Not since the 1960s have we seen such a literary outpouring about race relations in the United States. More than 30 years ago, the country's racial discussion focused on exposing the destructiveness of racism and debating the merits of radical versus liberal solutions. Revolutionaries such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis on the one hand, and the reformist Kerner Commission on the other, defined the boundaries of the public discourse. By the 1990s, however, liberal and radical perspectives were eclipsed by the successes of the New Right: Affirmative action is gutted; the jails and prisons are filled with more African Americans and Latinos than ever before; a record number of black families has been dropped from welfare rolls; and old-style nativism is once again guiding immigration policy.
The current academic debates recall the atmosphere of the pre-civil rights 1950s. Racism is a problem of the past, argue Dinesh D'Souza in "The End of Racism" and Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom in "America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible." On the contrary, responds David Shipler, it's alive and flourishing, for we remain "a country of strangers," as he has titled his latest book.
We shouldn't need a book that once again demonstrates the deep-rootedness of racism in the United States and patiently explains how racial conflicts "remain the moral burden of the country's history." But we do, and the challenge is eloquently and thoughtfully met by Jacqueline Jones, chair of the history department at Brandeis University and author of three previous books, including the prize-winning "Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family From Slavery to the Present."
"American Work," as the author notes, is based on her previous research and hundreds of specialized studies produced by a generation of intellectuals, schooled in the activist '50s and '60s, who fundamentally changed how we conceptualize and do American history. It is a pleasure to read an academic historian who writes creatively, with attention to texture and detail. Jones communicates her passion without sacrificing analytical sophistication. The book ambitiously covers four centuries of American race relations by focusing on the history of work, in particular the ways in which race has operated to divide the labor force, to provide "certain kinds of workers with advantages over others" and to relegate Africans, slaves and African Americans to the hardest, most demeaning and most precarious ways of earning a living. Unlike most neoconservative writers, Jones puts class at the heart of her analysis of race.
The book is organized as a chronological narrative with three major sections: the Colonial era from the early 17th century through the Revolution; the 19th century, with a focus on the Civil War; and the modern and postmodern eras of the 20th century. This is not so much a comprehensive history as it is an illustrative analysis of key moments in the transformation of American work. The author treats the 20th century quite cursorily, almost as an afterthought, but the earlier history is filled with rich, complex details: We vicariously experience what it was like to stoop in the humid tobacco fields of the 17th century Chesapeake region or to exert enormous physical strength clearing the forests for crops in 18th century Georgia or to do backbreaking, repetitive tasks in the new factory jobs unleashed by industrialism.
Jones argues that race is not an inherent identity based on biological or ethnic characteristics but a "fluid set of rationalizations, always shifting in response to considerations related to military defense, labor supply and demand, and technological innovation." Nor is racism a universal and transcendental phenomenon, she argues, but rather socially constructed, historically specific policies shaped by the labor market, ideology, government intervention and political resistance. She makes this point by persuasively showing that before the institutionalization of slavery, Africans were just one of many exploited groups in the New World. In 17th century Virginia, Maryland and Georgia, for example, almost all workers were "bound to some form of exploitative relationship--children governed by their elders, servants by their masters, sharecroppers and tenants by their landlords, hirelings by their employers, women by their fathers and husbands, Indians and Africans by white men, criminals and sexual renegades by the state and church."
But during the 17th and 18th centuries, white elites began to selectively use black slave labor and to stress the racial distinctiveness of Africans and their descendants. Africans became marked as "permanent strangers" who could not even aspire to "claim membership in a historic English community," a status "associated with white skin and European lineage." Slavery sealed the fate of Africans, ascribing to them the reputation of "cunning, bloodthirsty people" and relegating them to the most degraded work. "By excluding black people from the body politic of the new nation," writes Jones, "and by defining black people exclusively as enslaved workers, theorists of the American Revolution grounded an emergent liberal, democratic state upon the principles of a traditional feudalistic tyranny."
This book makes its strongest contribution to the literature in its illustration of how the labor force became racially categorized before, during and after the Civil War. We learn, for example, that with the development of commercial agriculture in the South, the most dangerous and demanding jobs were reserved for Africans and their children--tapping pine trees for pitch and tar, preparing fields for cultivation and planting and harvesting rice, cotton and indigo. In the Cotton Belt, the vast majority of black men and women worked as field hands. Before the Civil War, African Americans were systematically excluded from almost all the Northern mills and factories; after the War, Southern mills and factories also became reserved for whites. The near total exclusion of black workers from jobs as machine operatives in textile mills lasted until the mid-1960s.
In the antebellum North, as millions of Irish and German immigrants entered the labor market, white men found themselves "in a tight place," as Sojourner Truth observed in 1851--"the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard." Jones thoughtfully captures the tensions antebellum whites felt about black progress, an echo of the assertion of white victimhood more than a hundred years later. "Blacks appeared menacing to whites in a variety of workplaces," she writes. "The lowly immigrant canal digger determined to hold on to his sense of superiority while toiling alongside a black co-worker; the failing artisan, who saw in the black hod carrier's poverty his own futuredegradation; and the haughty Philadelphia merchant, dependent on his southern slaveholding customers--all of these whites believed they had much to lose in any situation where blacks had anything to gain. From these tensions arose an image of African Americans as doubly dangerous: as poor people and yet also as politically aggressive people."
This antebellum antagonism between whites and blacks left an enduring legacy of systemic impoverishment for black workers and deep divisions within the Northern working class. "African Americans performed the menial labor that served as the legs of a ladder of upward occupational mobility that so many whites . . . had realistic aspirations to climb." Meanwhile, what was lost for generations, observes Jones, was the potential class-wide unities that might have been forged, were it not for racism, between "white widows spinning in workhouse-manufactories," "former slaves toiling in the kitchens and stables of white households," indigenous peoples "deprived of their ancestral lands" and poor white men preoccupied with the "insecurity of their livelihood."
The Civil War was a mixed blessing for African Americans. In the South during the war, "in the fields and factories, in iron forges and army camps, black men, women, and children as workers bore the burdens of a war fought to keep them in chains." After the war, what was gained politically and morally was lost in the workplace. As whites entered new jobs in the manufacturing, clerical and retail sectors, black workers were largely confined to menial agricultural work and domestic work in the South. In the North, racism and segregation combined to exclude them from work at the metal trades in New York forges, at power looms in Philadelphia textile factories, at machines in Berkshire paper mills and inside offices in Cincinnati.
By the 20th century, African Americans all over the country found themselves in racially categorized jobs, typically cut off from the newly industrial technology. Three million emancipated slaves had been transformed into denizens, having graduated from slavery to neo-slavery as native-born Americans who were denied the legal protections achieved by white citizens. As blacks were excluded by government and craft unions alike, blackness became, in Jones' words, a "liability that could not be overcome through hard work, talent, or ambition." By the 1920s, "the creators of this new economy had decreed that black people would not participate in it, as sellers, as consumers, as managers, operators of sophisticated machinery, or as advertising icons touting new apparel or appliances. In the United States, modernization wore a white face."
It is a pity that "American Work" does not close with this powerful observation. Jones decided to stretch what she admits began as "a series of long working papers" into a definitive treatise on the place of race within the labor market. Unfortunately, the last three chapters speed through the 20th century and a brief epilogue on affirmative action concludes with a skimpy assessment of the current state of race relations in America. Too much is skipped over or ignored in the book's last 75 pages: For example, racial violence connected to job competition during the era of World War I is not seriously addressed; the GI Bill, which provided millions of mostly white men with a leg up into professional careers after World War II, is not even mentioned; and the significant opening up of the public sector, union jobs and university careers for African Americans in the 1960s is too glibly dismissed as tokenism.
Finally, it is troubling that a book titled "American Work," written with great sensitivity to issues of race, gender and class, has limited itself to black and white relations and to a view of the United States that rarely ventures beyond the East and South. The role of American Indians in the labor force is acknowledged in chapters on the Colonial era, but it is absent from the analysis of the 19th century. When Latinos and Asians finally appear in the last chapters, they enter only as late 20th century immigrant workers. What about the Asian workers who came to the Americas in the early 17th century via the Spanish galleon trade, or the Filipinos who settled in Louisiana in the 18th century, or the vaqueros who herded cattle in the Southwest in the 1700s, or the Mexican farm workers who comprised more than 75% of beet workers in the Midwest during the 1920s?
A simple acknowledgment by the author of the book's limited scope and perhaps a more precise title would have addressed these issues and allowed us to give full attention to its considerable strengths: an instructive analysis of the racialization of American work, a repudiation of current policies of malign neglect and a compassionate insight into what it means to be permanent strangers in a homeland of 400 years.