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Cody Melcher – The Wages of Whiteness or White Fragility? W.E.B. Du Bois and the Enduring Problem of Interracial Unionism

Cody Melcher recently published an article in the ASA’s Marxist Sociology Blog.


The Wages of Whiteness or White Fragility? W.E.B. Du Bois and the Enduring Problem of Interracial Unionism

A common thread runs through much of the recent “pop-academic” work on white supremacy in the United States: racism is a psychological attribute of whites. Racism is a disposition—a worldview—which whites embrace consciously or, perhaps more often than not, subconsciously. It is this psychological disposition which, in turn, creates and perpetuates racial inequality.

Some popular accounts make the generalized claim that all whites possess this worldview to varying degrees, like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, while others, in an attempt to absolve educated liberals—like themselves—emphasize the racial hatred and degeneracy of a group variously labeled as the white working-class, poor whites, or white trash. Besides broad claims regarding childhood socialization—what Philipp Rehm, in a different context, has characterized as the “waving one’s hands and blaming the parents” argument—very little is said with regards to what actually causes this disposition.

David Roediger’s earlier, and much more sophisticated psychological account of white supremacy, The Wages of Whiteness, draws on the seminal work of W.E.B. Du Bois to argue that whites’ racial animus is grounded, ultimately, in whites’ attempt to secure a “public and psychological wage.” For Roediger—unlike the pop-academics—racism is not an unexplained or otherwise uncaused disposition: racism is embraced because the psychological superiority white supremacy bestows on whites—particularly white workers—functions as a “wage.” Whites perpetuate white supremacy because the psychological wages of whiteness are a concrete benefit whites experience through white supremacy’s operation.

Without discounting the importance of this psychological wage, Du Bois himself considered this particular “wage of whiteness” as a secondary and buttressing mechanism in the perpetuation of racial inequality. Indeed, well before he explicitly embraced a Marxist analysis of race in the late-1920s and early-1930s, Du Bois was a consummate materialist when it came to white supremacy in the US. In his 1899 study of Philadelphia’s Black community, The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois argued that the racial animosity of white workers towards Blacks is grounded primarily in racialized labor market competition:

“[A] more potent part [of the motives to exclude Black workers from desirous occupations and industries] is the natural spirit of monopoly and the desire to keep up wages. So long as a cry against ‘Irish’ or ‘foreigners’ was able to keep those people out of some employments, that cry was sedulously used. So to-day the workmen plainly see that a large amount of competition can be shut off by taking advantage of public opinion and drawing the color line. Moreover, in this there is one thoroughly justifiable consideration that plays a great part: namely, the Negroes are used to low wages—can live on them, and consequently would fight less fiercely than most whites against reduction.”

Similarly, in his 1920 account of the East St. Louis race riot, “Of Wealth and Work,” Du Bois argues that the massacre of the Black population occurred because Black workers were compelled to undercut the prevailing wages of white workers:

“If the white workingmen of East St. Louis felt sure that Negro workers would not and could not take the bread and cake from their mouths, their race hatred would never have been translated into murder. If the black workingmen of the South could earn a decent living under decent circumstances at home, they would not be compelled to underbid their white fellows.”

After visiting the Soviet Union in 1926, declaring himself a “Bolshevik,” and thoroughly studying Marx’s work—including teaching a number of seminars on “Marx and the Negro Problem” at Atlanta University in the early-1930s—Du Bois systematized this materialist analysis in his 1935 magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois characterizes the American labor movement as consisting of two contradictory currents: one which strives to establish the economic, social, and political equality of Blacks, and another that strives to better the wages and conditions of white workers by monopolizing the labor pool (i.e., limiting competition).

In this zero-sum conceptualization, a victory by one current means a loss for the other: if Black workers are able to enter a previously all-white industry or occupational group, white workers are faced with increased competition, potential job loss, and potential wage reduction. This, what Du Bois called in an earlier work, “modern economic paradox”—made possible by the anarchic structure of capitalism—results in an obfuscation of the class struggle: the primary antagonism of the American class structure is not between workers and their employers, but between Black workers and white workers.

In short, workers confront each other in the labor market neither as atomized individuals, nor as an undifferentiated proletariat with identical propensities to collectively challenge the boss’s rule. Rather, workers confront each other in the labor market as racialized entities, whose individual material interests are furthered along with their socially constructed race. Hence the “exceptionalism” of the American labor movement: One segment of the working class concentrates most of its activism on excluding the other segment from higher-paying jobs to protect against potential job displacement and wage decline, and the other segment concentrates most of its activism on eliminating the mechanisms and undermining the organizations through which the first segment excludes them.

All of this is to say that, for Du Bois, whites embrace racism not because they are imbued by a psychological predisposition nor because they’re grasping for a shred of psychological superiority. Rather, they embrace white supremacy because the threat of job displacement—and the economic hardship that implies—drives whites to pursue their economic interests in racialized terms.

There is good historical evidence that Du Bois’s analysis is accurate for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. More recently, I have shown using statistical analysis of public opinion data that contemporary xenophobia is largely grounded in job insecurity, as Du Bois’s theory would predict. While anti-Black racism is much less grounded in labor market competition than it was prior to the 1960s, racism is still grounded in economic competition, more broadly construed. Due to the racialization of housing polices during the New Deal, state-sanctioned segregation has led to a similar dynamic in the housing market, and, relatedly, in the allocation of public education.

However, Du Bois and the pop-academics do have one thing in common: they do not see an interracially united working class as the solution to the problem. The pop-academics—conceptualizing racism as a mental pathology—demand simply that whites confront their inherently racist psyche; the liberal’s version of Maoism’s self-crit. White Americans must “embark on a self-critical project of looking inward to examine and work against racist biases that many have barely known they had,” as John McWhorter summarizes this literature’s ultimate prescription. White workers, lacking education and otherwise basking in their ignorance, are unlikely or unwilling to engage in such a project. Thus, it’s up to educated white liberals to pick up the slack.

Du Bois, on the other hand, assumed that the relative economic advantage that accrued to whites as a result of white supremacy was simply too much to overcome. White workers would never give up this relative advantage and unite on an equitable class-basis with Black workers. This led to a number of political positions on the part of Du Bois that can be interpreted as off-putting or at least surprising if viewed outside of this context.

As I document in much greater detail in my Critical Sociology article “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: WEB Du Bois, Left-Wing Radicalism, and the Problem of Interracial Labor Unionism,” Du Bois was wont to advocate for Black strikebreaking, even in cases where the union and/or the strikers involved were dedicated to interracial unity.

For instance, Du Bois called on Black workers to actively break the 1912 NYC Waiters’ Strike, despite the fact that the strike was conducted by the Industrial Workers of the World, a union well-known—even to Du Bois—for its interracialism. Du Bois was also acerbically critical of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and, in particular, the role of the Communist Party USA in the labor movement, characterizing members of the latter group as “neither wise nor intelligent.” This despite the fact that the Communist Party—working through the CIO—was the major impetus for the massive interracial union wave of the 1930s, as well as much of the activism in the first wave of what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has characterized as the “long civil rights movement.”

While I believe Du Bois’s materialist account of white supremacy in the United States is absolutely indispensable when it comes to explaining the contemporary political and social moment, the assumption that white workers are unable to overcome the material “wages of whiteness” is a dangerous, if not simply defeatist, political position grounded in short-term and selective memory, and, more often than not, elitist condescension. After World War II, Du Bois himself realized this, giving the CIO credit for “softening race prejudice among the masses,” and increasingly associating himself with Communist Party activism, formally joining the party in 1961.

Rather than ascribing a transhistorical logic to white working-class behavior, like the pop-academics and Du Bois pre-WWII, we would do better to actually analyze, rather than explain away or ignore those exceptional historical instances when white workers do, in fact, reject white supremacy en masse and organize on an equitable class-basis with non-white workers. As Winston James convincingly put it:

“In short, the lazy shorthand—the white working class is incurably racist—that is passed off as analysis will not do. It cannot account for Big Bill Haywood, Joe Hill, and the Wobblies; it cannot account for the principled antiracism of Oscar Ameringer, who did splendid antiracist work among the Oklahoma Socialists; nor can it account for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Robert Minor in the Communist Party or for the later phase of Eugene Debs’s life. One may respond by saying that these are aberrations in American history that need not detain us. But not only is such a response too easy—and too cheap—the fact is that there are too many aberrations of this kind—which means they are not aberrations in any meaningful sense—even in these racist United States, for them to be so lightly dismissed. We need, therefore, to explain them.”

Cody Melcher is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY).

This article is based on Cody R. Melcher (2020) “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: WEB Du Bois, Left-Wing Radicalism, and the Problem of Interracial Labor Unionism,” Critical Sociology 46(7-8): 1041-1055.


Jim Jasper and Alex Vitale (alum) were quoted at length in a recent NY Times article on mob mentality and mob violence

Check out this NY Times article on mob mentality, which has great quotes and insights from our very own Professor Jim Jasper and GC alum and current Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale.

Why do some mass gatherings turn violent? Experts in crowd behavior say there’s still much to learn.

“Crowds do not act with one irrational mind,” said one sociologist. “There are many groups, doing different things, for different reasons. That is crucial to understanding how they ultimately behave.”
Credit…Thomas P. Costello/Usa Today, via Reuters

The reign of King Louis Philippe, the last king of France, came to an abrupt and ignominious end on Feb. 24, 1848, after days of increasingly violent demonstrations in Paris and months of mounting agitation with the government’s policies.

The protesters surging through the city at first were fairly orderly: students chanting, well-dressed men and women strolling, troublemakers breaking windows and looting. But late in the evening of Feb. 23, the tide turned dark. Soldiers had fired on the crowd near the Hôtel des Capucines, leaving scores of men and women gravely wounded. Some blocks away, a journalist was “startled by the aspect of a gentleman who, without his hat, ran madly into the middle of the street, and began to harangue the passers-by. ‘To arms!’ he cried. ‘We are betrayed.’”

“The effect was electric,” the journalist wrote later. “Each man shook his neighbor by the hand, and far and wide the word was given that the whole system must fall.”

Several decades later, in 1895, those events became grist for one of the first concerted scholarly efforts to understand the mob mentality, Gustave Le Bon’s “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.” Ever since, social scientists have sought to describe the dynamics of humans en masse. What, independent of police provocation, causes a seemingly peaceful group of people to turn violent? How coherent in their purpose are crowds? Why and how does a crowd become a mob?

Last week’s march and deadly assault on the Capitol has raised these questions again, and many more besides. News media reports have openly struggled to find the right language. Was this an angry throng, a chaotic demonstration, a protest turned ugly or a deliberate insurrection — or some combination of them all?

A full account of the episode — the inside story, from those who know — may never emerge, given the lack of neutral chroniclers. But ample video footage is available, perhaps more than from any other such crowd action; experts have already begun viewing and analyzing the imagery in the context of a vast scholarship on crowd dynamics, and the events of Jan. 6 are likely to be studied and referenced for years to come.

If the scenes from the Capitol grounds reveal one thing, it is variety. There were people in military gear, carrying guns, zip-ties and maps of the corridors; individuals in Uncle Sam hats and animal-skin costumes; others carrying nooses, planting explosive devices, breaking windows, attacking journalists; and hundreds just milling around outside, carrying pro-Trump signs, socializing as if at a backyard barbecue. Perhaps for brevity, headline writers have gravitated toward using the term “mob,” but the word hardly captures the totality of the events, much less what researchers have learned about crowd behavior in the last century and a half.

“Crowds do not act with one irrational mind,” James Jasper, a sociologist at the City University of New York and author of “The Emotions of Protest,” said. “There are many groups, doing different things, for different reasons. That is crucial to understanding how they ultimately behave.”

ImageAn illustration of a mob entering King Louis-Philippe’s throne room in the Tuileries in Paris in February 1848.
Credit…Culture Club/Getty Images

Le Bon, a French intellectual and writer, was not yet 7 during the 1848 rebellion in Paris and most likely was not a witness to its bloodiest days. But accounts of the rebellion clearly moved him, and he was repulsed by the entity at its center — the “howling, swarming, ragged crowd,” he wrote in 1895. From there he built a theory of crowd behavior that has never quite gone away.

“An agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it,” Le Bon concluded. “The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed.”

(A similar sentiment appears in an eyewitness account of the “common mob” rebelling against a Byzantine emperor in the 11th century: “It was as if the whole multitude were sharing in some superhuman inspiration. They seemed different from their former selves. There was more madness in their running, more strength in their hands, the flash in their eyes was fiery and inspired, the muscles of their bodies more powerful.”)

The notion of a group mind held sway among social scientists for decades afterward, and it still has great public appeal. But it began to fall apart during the protest movements in the middle of the 20th century, both in Europe and the United States.

For one thing, many budding social scientists were no longer watching those demonstrations at a remove, on television or in literature; they were active participants. Were they truly mindless sheep, drunk on a crowd mentality that overwhelmed their individual judgment, as Le Bon and an elite establishment would have it? It didn’t feel that way to an observer in the crowd.

“A crowd is like a patient to a doctor, the hypnotized to the hypnotist,” wrote Bill Buford, parodying these presumptions in his 1990 book “Among the Thugs,” an account of his time spent in the company of English soccer hooligans. “A crowd is rabble — to be manipulated, controlled, roused. A crowd is not us.”

A major shift in thinking about crowd behavior occurred in the middle of last century, and it integrated two competing principles. One is that, under specific conditions, peacefully minded protesters may indeed act out — for instance, when a barricade is broken by others, when the police strike down someone nearby. “Very often these incidents are initiated by the police,” Dr. Jasper said. “But of course it can come from crowd dynamics too.”

At the same time, as a rule, impulsive violence is less likely to occur in crowds that have some social structure and internal organization. The protests of the civil rights movement were tactical and organized, as far back as the 1950s. So were many sit-ins in the 1960s and ’70s, against nuclear power and the Vietnam War. Windows were broken, there were clashes with police, but spontaneous mayhem was not the rule.

“During this era, you now have Kent State, urban riots, civil rights marches,” said Calvin Morrill, a professor of law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. “And the idea of the group mind does not give social scientists any room to explain the different levels of organization behind all those protests and what they meant. Ever since then, protests, whether nonviolent or not, have included tactics, strategy — and training — precisely to make sure the crowd does not lose its focus.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personally trained many groups of Freedom Riders, detailing how best to respond to police provocation and what to say (and what not) if arrested. Those lessons carried forward. Many protesters at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant site in New Hampshire, in 1977, and at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, had learned to go limp to avoid blows from police officers, and to wear boots rather than sneakers. (Sneakers slip off when you’re being dragged.)

Such training is not reserved to groups pledged to nonviolence, of course, and it includes specific roles for individuals with special skills, and a kind of middle-management layer. Protest groups bent on provocation, whether left-leaning or right, often include so-called violence experts — young men willing to take some swings to get things started.

“Absolutely they are trained, trained to go right up to the line and mix it up, then fall back,” Dr. Morrill said. “There’s a long, long tradition of these tactics.”

Depending on the protest, and the mission, organized protests may also include marshals, or guides, helping shuttle people around, and so-called affinity groups — squads that take some leadership responsibility as the protest evolves. In its Tampa, Fla., demonstration last summer, Black Lives Matter reportedly had almost 100 marshals in fluorescent vests patrolling the crowd, as well as medics, all communicating with walkie-talkies and trained in de-escalation tactics.

“You’re talking groups of four to 10 people, protest participants, often friends who come in from another city or town to look after people who are injured or freaking out,” said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, of affinity groups. “And these groups will coordinate with each other, and if the crowd is assaulted or scattered, they’re capable of deciding, ‘What should we do next?’”

Credit…Gado Images/Alamy

Mass actions do not take place in a vacuum, of course; they are extended interactions with the police and other security officers.

Just as the understanding of crowd dynamics has shifted significantly in the past half-century, so too have police tactics and threat assessment. During the antiwar and civil rights protests that ended in violence in the 1960s and ’70s — the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965; the Kent State student protest; the 1971 antiwar protest in Washington, D.C. — the approach was to show overwhelming force, followed by mass arrests. Now the initial strategy is often containment. The police or security officials typically issue protest permits, blocking out areas where protesters are allowed and, by extension, prohibited.

Security forces are trained to ignore yelled insults and small acts of hostility, like pushes and thrown water bottles. And they receive training in absorbing surges in a crowd, moving people as gently as possible, and quickly responding to pockets of violence and isolating agitators, said Ed Maguire, a criminologist at Arizona State University. If a crowd is a potential bomb, the job of security is to continuously defuse it.

“They set up what are called skirmish lines and try to keep demonstrators away from those,” Dr. Maguire said. The mentality is one of negotiation more than confrontation, he said.

For all of these advances in thinking, the surge on the Capitol last week was a reminder of how much is left to learn. The footage from the siege, Dr. Maguire and other experts said, reveals little about the strategies of either the crowd or the police, if any were at work. For the Capitol Police, that has resulted in some embarrassment, at least one resignation, and questions about political influence and double standards based on the race of protesters.

“It just felt like a mishmash of tactics and confusion, as one journalist put it after the Ferguson demonstration,” Dr. Maguire said. “No clear structure in the crowd and absolute chaos on the police side: no clear sense of credible incident command, of wearing the right gear, carrying the right weapons. All of that seemed to be missing.”

If there are patterns to be discerned, scholars have an array of new tools to explore them. For instance, computer scientists can now model crowd behavior by digitally “populating” a street or park with a crowd, programming the likely number of provocateurs, and simulating the whole affair based on different police tactics.

But there will always be surprises, human ones, and the only way to glean those is to hear what the participants have to say, to a trusted interviewer. The video footage from Wednesday shows that, when the crowd actually breached the Capitol, many of the invaders weren’t sure exactly what to do next.

“People seemed surprised they had gotten in,” Dr. Jasper said. “There are great shots from the hall of statues, where protesters stayed inside the velvet ropes, like tourists, looking around sort of in awe.”

With no apparent structure or strategy, the crowd had no shared goal or common plan. The same haphazard quality that had allowed pockets of violence to open was

probably part of what ultimately defused it.

“It looked like, in the end, it was just a matter of attrition,” Dr. Jasper said. “People wanted to go find a bathroom, or a pub, or somewhere to sleep.”

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Source: Jim Jasper and Alex Vitale (alum) were quoted at length in a recent NY Times article on mob mentality and mob violence

Richard Alba Elected to National Academy of Sciences in Recognition of Work on Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration

Distinguished Professor Richard Alba (Credit: Princeton University Press)


Distinguished Professor Richard Alba (Sociology) was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors in academia, in recognition of his vast body of work on race, ethnicity, immigration, and the sweeping demographic changes in the United States.

“I cannot imagine anything more gratifying than to be recognized in this way for the research that one has devoted a lifetime to,” Alba said.

Alba is part of the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center, and previously served as its acting director. He has served as president of the Eastern Sociological Society and as vice president of the American Sociological Association.

A prolific scholar and author, Alba has also written articles for the general public. In his 2015 op-ed for The New York Times, “The Myth of a White Minority,” he emphasized the need “to measure and redress inequalities.” He is frequently cited in the press as an expert on demographic categories, such as those used by the Census Bureau.

His forthcoming book, The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream, explores why the number of young Americans with ethno-racially mixed backgrounds is rising and the pivotal role they will play in the country’s future.

Alba’s recent books include The Next Generation: Immigrant Youth in a Comparative Perspective (co-edited with Mary Waters) and Blurring the Color Line: The New Chance for a More Integrated America.


Source: Richard Alba Elected to National Academy of Sciences in Recognition of Work on Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration

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