty. But there is one, major, error that he "sharply regrets," and for which he foresees no simple and easy amendment. That error, he says, was his acceptance of "the dominant assumption...[,] the unexamined and indefensible notion that white males were somehow 'the American working class.'" Reflecting on this "flat mistake," he recalls that he himself had expressed a contrary view. He frankly attributes the error to the effect of his "White Blindspot." This political disability, he goes on to say, incidentally caused the tone of the book to be unduly pessimistic.