Black and white
February 11, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week, in writing this piece on white privilege, or white hegemony, I cited David Roediger’s excellent book, The Wages of Whiteness, and in so doing, I linked to the book on Amazon. I spent some time reading the reviews of the book, especially the 1-star ones.
Most of the 1-star reviews are predictable, complaining about how to point out how whiteness was created in the United States is racist against white people, or claim (clearly without actually reading the book) that the book demonizes white people or the working classes. It is hard not to call such responses racist at worst, or ignorant at best.
But one stuck out to me, because the author took a slightly different tack. It is worth quoting the review at length here:
A small but very significant difference in terminology prevented me from getting far with this book. Roediger refers to black persons as “Black” (capitalized) and to white persons as “white” (lowercase) throughout his entire book. This rather meaningful difference in terms is utilized in every single instance that a cursory glance through the text revealed these words appearing either as nouns or adjectives. Thus the white person is consistently devalued in contrast to the black individual, solely by the word used to designate him or her. Since this racial devaluation of the white indiviudal is the premise upon all of what follows is based, why bother to read further? Almost before the introductory sentence, we already have a good sense of the bias inherent in the whole book, a bias which puts the author’s fair reporting of facts or interpretation thereof into serious question. Is it just a stupid joke, or an example of white self-hatred, or both, that Roedinger would write nearly 200 pages making a case about how whites advanced themselves in the workplace by collectively devaluing blacks, while himself using language which consistently devalues whites?
First, I feel sorry for this reviewer for giving up so early into the book, but I suppose had s/he actually read it, it would’ve led to a different review, one much more predictable. But, ultimately, it is the same kind of review as the more predictable ones. It is just dressed up in fancier language. The fact that the reviewer argues that to capitalize black and not capitalize white devalues white people is an interesting one.
I have also had this question in the classroom, from students of various backgrounds, on the occasions I’ve either assigned the book or excerpts therefrom.
I think, ultimately, while I would be inclined to either capitalize nor, more likely, not capitalize, both, I can see a pretty simple argument for capitalizing black but not white. Black is generally a racial category in the United States. This is both done from the outside, but also from the inside. I don’t really see how, due to white privilege, an African American in the United States could not notice both this hegemony and their own difference from that hegemonic culture and, due to racism, be confronted with the fact that they might not be fully welcome to enjoy the benefits of a cultural hegemony due to the simple fact of skin colour.
On the other hand, because we live in a hegemonically white culture, most white people don’t think about these kinds of things. Those that do are either people like me, working from a place of anti-racism, or racists. But to the vast majority of white people, the colour of their skin doesn’t matter because it’s never mattered, because of their hegemonic place in our culture and society.
July 24, 2018 § 2 Comments
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This began the night of the election and shows no signs of abating. The current issue of Foreign Affairs, the august publication dedicated to the impact of the world on the US and vice versa, is dedicated to unraveling this question from the point-of-view of foreign affairs and policy.
In the issue is an article from Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr., Professor of Law at Yale, adapted from her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. In it, Chua argues that tribalism explains not just messy American involvements in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but Trump. In the case of those three messy wars, she notes that American policy makers failed to recognize questions of ethnic or national identity in those three countries, hence the quagmires. Her argument is compelling and well argued.
But when it comes to Trump, it seems to me she is on much shakier ground. She argues that tribalism is what led to white voters to elect him. She notes that the white majority in the United States is shrinking and Trump capitalized on that. So far, so good. She goes on to discuss classism and the plight of the (white) poor in the country. Again, so far, so good. But it’s when she gets into unpacking this argument, I begin to wonder about it.
She argues, as many others have, that due to the widening gulf between rich and poor, it is now harder for the poor to escape poverty and attain middle class standing. I have yet to see compelling data on this (though it is entirely possible it exists). But, allow me to be the historian here and point out that this so-called American Dream is more a dream than a reality. The United States, like any other culture or nation, is based on inequality. And it has been since the birth of the patriot movement in Boston in the early 1770s. In those days, the élites of the city used the working classes to engage with the British, from the Boston Massacre to the outbreak of violence. As with all other armies in history, the infantry of George Washington’s nascent Continental Army was from the lower reaches of society (for a very good analysis of the plight of the white poor in American history, you can do worse than Nancy Izenberg’s White Trash).
Inequality has always been the norm here, and it remains so today. Sociologists and political analysts have been wringing their hands over the white working classes and the white poor who voted for Trump in various parts of the nation (together with continuing with the canard that Hillary Clinton did not visit key parts of the country where such folk live). But the white working classes and the poor have been here for a long time. I lived in Appalachia in Tennessee when Trump was elected. My neighbours voted for him, as they voted for Republicans in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, and 1996 (it is possible they voted for their fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992) and before that too. The people where I lived were poor then, too, and they were poor when they helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, too. And so on.
Chua argues, though, that tribalism is emerging amongst the white working classes and the poor. But, my historian’s training tells me this is nothing new, either. In fact, this was how the planter élite in the antebellum and Civil War South convinced the poor white farmers that ethnic/racial lines mattered more than class lines. The historian Noel Ignatiev argued in 1997 in his ridiculous How the Irish Became White that had the Irish, the most downtrodden of the downtrodden white people in the antebellum United States pitched their lot with African Americans, then slavery would’ve ended a generation or two earlier. There is no universe I can see where that would’ve happened. The Irish were never going to cast their lot with African Americans in the United States, in the North, the black population was their closest economic rival. In Canada, it was the French Canadians with whom the Irish shared the lowest rung of the ladder. And the Irish and French Canadians did fight, literally. But they also intermarried and socialized together. But, of course, in the antebellum North, so did the Irish and free black populations, from both vicious racial attacks in Manhattan’s Five Points by the Irish, to intermarriage and socialization.
But the larger point is that the way in which capitalism is organized is to exploit differences and tribalism at base levels. In other words, the second lowest group on a totem pole is never going to side with the group below it. That’s not how it works. And in the United States, as David Roediger argued, questions of whiteness were exploited by the capitalists and planter class to get the poor people to authenticate a form of shared whiteness. Roediger made the argument that what sociologists called ‘ethnic brokers’ encouraged the white working classes (a large segment of which was Irish) to side with their (white) social betters against African Americans.
In other words, what Chua is identifying is not new. Tribalism on the part of the white working classes was part and parcel of the American experience in the 19th century, and it was in the 20th, too. And not just in the example of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, of course, in all of its manifestations, may have been led by élites, but it was the poor and the working classes and farmers who engaged in the racist behaviour and violence (with some help, of course). But the white working-, middle-, and poor classes during the Civil Rights Era were the resistance to the work of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and others.
So, ultimately, Chua’s argument (at least in the Foreign Affairs August issue, I haven’t read her new book yet) falls on its face here. Identifying an old standing behaviour and calling it new and exceptional to explain something surprising does not hold water.
Freedom Isn’t Free
September 30, 2015 § 5 Comments
Here in the United States, it is common to see a bumper sticker that says “Freedom Isn’t Free.” These stickers pre-date 9/11 and the War on Terror and the devastating human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they have taken on special meaning in the decade-and-a-half since 9/11.
I am, as usual, teaching American history this semester. One of my classes is reading David Roediger’s classic book, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. While Roediger’s attempts to connect himself to EP Thompson are perhaps overdone, he still makes a powerful argument about the centrality of race in the development of a free labour ideology in the US. He especially ties his argument to WEB DuBois’ conclusion in his Black Reconstruction of the psychological benefit the white worker received (in lieu of fair wages) through his whiteness, and its pseudo-entry to power.
Roediger digs back into what he calls the pre-history of the American worker, the period between colonization and the dawn of the 19th century and the beginnings of the American industrial revolution. This involves a discussion of the compromise over slavery in the Constitution. Roediger writes:
Even artisan-patriots with substantial anti-slavery credentials supported the Constitution as a compromise necessary to secure the world’s greatest experiment in freedom.
Indeed. The freedom of white Americans, especially white American artisans/workers in the Revolutionary era came at the cost of the enslavement of African Americans. On one hand, Roediger seems to be letting these artisan-patriots off the hook. On the other, I have never quite understood the apparent lack of irony in the Revolutionary generation’s easy resort to slavery rhetoric to complain of Britain’s treatment of the colonies. I find it preposterous and disingenuous. And yet, this rhetoric became powerful during the Revolution. At any rate, as Roediger reminds us, freedom isn’t free.
September 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
Sometimes I’m shocked by segregation, in that it still exists. It exists in Canada. Don’t believe me? Look at East Vancouver, the North Side of Winnipeg, the Jane-Finch corridor in Toronto, or Saint-Michel in Montreal. But, in the US it is even more shocking. Boston was the most racist place I’ve ever seen, the casual racism of Bostonians towards black people, the comments on BostonGlobe.com. Or the fact that people told me that The Point, an immigrant neighbourhood of Salem, MA, was a place where “you can get shot.” Or the simple fact that residential segregation was very obvious in and around Boston. Unless you take public transit (as in the bus or the subway), you could live your entire life in Boston without noticing people of colour there.
Down here in Alabama, though, it’s not a simple question of race, class is also central to residential segregation. I live in a small city (so small, in fact, that my neighbourhood in Montreal is about the same size as this city in terms of population). I live in a neighbourhood that is comfortably middle-class, veering towards upper-middle class the closer you get to the university. But, in the midst of this, there are a few blocks that look like something you’d expect to see in the 1920s in a Southern city. These images below are from one of these streets, a block behind my house. These houses are essentially a version of a shotgun house. The block behind me is about 70% black, 30% white. It is also full of abandoned houses, empty lots, and lots with the ruins of homes. The street itself is about a car-width wide, and where I come from, would be called a back alley.
What is perhaps most shocking to me is how an apartment complex (which my neighbours all eye suspiciously) ensures this segregation with fencing designed to keep the riff raff out. To me, the very clear segregation of this block is shocking. Almost as surprising and shocking this block is in the midst of my neighbourhood. For example, the final photo is of the next block over from this street.
On Ben Affleck and Slavery
April 21, 2015 § 173 Comments
A few years back, I was contacted by the producers of Who Do You Think You Are?, a popular TV genealogy show, to help them with an episode. The show was predicated on tracing the ancestry of celebrities, attempting to capitalize on the boon in genealogy amongst the masses, and was based on a popular British version. For an upcoming episode, they were working with Rosie O’Donnell, whose Irish ancestors had passed through Montreal, living for a time in a long-defunct neighbourhood in the city’s east end.
So I met with people from the show when they came to Montreal, spent the good chunk of a day with them, showing them what mid-nineteenth century architecture in the city looked like, using Pointe-Saint-Charles in the stead of this defunct neighbourhood, which was destroyed by the expansion of rue Notre-Dame in the 70s. Not surprisingly, the majority of the Montreal part was excised from the show, but I did get a wonderful brunch at Quoi de N’Oueuf.
In preparation for their visit, they had sent me the very first episode of the show, from 2010, which looked at Sarah Jessica Parker, then riding high on Sex and the City. It turns out her ancestors had been in Salem in 1692. As the show went to commercial, Parker was waiting on tenterhooks in the archives. Was her ancestor the accused or the accuser? Turns out her ancestor was the victim. I have always wondered how this episode would’ve played out had Parker’s ancestor been one of the accusers?
Would Parker have responded to learning her ancestors were involved in dodgy dealings like Ben Affleck? Affleck was on PBS’ Finding Your Roots last year. The show, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a lot like Who Do You Think You Are?, though perhaps more erudite, given the host and the network. Anyway. Emails released out of that hacking of Sony’s servers a few months back reveal that Affleck is the descendant of slave owners, but he wished that part of the story kept under wraps. No doubt he was embarrassed by this fact.
According to The Boston Globe, Gates emailed the Sony USA’s boss, Michael Lynton as to what to do with Affleck’s request that his ancestor’s slave-owning past be excised from the show. As Gates noted,
One of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?
This led to a discussion about what to do, as Lynton said the information should be kept out of the show; Gates noted the moral problem with this kind of self-censorship. Nonetheless, the episode aired last October, minus the information about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors.
Now, I get why Affleck might be embarrassed by this information. However. Here we had a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion about the legacy of slavery and imperialism in this country. If Affleck had stood up and said “Yes, some of my ancestors were slave-owners, I’m not proud of that, but it is what it is,” we could’ve discussed the fact that a good number of Americans, including some African Americans, are descendants of slave owners. We could have faced up to this ugly part of history.
History is full of all sorts of uncomfortable things, which should be patently obvious to anyone. Dealing with these uncomfortable truths is part and parcel of coming to terms with history as both individuals and societies. Take, for example, the case of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Here we are, at the centenary of the genocide, and Turkey, the nation descended from the Ottoman Empire, which committed the acts, refuses to acknowledge its actions. At this point, given the régime change at the end of the First World War, I am not entirely sure why Turkey is so steadfast in its denial. On the other hand, Germany has faced its ugly past in terms of the Holocaust.
Facing ugly histories is the only way we can face understanding and healing. It is the only way to come to terms with the past. And Affleck, who fancies himself a humanist and an activist (and he has done some good work), has missed a wonderful chance here in the name of saving himself some temporary embarrassment.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day: “Race” and the “True Celt”
March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments
I’m currently finishing off my Griffintown manuscript, and continuing the endless revisions of the PhD dissertation it was based on. By this point, “based on” is loose, like when movies claim to be based on a book, but you can’t really see the book in the movie. Anyway, right now I’m revising the sections on Irish nationalist sentiment amongst the Irish-Catholics of Griff in the early 20th century. And so, I’m reading Robert McLaughlin’s Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence, 1912-1925. McLaughlin’s work, like mine, is part of a growing movement amongst historians to challenge a decades-old belief amongst Canadian historians that Irish Catholics in Canada couldn’t care less about what happened in Ireland. This is a refreshing change.
McLaughlin, unlike most of us who study the Irish in Canada, focuses on both sides of the divide, looking at both Catholics and Protestants. This is what makes his book so valuable. Off the top of my head, McLaughlin’s is the only book-length study to look at the Protestant Irish response to agitations for Home Rule and outright independence for Ireland in Canada.
As such, McLaughlin spends a fair amount of time discussing Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionists in Ireland. I talked about Carson in class the other week in discussing Home Rule and Unionism. I had a picture of him up on the screen, blown up behind me. When I turned around, I kind of jumped, not really expecting Sir Edward to be so big and glaring at me. The picture, however, is beautiful. Sir Edward looks out contemptuously at his audience, his lips pursed into a sour look, as if he had just smelled some Catholics. His jawbone is fierce, and his hair slicked back. He looks for all the world like a hard man. But, of course, he wasn’t. He was a knighted politician. But he was also the perfect avenue into discussing the “manliness problem” of the late Victorian/Edwardian British Empire, and the response, created by Lord Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts, “muscular Christianity.” Sir Edward looks like he could tear you a new one as easily as argue the merits of Unionism versus Home Rule. And, in turn, this allowed me a direct entré into the Gaelic Athletic Association’s concept of “muscular Catholicism,” which turned muscular Christianity on its ear for Catholic Irish purposes.
At any rate, back to McLaughlin and his quoting of Sir Edward. Sir Edward wrote to his former Conservative Party colleague, Sir John Marriott in 1933, long after Irish independence and the partitioning of Ireland:
The Celts have done nothing in Ireland but create trouble and disorder. Irishmen who have turned out successful are not in any case that I know of true Celtic origin.
I find this humourous. See, by Sir Edward’s day, there was no such thing as a “true Celt” (not that Irish nationalists didn’t speak this same language). By the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant, were a wonderful mixture of Celtic Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Spanish, English, Welsh, Scots, and so on that no one was a “pure Celt” or pure anything. But, of course, that myth persisted and still persists today.
I still have people come up to me today, in the early years of the 21st century, and want to discuss the “real Irish” or the “pure Irish” or the “real Celts” in Ireland. After disabusing them of the notion that there is such a thing (anywhere in the world, quite frankly, we’re all mutts, no matter our various ethnic heritages), I am left to just shake my head.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.