Projecting Whiteness: Race and the Unconscious in the History of 19th-Century American Workers

By Towers, Frank | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Projecting Whiteness: Race and the Unconscious in the History of 19th-Century American Workers


Towers, Frank, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Projecting Whiteness:

Race and the Unconscious in the History of l9th-century American Workers*

Historical writing on American workers offers scholars interested in the broader field of American culture a reference point from which to gauge the problems and prospects of some important trends in the field. American labor history has undergone several sweeping revisions since the 1960s which correspond to similar changes elsewhere in the humanities and social sciences. In analyzing these changes, this essay pays particular attention to recent scholarly emphasis on "whiteness," or the social construction of racial identity, as an explanation for the history of the American working class. During the 1990s, the concept of whiteness has emerged as a category of analysis in American cultural studies. Some assessment of its origins in one field and the strengths and weaknesses of the concept as an analytical tool seem in order as the decade closes.

Since the late 1980s, historians have grown pessimistic about the potential for the American working class to be the carriers of egalitarian and emancipatory social values. As a product of the times, this new pessimism reflects liberal disillusionment with the conservative politics of many white, ethnic trade union members, or Reagan Democrats, and the decline of unions and heavy industry as central features of America's political economy. Within the academy, the new skepticism about class-based social movements is an almost inevitable counterpoint to the rosy optimism of the New Labor History that emerged in the 1960s and '70s and argued for a usable past of working-class struggle against inequality. One proof of that pessimistic counterpoint has been the deplorable record of racial exclusion practiced by white, usually all male, trade unions. The concept of whiteness as a social-historical discourse that structured action and identity has been invoked to explain this pattern of racial exclusion. The study of white workers' racial discourse has opened new avenues of research and brought to scholarly attention a fuller picture of divisions within the work force that fragmented class solidarity. But the pessimists have at times overstated their case, in part because of problems in the way they theorize collective identity and behavior. Scholars need to explain more carefully how the collective psychology of racial identity operates and attend to the hallmarks of good historical scholarship, i.e. local context and differences in the time and place of every event.

From the dawn of the fields of labor history and labor economics in the 1880s until the mid-1960s, the most influential scholars in the field focused on the trade union and labor relations between unions and employers. What came to be known pejoratively as the "Old Labor History," provided a teleological narrative of workers' progress from early nineteenth-century debilitation caused by absent organization and misguided utopian politics to a triumphant present characterized by strong unions, tangible gains in working conditions and wages, and a respected place in the mainstream of society. For scholars like John R. Commons, Selig Perlman and Norman Ware, the\history of American labor was the story of union development within the framework of capitalist market relations.1

In the 1960s, the rise of the New Left and an increased attention to the lives of those excluded from powerful political institutions transformed the field of labor history. This "New Labor History" drew inspiration from E. P. Thompson, whose 1964 Making of the English Working Class avoided the conventional focus on unions and rejected a definition of class as a pre-determined category identified in the objective, material conditions of people's relationship to the means of production. Calling for the study of the working class as a "social and cultural formation," Thompson defined class as "an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness" (9, 11). …

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