Newspaper article International New York Times

Real Material Inequality Obscured by the Myth of Racism

Newspaper article International New York Times

Real Material Inequality Obscured by the Myth of Racism

Article excerpt

In "A Dreadful Deceit," the historian Jacqueline Jones says the country's racial problems have little to do with racism and everything to do with economic exploitation.

A Dreadful Deceit. The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America. By Jacqueline Jones. Illustrated. 381 pages. Basic Books. $29.99.

Americans have struggled mightily since the nation's birth to overcome racial prejudice. Recently, as symbolized by President Obama's ascendancy and his message of racial reconciliation, we have basically succeeded and are now healing from our racial wounds. Or so the story goes. In "A Dreadful Deceit," the distinguished historian Jacqueline Jones vehemently rejects this redemptive and self-congratulatory narrative. She believes that the country's racial problems have little to do with racism and everything to do with economic exploitation. And, she claims, we have not even begun to come to terms with this.

Ms. Jones is the author of numerous books, including "Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow," which won the Bancroft Prize in 1986. This new book, a sweeping account of the role of race in American history, is structured around the stories of six extraordinary but largely unknown individuals, each of African descent. There's Antonio, murdered in colonial Maryland for refusing to submit to enslavement; Boston King, a former slave from South Carolina turned loyalist during the American Revolution; the Afro-Indian Elleanor Eldridge, who started several successful businesses in Providence, R.I., in the early 19th century; the Reconstruction-era Georgia politician Richard W. White; the early-20th-century educator William H. Holtzclaw, who founded a Tuskegee-like school in Mississippi; and finally the radical labor activist Simon P. Owens in mid-20th- century Detroit.

The six stories, told in vivid detail, are fascinating and a pleasure to read, particularly the one about Mr. Owens, whom Ms. Jones sometimes uses as a mouthpiece. Yet the life Ms. Jones is most interested in is the life of the concept of "race," which, following the radical abolitionist David Walker, she terms a "dreadful deceit." Her book is a call to renounce the very idea of race as a dangerous misconception. This argument will be familiar to scholars, but Ms. Jones seeks to bring it to a broader audience.

To explain how racial conflict has masked power struggles for control over others' labor, Ms. Jones surveys compelled work in its many varieties, from slave labor under the lash on tobacco plantations in Maryland to mandatory overtime in unsafe and sweltering auto plants in Detroit. Racial ideologies, she argues, are like mob violence, disenfranchisement and discriminatory laws -- merely tactics used to secure material advantages in social contexts perceived as zero-sum.

So the refusal of white colonists to recognize black claims to equal liberty was not premised on racial considerations, Ms. Jones argues, but on naked self-interest. She acknowledges that intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson were moved to reconcile Enlightenment values with slavery. But most propertied white men did not see a need to justify their dominance apart from citing their economic interests, the same interests that led them to exploit Indians, poor whites and women. A racial justification for slavery emerged only in the 19th century, in response to the Northern abolitionist movement.

Similarly, Ms. Jones describes early-19th-century white working- class hostility to blacks as springing from economic competition. "By keeping blacks in menial jobs permanently," she writes, "whites might reserve new and better opportunities for themselves and ensure that someone else did the ill-paying, disagreeable work." Throughout the period from colonial settlement to the Civil War, she says, racial ideologies played only a minor role in sustaining white dominance.

Ms. Jones acknowledges that "whiteness" functioned as a powerful idea during Reconstruction, uniting whites of opposing political views and conflicting class interests. …

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