David R. Roediger
Class, Race, and Marxism
Verso, 2017
208 pages

Reviewed by Tiana Wilson

Most Americans believed Barack Obama’s two-term presidency was evidence that the US had finally become a colorblind or post-racist society. Bernie Sanders, in his 2016 campaign for socialist democracy, refused to publicly support race-specific agendas like reparations based on the assumption that class oppression was the most pressing issue for Americans. However, the election of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, to the Oval Office, proved just the opposite. As many activists, journalists, and scholars have made clear, Trump’s victory can easily be credited as a “white backlash” to the Obama years. Despite his outward misogyny, bigotry, and racism, Trump sweepingly won the white vote. David Roediger’s new volume of essays, Class, Race, and Marxism (2017) addresses the falsehood of post-racial America. Roediger, one of the leading scholars of critical whiteness studies, delves into current debates around “class-first,” a term that describes the privileging of class over racial disparities, in order to remind us that race as well as gender are integral to capitalism

Class, Race, and Marxism is divided into two sections, consisting of Roediger’s previously published essays between 2006 and 2016. Part one, “Interventions,” calls for a race and class analysis of our contemporary moment. The significance of the book lies within the historical and theoretical examination of Marxism that Roediger traces back to leading Black intellectuals during the early twentieth century. In doing so, Roediger’s volume offers a foundational method for labor and critical whiteness scholars to come. The second half of the book, “Histories,” pushes the temporal accounts of capitalism and US labor history, which typically begin the narrative in the post-Reconstruction America, to include early American settler colonialism and Black chattel slavery. Roediger demonstrates the centrality of race to the management of land and labor, an analysis central to studies of Native people, but which has yet to make its way to the broader public understandings of US history.

In Chapter One, “The Retreat from Race and Class” (2006) Roediger challenges leftist academics who claimed a “colorless struggle for human progress,” was occurring at the start of the twenty-first century. He takes to task scholars Paul Gilroy, Orlando Patterson, Pierre Bourdieu, and Loïc J.D. Wacquant for their works that produced an “against race” argument. These academics called for an end of race-based politics in substitution for class-centered alliances. Roediger views this positioning of either racism or class oppression, as unproductive in thinking about the ways inequalities overlap in both arenas. He points to post-Katrina New Orleans as evidence of continuing racial disparities, where elites, including Black political elites, abandoned the predominantly Black Ninth Ward in the rebuilding process. This essay pushes the field of whiteness studies to critically engage with layered structural oppressions in the contemporary moment.

Roediger’s second essay “Accounting for the Wages of Whiteness” (2011) foregrounds influential scholars who shaped Roediger’s best known work, The Wages of Whiteness: The Making of the American Working Class (1991). Though historians credit Roediger as the cofounder of “critical whiteness studies,” Roediger disavows this title and acknowledges the fact that writers and activists of color had long critically engaged with white identities and practices as problems of further interrogation. In this chapter, Roediger documents this longstanding tradition and suggests that the current subfield of whiteness studies is grounded in Marxism, labor activism, and the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, James Baldwin, and George Rawick. By centering black thinkers in the origins of whiteness studies, Roediger reminds us that Black scholars were among the first to link the degradation of Black labor as fundamental in the uplift of white labor. 

Continuing his analysis of George Rawick’s intellectual legacy, Chapter Three, “A White Intellectual among Thinking Black Intellectuals,” (2010) reads as if Roediger is trying to “prove” just how influential Rawick was to working class histories. Roediger documents Rawick’s work that began under the mentorship of C.L.R. James during the 1960s, in the civil rights/Black Power movement, and blossomed with his study on the Black community under slavery. Rawick, as Roediger asserts, was a leftist thinker who listened to Black thinkers because he saw workers’ desire for a humane society, and therefore a new society. In this essay, Roediger is most interested in how a white, Jewish American man entered the world of radical Black intellectuals, during a time when Black Power “silenced” white voices. On one hand, readers may question why Roediger feels the need to implicitly defend white scholars writing about marginalized communities. On the other hand, Roediger provides a great model for all scholars to follow, critically engaging with Black writers, and seriously considering our subjects’ ideas and actions on their own terms.     

In his fourth essay, “Removing Indians, Managing Slaves, and Justifying Slavery” (2011) Roediger explains how the management of enslaved people was embedded in the discourses around management of land that resulted in the dispossession of Native Americans. Because managing slave labor was directly tied to the reproduction of slaves, Roediger also claims that an intersectional analysis, a framework coined by Black feminists, is needed when examining the interconnected histories of slavery, settler colonialism, and women’s reproductive labor. He draws on plantation records as the first systematic management publications in the US and documents how central control and violence were to the self-made image of the white, Anglo elite class in the North and South.

Coauthored with Elizabeth Esch, Chapter Five, “One Symptom of Originality,” (2009) explores the understudied connection between race and management. Differing from traditional labor and economic history that assumes management of labor occurred after the 1880s, Roediger and Esch argue that this history cannot be separated from slavery and settler colonialism. Early American management was centered on which race of coerced labor would be most economically efficient and tractable. Roediger and Esch view the plantation South as a model for factory management in the industrial north during the nineteenth century. In this section they also discuss the transnational element of race management in the US’s late nineteenth and early twentieth century imperialism. For example, Herbert Hoover gave the name “Golden Age” to the “triumph” of US engineers in the world’s mines and their capitalist exploits which brought “efficiency” to Africa, China, and isolated areas of Australia. Roediger and Esch’s assessment of the ways race management coexisted with scientific management pushes studies of labor and economic histories to further interrogate the role social scientists played in constructing the standard productivity level of various “races.”

The final section, “Making Solidarity Uneasy” makes a critical case for embracing solidarity, while simultaneously being uncomfortable with the assumptions it sometimes evokes. Roediger ponders if solidarity is always a good thing, to what and whom solidarity leaves out, and how solidarity works across differences of oppression. These questions were prompted by the insurgencies that matured to form the Movement for Black Lives as a response to the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin and to the many murders of other Black women and men at the hands of the police. This movement, like the efforts of the American Studies Association (ASA) to be in solidarity with Palestine, introduced young people to the idea and actuality of coalition-building in these protests. In an age of identity politics, Roediger suggests that by owning the difficulties of solidarity, activists and scholars can come to understand just how contingent and malleable the work has to be in order to confront racist, sexist, and capitalist structures of oppression.

For general readers of the Ethic and Third World (E3W) Review of Books, Roediger’s arguments might appear familiar and the content well-known to scholars of marginalized groups. However, academics within the field of critical whiteness studies, and even more broadly white liberals and conservatives, the intended audience of this work, would benefit from Roediger’s synthesis and reiterations of the interconnected relationship between race and class. Activists and scholars would also appreciate his essay on solidarity because it historicizes and foregrounds the usefulness of collective organizational efforts in order to confront what Roediger argues is “white advantage.” Class, Race, and Marxism is a well-written, compelling text that explicitly demonstrates how the critical study of whiteness comes from within the Marxist tradition and thus race should never be separated from any analyses of class.