". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Monday, January 30, 2012

*How The Irish Became White*

Noel Ignatiev's labor history, How the Irish Became White (1995) Rutledge, makes transparent why election campaigns are still rousing the electorate with divisive racist and immigration fireworks, instead of focusing on the lack of decent paying jobs in this country and what we can do to turn that around.

Notes, from the Afterword:

p 180 - 181

[ If this book has a target, it is the New Labor History, associated in America with the name of Herbert Gutman. The New Labor History shifted attention away from unions and other institutions toward the daily life of working people. It broke new ground in examining the roll of the family, the community, and the culture in forming the working class. In treating working people as the subjects of their own activity, it broke with the labor historians who preceded it. However, in its attitude toward the race problem it continued the tradition established earlier within Old Left circles, of substituting an abstract notion of the working class for the lived experience of working people. Ft 8 Unable to deny entirely the record of white labor in accepting and promoting racial distinctions, the new labor historians treated it as peripheral to the main line of working class formation and struggle. Rarely did they ask what the labor move-

p 181

ment looked like from the perspective of the slave worker kept in bondage by the alliance of slaveholders, financiers, and white laborers known as the Democratic Party. Or the free black worker denied land and employment, or the Chinese worker barred from the country, by the power of organized labor. In failing to do so they were reneging on their promise to write history “from the bottom up.”

One explanation that can be offered for the Gutman school’s blind spot on race is that it was motivated by the search for a tradition that could serve as the sarting point for the sort of labor movement they hoped would emerge – the famous “usable past.” The selective lens used in the search involved denial, and denial led to apologetics. … ]

Ft 8 Old Left labor historians, notwithstanding valuable work they did on Afro American history, never allowed the race question to interfere with their celebration of what they called the labor movement. …. the problem I’m addressing is … failure to locate slavery and freedom in their proper place in the history of the working class in America. …. ]

p 184

In other words when it comes to the history of labor struggle in the U.S. all of this is a sidebar to the real, big, story

Afterword: outlines how

[ “David Walker’s Appeal, Nat Turner’s rebellion, the development of the Afro-American church and the black press, the underground railroad and the vigilance committees, abolitionism, John Brown, the Civil War, the withdrawal of labor from the plantation, the black soldiers, Negroes as voters and citizens, forty acres and a mule, the overthrow of Reconstruction – all these were prelude, part of the debate over slavery and the Negro; the “real” struggle between capital and labor is about to begin.” ]

p 185

See HtIBW chapters re frequent riots in the urban north; predominately Irish immigrants freely beat and murdered free blacks and burned their homes, churches and lecture halls - as part of the pleasure wage of whiteness) which allowed“many workers [to] define themselves as white,” and for which, if jailed, seldom indicted, if sent to trial, seldom found guilty, if hardly ever found guilty, were never sentenced.

[ …. The author [Alexander Sexton] sees little difficulty in understanding how the theory of white superiority arose out of the need to vindicate a class of people that grew rich from the slave trade, slavery, and the expropriation of land from nonwhite populations; the more formidable problem is to explain why nonslaveholding whites acquiesced either in planter dominance or its justifations. The Rise and Fall, then is a study of the role of white supremacy in legitimating the changing class coalitions that ruled the U.S. in the nineteenth century.

Contrary to the fictions of the white labor apologists, “The hard side of racism generally appeared in nineteenth-century America as a corollary to egalitarianism (186). Whiggery was shaped, above all, by class position; within the Whig social hierarchy, “racial difference could be viewed … [as] simply one among many” (70). Northern Whig employers felt the greatest threat from the insurgent immigrant population, while their attitude toward nonwhites was often one of tolerant condescension. For the Jacksonians, needing to cement a coalition based on white egalitarianism, racial distinctions were central. “Their natural proclivity was to the hard side of racism” (120). Accordingly, “class differentials dissolved into a sentimental oneness of the white herrenvolk”(123).

David Roediger also explores the problem of white ideology, with specific attention to the working class. He asks “why the white working class settles for being white” (6) and finds the answer in Du Bois’s notion of the “public and psychological wage.” The “pleasures of whiteness could function as a wage” (6). To trace the evolution and effects of that wage is the task of The Wages of Whiteness. Although Roediger locates himself within the “broad tradition” of the New Labor History, and uses Marxist tools, he acknowledges tht “the new labor history has hesitated to

p 186

explore ‘whiteness’ and white supremacy as creations in part, of the white working class itself” (9) and that “the main body of writing by white Marxists in the United States has both ‘naturalized’ whiteness and oversimplified race, reproduc[ing] the weaknesses of both American liberalism and neo conserativism” (6).
“Working class formation and the systematic development of a sense of whiteness went hand in hand for the U.S. white working class,” writes Roediger (8). If the color line paid a “public and psychological wage, “The cost was a debased republicanism,” condemnation to “lifelong wage labor” (55). He concludes with an appropriate symbol: by the end of Reconstruction, “white workers were still tragically set on keeping even John Henry out of the House of Labor” (181). ]

One more day and it's Black History Month, you all.

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