The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South

By Story, Ronald | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April-July 2005 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South


Story, Ronald, South Carolina Historical Magazine


The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South. By Michelle Brattain. Economy and Society in the Modern South. (2001; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. Pp. ix, 301; $19.95, paper.)

Michelle Brattain's important study tells the story of textile workers in Rome in northwest Georgia, one of the state's industrial centers for much of the twentieth century. Brattain shows that industrialization and unionization took place within the context of racism and segregation. Textile-line jobs, though poorly paid compared to northern industrial jobs, were much prized in the impoverished rural South. They brought higher income; better housing, often at company towns; and better schools, often company subsidized.

These jobs went entirely to white men. Black workers did "black" work-janitorial, carrying, maintenance. Textile work, segmented by race, thus tracked residential and political discrimination. Unionization, when it arrived in the 1930s and 1940s, did not change this. White workers joined unions on the assumption that the jobs, though unionized, would remain white. Unions also brought some political influence, which workers assumed would preserve their race-based jobs and job benefits. This pattern held firm, despite the integrationist aims of national CIO and Textile Workers Union officials, until the 1970s-by which time the southern textile industry was all but dead, a victim of overseas competition.

Exhaustively researched in labor and political archives, local and union newspapers, government reports and court records, thisbookmakes several important points. Southern textile jobs, though denigrated by national figures as low paying and relatively unprofitable, were terribly important for the poor whites who got them. These "lintheads," therefore, were reluctant to do anything that might jeopardize the jobs, including crossing racial lines or joining unions. Moreover, especially before the late 1940s, mill owners were paternalistic, often sharing out work in slumps and supporting housing, schools, and recreation, which helped earn the loyalty of workers disposed to give it anyway. Local boosters had meanwhile sold the region to textile owners on the basis of its cheap labor, making them hostile to union drives and ready to race- and Red-bait to keep them out.

Everything operated in tandem. "From the rhetoric of the cotton mill campaigns at the turn of the century, to the defenses of higher white wages in the early twentieth century, to the protests against fair employment during the 1940s, Rome's major employees had reserved the best jobs, the highest wages, and the perks of welfare capitalism for white only" (p. 277). Most workers never joined unions. …

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