The other day I was writing a bibliography of texts that were really influential to me when I started college and before I went to MSU. It was mostly labor history stuff, because that’s what I wanted to go into. I was kind of tickled by the over-neat White Historian “racism subsumed by class” materialist arguments that I seemed to really like (and which characterize most of labor historiography). One of the most foundational texts for labor histories of race is Hinton Rowan Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South, which was a still-racist abolitionist book that argued that poor southern whites were harmed more by plantation owners than slaves and freed blacks, and it was a really big deal in the south at the time of publication. Uh, obviously that’s true, but the “race is an invention of class” approach is soooo cloying and characteristic of labor histories. One of the books that was really important to me was Paul Le Blanc’s A Short History of the US Working Class, which is terribly guilty of this sort of thing but a pretty good text. I just flipped through this and opened up to a line I highlighted when I was eighteen, in a chapter about Operation Dixie. (“A growing number of labor activists recognized that racism could not be overcome unless bold new programs were developed to eliminate the underlying economics of inequality” true but lol.)
One of the pet examples of labor historians is Bacon’s Rebellion. I LOVE talking about Bacon’s Rebellion, and I’m not trying to undermine its importance in constructing race/class in the U.S. forever, but it’s also been rhetorically important for white historians. Here’s part of Le Blanc’s explanation:
The dominant form of labor was indentured servitude which bound impoverished European laborers to their master for a fixed period of time (between four and seven years) in exchange for a lump sum (often the price of transportation from Europe, a small parcel of forestland, and some household belongings). About two-thirds of all bound servants died before they were freed from service. […] Freed bondsmen (and most were men) discovered that the best land had already been taken and thus they were forced to occupy land closer to the frontier with the Indian nations. This pitted oppressed groups against each other—which often happened in American history. The poorer colonists resented that they were restricted from seizing more land from the Indians. They also resented serving as a buffer between the land of the wealthy and the Indians’ territories. In 1676, the class and race tensions of colonial Virginia exploded. The trigger came when Nathaniel Bacon, ,a moderately prosperous planter, organized an illegal attack on Indian settlements in order to seize more land. When he was arrested, his cause attracted the support of landless whites, European servants, and African slaves. […] By 1677, “Bacon’s Rebellion” was crushed. However, the revolt attracted the attention of the English government. Parliament enacted a series of “reforms” that intensified legal distinctions between poor whites and blacks. Landless whites weren’t permitted to vote, but they could not be abused as badly as before. African slaves lost whatever rights they had. Racial distinctions and divisions were encouraged. Interracial marriage was criminalized [for the first time], though slave owners were permitted to rape female slaves in order to increase their property. Laws were passed that protected white servants (whose numbers were dropping) while degrading blacks (whose numbers were increasing). White servants could not be whipped naked, but slaves could not only be whipped but mutilated. As historian Edmund Morgan observed, “In order to get work out of men and women who had nothing to gain except the absence of pain, you had to be willing to beat, maim, and kill.”
It’s important to understand the geographic stratification and, especially, the legislation that came as a consequence of the rebellion, and I love how historians always characterize Bacon as a total opportunistic racist dickbag just vying for a gubernatorial position. But, like, this whole “hating natives was invented by poverty and material circumstances a few centuries after the advent of global colonialism” is so reductive/gross. (also “illegal attack” lololol)
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is white dudes telling black people that WE’RE ALL HURT BY THE SAME CAPITAL and THEREFORE WE WERE RACIST SORRY is not new and I think it’s been kind of an influential school of thought for white men working in critical race theory/history, especially in the south.
eta: this reminded me of Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, a book I read once and can’t remember well except that I think one of the arguments is “white kids love hip-hop because they’re poor now therefore understand racism.” have any of you read this?!
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- duhdoydorothy said: this conversation is so interesting to me as an Ozarks girl, a definite bastion of “white trash” but one with a really small POC population
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