Race in American Labor

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Herbert Hill's research on racism in unions.
  In^tu^oiud  ournal  «tf PoUtits. ddbat and Sotxty,  VoL  9. No. 2, 1995 in.  American Htstorii^raphies of Race and The Importance of Race in American LaborHistoiy* HobeitHillMuch recent labor histoiy has been devoted to studies of blackworkers and to tte racial pnu:tices of labor unions. V^h some noteworthyexceptions however, c»ntempc»aiy  laixx  hbtoriuis have failed to confronttte fundamental issue: tte hsforkal develcqnnent of worldng-dass klendtyas racial idendty. Maity labor historians continue to underestimate thedepth of American racism, diey fail to understand its deep roots in apre-capitalist past in Europe and America, and consequently theyunderestimate the resistance to the eliminadon of racist pracdces andinsdtudons in labor movements no less than in sodety at lai^e.^Tte study  d  race in labw hi^my oblige us to recognize tte historicaldeveloinnent of a culture of white  saptemacy  that directfy a£E»:ted eccoKHnkdevek^n^nt ami pdidcal stn^gi^ and was tte (tedsve fat^or intte consc^xisness of a white woridi^ das that (tefijKd it^If aiul itsin ruaal tenns.  RK^D  is  IKH  confined to its  vsast  obvicnis maidfestadcms asin Nad  C^aany,  j^rard^d Scnidi  ASaca 0€  tte pre>1964  An^akaa sooth, nor ts it linut^ to  ^xido^ vHadi  oieate  T  maintam ^oq) advanta^  oabam oi  r»». Ru^n invtdvK poweiM feelii^ of  t^g^esaoti sai of ajpericH^ ai^ eacfam^ wbifdi  K1  die efiiHts to thieve dmninatkHi cmdw b^s  d toot.  In slxxt, rac^i defines a sodal aiKland is nc^  saofSy  a ccHisetpiraoe of ectHKHnk font Oitapqm-wasgjvra  MtbsSaa em 19<», ¥feir CMnra, LoHisiraa.  7eiws  318  ran In this paper  I  will critically examine certain predominantinterpretations  in  labor history,  and  suggest  an  approach towards  a reconception  of the  relationship  of  race  and  class, together with  a discussion  of  some defining moments  in the  blade workers' experience withorganized labor.  In  addition  I  will review  the  most significant recentdevelopment in labor history: the emergeiK»  of  a group  of  scholars studyingthe wages  of  whiteness, ^  who are  aware  of the  field's traditionallimitations  in the  area  of  race,  and who are  increasingly critical  of the ideologically driven labor history  of the  past thirty years.From John  R.  Commons  and  Selig Perlman  in the  early years  of the twentieth century,  to the  work  of  Philip Taft  in the  196O's, whatusually passed  for  labor history  was  really union history. With  few ex- ceptions, traditional labor history consisted  of  institutional studies  of  la-bor organizations based largely  on an  examination  of  union records.  If traditional labor historians  and  economists such  as  Commons, Perlman,Taft and others identified with  the  Wisconsin School, mention black andother nonwhite workers  at all, it is as a  problem for white labor unions.'*This  is  hardly surprising given Commons's e^ressed views  on  whathe called race differences. According  to  Commons: Race differraoes are estaUkhed in tte very  hiood  and pl^scai coistitutian . . .Tte improvidence of tte negro [sk] is notorious. His n^lect of his itorse, his mule,hB madunery, his eagerness to qmid his earning on finery, his reckless jmrchaseof watamefcms, cUdcens and guden stuff . . . these and many othN  B^HeBts  ofim[Hovidence «qriain tte constant cfependence of  tbe  n^ro . . . when tte n^rodemands dw same wages as white men,  bk  industrial inferiiHiiy leads tte employerto take white  men  in Im place. [If a Made cotton farmer succeeds it is cmfy tecausehe] is under tte dose supervsion  at  a white landlord OT ciectiAH', who in selfprotecticm keeps control if him ... tte high mortality rate amoi% colored peopleis owing to pulmonary consumption, scrofula, and syphilis, all of which areconstitution^ . . . Additionally, Commons believed that labor unions were onlynecessary  for  Caucasians, that  the  backward non-white  races  were lazy,could  not  compete  and did not  need unions.^Selig Perlman undoubted^ e^qiressed  the  approach towards race  of this group  of  labor historians when  he  wrote that  ...  the m(^ importantsingle  factor  in the  history  of  American labor was  its  success  in  eorludinga non-white radal grotip  he  described  as  Mon^dian labor £rom  d»  workforce and  in  securing  the  adq>tion  of tl»  Chinese ExcliKioa  Act of  1882,die first radst immigration  law in  American history.''Hie Commons schod re^rded Asian  and  black workers  as  radallyinferior  and  unworthy  of  member^p  in  labor uniom,  and  tliese viewscorr^pcuMted  to the  r»aal polides aiud  practkes  d  the  teadershq)  of tte American FederatioD  dLabac ^  Hie ceatial  point  abcMit this  ta  Kace ta AiMrkaii Ldmr HMoiy 319 a tbat  they were  avettfy  radst and ma^ no excais^ or apologiesfor their position. Hw significant en»ptions were Charles H. Wesley,^Sterling D. Spero and Abram L, Harris.^ Herbert Northnip and PhilipS.  Foast,^  who produced veiy di&rent critical studies and who stood apartfirom the {sevaitii^ tendei»:y.In reaction to the traditicmal «;hool, a new group of labor historians beganto emerge in the late 1%0's. Aware of tlw limitations of the older groupand cri^i^al of their methods, Herbert Gutman and David Montgomeryamong others, develc^ed what is ^sentially a Neo-Marnan social history.In tjieir revolt against the old labor history they proposed to study thepeople: in short to do for Amerkan labor history what E. P. Thompsonhad  4oae  for En^i^ labor histoiy. The contributions of this group, whowere much more sqihisticated in their view of social proce^es than theirpredec^sors, represent a significant advance over the work of the tradi-tional labor historians. Nonetheless, Gutman and his fc^owers regardedthe race question ^ a subsidiary feature of class development. AlthoughthK school of thought, still largefy predominant in labc»- studies, eiqnessesgeneral sympatl^ for black woricers, it treats their collective identity andtheir racial group interests as an interference in the formation of a unifiedworking dass and regartb the  mae  of race as an impediment to the classstruggle.  T\m  sdiool tends to overtook or excuK the racist practices oforganized labor and to mythotc^lze aspects of labor history in order tomake it conform to ideological requirements.'^NeU Irvin Painter puts it in a nutehell when she writes that the newlabor history has a race problem. This explains she argues, how DavidMontgomery could celebrate the machinists as the embodiment of thefine American republican tradition, without mentioning that they wereardent lily-whites whose union's constitution prohibited blackmemberships until 1948. ^' Describing Sean Wflentz's  Chants Democratic,a  representatiw work of the new labor history, as a flawed study, Painterpoints out that WBentz mates a hoo of a kd»r leader iriio  a  a  tada  ami and-Semite ... Wilentzfails to mbed race in hk analysis, whidi given dK  Tbal  place that r«asm ocaqnesia American culture, is necesmy in liAor hlMory as in much of AmericanstM&s.*. . . I^th« Moni^goiaeiy^  Utte  nkwteeath and ^dy t«raideth-c«ituiyiack^rul workras nor  Wiiai^a aateb^ma  New Y(»k wodcere  ^ake  srase wh«idi^ comcsEt (in their sodal as weB  a  ecOBinuc ^lects) are  ^slotted  thnn^ theddedrai  A  i^ck  va^em  a«l wUle *' aiaiai^ted to tke beii^ that racial conjQkt amongis a cossequents of di^ rektkms or an oqiresion of  £aise tte t^asodic ocrameiK:^ erf interrat^ stdklafityis inccmdmive.  320  im tten it s  miggssXi^  that maity more un^jei^ed examptes wiU te uncoveredl^ fortter dil^nt research, aad die rare instaiKses where white workersmay have tehaved in a dass conscious manner are ^i^rly araght. \K&hfulthinkii^ dxnit tte white woiidng dass ami tte  primacy  of ittedc^jcal goalsover analydcal integrity tend to te characterisdc of the new labor history.Thus  JWu)  Built America?,  the tedbook that is tte e^tome of thenew labor history af^roadi, confident^ dedares, diat Decades of conflktabcHit die static of slaveiy [having] entted;... a new drama pitting rapitalagaimt labor was about to tegin. ^^ But tte conflia about tte status ofblades in American society was not ended by emand^ratkm, and die legacyof slavery was to continue through the segregation era into thecont^i^rary period. Race in  fact  remains tte fundanrantal and enduringdivision in tte nadon, wtereas according to  Who Buik America?,  twohundred and fifty years of slavery vwre merely tte pielucte for the classTte argument diat dass is tte essence of history is exemplified bytte work of tte Marxist hi^orian, Barbara J. Fields who states that classrefjprs to material diciunstaiKe.. . .  Yiasst on tte (rtter hand, is a pumfyidnriogical nodon. For her white supremacy is a sk^an, not a  belief. ^^ According to Fields, the reality of class exists independently ofconsdousne^ wtereas tte idea  oi  race B only a sodal constnu^ and henceof lesser inqx>rtaK». In ter effi>rt to  &MJ  a [dace  fm  race m orthodcHMarxist doctrine ste assi^is  ia  class a theoretical category of primaiysignificants, while pl2u:ing race in a derivative role. T^ is, of course,anotter versk>n of tte Marxist formula regarding base and superstructure,and it i^Kwes tte actual, mateiial effeds of race in mai^ di£feruit contexts.It also ignores tte ^^ that das is no le^ a construct than race.This influendal but defecdve approach is now increasingly beingrqected by adKdars. Gecnge M. Fredrkkson, in a percepdve oidque ofFields writes that ^ and  otl^  hiiaiHkiB  to Oe Man^  baditkni  wtw  aigiv  tha  c^ss is  real  MU race B net  are cqitives (rf a  tiie(Hy of  soci^ rehticHig^» tbitt arUtrwQy fnivfi^es<^ Eomi  tX.  Mcid aeipiaHty  tfttx  e/Ceasa.  . . .  Ahfao^ race  md dan are  bofiihistorical isventions  —  ia«atiw inteiiRCtttioaB  <tf  dtetaative types  of  \eaiBX ^E  —  ^  wooU be  a  Biny» to info tlHi, (mee inraited,  tfiey  do Bot becene of dm may tead to daw MHiflkt, revolotioB, aad mcMte lodeties. T%eomsbHiSioii of  ta e  w g  ^ad to aeoeasiao m drfwaeof ncid rinmj^of aodd Mders baaed on iacal aM& w cas owras j B ateo oitidz^  b^r  Hcinard ^^luit, «^ wite» fhatt ^le failsto recognize die satoice a  maak  co^tnict ran develop over ^If a.. as a tautoa^t^ ^tec^d of socM c^pmizstifm andicteadty ScmBatum. Waimt wtites tNt at i^ tevd
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