Race, Marginalization and the Making of the American Working Class

Briefly, here is a sketch of the historical trajectory of how we view who is a productive working person and who is not. From the late 16th century, white settlers were seen as productive and virtuous as they toiled to make the land yield sustenance and wealth. Native communities were seen as  less industrious and worse, as ‘idle.’ There was a theology behind this notion of cultural 'idleness.' English preachers declared that God intended for people to fully exploit the land. Because they were not fully cultivating every hectare of land, and, in many cases, did not even seem interested in enclosing their lands, it was argued that native nations did not deserve unfettered access to the land. By this reasoning, the settlers were justified in driving native communities from their ancestral lands.

Slave laborers were not seen as productive and virtuous workers; in a bit of circular reasoning, if you were being forced to work for others, then you were not really a worker. As chattel slavery became associated with blackness (or being "Negro" --- the term that was used to describe diverse groups of people of African descent), a racial theory developed that said blacks had to be slaves because they could not, or would not organize themselves into productive activities without white masters. A notion of 'idleness' came into play, here, as well. Despite how hard slaves had to work, they were not seen as 'naturally' hard-working. In the white supremist mindset, slaves were naturally 'idle.' Forcing people of African descent to work as slaves was one of the ways in which the masters 'civilized' them.

This did not mean that working people who had to sell their labor to factory owners, shopkeepers and plantation owners had it made during colonial times. The ideal citizen was seen as a small business proprietor or yeoman farmer. In colonial society, and into the early 19th century, being property-less and having to sell your labor made you a second-class citizen.  As the industrial age compelled more people to leave the land and sell their labor in factories, the rising class of industrial workers sometimes referred to themselves as ‘wage slaves.’

Industrialists and their backers needed to turn this class of workers into willing participants in a "free labor" system. “Free labor” means, unbound by traditional, legal or political ties of obligation, caste or custom, a worker enters into a relationship with capital through the labor market. Free laborers have no direct ties to the means of production. Gaining the consent of workers to a system where they have so little control over working conditions was aided by the use of race, of defining 'worker' as 'not slave.' Since 'slave' was associated with 'not white,' then a worker should be considered 'white,' and therefore, to have access to the privileges accorded to being white, including fulll citizenship.

Of course, the ‘white worker’ color line faced challenges over the years, as immigrants who were not Anglo-Saxon Protestants began to swell the ranks of the working class. These workers had to choose: either become 'white' and accept the exploitation built into worker-owner relationships, or be othered as  anarchists, communists, (or, horror of horrors, papists), not fully American and therefore not deserving of full consideration.

During this same period of labor strife between industrial workers and owners, black workers who could not get jobs in the Jim Crow South were being subjected to arrest in large numbers. Once in jail, they were forced into a new form of slavery through the Convict Lease System (and later, through Chain Gangs). Again, part of the rationale for rounding up black un- or under-employed workers was that they were loitering; they were idle. Idleness was twinned with blackness to render a whole group of people as criminals. The 'criminal' label carried forward, into the 20th century, with a resurgence in the 'law and order' backlash against civil rights gains, on into the war on drugs, and offering justifications for incarcerating record numbers of brown and black people, well into the 21st century.

Gender also played a critical role in defining who was a worker and who was not. For centuries, poor women were expected to earn incomes to help support their families and yet, the feminine ideal was for women to stay in the domestic sphere. Feminist movements opened up a wider range of opportunities for women to participate in the labor market, and in all parts of public life. Still, for women with secure economic situations, the option to work as a stay-at-home mom exists, and many women prefer that option. Where this gets interesting, and contradictory, is around the question of whether poor women are allowed ever to have this option.

Here’s a recent example. In framing the demand for welfare reform, conservatives were joined by some liberals in vilifying the welfare mom. They did not necessarily have to invoke race as part of their vilification because all things related to welfare had long been stigmatized using race, and the 'welfare mom' was coded as a black woman. She was the emblem of everything that was wrong with welfare. Yes, there was a lot of handwringing about the evils of single motherhood, along with nostalgia for the days of shotgun weddings on the part of conservatives, the greater 'sins' committed by welfare moms was 'idleness' --- she was not seen as a productive member of society. And her  sinful idleness was being aided and abetted by government handouts, which were being paid for by productive, hard-working people (a category that had long been coded as white). The fact that welfare moms work, all the time, as mothers, as other kinds of caretakers, and that most also work at paying jobs whenever they can, under the table, with no security or benefits, was beside the point (and the facts didn’t matter in this debate, anyway). This vilification of a group of mothers would seem to cut against a conservative tradition that saw mothers as doing a critical job in society: reproducing the working class.

In the current era, characterized by neoliberal politics, and backed-up by a radical version of market fundamentalism, which seems to equate the ‘free market’ with God, more and more groups of workers are being rendered as superfluous, no longer needed. The experience of contingency, and of being superfluous, is extending into categories of workers who once enjoyed a measure of economic security. How will the corporate-dominated State keep these recently displaced workers in check? We are sure to see more coercive measures in the future. Hopefully, we also will see more dissent, organized and purposeful, that pushes back against the neoliberal agenda.