The Common Good
March-April 1997

As long as you think you're white, there's no hope for you.

by Bob Hulteen | March-April 1997

The Haymarket Square rebellion of 1886 was a watershed
moment in the history of U.S. radicalism.

The Haymarket Square rebellion of 1886 was a watershed moment in the history of U.S. radicalism. Days after the first May Day demonstration, Chicago police fired into a crowd of striking workers, killing four. In response, the Knights of Labor organized a demonstration at Haymarket Square for May 4. Near the conclusion of that peaceful rally, a police unit marched on the demonstrators. Several workers and police were killed in the resulting melee.

In retrospect, most scholars agree that the labor group was attacked by the Chicago police violently and with no provocation. The threat of a powerful movement for social change had so catalyzed the elite business elements of the city that a drastic show of force was necessary.

When people invoke the name of Haymarket Square, usually it is with veneration or disgust (depending on one’s class). It seems a risk, then, to use Haymarket as a product name. But Verso Press has done just that with its Haymarket Series, which "offers original studies in politics, history, and culture...[that] testify to the living legacy of political activism and commitment for which [the martyrs of the Haymarket uprising] gave their lives."

Central to the argument of three of the authors highlighted by Eugene Rivers is the ideological nature of white supremacy or race inequality. Scholars Manning Marable and Barbara Fields have argued that "race" has no basis in biological or physical reality; race is essentially a notion or concept. These authors demonstrate that race, therefore, must serve some ideological and foundational purpose for it to predominate American history.

CLEARLY THE DEVELOPMENT of racial categories allowed the domination of people from one continent in the form of slavery and the genocide of another in the form of Western expansion. But once the West was "tamed" and slaves were emancipated, why should false justifications be continued? What is the continuing purpose of the belief in white supremacy in its variety of forms?

David R. Roediger, in his accessibly written The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, conjectures that race became a tool of the elite to offer a concession to the white working class in order to keep people of common self-interest divided, thereby leaving real power unchallenged. Roediger, himself a Marxist, also demonstrates the shortcomings of traditional Marxist explanations for the continuation of an ideology of race superiority. He argues that trying to ascribe all race problems to class issues implies that a class revolution would "solve" the race issue, and instead he offers a more insightful evaluation of human nature and U.S. history.

In The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, Alexander Saxton examines the "intellectual history" of white racism. In somewhat dense prose, he traces the development of the Founding Fathers’ justifications for slavery and genocide in order to expand the territory of the new republic, strengthen its economic position globally, and build a coalition of people who would support this new ruling elite even against their own self-interest.

Theodore Allen, in his The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control: Volume One, examines the transformation of the Scottish, Irish, and German immigrants into a single, inclusive category of white people. This "key paradox of American history," as Allen calls it—the metamorphosis of servants, tenants, farmers, and merchants into a cohesive group—creates a democracy built on certain race assumptions.

Thus Allen, to a greater degree than Roediger and Saxton, concentrates on social control as the basis for the maintenance of the ideology of white supremacy. By recounting the history of Irish integration into the American project, Allen shows decidedly how this control was maintained. The second volume of Allen’s project, The Invention of the White Race: The Origins of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, is due out in June.

These three books challenge those whose origin hails from Europe to declare allegiance, to determine if we are in fact white. When we figure that out, as James Baldwin indicates, perhaps there may be hope for us all.

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