The idea that race is a constructed and historically contingent idea has emerged in the last thirty years; largely a derivation of the postmodern and post-structural works emanating out of the seventies and eighties. The ability to harness this now accepted knowledge and pinpoint the actual historical productions of race, however, is a process that continues to this day. David Roediger, in 1991, revolutionized an embedded and conditioned understanding of race within the field of labor history; a challenge that aimed to decentralize and destabilize whiteness from its normative position. Similarly, in 2009, Peggy Pascoe exposed the complicity of the institution of marriage and its lauded ideals in the project of perpetuating white supremacy. Both projects destabilize assumptions of the normative, and uncover the historical building blocks of what is understood at any given time as natural. My project then is to detail the specific scholarly interjections each makes into our understandings of the production of race and the meanings inherent in specific productions; albeit utilizing alternative methodologies, source materials and seeking out alternative aims. In historicizing racial, sexual and gendered ontological formations, each work is posturing fundamentally different modes of the construction of those ideas. This operation exists not only in the abstract, but grounded in the material and evidenced throughout both Pascoe and Roediger. The variant aims of each work, therefore, serves to mirror the contingencies of race, class, sexuality and gender on any given historical moment.
David Roediger relies on secondary source material for much of his work in Wages, likely as a product of his reconstituting previous history. He supplements this synthetic approach, however, with deep alternative readings of primary cultural sources such as newspaper articles. Pascoe alternatively has sought to accomplish a similar aim, reworking prior scholarship, but does so through an arduous reading of legal and socio-cultural documents. Encompassing several hundred years, Peggy Pascoe’s research is contingent on/directed by the methodologies she seeks to employ throughout the monograph. Therefore she utilizes court documents and cultural productions from the West both to decentralize miscegenation from its regional biases, but also to demonstrate her understanding of discursive power. Though Roediger deploys a methodology that does not necessarily look to new source material for its basis, he reads that material in a way that demonstrates the production of race through projection and performance of White bodies onto Black bodies.
David Roediger in The Wages of Whiteness embarks on a project that explores, “the role of race in defining how white workers look not only at Blacks but at themselves…[and] how, when and why ‘whiteness’ became so important to white workers.”# In doing so Roediger is attempting to allay what he views as deficiencies within contemporary scholarship, namely the divorcing of analyses of race and class. This is part of a larger methodological framework that Roediger employs to challenge the traditional tenets of Marxist labor history, mostly by uncovering that, “the race problem is consistently reduced to one of class” and “that workers, even during periods of firm ruling class hegemony are historical actors who make (constrained) choices and create their own cultural forms.”# Therefore, Roediger is explicit in charting the rise of the American working class in the 19th century as not parallel to or distinct from racial formation, but inherently intertwined and contingent. In illuminating the agency of the working class and tossing out a strict top down assumption of power, Roediger is pointedly naming the white working class as integral to the production of race as well as the project of maintaining white supremacy.
Roediger’s assessment of fluid racial formations of whiteness and the projection of race necessitates his utilization of a psychoanalytic methodology towards his source material. In doing so, he assesses material that is not necessarily different than previous labor histories, but is analyzed in an entirely alternative manner. In Roediger’s psychoanalysis white workers projected identity, justified through certain material or behavioral observations onto themselves as well as onto black bodies. White workers assumed a normative condition onto themselves, while simultaneously Othering Blacks.
This analysis comes through most cogently in Part III of Wages of Whiteness, where, in the ensuing chapters, Roediger demonstrates the “desire to project onto Blacks the specific behaviors that brought such conflicted emotions to whites during the formation of the first American working class.”# In doing so Roediger demonstrates a “construction of identity through otherness” that relies heavily on a Freudian understanding of projection. To Roediger, lower class whites (or those who ascribed to whiteness but were liminal cases like the Irish) projected their detrimental attributes onto Blacks as “the ‘other’…embodying the preindustrial, erotic, careless style of life the white worker hated and longed for.”# This evidences a genealogy of Roediger’s psychoanalysis, which underlies his entire work, and can be seen in his reliance on early post-colonial theory and the work of scholars like Frantz Fanon in, “the need for dialectical and materialist approaches within the psychoanalytic framework.”#
Roediger charts white working class fluid definitions of racial meaning primarily through this understanding of projection, identifying blacks as embodying “the longings and fears and the hopes and prejudices of the Northern Jacksonian urban working class.”# For Roediger, the material evidence of this racial projection is demonstrated primarily through white working class performativity and specifically, minstrelsy. It is evident to Roediger that the white working class in an effort to solidify a stable socio-economic position in an industrializing nation would distance itself from quickly antiquating pastoral ideologies. Lax enforcement of sexuality, numerous holidays and even alternative conventions of time were all subsumed in the gargantuan shift brought about by the normalizing conventions inherent in the 19th century American turn to an industrial capitalist society. “The racist”, therefore “creates a pornography of his former life…In order to insure that he will not slip back into the old ways or act out half suppressed fantasies, he must see a tremendous difference between his reformed self and those whom he formerly resembled.”#
The performance undertaken on the minstrel stage, then, acted not only to project those simultaneously shunned and desired fantasies onto the black body, but also to construct its opposite in the white body. The donning of blackface, mostly by and for white working class men, was a means to shore up, or perform, whites’ racial identity as much as blacks. This is not to say that the literal performance on the minstrel stage was the only means of disseminating racial discursive knowledge, Roediger’s analysis is not that simple. Instead, the minstrel stage acts both as a reflection (or symbol) of the racial performance being enacted in everyday life by the white working class and as an active producer of white supremacist racial logic. Roediger states, “Just as the languages of class that developed in the United States in the early nineteenth century were shaped at every turn by race, so too did the racial language reflect, in a broad sense, changes and tensions associated with class formation.”#
Roediger’s Wages constituted a definitive intervention into contemporary scholarship, notably challenging Marxian analyses of class as devoid of racial awareness. This lack of attendance to race, besides constituting incomplete history, naturalized “whiteness” as normative, a problematic that Peggy Pascoe also addresses. In addition to his assault on traditional Marxist labor history, Roediger’s seminal work was integral in the development of the field of whiteness studies, along with the work of others like Toni Morrison and Matthew Frye Jacobson. It is important to note, however, that Wages of Whiteness is certainly not the definitive text of whiteness studies, as evidenced by the above authors. Additional inquiries, such as Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color, which sought to mobilize whiteness through a more culturally critical lens than Roediger, have served to expand whiteness studies considerably.# Though the field of Whiteness studies has expanded tremendously since Roediger’s work in 1991, much of the importance of the scholarship comes in works that draw on the knowledge of whiteness as a historically contingent and traceable phenomenon and demonstrate how it has been harnessed to become normative and instill projects of White supremacy.
Peggy Pascoe is one such scholar who employs an alternative understanding of whiteness that seems to go beyond the aims of Wages. In her introduction she argues, “I hope to suggest that the concept of whiteness carried vexed meaning, not just for Whites and Blacks but for all groups, including recent Southern European immigrants, Mexican Americans, Filipinos, and Asian Americans, who lived at its edges.”# This approach is likely the product of both a temporal and spatial differentiation between the work of Roediger and Pascoe, but instructive nonetheless. In What Comes Naturally whiteness is a fluid category, just as it is for Roediger, in that racial categorization’s are adapted to scientific and layman definitions to preserve white supremacy. Fluid conceptions of what constituted a member of the “White race”at any given time makes evident, for Pascoe, the historical contingency of race. For Pascoe, “the assumption that races were discrete, identifiable, and obvious was as much an illusion as the assumption that miscegenation laws were racially parallel.”# Unfortunately, however, the illusory nature of both served racist aims that contributed to the continual denigration of non-white populations.
Pascoe, in contrast to Roediger, interprets legal sources to demonstrate how certain racial, gender and sexual categories can become naturalized. Furthermore, for Pascoe, the construction of some naturalized categories has a necessary opposite in the unnatural, which could be used to mask and justify inequality. Pascoe argues that, “the invention of the term miscegenation brought the belief that interracial marriage was unnatural right into the heart of the legal system.”# It is through marriage, and therefore through the legal definitions of what marriage was and who could marry whom, that Pascoe sees the naturalization of white, heterosexual marriage. Anything outside of that normative construction of marriage was either excluded, through court interpretations of miscegenation law, or acts of legislation themselves. Even outside of the institution of marriage, however, the illegitimacy of certain relationships, particularly those of an interracial nature, placed those “relationships back on the ‘illicit sex’ side of the dividing line between sex and marriage.”# The paradoxical and self-replicating nature of miscegenation law therefore becomes evident; the barring of interracial marriage was justified largely by an understanding of black male – white female relationships as illicit, an ideology which was crafted by the miscegenation laws themselves.
What we are seeing in Pascoe, that is noticeably absent from Roediger’s analysis is the role of racial productions as constitutive of, and necessitated by, the nation state. For Roediger, working class whites sought out whiteness while simultaneously shoring up black identity as a means to gain the socio-political, as well as economic, benefits that whiteness entailed. In looking specifically at marriage, Pascoe is making prominent the role of the state in her analysis. “By using marriage to delineate race, lawmakers wrapped race in and around the gender differences that stood at the heart of nineteenth century marriage, which, in turn, stood at the heart of the American state.”# It is through criminal prosecutions, civil trials and most predominately through the marriage license that Pascoe illustrates the role of the state in producing and reproducing racialized and gendered inadequates for marriage as well as their normative counterparts. As Pascoe states, “the process of issuing marriage licenses would provide…the rhetoric of naturality and unnaturality that had supported miscegenation law in the late nineteenth century.”#
The emergence of the American nation-state as a formidable entity in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries directly coincides with the time period that Pascoe is surveying, while falling outside that of Roediger. Though Pascoe begins her monograph in the seventeenth century, her work spans well into the twentieth, allowing her to flesh out ideas of nation, race and sexuality that would not have been present within Roediger’s time frame. Roediger, his interest being the formation of whiteness as simultaneous with the emergence of the American working class is therefore constrained in the time period he is looking at. In historically charting the emergence of white working class/race consciousness, a process in Roediger’s analysis that takes place throughout the 19th century, he necessarily occludes the role of the state. To Pascoe and to Roediger, albeit through different mechanisms, the production of race is facilitated through discursive productions of knowledge that craft hierarchies of power.
For Pascoe, as well as for Roediger, the importance of language is crucial to their understandings of power and racial construction. Pascoe seeks to demonstrate, “how commanding a force miscegenation law was in the production of race and racial categories…A prosecutor who charged a ‘Negro man’ with marrying a ‘white woman’ engaged in a very powerful act of naming, categorizing and defining.”# This act of discursive productions of power, specifically in crafting racial, gendered and sexual identities is paramount to Pascoe’s project. Roediger similarly employs this strategy in arguing “Meaning [in language] is thus always multifaceted and socially contested, but it is neither absent nor unconnected with social relations.”# Roediger and Pascoe, therefore, both seem to be utilizing a methodology that demonstrates the power of language, albeit framed in a very contextual and historical analysis. In doing so, they are following a Foucauldian understanding of power as not resting in a top-down authority, but rather as continually constructed from above and below.
The importance of discursive formations of power is evident throughout Roediger’s work, but especially in his chapter “The Prehistory of the White Worker”. There he charts the rise of the actual terminology of the “white worker” as not only historically contingent, but reliant on numerous political and economic developments to come into being. In fact, “the words white and worker…and a host of more euphemistic usages connecting race and class became meaningfully paired only in the nineteenth century.”# This shift, according to Roediger, is a product of both the Revolution and the rise of wage labor inherent in industrial capital, all within a slaveholding society. So it is not only empty terminology that can construct social realities, but the historical realities of the time that make that language meaningful. For Roediger, the power ascribed in the terminology of the “white worker” served a clear purpose; a means for the white working class to naturalize and conflate wage work with whiteness and to distance themselves from the black bodies of slavery.
Pascoe similarly demonstrates the discursive productions of power in her analysis of the evolving racial terminology scientists and laymen employed that had significant effects in courtrooms and administrative offices. Pascoe argues that ancestry standards, blood-quantum standards and eventually one-drop definitions of race all eventually came to be utilized in policing and instilling miscegenation law. What unites all of these definitions, however, is an enduring ability to retain white supremacy through constantly changing ideologies of the meaning of race, which we can actually see manifested in changing terminology. “Miscegenation law…translated a theoretical commitment to racial purity into an actual commitment to white supremacy by using the legislative and administrative race defining powers of the state.”# This understanding of miscegenation law as a means to preserve white supremacy is illustrative of Pascoe’s continual adherence to the effectiveness of discursive power that can often be taken as natural and the very real consequences that ensue.
“Every successive American racial regime, beginning with slavery…expended a great deal of energy making its racial notions appear so natural that they could not be comprehended as contradictions to a society ostensibly based on equality.”# Throughout What Comes Naturally, Peggy Pascoe weaves together many seemingly incongruous tales of miscegenation law and racial ideology throughout American history that serve the perpetual aim of white supremacy. Pascoe analyzes court cases such as Pace v. Alabama, Perez v. Sharp and Loving v. Virginia, as well as state statutes and bureaucratic decisions that demonstrate the continuation of white supremacy through what is deemed natural. For Pascoe, it is the stealthy capability of seeming invisibility as well as the contingent adaptability of white supremacy to perpetuate itself that is so troubling. It is in miscegenation, in the creation of the term and it’s sustainability that Pascoe tracks what is deemed natural and therefore, conversely what is unnatural. Crucial to this assessment is the predicated other or “unnatural” that is either brutally victimized or purposefully excluded from modes of citizenship and participation. Though race is a lens through which Pascoe is wholeheartedly attendant to, much of the real influence of miscegenation law is understood through a more variegated inquiry. Gender and also sexuality are the contextual modifiers of race Pascoe takes heed of in her account of what is natural even within interracial relationships. “The enforcement, expansion and entrenchment of miscegenation laws was selectively, and powerfully, linked to very particular race-and-gender pairings.”# White male-Black female pairings were seen as a continuation of white male privilege of sexual autonomy and property, thus social control manifested in slavery was transitioned to that of marriage law. Therefore, Black male-White female couples were depicted as threatening to the social order and their sex was deemed illicit, unnatural and outside the legal protections of marriage.
This concept of the illicit or threatening sexuality is integral to both Pascoe and Roediger in their analyses of the production of race. For Pascoe, “when the sexualization of miscegenation law linked calls for the protection of white womanhood to the sensational images of sexual danger…the stage was set for the mass production of miscegenation dramas.”# For example, supposed accounts of the hyper-sexual Black male or the alternatively “menacing” Chinese induction of white women into prostitution were deployed to protect white womanhood and certainly elicited racism. The primary concern that miscegenation law sought to address was the ability of interracial marriage to exist. The creation, as well as, the interpretation of miscegenation law, then, is paramount to who falls within the scope of being fit for marriage and who does not. That definition would largely be contingent on inherent sexualities and proclivity towards illicit or immoral sexual acts. One such example of this is Pascoe’s demonstration that “Newspaper coverage of all these cases fueled the sexualization of miscegenation law by circulating images of White women as deluded victims and Japanese American men as sexual dangers.”#
Though detailing the formation of white racial and class identity through a focus on labor, this does not occlude Roediger from engaging with the gendered effects of this process. The racial logic of minstrelsy demonstrated in The Wages of Whiteness served not only to inscribe white supremacy, but also to define and police deviant gender or sexual behaviors. In doing so, the minstrel show shored up white male superiority that was increasingly being challenged in the 19th century by an emergent women’s rights movement. Roediger states, “The standard minstrel ‘Women’s Rights Lectures’ denounced political rights for women, but a more immediate fear was that white male control over masks and symbols might be breached.”# Moreover, this logic can be extended outside of the minstrel stage; that women could be inducted into the working-class realm, yet be subject to “a fundamentally patronizing new paternalism.”# This new refashioning of working class patriarchy sought to “defend” working class women from both wealthy sexual predators and amalgamation. In doing so, white working class men projected an aura of deviance or unnaturalness around class and race mixing. This served as further means through which their own superior status was affirmed discursively and materially, preserving gender and race hegemony.
For Roediger, the convergence of Irish and Black male and female workers spatially in northern urban neighborhoods and industrial workplaces, as well as the proclivity for Irish women to break standard gender roles contributed to their stereotypes as sexually promiscuous. This conflation of Irish and Black sexuality in the industrial North is crucial to Roediger, who posits that to break free from second class citizenship, the Irish ascribed to ideals of whiteness, including sexuality. Moreover, if associations with Black sexuality could lead to widespread social denigration, then “amalgamation” or interracial sexual relationships constituted even more fervent racial violence in “conjuring up the ‘mongrelization’ of the United States as a political issue.”# Miscegenation constituted an altogether prohibited undertaking, even in the eyes of class conscious advocates of abolition who sought, “to unite the ‘working people of our nation, white and black’, and bitterly complain of whites with ‘daughters who entertain you negro gentlemen in their parlors.’”# It becomes instructive to Roediger, then, that miscegenation was avoided by those ascribing to whiteness because of the unnatural stigma attached to it. In this way he is demonstrating the effectiveness of the project of unnaturalizing miscegenation that Pascoe’s work details.
Just as Roediger is utilizing the white working class as both purveyor of and subscriber to what constituted the natural or normal, so too is Pascoe viewing marriage as the means of creating normative and non-normative stations of identity. Ascriptions to marriage were contingent, therefore, not only on an accepted whiteness, but on the convergence of normative racial, gender and sexual mores. It is in this complex arena that Pascoe exposes the complex and often hidden biases built into marriage and the nation-state’s inherent investment in that institution in a way that other texts have not. This is necessarily contingent upon an evolving interpretation of the institution of marriage to facilitate the continued prevalence of white supremacy. An example of this in “judges subordinat[ing] their concern with the property rights of White husbands to the seeming imperative of serving white supremacy by channeling property along racial dividing lines.”# Moreover, the illusion of equality in miscegenation laws worked in tandem with court rulings that continued white supremacy under the guise of naturalness in both the Pace and Loving decisions and the effects of each.
Pascoe, while reliant on a large amount of prior scholarship, presents multiple challenges to that previous work. One such assault she levels is on the recapitulation of racial binarism, specifically within work on miscegenation, but also more generally in work of racial construction. For Pascoe then, it is important to destabilize miscegenation law from both its prior regional and temporal biases to break free from the black-white binary that seems to strangle historical discourses of race. This is particularly cogent in her chapter “Configuring Race in the American West”, where “miscegenation dramas served white supremacy by racializing and sexualizing Asian American men in relation to white women.”# Roediger, largely focusing on the South and East, presents an articulation of whiteness formed in its opposition to a perceived blackness. In doing so he catalogues those who can already ascribe to whiteness (Anglos predominately) and the ethnic immigrants who will soon leverage their way into whiteness (Irish).
Pascoe is attempting to foreground the effect to this day that the ideologies of “what comes naturally” should not be taken at face value. In “Lionizing Loving”, she deconstructs the Loving v. Virginia case as not being a celebratory moment, but one where “the newly faithful turned once-radical critiques of miscegenation law into mainstream orthodoxy, building a body of beliefs that would eventually stretch across the political spectrum.”# The idea that miscegenation law was naturally: finite, outdated, that marriage was a matter of private choice and that racial classifications were un-American, constituted a collective amnesia about the truths of racial inequality then and today. Memory and collective memory more specifically, for Pascoe, has immense power and “like America’s three-century-long history of laws against interracial marriage, the country’s history of race discrimination had become too embarrassing to admit.”# In knowing this, the concept of colorblindness so lauded to this day, has been revealed by Pascoe, not as a marker of racial and ethnic equality, but as a coded ideology utilized to ignore the very inequalities of racial groups to one another.
Pascoe’s attack on colorblindness is in some ways is indicative of the temporal divide that exists between What Comes Naturally and The Wages of Whiteness. Written in 1991, Roediger’s work served to shatter existing preconceptions of race, namely that when discussing race or race relations meant discussing African Americans. By foregrounding whiteness, Roediger sought to destabilize the normalization of White as somehow being natural and instead contextualize whiteness as a historically contingent construction. This approach exemplifies the turn in critical historical thought, namely in post-colonial study, but emanating from other arenas as well such as post-structuralism, to expose the constructed nature of race and its unreality as a transhistorical and universal category. In many ways Pascoe is doing the same thing, what divides them, however, is evident in our understanding of their methodologies which divert substantially from one another. Pascoe’s nuanced understanding of the production of race relies on the institution of marriage and therefore necessitates more complex readings of the role of sexuality and gender roles than the lesser impact Roediger affords each. Additionally, Pascoe details the role of the state and its investment in marriage and what that means for the construction and policing of racial categories.
While each work historicizes the production of race, there are certainly alternative frameworks that either Pascoe or Roediger could utilize. For Roediger, as for Pascoe there is a substantive reliance on remaining within the boundaries of the United States. Pascoe exhibits this through her understanding of marriage as developing hand in hand with the American state and therefore as an arm of that state through which the production of race has a powerful backing. Roediger, likewise, views the role of industrial capital and ascriptions to socio-political wages in the U.S. as necessary precursors to the working class construction of whiteness. What seems wholly possible, however, is the role of transnational forces in the construction of racial identity. More specifically, neither scholar considers the exhibition of the role that American foreign policy interests abroad had on both conceptions of miscegenation as well as working class ideals of whiteness. Works like Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights, for example, demonstrate the incredible power of foreign policy directives had on racial identities domestically, through a project of “equality”.# A transnational framework for either of these works would certainly benefit the projects of exploring racial production, but its absence is certainly not detrimental to the projects of Roediger or Pascoe.#
The production of race, as evidenced by both Pascoe and Roediger, is neither a transhistorical or universal process. Historically contingent, and reliant on contextual social, political, economic and cultural hierarchies of power, race is a means through which certain populations are accepted as natural or normative thereby inscribing an opposite Other. The problem inherent in identarian binaries, demonstrated by Pascoe and Roediger, is that however equal that categorization may seem, there always exists an intrinsic inequality within them. To Pascoe, “the assumption that races were discreet, identifiable, and obvious was as much an illusion as the assumption that miscegenation laws were racially parallel.”# The racial logic that justified ascriptions to Whiteness for Roediger, i.e. the material and abstract “wages” that could be attained is couched within those same assumptions. It is in the seeming reality of race as an innate and identifiable entity that the awesome power of white supremacy can be most viably (and heinously) manifested. In detailing the manufactured nature of racial ideology and categorization, as well as demonstrating the gendered and sexualized nature of those constructions, both authors imply that, “equality, like nature, should never be taken for granted.”#