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Beyond the Class–Race Binary

Black Lives Matter protesters kneel and raise their hands in London's Oxford Street on July 8, 2016

Black Lives Matter protesters kneel and raise their hands in London's Oxford Street on July 8, 2016. Photo credit: Alisdare Hickson via Wikimedia Commons.

Joe Feagin is a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University and a past president of the American Sociological Association.

David R. Roediger, Class, Race and Marxism (London: Verso, 2017), 208 pages, $26.95, cloth.

Class, Race and Marxism collects six important essays by the leading critical historian David Roediger, published in various venues over the last dozen years. He lays out major trends, and some necessary additions, in politically engaged research into labor and race issues both historically and today.

In a provocative introduction, Roediger surveys the book’s key themes. He begins with a well-reasoned critique of David Harvey’s misinformed notion that recent black struggles in U.S. cities such as in Ferguson, Missouri, have little to do with anticapitalist resistance and revolt. On the contrary, substantial evidence shows that Ferguson’s black uprisings have involved pro-worker struggles against oppressive conditions imposed by deindustrialization, including the extreme victimization, impoverishment, and shaking-down of black people by the white elite. This oppression has encompassed much government malpractice to protect white interests, including racialized police brutality and the racially discriminatory use of municipal courts to fund the suburbs (instead of corporation taxation). In this system, Roediger writes, white racism represents a form of oppression “in which the logic of capital combines rationality and irrationality” (5). Roediger takes issue with class theorists such as Walter Benn Michaels who argue that racial justice efforts often function as “mere covers for maintaining class inequalities,” or that most anti-racist activists passively accept that class inequalities will persist after a racial equality revolution.

Roediger is particularly sharp in his critique of left writers who attacked a now famous Atlantic article by journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which the latter argues the need for a sociopolitical program of reparations for African Americans, given their uniquely oppressive historical experience of racism. Critics suggested Coates and other leading black intellectuals and activists had rejected “universalist” programs for ones narrowly focused on race alone. Yet this type of “class-splaining” ignores the actual views of black theorists both present (including Coates) and past (Claudia Jones, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), who clearly recognized and accented the need for both specifically racial and more universal, class-oriented programs of major social and economic change.

Let me summarize Roediger’s stimulating essays. Chapter 1 deals with an array of mostly European scholars (e.g., Paul Gilroy) whose analyses of Western societies have tended to substantially and critically emphasize class over race. He largely rejects this shift, concluding that there is no theoretical or political reason to retreat from a joint analysis of race and class in understanding society or organizing for radical change. In Chapter 2, Roediger revisits his and others’ early work on the “wages of whiteness,” and critical whiteness studies more generally. He tracks the origins and development of the field in the work of key Marxist scholars such as Alexander Saxton and Theodore Allen in the 1990s, underscoring their vital importance in explicitly raising issues of whiteness in connection with labor relations and divisions under capitalism. He notes that earlier writers had interrogated the meaning of whiteness, such as the African American critic and novelist James Baldwin, but omits what is likely the first critical whiteness study: W. E. B. Du Bois’s brilliant 1910 essay “The Souls of White Folk.”1 Nevertheless, given his acknowledged debt to Du Bois, Roediger here and elsewhere in the book does prominently discuss the former’s influence, especially through later works like the landmark Black Reconstruction, which delineated the powerful concept of the “public and psychological wage of whiteness.” This idea refers to the “con job” that elite (capitalist) white men have constantly pulled on ordinary whites to try, usually successfully, to keep them from organizing with black Americans and other people of color, despite their many shared interests.

Throughout these essays, Roediger argues that in assessing these contradictions, too many left scholars have insisted on a “class first” position, instead of attending to the centrality of the racist exploitation of African-origin peoples to the capitalist prosperity of Western societies. As Du Bois so eloquently put it in The World and Africa, the extreme impoverishment and economic destruction of Europe’s African colonies is “a main cause of wealth and luxury in Europe. The results of this poverty were disease, ignorance, and crime.”2 The exploitation of African-origin labor and material resources has for too long, been downplayed in both left and right accounts of centuries of European and North American development and prosperity.

In Chapter 3 and elsewhere, Roediger makes clear that he was early on mentored and influenced by scholars such as Sterling Stuckey who worked in the black critical tradition. Leading black intellectuals helped him and other white historians find their race-critical voices. He discusses at length the work of the white historian George Rawick, a formative influence on Roediger’s own pioneering work on classism and racism. Here he tracks Rawick’s development from the “certainties of the white left” on racial matters to his later writing, deeply informed by the black intellectual tradition. These critical intellectuals and activists taught Rawick and those he mentored the great value of researchers listening carefully—often through innovative oral research methods—to neglected black voices, experiences, and insights. By doing so, Rawick and his successors learned, among other important realizations, that black workers were often ahead of white workers and associated leftists in their strategy and vision of anticapitalist change. This chapter is a tribute to one of the few white scholars of his era who listened well to the strong black voices of the time.

In Chapter 4, Roediger describes his own pathbreaking work on the development during slavery of what would later be called “scientific management.” Again U.S. capitalism is shown to be inseparably linked to U.S. racism. Numerous slaveholder tracts and periodicals laid out a paternalistic method of managing enslaved black workers, often in racialized, animalized terms. This slaveholders’ literature also often connected the management of black workers to theories of controlling the “wild Indians” on their borders. These supposedly uncivilized peoples were seen as doomed to extinction, thereby buttressing the value and “necessity” of expanded white-settler colonialism and slaveholding. Here too Roediger takes an intersectional approach, looking at the impact of settler colonialism and of the gendered reproduction of the enslaved labor force on the slaveholder-led, cross-class alliance that was foundational to the capitalist state in the nineteenth century. The central white-Western idea of a hierarchy of racial groups “undergirded slavery, settler expansion, and industrial capitalist growth, making the ability to manage other races a distinctly ‘white’ contribution to civilization” (123).

In Chapter 5, Roediger (with his colleague Elizabeth Esch) further tracks the development of scientific management as it was applied to black and other workers, during slavery and in the Jim Crow era. By the 1830s, whites’ race management practices had created and differentiated types of work under U.S. capitalism, with the most dangerous and degrading already termed “nigger work” and the poor whites (mainly Irish immigrants) who worked with or replaced African American workers often labeled “white niggers.” Later, famous advocates of “scientific” management such as Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, as well as engineer and later U.S. president Herbert Hoover, specialized in helping U.S. and foreign capitalists and their managers use racial-ethnic differences to divide workers and inhibit worker organization and protest. For more than two centuries this scientific management has regularly used “racial division as part of processes of expansion, production, and accumulation” (29).

Chapter 6 is a relatively recent essay on “Making Solidarity Uneasy: Cautions on a Keyword from Black Lives Matter to the Past.” Roediger foregrounds the concept and practice of “solidarity” in assessing and organizing workers’ and other progressive movements. He tracks issues of solidarity from the early efforts of the enslaved—what Du Bois called the “general strike of the slaves” during the Civil War—to the twentieth-century civil rights organizations, to the most recent urban black uprisings against police brutality. He examines an array of successful and failed attempts over the centuries to forge solidarity across various social lines, including between white suffragettes and black abolitionists before and during the Civil War—a temporary coalition that collapsed after the war as white women expressed anger that black men had won political gains such as the vote before white women. Overall, Roediger finds that the involvement of organized white workers in many progressive movements of blacks and other people of color (e.g., in organizing against white police brutality) has usually been meager, if not oppositional. Meanwhile, several of these black movements and their radical activists have created strong links to other oppressed groups, such as queer activists in the United States and Palestinian activists in the Middle East.

In these essays, Roediger raises critical questions for scholar-activists seeking to understand white racism and contemporary capitalism and its class realities. In his introductory essay, Roediger lists three areas of promise in recent left scholarship: how critical whiteness studies might respond to the ongoing capitalist restructuring of the working class; the importance of both anti-police, anti-racist movements and of increasing class inequality in the black population to the emergence of more powerful “rulers of color”; and the critique of the view of David Harvey and others that white racism operates outside of the “logic of capital”(19). All these are indeed important issues for current and future scholars and activists to pursue.

To these suggestions, I would add that much more work needs to be done on the overarching reality of the system of elite-white-male dominance and its closely interconnected and constantly reinforcing subsystems of racism, classism, and sexism/heterosexism. Indeed, current analyses of class and race would be substantially sharpened by integrating more of the theoretical and empirical work in recent social science on institutional and systemic racism. Much recent research on white—especially white elite—racial framing and everyday operations, as well as empirical field studies of the impact of this systemic racism for African Americans and other communities of color, deserves close study by scholars working in Roediger’s listed areas of research.

Another serious problem in much of the literature Roediger cites, whatever its stance on the relation of race and class, is that the “elite” is vaguely mentioned at best and almost never interrogated beyond reference to top capitalists and the political-economic system they created. It is past time for analysis of racial, class, and gender intersectionalities to call out, conceptually name, and empirically and theoretically interrogate the intersectional reality of this upper elite not only as the ruling force of capitalism but also as predominantly white and male. I have argued for years that this huge missing piece in the analysis of capitalism and the capitalist elite is both glaring and very consequential for (mis)understanding Western societies.

As Kimberley Ducey and I have recently shown in our book Elite White Men Ruling, much of the debate over the relative importance of class and racial oppression is either misguided or elides a deeper analysis of the concrete empirical reality of the ruling elite.3 There never was just a “capitalist class.” That class of political-economic actors has always also been, at its very top, entirely or overwhelmingly white and male. Their racial and gender characteristics often inform their framing and actions as much or more than their class characteristics. This mostly white and male capitalist elite not only operates from an elite class framing of society, but also a white racist and male sexist/heterosexist one. The subsystems of class, racial, and gender oppression constantly reproduce, interrelate, and reinforce each other because the elite white men at the top mark the most powerful “intersection” in society. Given this broader perspective, in my view, a better term for this societal reality is the elite-white-male dominance system. Studying, understanding, struggling against, and ultimately replacing this centuries-old, foundational, and deep societal reality remains essential, as Roediger, a consistently pathbreaking historian, makes clear in these insightful essays.


  1. W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater (New York: Humanity, 2003).
  2. W. E. B. Du Bois, The World and Africa (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 37.
  3. Joe R. Feagin and Kimberley Ducey, Elite White Men Ruling (New York: Routledge, 2017).
2018, Volume 70, Issue 04 (September 2018)
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