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Whiteness as a Managerial System

Race and the Control of U.S. Labor

Joe R. Feagin, McFadden Professor at Texas A & M University, has written sixty scholarly books and over 200 articles on racism, sexism, and urban studies. His recent books include Systemic Racism (Routledge, 2006) and The White Racial Frame (Routledge, 2010).

David R. Roediger and Elizabeth D. Esch, The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 296 pages, $34.95, hardback.

In this highly original book historians David Roediger and Elizabeth Esch probe deeply into the relationship of institutionalized racism to the management of labor in the United States. As they emphasize, “race management” has been a much neglected topic in the social sciences. Focusing on the century from 1830 to 1930, they accent the interesting and accurate idea of “whiteness as management”—that is, of labor management theory among white employers and experts as honed within the arena of persisting white-racist framing and action. Among other key points, we see here how capitalistic employers long used the racial and ethnic differences among workers to divide and conquer them. The “scientific” management of workers and the white-racist framing of society evolved together over this long century they examine, as well as over subsequent decades.

In the early part of the century from 1830 to 1930, much white commentary and action in regard to labor management was about how to manage enslaved African Americans. In the later decades it focused on southern and eastern European immigrant workers, in addition to workers of color, black and otherwise.

In the book’s first section Roediger and Esch explore early management treatises focusing on enslaved labor. White slave masters discussed issues of whether enslaved black workers are better workers than white wage laborers. The first relatively systematic U.S. labor management theory was developed among these slaveholders, who claimed a special racial “knowledge” about both enslaved black workers and free white workers. Plantation efficiency was substantially about “managing the slave” properly. These early writers explored many details of everyday plantation management, exploited ethnic differences among enslaved Africans, and used enslaved black workers to keep white laborers under control. In these white treatises one already finds that a key issue for slaveholding capitalists is how to play off one group of workers against another to maximize their profits.

Major tensions and contradictions can also be seen in these documents and practices. Their highly racist general and collective framing of black Americans regularly portrayed the latter as lazy and quite inferior racially, yet in their labor management theorizing and practice enslaved black workers were seen as superior to white (including ethnic-immigrant) laborers in productivity. The realities of black workers’ efficiency and profitability to white slaveholders often contradicted their general racist framing of black Americans. However, it was also in their political interest to defend the “virtues” of their slavery system against northern and European critics.

In the second part of the book, Roediger and Esch examine the post-Civil War era of whites’ Western imperialism and territorial expansion, using examples like the racialized labor management used in the process of mining and infrastructure development in the West. They do not discuss the historical backdrop of this process—the primitive accumulation (massive land theft) involved in the conquering and destruction of indigenous societies—but emphasize what the white capitalistic decision-makers did during and after that genocidal process. In this crucial U.S. development era, yet more management theory was honed in connection with these new mining and infrastructure operations. One important example of labor management strategies was the racialized treatment of Chinese immigrant workers and native-born white workers in building the transcontinental railroad. Native-born white workers were often kept under control by white employers using the threat of lower-wage Chinese workers. Indeed, native-born whites, new European immigrants, blacks, and Mexican Americans vied for newly created jobs, and white employers again used labor management tactics learned from the past and honed in their everyday experiences in pitting one worker group against another.

As a second example in this section, the authors examine the important role of U.S. mining engineers “who conquered the world for informal U.S. empire after 1890” (15). In this valuable and highly original analysis, they show how the white-framed idea of the “English-speaking (white) race,” being especially wise in labor and other management techniques, was a key element in U.S. imperial expansion. Not only did the burgeoning labor management theory have deep roots in actual management of the labor of U.S. workers of all races, but after about 1890 it was exported as an influential management perspective across the globe.

No less a figure than Herbert Hoover, later U.S. president, was a consulting engineer who carried this racist perspective on mining management to areas like South Africa. Hoover produced reports contrasting efficiencies of white, black African, and Chinese miners in South Africa and assumed racial differentials in workers’ wages to be normal. Numerous engineers developed their mining management knowledge in the United States, especially in the West, where they were often involved in making judgments about the relative worth of labor of various “races.” The use of this white-racist framing to manipulate diverse worker groups became an important export transported by U.S. engineers, corporate executives, and other professional advisers to colonized areas like the Philippines, Panama, and South Africa. Some analysts might suggest that this centrality of white-racist framing and related action in a critical era for the development of capitalistic management theory and practice is just a leftover from pre-modern impulses and efforts that would soon end, but Roediger and Esch reject that interpretation, and with data. As they demonstrate, capitalistic management has for many decades, indeed to the present day, used the “irrationalities of race” to manage labor and much else in capitalistic economies.

In the book’s third section, Roediger and Esch assess the development of scientific management regarding the employment of new immigrant workers and black workers migrating out of the South, both of whom were moving into industrial enterprises. Large-scale U.S. immigration from southern and eastern Europe developed around the turn of the twentieth century. Over the next few decades, and in spite of nativist sentiment, numerous corporate executives sought out these European immigrant workers. Although native-born white executives mostly viewed them as racially inferior, that was not a serious problem because these workers also provided cheaper labor than native-born white workers. However, corporate recruitment of immigrant workers did create significant tensions inside the Republican Party at the time—as has frequently been the case since. While leading white industrialists sometimes vacillated in support of the intense (and successful) congressional efforts to impose major immigration restrictions sharply cutting back southern and eastern European immigration, the head of U.S. Steel and others periodically spoke against legislated restrictions—they sought that cheaper labor. Additionally, these diverse immigrants, together with black internal immigrants fleeing Jim Crow, allowed corporate executives again to implement a “divide and conquer” approach. Central to labor management theory and practice was the cultivation of an active employer consciousness regarding the value of encouraging competition among racially different worker groups. As Roediger and Esch show, such racialized management was frequently in the hands of lower management—especially the white foremen who ran the everyday industrial-work processes with a firm white-racist framing in their heads.

By the 1910s, for instance, an expanding Ford Motor Company was hiring workers from numerous racial and ethnic groups, including both white immigrant workers and black workers. Ford’s top managers and foremen played off one group against others to manipulate and control a diverse labor force. Moreover, Frederick Taylor, the father of the new discipline of “scientific management,” clearly saw the utility of racializing the competition between workers of different racial (and ethnic) backgrounds in his implementation of new management practices in various enterprises. Roediger and Esch demonstrate how the new scientific management experts utilized their “knowledge” about “races” to better organize production and increase profits. In the dominant white-racist framing of most white professionals, capitalists, and other whites in this twentieth-century era—and thus in the “scientific” management theory—both southern and eastern European workers and black workers were viewed as inferior “races” with poor work habits and other inferior abilities, as compared with “old immigrant” groups from northern Europe, who were at the top of the racial hierarchy.

In addition, in the early twentieth-century era powerful native-born white owners and managers in industrial companies frequently communicated their racist framing of black Americans to new European immigrant workers (and to their children who soon became workers), so that the latter would also view black workers out of the dominant white framing as the most inferior group and the one at the bottom of the hierarchy. Significantly, after a generation or two the once racially inferiorized southern and eastern European Americans, pressured heavily and effectively by their white employers and two world wars’ military experiences to “Americanize,” were allowed by native-born, northern European whites to become fully “white” in terms of racial status and privilege.

With the ending of most southern and eastern European immigration by the highly discriminatory 1924 U.S. immigration act, racialized labor management theory and practice soon shifted substantially to managing black and Mexican-American workers—those working in the “factories in the fields” and in expanding industrial workplaces. Significantly, in 1918 Dwight Thompson Farnam, an influential white supervising engineer, published an article on “Negroes as a Source of Industrial Labor.” In this era, once southern and eastern European immigrants and their children had begun moving significantly up the economic ladder—and the racial ladder into full whiteness—management experts like Farnam accented the importance of southern blacks (although still described in viciously racist-framed terms like “niggers” and “mammies”) and Mexican Americans as workers if the United States were to continue to expand economically. Thus, in Farnam’s managerial perspective black workers supervised by whites, including experienced white immigrants, could make good workers. This race management would also bring positive “civilizing” development for black workers, as well as other racially “inferior” workers.

One other key idea in this third section is how this racialized labor management pressed the workers’ union movement of the era to itself be racialized, as native-born white workers often decided that the southern and eastern European immigrant workers and the new black workers threatened their incomes and livelihoods. The white-led union movement tried hard, and successfully for a time, to keep most union membership limited to native-born whites. For some years the numerous racially segregated unions not only helped to keep black and other workers of color out of better-paying jobs, but also often kept overall workers’ rights from expanding significantly. Even more importantly, such racial segregation in workers’ organizations was a central part of the continuing, centuries-old social reproduction of the entrenched racial hierarchy and other important elements of the country’s systemic racism. In many cases this long racial segregation has had effects in unions to the present day.

The Roediger and Esch analysis demonstrates clearly, and often brilliantly, just how important racialized labor management has been over U.S. history. However, they, like most other analysts of our long political-economic history, need to press even deeper in their analysis of the relationship of capitalistic theory and practice to the theory and practice of systemic racism. Almost all U.S. political-economic analysis thus far has failed to do a good job in assessing the reality and impact of the white-racist foundation of the country’s economic and political development. In the North American case, racial oppression was, and still is, foundational and systemic. For instance, Roediger and Esch do not give enough attention to the fact that the new “scientific” management of labor in their time period was heavily shaped by the already old white-racist framing of and action against oppressed racial groups extending back well beyond the 1830–1860s slavery era they begin with. Additionally, they do not call out enough the reality that the racialization of labor management and practice was always generated by elite white men as the group that ruled North American society from the beginning. The reality and impact of these capitalistic investors, slaveholders, employers, and professionals being elite white men is often left as only implicit in their analyses. Very few social scientists, outside of the critical traditions of some communities of color (especially African-American communities), have regularly and forthrightly named and systematically analyzed them as elite, white, and male.

It is beyond the scope of the Roediger and Esch book, but their work relates to the very important point that the same elite white men who created modern capitalism and its labor management theories have from the beginning created and sustained that capitalistic system by stealing the land and labor of people of color, initially indigenous peoples across the globe and especially enslaved Africans. The critical analysis of capitalism and its systemic class exploitation has been more extensive in academic and movement scholarship than the critical analysis of this very foundational and systemic racial oppression.

There are a few language use issues in this book, which are all too common in books by (mainly white) critical analysts of U.S. racial issues. In their writing Roediger and Esch often use words like “Americans” or “American management decisions” when they actually mean “white American(s).” Such conventional language use needs to be altered in many such scholarly analyses.

In their brief conclusion Roediger and Esch suggest that the increased and diverse immigration of recent decades has expanded this country’s immigrant working class and thereby enabled (usually white) employers to once again use racial management techniques, which can be seen in the channeling of these and other workers of color into lower-level nursing jobs, meatpacking, chemical plants, farm labor, and lower echelons of the U.S. military. Increasingly, too, the now-globalized racial management techniques allow the still mostly white-run corporate employers to pit many U.S. workers (most strikingly better-paid white workers) against low-paid and severely exploited workers of color overseas. This is yet one more iteration in the racial management history well told and conceptualized in this provocative and useful book.