Whiteness and Dependency

In its broadest strokes, this book argues that whiteness was a way in which white workers responded to a fear of dependency on wage labor and to the necessities of capitalist work discipline.  As the US working class matured, principally in the North, within a slaveholding republic, the heritage of the Revolution made independence a powerful masculine personal ideal.  But slave labor and ‘hireling’ wage labor proliferated in the new nation.  One way to make peace with the latter was to differentiate it sharply from the former.  Though direct comparisons between bondage and wage labor were tried out (‘white slavery’), the rallying cry of ‘free labor’ understandably proved more durable and popular for antebellum white workers, especially in the North.  At the same time, the white working class, disciplined and made anxious by fear of dependency, began during its formation to construct an image of the Black population as ‘other’ — as embodying the preindustrial, erotic, careless style of life the white worker hated and longed for.  This logic had particular attraction for Irish-American immigrant workers, even as the ‘whiteness’ of these very workers was under dispute.

In terms of periodization, this suggests that the first sixty-five years of the nineteenth century were the formative period of working class ‘whiteness’, at least in the North, though obviously earlier habits of mind and patterns of settler colonialist oppression of Native Americans form an important part of the prehistory of working class whiteness. (13-14)

David Roediger | The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class