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It’s Time for “Whiteness as Usual” to End

How do we overcome the death wish of white supremacy?

An Evangelical Christian Donald Trump supporter carries flags at the site of a "White Lives Matter" rally on April 11, 2021, in Huntington Beach, California.

When I think about the insistence of white power and privilege — from racial inequity, the murder of George Floyd, the storming of the Capitol, and the emergence of Donald Trump, to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s rejection of critical educational programs designed to bear witness to the inhuman and cruel suffering of Black people in this country — there is a sense of both disbelief and a painful recognition that this is all too familiar. Whiteness functions as one of those multi-headed creatures; it finds a way to survive. Because of its recursive existence, I thought it crucial to engage the ideological, political, economic and psychological dimensions of whiteness with prominent historian of whiteness, David R. Roediger, who is the Foundation Professor of American Studies at University of Kansas, where he teaches and writes on race and class in the United States. Educated through college at public schools in Illinois, he completed doctoral work at Northwestern University. He is the author of Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All; How Race Survived U.S. History; Class, Race, and Marxism; and The Production of Difference (with Elizabeth D. Esch). His older writings on race, immigration and working-class history include The Wages of Whiteness and Working Toward Whiteness. His most recent book is entitled, The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History (2020).

George Yancy: Your critically engaging work within the area of critical whiteness studies located your thinking within the panoply of critically influential Black voices that had already given critical attention to whiteness — Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Harriet Jacobs, Anna Julia Cooper, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and others. Pointing out the importance of Black voices revealed the ways in which Black people had to understand whiteness and were forced to understand its subtle operations. I think that this is still an indispensable approach to understanding whiteness.

However, many white people are not invested in understanding their own whiteness. After I wrote “Dear White America” in 2015, many white people decried the attempt to get them to think about their whiteness as a form of reverse racism. I also recall being told that Martin Luther King Jr. would not have approved of my use of whiteness discourse, and that I was responsible for keeping racism alive by just talking about whiteness. What is it about whiteness that makes it so hard to explain to white people the ways in which they are invested in whiteness?

David R. Roediger: Thanks very much for the question and for proposing the interview. It is always so great to hear your thoughts.

Let me reflect a little first on how my work critically studying whiteness took the shape that you describe. That has everything to do with my mentor, the late historian of slavery, Sterling Stuckey. When he taught me in graduate school at Northwestern, Stuckey was bent on describing “slavery from the slave’s point of view,” a monumental epistemological shift. Sources were of course a big part of the problem and that made Stuckey the most voraciously interdisciplinary thinker I’ve met — an expert on folklore, music, art and the fiction of Herman Melville, as well as on Black nationalism’s intellectual history, profoundly interpreting Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. At first, we read together more folktales than anything else, to try to get at their artistry and what Stuckey called an “ethos” created by the enslaved. Those, particularly the “John and Master” and Brer Rabbit tales, laid out such an ethos, much of which involved mutuality among Black people. They also involved teaching — the tales were for children — how to understand and evade, and sometimes to disarm and avenge, white terror.

The critique of whiteness thus was a part of what Stuckey called “slave culture,” one that the writers to whom you allude could mine. Whiteness was a problem that the enslaved studied. My own early career in labor history, attentive to race but in fully standard ways, took me away from those inspirations. However, I began an effort in the 1980s to understand the “white worker’s” contributions to the elections of Ronald Reagan — even as he helped to dismantle unions. I reread almost everything Stuckey and I read together, but as an analysis of the problem of whiteness, often of poor whiteness. The book of my own that emerged was The Wages of Whiteness, but my next project after that gathered Black writings in a collection called Black on White.

The question of why whites are so impervious to understanding their own investments in whiteness is one on which I have come to think differently over the years. Early on I argued for the idea that whiteness and white advantage were so supported from on high and so ubiquitous as norms as to be pervasive without being faced — unnamed, unseen, even invisible. That line of argument did help us reach some people, to make white people address whiteness. But increasingly I came to think that the “knapsack of privilege” is not so much invisible as it is apparent and ignored. To use Charles Mills’ term, “white ignorance” is best understood as a refusal of knowledge that whites surely do have reason to possess.

For a time, I taught classes in summer schools for auto workers and steel workers. Unsure that lecturing actually worked, I took to asking those attending why anybody would want to identify as a white worker instead of as a worker. The classes were about 70 percent white and 30 percent not. My vague hope was that the latter would educate the former. Actually, it was the white workers who first spoke up, offering a pretty comprehensive account of the advantages of whiteness: you can more easily get a really good job in the skilled trades; you can move into any neighborhood and access good schools; cops aren’t so awful to you and to your kids, and so on. Some — these were largely motivated union members — undoubtedly wished it were not so, but they lived in that world and had no idea how to leave it. This was not simply white obliviousness. It was guilty and not-so-guilty knowledge of a system working far better for white workers even if in a larger sense, given the collapses of the auto and steel industries, it scarcely worked at all.

If this knowledge was available to white people, then it was second nature within the Black tradition. If we start from that tradition’s standpoint, we can hardly arrive at a conclusion that whiteness is invisible. The terror of punishments by overseers and masters was deliberately theatrical and the enslaved as a whole were made to watch. Lynchings often were likewise elaborately staged events. The much-photographed police lines in Ferguson and elsewhere, armored with the best in protective gear and aggressive weaponry, hid nothing and instead made whiteness and white power hyper-visible and seemingly unassailable. That was the strategy anyhow, though sometimes the police station got burned down and recalibration was required.

I was both delighted and yet skeptical of the recent emergence of interest in reading about whiteness and the proliferation of works on whiteness. This happened within both the national and global contexts of protests regarding the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Moreover, universities seemed ethically and politically compelled to hire scholars of color to examine white racism. Books were proliferating and academic positions were being offered. As I thought about my own work, I began to feel as if scholars, especially within philosophy, had latched on to a new fad. I thought: “Hey, I’ve been writing about and publishing work on whiteness for years now.” I would even argue that this emergence has created a few “white gurus” within the area of critical whiteness studies. I fear this moment for various reasons. Many white people are being taught to engage whiteness as if it were an emotional issue: “Stay calm, non-defensive, and everything will be just fine.” There’s also this sense that administrators are rushing to do the “right thing,” to hire scholars who address race and racism during this time of crisis, which feels ad hoc. My point here is that one should not hire race scholars for the purpose of creating a veneer of being “academically progressive.” Hiring race scholars should be driven by radical efforts to undo the systemic pervasiveness of whiteness and the ways in which it functions both within one’s academic institution and within the larger social world. Whiteness has always been there, doing violence through its normative structure. In my own field, philosophy, it feels as if philosophers are attempting to get in on the game. I recall when the subject of race was deemed philosophically nugatory, to say nothing of whiteness. For me, trying to understand whiteness is about trying to understand terror, trying not to be killed under its anti-Black imaginary. At the end of the day, this new interest in whiteness is consistent with the consumptive logics of whiteness. Whiteness will give the appearance of attacking itself by precisely finding a comfortable university home where it can do this without any real consequences. In short, whiteness can deploy itself as an object of analysis as a way of obfuscating its violence. What are some of your thoughts on the ways in which this recent engagement with whiteness is undoing the work of genuine criticality, of dismantling whiteness?

The hard questions raised in what you pose here involve some painful confrontations with what it is we have accomplished in universities and even with what it is possible to accomplish. Your observation that the small vogue in critical whiteness studies both delights and comes at a cost comports with my sense of things.

Twenty-five years ago, the great legal scholar john powell and I consulted at a well-off private college where we tried to create a more diverse student body, faculty and curriculum. The president of the school asked what his goal ought to be. Having just helped his son pick a college, john unhesitatingly answered, “Make your student body look like your student recruitment brochures.” Back then, the chilling routinization around discourses on diversity, equity and inclusion talk — the university where I teach recently added “belonging” to the list with great fanfare even as it fired its most treasured multicultural affairs staff — had not quite hardened into place. But the essential problems were already present for powell to pinpoint: the tendency to promise much and deliver little and the calculation that diversity is something to be marketed, mainly to prospective white students. Your remarks on the “new interest in whiteness [being] consistent with the consumptive logics of whiteness” capture such dynamics in their contemporary form perfectly. In a moment when we reflect on Nancy Pelosi’s memorialization of George Floyd — “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice” — the placing of diversity in the service of a white nation, its evasions and its appetites for happy endings ought not surprise us.

Complicating matters, as you say, is the tendency to see emotional balance and personal development as the reason for anti-racist education training. We can’t of course ignore the fact of racist aggressions, micro and macro, on campuses. However, it must be said that the confines of a listening session are much more congenial terrain for administrators, including diversity administrators, than planning to enroll far more students of color, retaining faculty of color, recruiting diverse campus workers to secure jobs that won’t be contracted out, or defunding university police, talk of systemic racism notwithstanding.

From my vantage point, that of teaching the last four decades in Midwestern state universities, the larger decline of public education and academic freedom are now big parts of our inability to deliver on the promise of what you call “genuine criticality” towards dismantling whiteness. Anything grand like addressing issues of access or diversification of faculty is off the table from the start; anything controversial is seen as incompatible with winning legislators to the possibility of cutting higher education support a bit more slowly. With tiring regularity, right-wing media rediscovers the existence of critical whiteness studies and claims incredulous outrage that it is actually critical of whiteness. They seldom fail to put administrators on the defensive.

The practice in the university in ruins is to not make efforts to retain any faculty, including faculty of color. The impressive studies of the University of California system by education scholar Chris Newfield have observed that the moment when the system became a bit more democratized racially, support receded. Moreover, the humanities and critical social science sites in which radically anti-racist interdisciplinary work has established itself are specifically threatened by internal university reallocations. These trends, inimical to critical ethnic studies and critical whiteness studies, emerge alongside statements by administrators lavishly supporting racial justice off campus. Claims of moral authority based on very meager social justice accomplishments proliferate.

Through the course of Occupy and Black Lives Matter, universities have, I think, been net importers of political energy and insurgent ideas. They have not so far deepened what has come their ways from the street and from new centers of thought on the internet. It seems to me more and more likely that what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call the “undercommons” will not ultimately be very much university-based. That won’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Continuing with this theme regarding the emerging interest in whiteness, I have noticed that the terms “systemic racism” or “structural racism” have become pervasive in our national vocabulary. I’m thinking here of news anchors and politicians. Even President Joe Biden has referred to systemic racism as corrosive, destructive and costly. Indeed, he said that he ran for president because we’re in a battle for the soul of this nation. Biden’s use of “soul” suggests that there is something fundamentally spiritual at stake in North America, something that is tearing at the deep ethical fabric of this nation when it comes to systemic racism or structural racism. My sense is that the elimination of systemic racism or structural racism would require addressing racialized material inequality. Yet, to “save” the soul of this nation would require more. First, define how you understand systemic racism or structural racism. Second, what do you see as that “more”?

Systemic racism’s proliferation in political and even corporate discourse represents a triumph for social movements. It moves us from arguing narrowly that Derek Chauvin is a “bad apple” to demonstrating that his personal evil matured within patterns and practices running through law enforcement as a system.

That said, systemic racism also appeals because it remains vague and contradictory in its meanings and can require a delay in order to gather data about patterns, a pause that takes us beyond moments of particular mass anger and mobilization. At this late date, politicians propose not reparations but studies of reparations.

Vagaries as to the meaning of systemic racism are perhaps inevitable. The term “racial capitalism” helps focus discussions regarding what systems and structures prevent us from getting past white supremacy and specifically from addressing the plight of poor and working-class African Americans. Connected to the great scholar of the Black radical tradition, Cedric Robinson, racial capitalism also had significant and different origins among Marxist scholars in the South African freedom movement. The dual but overlapping origins of the term — Robinson often sought to go beyond what he saw as Eurocentric and overly mechanical aspects of Marxist accounts of race — means that systemic solutions to racial oppression can be variously inflected. The Marxist position that the structures of inequality are significantly economic remains compelling, but they are also and longstandingly political and psychological in often deeply irrational ways, carceral and educational.

Robinson and others take the argument further, arguing compellingly that capitalism emerged in a developing racial system and that race and class are typically at play together; capitalism was from the start (and remains) racial capitalism. When we think about settler colonialism as well as anti-Black racism as part of the ways in which whiteness came into the world, Robinson’s approach becomes still more relevant. Structures of who owns what are vitally important, but so too is the very idea of owning, enclosing and consuming the land, and of owning the labor and the bodies of others.

So, we might inflect the racial or the capitalism when thinking about what structures are decisive in maintaining white supremacy. The liberal counterpart to an economist Marxist reductionism would hold that only those structures grounding racial difference in resources need attending to in order to move forward. Adolph Reed Jr. argues that the “professional-managerial class” serves capital by holding that if Black people share wealth equally with whites, the system is fair, no matter how wildly unequal distribution of wealth remains or becomes within Black and white populations. I think Reed inflates the extent to which such a position is held, and oversimplifies its class origins as he makes a case that universal class demands best benefit a largely working-class and often poor Black community rather than racially targeted ones. But the approach Reed describes does represent one possibility, though a less than productive one, of how to measure and attack systemic racism.

My position is that if we begin from “racial capitalism” as a naming of the systemic problem, part of the answer to the “more” in your question must be “both.” That is, in addition to what you nicely call “racialized material inequality,” the particular emergencies impacting the Black working poor deserve priority as themselves products of racial capitalism. Such a stance also implies development of vocabularies and forms, weakly present in the U.S. past and present, to imagine broad coalitions not solely based on universal demands, but ones that are able to speak to how groups sharing common oppressors are nevertheless exploited in different ways. One of our problems in this regard is that for a very long time, dramatic forward motion toward either racial justice or working-class well-being has been off the table in neoliberal electoral politics. The temptation then becomes to endlessly imagine that if we inflect racial capitalism right, all will be better. In fact, the emphasis has to fall on both words. The soul-saving might have better prospects untethered from the U.S. nation.

Personally, David, I’m a pessimist. I cannot imagine the end of white privilege or white advantage, which means that I cannot imagine systemic or structural whiteness ending without a war. I think that W. E. B. Du Bois was correct where he says that “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” When I think about whiteness as a global phenomenon, and the possibility of its total dismantlement, I think about massive forms of resistance to its demise. The pessimist side of me says that the end of whiteness will amount to the end of the world. Here I’m referring to the tenacity of whiteness, its binary structural need for “the other,” and its possessiveness of power and the world. Given my line of reasoning, I sense that many white people would prefer not to live without the reality of systemic or structural whiteness. In short, there is a kind of death wish associated with the end of whiteness. Perhaps this view is too psychoanalytically dismal. Any thoughts?

I am with you on the pessimist side. At the very least, it is a position we need to cultivate so that we do not lose track of its claims altogether. As activist intellectuals, we often hearken back to Antonio Gramsci’s injunction holding that we need “pessimism of the intellect” alongside “optimism of the will.” However, we then tend to disregard the former and act on the latter in order to keep going. That can work for a time, but such strained hope has costs, analytical and personal. Such is especially the case given the possibility that racial capitalism may well take the planet down with it in a matter of decades. As understandable as the rejoicing over the removal of Donald Trump from office surely is, the state of U.S. politics hardly allows us to see how even universal health care or defunding the police and military can succeed, let alone ending white supremacy or addressing climate disasters decisively.

We used to be able to think, as anti-colonial folk wisdom from southern Africa had it, that “time is longer than rope.” That is, rulers and systems would show their malignancy over a long run, and the people would organize. The slow bending of history’s arc towards justice was persuasive consolation. But because, as you put it, the evil and horror of white supremacy also includes a “death wish,” time is much shorter. Such a wish seems to me tied to a failure to imagine the possibility of an egalitarian society, a society in which Black lives matter, a world system taking seriously Indigenous (including Indigenous African) respect for land, or even a pause in spiraling cycles of getting and spending. We saw the limits of racial capitalism’s ability to disconnect from death in the deeply irrational responses of whites in the U.S. and elsewhere to COVID-19.

Some of the recent literature on death rates among whites, and particularly on opioid addiction and its consequences, is suggestive in these regards. I especially like Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness, perhaps in part because it is set significantly in Kansas where I live. We think of the Trump voter who prevents Medicaid expansion, or refuses vaccines, as “white working class,” even poor, probably rural. But the death-courting, self-defeating white population reaches well into the upper middle classes and is often suburban. I try to make a case in my recent book, The Sinking Middle Class, for seeing, after James Baldwin, the misery and emptiness of white upper-middle class life as one key to political immobilization in the U.S. today. Of course, much older patterns of whites regarding social welfare programs as coded “Black” — even when they are universal ones like socialized health care or Aid to Families with Dependent Children, play a longstanding role here too. Whites possess whiteness, Cheryl Harris tells us, sometimes as their only possession. They are also possessed by it. The force of Baldwin on whiteness lay in large measure in insisting on airing the miseries inflicted on both sides of the color line by what he called the “lie” of whiteness. Tragically, his most redemptive passages are somehow read as hateful toward white people.

Where is the U.S. headed? White nationalism is unabashedly on the rise within the U.S. and abroad. Given the historical seductions of whiteness and the ways in which elite whites worked to convince poor and working-class whites that they possessed something as vainglorious as white skin, I’m unconvinced that a critical mass of white people will see through the seductions of whiteness and establish solidarity along class lines. How do you see this? Does class mobilization have a chance, or are the public and psychological wages of whiteness, as Du Bois theorized these, still too strong to resist?

Let’s take the labor one first. I do not think that the ringing traditional radical labor slogan “Black and White, Unite and Fight” offers us any solution commensurate with our crisis. Noble campaigns unfolded under that banner, but not enough of them and without sweeping enough dreams. The unity promised remained predicated on maturing trade union struggles in which largely white unions accepted and recruited workers of color in order not to see their own ability to struggle undermined. It proved too easy to suppose that workers had universal goals born of common oppression and to forget white advantage. Moreover, the feeling of inclusion, however illusory, within the U.S. state and in a relationship with management that adhered to white masculinity seeped into the practice of decreasingly militant, and now comparatively tiny, unions.

That said, working-class unity could reconstitute itself on new foundations. Increasingly, the working class in the U.S. (and in the world) is not white, and unions (or what replaces them as a vehicle of struggle) might come to reflect that. If the watchword becomes “Black and Latinx. Unite and Fight,” I assume that for a time, white workers probably would not enlist wholesale, but some would join in for good reasons having to do with attraction to any renewed willingness to combat management and the state. Long ago, the brilliant theorist A. Sivanandan, writing from the U.K., argued that the very crisis of their lives might also lead to breakthroughs on race and class by white workers. “In recovering [their] sense of oppression both from alienation and a white-oriented culture,” he wrote, white workers would have to “arrive at a consciousness of racial oppression.” The possibility of this occurring among most white workers seems small but any significant split away from the acceptance of white advantage as natural would make a significant contribution to counter-systemic movements not led by whites.

As to the future more broadly, I’d offer a sober perspective, mostly to help us think about the stakes of debates we enter. Writing while trying to understand the European-on-European carnage that was shaping up in World War I, W.E.B. Du Bois offered the view that the idea of “personal whiteness” was “a very recent thing” in human history. He put it then at about 250 years old. We could quibble about dates, but Du Bois is certainly right that owning one’s own skin is a particular curse that has applied to only a little corner of a long human past. In making this point, I think he meant to provide some solace. If the past of whiteness were so anomalous and short, we could look also for its end. Your questions lead us to think about the consequences if that turns out to be an untenable assumption.

If psychoanalysis broadly describes struggles between life and death, whiteness is in a peculiar position. White supremacy seeks to make white lives and claims on the land matter above all others. But in doing so, it destroys lives of differently racialized humans and of other living things. It has not only a death wish but a deadly practice. So, Du Bois, Hubert Harrison, C.L.R. James and others in the Black radical tradition came to argue in thinking through the world wars and Nazism that such contempt for life cannot completely stop at the color line.

Let’s return then to climate disaster, this time to engage in a thought exercise, à la the great Derrick Bell. Sadly, the scenario below is not of the deliberately inventive sort that he provided to help us imagine and think. It is alarmingly possible in our students’ lifetimes, even likely. It is: What if global warming reaches such proportions that it makes everyday life a battle for water, shade and artificial cooling and against frequent pandemics? Suppose that for decades things worsen and finally the planet becomes largely uninhabitable?

What then would “whiteness as usual” imply about how end days unfold? Private accumulation and growth would continue to seem part of the solution even as they deepen the problem. Mars and colonization would beckon, and some might get there. Others would claim enough advantage in wealth to jockey more effectively for habitable property, presumably near the poles and away from rising oceans. Some might air condition more dramatically and dig deeper to control underground water. The gated and perhaps in-a-bubble communities presiding over the shutting down of things would, as Dylan Rodríguez’s important work tells us, include some who are “not white” in skin color but serve in the construction of a ruling “multiracial whiteness” leaving the system of racial capitalism operative. White advantage would apply, even if buying now only a few extra miserable months or years for its beneficiaries, who would almost certainly fall out among themselves.

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