[Marxism] The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama’s America

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 16 08:47:25 MST 2014

NY Times Sunday Book Review, Feb. 16 2014
It’s the Economy
‘A Dreadful Deceit,’ by Jacqueline Jones


The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama’s America
By Jacqueline Jones
Illustrated. 381 pp. Basic Books. $29.99.

Americans have struggled mightily since the nation’s birth to overcome 
racial prejudice. Recently, as symbolized by President Obama’s 
ascendancy and his message of racial reconciliation, we have basically 
succeeded and are now healing from our racial wounds. Or so the story 
goes. In “A Dreadful Deceit,” the distinguished historian Jacqueline 
Jones vehemently rejects this redemptive and self-congratulatory 
narrative. She believes that the country’s racial problems have little 
to do with racism and everything to do with economic exploitation. And, 
she claims, we have not even begun to come to terms with this.

Jones is the author of numerous books, including “Labor of Love, Labor 
of Sorrow,” which won the Bancroft Prize in 1986. This new book, a 
sweeping account of the role of race in American history, is structured 
around the stories of six extraordinary but largely unknown individuals, 
each of African descent. There’s Antonio, murdered in colonial Maryland 
for refusing to submit to enslavement; Boston King, a former slave from 
South Carolina turned loyalist during the American Revolution; the 
Afro-Indian Elleanor Eldridge, who started several successful businesses 
in Providence, R.I., in the early 19th century; the Reconstruction-era 
Georgia politician Richard W. White; the early-20th-century educator 
William H. Holtzclaw, who founded a Tuskegee-like school in Mississippi; 
and finally the radical labor activist Simon P. Owens in 
mid-20th-century Detroit.

The six stories, told in vivid detail, are fascinating and a pleasure to 
read, particularly the one about Owens, whom Jones sometimes uses as a 
mouthpiece. Yet the life Jones is most interested in is the life of the 
concept of “race,” which, following the radical abolitionist David 
Walker, she terms a “dreadful deceit.” Her book is a call to renounce 
the very idea of race as a dangerous misconception. This argument will 
be familiar to scholars, but Jones seeks to bring it to a broader audience.

To explain how racial conflict has masked power struggles for control 
over others’ labor, Jones surveys compelled work in its many varieties, 
from slave labor under the lash on tobacco plantations in Maryland to 
mandatory overtime in unsafe and sweltering auto plants in Detroit. 
Racial ideologies, she argues, are like mob violence, disenfranchisement 
and discriminatory laws — merely tactics used to secure material 
advantages in social contexts perceived as zero-sum.

So the refusal of white colonists to recognize black claims to equal 
liberty was not premised on racial considerations, Jones argues, but on 
naked self-interest. She acknowledges that intellectuals like Thomas 
Jefferson were moved to reconcile Enlightenment values with slavery. But 
most propertied white men didn’t see a need to justify their dominance 
apart from citing their economic interests, the same interests that led 
them to exploit Indians, poor whites and women. A racial justification 
for slavery emerged only in the 19th century, in response to the 
Northern abolitionist movement.

Similarly, Jones describes early-19th-century white working-class 
hostility to blacks as springing from economic competition. “By keeping 
blacks in menial jobs permanently,” she writes, “whites might reserve 
new and better opportunities for themselves and ensure that someone else 
did the ill-paying, disagreeable work.” Throughout the period from 
colonial settlement to the Civil War, she says, racial ideologies played 
only a minor role in sustaining white dominance.

Jones acknowledges that “whiteness” functioned as a powerful idea during 
Reconstruction, uniting whites of opposing political views and 
conflicting class interests. But racial ideologies were “remade” at the 
turn of the 20th century, when blacks were imprisoned or killed as 
sexual and criminal deviants in order to prevent them from joining 
forces with poor whites against white elites. Moving into the present, 
she attributes contemporary ghetto poverty and its associated ills to a 
lack of jobs for low-skilled workers. Black subordination no longer 
requires racial myths to perpetuate it. Vulnerable blacks can be 
defrauded, imprisoned, disenfranchised and left to die in floodwaters 
without appeals to race.

A core theme in “A Dreadful Deceit” is the contradictory depictions of 
blacks. They are at once lazy, childlike, stupid and submissive, but 
also murderous, calculating and subversive, intent on stealing white 
men’s jobs. Jones regards this lack of coherence as evidence that a 
conception of inherent racial difference has not been a driving factor 
in the way whites have treated blacks. And she laments the preoccupation 
with battling these myths, which she believes too often obscure the 
pressing need to address material inequality.

Yet isn’t it obvious that whites sometimes hate blacks simply because 
they are black? No, Jones says. When whites express contempt or hatred 
for blacks it is because of the stigma attached to servitude, or because 
blacks have refused to submit quietly to economic marginalization.

Jones celebrates interracial working-class solidarity (though she 
recognizes that white workers have generally resisted uniting with black 
workers). At the same time, she is ambivalent about whether “blackness” 
itself can ever be a basis for identity or solidarity. She says of 
Owens, “Because generations of white people had defined him and all 
other blacks first and foremost as ‘Negroes,’ he had no alternative but 
to acknowledge — or rather, react to — that spurious identity.” Even if 
what blacks have in common is not their race but “an overarching 
political vulnerability traced back to enslaved forebears, a political 
and historical status,” there might be times, she admits, when it would 
be legitimate to describe this commonality using the language of race. 
However, she also believes that doing so keeps a “destructive” idea alive.

Jones’s argument shares features with W. E. B. Du Bois’s theory in his 
1940 book, “Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race 
Concept.” But the differences make a difference. Du Bois too welcomed 
multiracial working-class solidarity, yet he thought that many oppressed 
whites were strongly attached to their “whiteness” as a marker of 
status, despite the fact that it brought them few or no material 
advantages. While Jones contends that racial justifications for unequal 
treatment are tactical and self-serving lies, Du Bois emphasized that 
those who accept racist thinking are generally self-deceived, entranced 
by mystifying fictions. And although he is no less concerned about black 
economic disadvantage than Jones, Du Bois worried as well about the 
self-contempt that racial defamation causes. Material well-being without 
self-respect, he insisted, is an undignified existence.

Precisely because race is, as Jones says, a “strange and shifting idea,” 
both malleable and capacious, Du Bois believed it could be remade and 
used for good. Over the years, those who have had the label “black” 
imposed on them have revised its meaning to better reflect their 
experiences and collective memory, and employed it as a means of 
overcoming their oppression. Thus, “black is beautiful,” “black pride,” 
even “black power.” When Du Bois called on the “darker races” to stand 
together against imperialism, economic exploitation and white supremacy, 
he was invoking race, but not in a morally troubling way.

Engagement with Du Boisian ideas might have made “A Dreadful Deceit” 
more convincing (and its practical implications less ambiguous). Still, 
if contemporary discussions of race could be focused on the 
interconnections between racial ideologies, political power and economic 
vulnerability, as Jones would like, that would be a dramatic improvement 
over the “postracial” narratives that currently reign.

Tommie Shelby, a professor of philosophy and of African and 
African-American studies at Harvard, is the author of “We Who Are Dark: 
The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity.”

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