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Book Review: Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past by David R. Roediger

Reviewer: Seth Sandronsky

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of the Sacramento newspaper,  Because People Matter.

David Roediger's most recent book, Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past, is a gem.  This collection of readable essays helps us to better appreciate what W.E.B. Du Bois, the African American scholar, called the "color line" in the U.S.   Colored White builds on two earlier collections of Roediger's essays.  The first is The Wages of Whiteness: Race & the Making of the American Working Class (Verso, 1991).  That was followed by Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, & Working Class History (Verso, 1994).  Roediger is arguably America's top scholar of critical whiteness studies.

In Colored White, his essays cover a wide range of topics, from labor history to popular  culture.  In Roediger's words, "The essays seek to place race in dialectical relationship to factors such as class, ethnicity, gender, age and sexuality in the belief that doing so enhances our  understanding of the pervasive presence of race in the United States." His special focus is on the causes and consequences of white racial identity under American capitalism.  Roediger skillfully uses dialectics, the study of change, to develop, persuasively, the powerful idea of whiteness in the context of white racial domination.  For Roediger, American whites have been, and are active agents in accepting and perpetuating racism.  They are not just dupes of a power elite who use skin color to divide and conquer America's working class.  This is not an academic debating point.

The book has three sections.  Part one is "Still White."  The lead essay looks at the arguments for, and against the idea that America is undergoing a demographic transformation to a "raceless nation."   Some mainstream critics have cited changing marriage and migration  patterns as proof of a shift away from rigid divisions of race.  Presumably, Americans are slowly moving towards a society in which the color of their skin will be no more important
than what clothes they choose to wear.  Opponents of affirmative action such as Ward Connerly in California have used this argument.  It is simple, and simply misleading.  Without question, the end of racial inequality is appealing.  However, Roediger argues that simple formulations on creating a nonracial future in a nation shaped so deeply by skin color sidesteps the processes of overcoming deep-seated racism and sexism.  Both are deeply

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irrational, hence not easily eradicated.  To that end, he maintains that race can not fade into class, nor can race be reduced to class.  Roediger believes that white racial identity should be widely debated and discussed.  Politically, this stance is intellectually stimulating, and liberating.

Roediger delves deeply into race and class in an essay on talk show host Rush Limbaugh.  His reactionary popularity resonates widely in U.S. society.   Roediger begins his essay on Limbaugh by considering a Eugene O'Neill play.  In it, a white elite uses an imperial gaze on a white laborer.  The worker drops to a nonwhite status.  The play is set during a time of  "scientific" racism in the U.S. aimed at southern and eastern European immigrants.  Eventually, they would whiten.  Karen Brodkin details some of this white ethnic and racial history in How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race in America (Rutgers University Press, 1999).  Similarly, Noel Ignatiev examines Irish immigrants' journey from American outcasts to white citizens in How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995). Roediger cites Brodkin and Ignatiev favorably.  A political point being made by all three writers is that racism need not be a skin color issue. Yet that is the enduring legacy of race in America, the presumed land of liberty for its people.

Roediger next turns to a short story by Mark Twain that dramatizes the life of a black slave woman.  Her tale of resistance to slavery is hidden though she was in plain sight to whites.  The woman's narrative reveals a critique of whites' partial vision rooted in racial relations of power and the powerless.  On Limbaugh's TV show, he occupied a small box in the lower
screen, and used it to parody high-profile blacks.  They included Dr. Jocelyn Elders, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Congressman Kweisi Mfume. 
Because of and despite his diminished presence, Limbaugh "cultivate(d) the reciprocity
of white entertainer, white studio audience, and white reviewers to endow his look with awful power," Roediger writes.  Racial relations between white entertainer and white viewers showed a shared awareness of their imagined racial superiority.

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View Comments
Date:Feb 14, 2013
Big help big help. And superlative news of curose.

Date:May 07, 2012
Extremely heplufl article please write more.

Date:May 07, 2012
Great thiknnig! That really breaks the mold!

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