Exposing the Primary Agents and Beneficiaries of Racism

*This post is part of our roundtable on Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and members of his fan club must read Keri Leigh Merritt’s deeply-researched, well-reasoned, and eye-opening book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (2017). They should read it, above all, because it convincingly challenges several of Coates’s insufficiently-supported and profoundly-wrongheaded statements, including this one: working-class whites, not elites, “have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of” racism. Indeed, it is extremely hard to take this claim seriously after reading Masterless Men, a book that outlines the many difficulties and dramatic struggles of both slaves and poor whites under oppressive conditions—conditions established by agricultural elites and vociferously defended by their political allies. Thankfully, Merritt has challenged an all-too-common view in our post-New Left historiographical climate: the idea that class, as a category of analysis, somehow lacks explanatory power, is simply too old-fashioned, or that its defenders are narrow-minded and naïve leftists.

As Merritt demonstrates in nine tightly-argued chapters—that provide readers with extensive descriptions of class and race conflicts—Coates’s statement about working-class whites could not be further from the truth. In the process, Merritt calls into question some of the most influential and time-honored interpretations of southern slave societies. After reading her book, it is difficult to see how impoverished whites, forced to reside in squalor and periodically harassed and bullied by landowners and slave patrols, somehow benefited from what groundbreaking historians W. E. B. Du Bois and Theodore W. Allen have famously called the “psychological wage” of whiteness and “white skin privilege,” respectively.1 This is not a book about Black, white, or southern identities; rather, it is principally about power and resistance.

Merritt does a fantastic job recounting the day-to-day struggles of the African American and poor white masses. Her analysis of ordinary whites—vivid accounts of anxiety and misery rather than of comfort and privilege—is especially thoughtful and provocative. Their severe poverty meant inadequate diets, poor housing conditions, lack of educational opportunities, and a greater exposure to illnesses. Yet they were not merely victims, and Merritt mentions that many poor whites, both during periods of work and leisure, developed relationships across racial lines. “Whether in the fields or in the factory,” Merritt writes, “poor white workers had long noticed the fading distinctions between them and their enslaved co-laborers” (72). We learn that there was a considerable amount of fluidity in these communities, and both poor whites and slaves took part in various social and lawbreaking activities, including exchanging goods in the underground economy.

The mostly agricultural-based southern ruling-class repeatedly expressed profound annoyance by the different examples of interracial cooperation. And Merritt’s analysis of what Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger have called “race management” is as insightful and important as her rich descriptions of the social lives of slaves and poor whites. We learn that “so many slaveholders became preoccupied with segregating the two groups” (67). Indeed maintaining a racially divided working-class and preventing anti-slavery ideas from circulating involved considerable amounts of planning over the course of decades. This ruling-class could not simply assume that poor whites would always think and behave in racist ways; masters felt the need to strategize and encourage expressions of white supremacy, which in practice meant banning abolitionist literature and punishing advocates of such ideas.

But members of the slave-owning class and their allies, Merritt explains, remained highly anxious, habitually afraid of losing control. Take the case of Alfred Iverson, the senator from Georgia. He responded to the publication of Hinton Helper’s anti-slavery book by demanding that plantation owners “hang every man who has approved or endorsed” it (274). This is a remarkable statement, illustrating sheer bloodthirstiness. Iverson obviously had no tolerance for dissent, demanding that all whites, irrespective of class, support the exploitative system. He articulated a view that was commonplace in elite circles, and Merritt’s bluntness on the matter is refreshing: “there was simply no freedom of speech in the slave South” (274).

Merritt demonstrates that well into the Civil War period, ruling elites, unable to achieve peace-of-mind, continued to struggle to preserve their power over the interracial working classes. In the face of major political changes, the ruling elites employed fear, insisting that wages for ordinary whites would decline, whites and Blacks would become social equals, and racial conflict would worsen. Merritt points out that Georgia Governor Joseph Brown continued to use classic divide-and-rule messages in 1860, when slave owners felt the bitter sting of an anti-slavery movement that had begun to enter the political mainstream. Brown worried about the possible development of a post-slave society, but was prepared to use racism to maintain control, which he explained in an appeal to ordinary whites: “The black men who lives [sic] on my land has [sic] as strong an arm, and as heavy muscles as you have, and can do as much labor. He works for me at that rate, you must work for the same price, or I cannot employ you” (291). This statement reminds us that for those at the top of society, racism served class interests, and that elites remained committed to employing race management with or without slavery.

Neither persuasion nor fear-mongering was enough to convince all poor whites to fully embrace white supremacy. For this reason, slave owners and their agents frequently turned to brutal methods, and Merritt offers graphic details of the different forms of elite-generated intimidation and violence: kidnappings, whippings, raping, and killings of both Blacks and whites. Such actions were reinforced by public policies, including vagrancy laws. Terror pervaded southern society: “masters needed a terroristic system of policing, surveilling, and torturing the poor (both white and black) to preserve their cherished institution” (253). This is brilliantly stated and captures the nature of the cruel class relationships. The takeaway from Merritt’s research is clear enough: racial similarities across class lines—a shared whiteness—could not guarantee harmony for the region’s rulers.

Merritt observes that we can draw meaningful connections between the Antebellum’s political-economy of racism and violence to developments in more recent times (291). The ruling-classes and their supporters continued to promote racism in the face of organizing efforts by Blacks and whites following the Civil War. Ensuring that ordinary whites remained racially conscious was challenging. We know that the first Ku Klux Klan, typically led by white elites, routinely brutalized former slaves and their white allies. And in the mid-1880s, from Richmond, Virginia to Thibodaux, Louisiana, elite men, organized in various “law-and-order leagues,” violently fought the Knights of Labor (KOL), which had enjoyed some successes in bringing Black and white workers together on class lines.2

There is no reason to stop this analysis in the 1880s. We can spotlight similar organizing actions designed to spread white supremacy in the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries, including the 1898 Wilmington coup, a vicious, elite-led campaign that broke up the interracial city council and led to the deaths of roughly thirty African Americans and to the expulsion of more than 2,000.3 Or take the activities of the second Klan during the World War I era, when its members helped employers break strikes, including those led by African American longshoremen. And in the 1930s and 1940s, promoters of anti-union right-to-work laws were the most aggressive defenders of Jim Crow policies. Vance Muse, the Texas-based leader of a business-funded Astroturf organization, the Christian Americans, frequently warned white workers to avoid the racially-inclusive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO): “from now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

We can identify a common pattern. In all of these cases, ruling-class whites, some of whom collaborated with Black elites, have historically devoted considerable amounts of energy on developing quiescent workforces, community stability, wealth, and power.4 The political-economy of racism, told authoritatively by scholars such as Merritt, had as much to do with exploitation as it did with what today’s mainstream Civil Rights organizations like to call “hate.”  Not all racists were violent haters. Plantation and factory owners did not seek to injure, kill, or otherwise punish their productive and obedient Black workers.

The same cannot be said about their responses to rebellious laborers or “outside” agitators of any race, including abolitionists in the antebellum period, Union soldiers during the Civil War, Republican educators during Reconstruction, KOL activists in the 1880s, Industrial Workers of the World members in the Progressive Era, and CIO organizers in the 1930s. Examples of elite forms of racist oppression are important to illustrate—and to illustrate forcefully—at a time when millionaire essayists such as Coates are guilty of richsplaining to us in bourgeois publications, erroneously insisting that working-class whites have historically been the chief “agents and beneficiaries” of white supremacy. Fortunately, careful historians such as Merritt have helped to set the record straight.

  1.  W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1998, orig. 1935), 700; Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control (London: Verso, 1994), 147. Allen coined the phrase “white skin privilege” in 1965. For the context surrounding Allen’s use of this phrase, see Michael Staudenmaier, Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986 (Oakland: AK Press, 2012), 88.
  2. On the racist roles of elite Law-and-Order Leagues in Richmond, see Peter J. Rachleff, Black Labor in the South: Richmond, Virginia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 187. For the brutal ways sugar plantation owners responded to a mostly, though not exclusively, Black-led strike in Thibodaux in 1887, see “Riot in Thibodaux,” The Opelousas Courier, November 26, 1887, 8; and Rebecca Scott, Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 84.
  3. Michael K. Honey, “Class, Race, and Power in the New South: Racial Violence and the Delusions of White Supremacy,” in Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, ed. David S. Cicelski and Timothy B. Tyson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 162-84.
  4. On the ways Black elites fought organized labor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Judith Stein, “‘Of Booker T. Washington and Others’: The Political Economy of Racism in the United States,” Science and Society 38 (Winter 1974-75): 422-63; Brian Kelly, “Sentinels for New South Industry: Booker T. Washington, Industrial Accommodation and Black Workers in the Jim Crow South,” Labor History 44 (August 2003): 337-57; and Chad Pearson, Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), chapter 6.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Chad Pearson

Chad Pearson teaches history at Collin College in Plano, Texas and is the author of Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) and is co-editor with Rosemary Feurer of Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism (University of Illinois Press, 2017). He is currently writing a book about different types of employer violence, which he wants to call Capital’s Terrorists: Anti-Labor Violence in the Long Nineteenth Century. Additionally, he is very interested in the intersection of historiography and gossip.

Comments on “Exposing the Primary Agents and Beneficiaries of Racism

  • This is a rich and descriptive discussion of Merritt’s book. However, I do not agree with the simplistic references to Ta-NaHisi Coates’ work, even though I do not either completely agree with all of Coates’ arguments. Specifically, the behavior of many working class whitess, manipulated or not, has been extremely exclusionary over the late nineteenth century and all of the twentieth.This is not to say that there have not been progressive, anti-racist whites during this period. Rather, it is to acknowledge that these whites, like all human beings in similar situations, where greatly influenced by the elite class. The pictures of lynchings and the statistics of lynchings from 1888 to 1916 tell a different story. Likewise, the refusal of whites to allow blacks into unions, the clashes between whites and blacks in urban settings accompanied by redlining, (from which working class whites benefitted significantly) cannot and should not be ignored in the attempt to parse out the nuances of racist performance in the United States. On another note, the author does not reference the recruitment and assignment of million of workers arriving from Europe in the mid-and late nineteenth century, as well as the early twentieth century, into the white power structure. These immigrants understood less about the position and history of blacks and their suppression than their southern counterparts, and thus joined the ranks of ”whites” from a different socio-political position. It is certainly valuable and necessary to engage questions of elite manipulation and the repression of poor whites, but this should never be done at the expense of recognizing the pernicious effects of this manipulation and the middle-class boom of the 1950s that solidified white privilege and sustained notions of racial superiority and its shadow, belief in the savagery of black Americans.

    • Thank you for your comment. We can identify many of the developments you point out. Indeed, much scholarship has taught us a great deal about working-class white racism. But labor history cannot be reduced to the history of white workers. Indeed, there is a tendency in far too many circles to equate working class with “white workers,” immigrant or otherwise. We must remind ourselves of all the great work on the history of African American workers. I’m currently reading a bit about Black strikers and white strikebreakers, a topic that few discuss. Furthermore, the history of the working class does not mean the history of unions. The so-called New Labor History stressed this point decades ago, but today, very few places teach labor history.

      And we must take repression seriously. I’m glad you think it is “valuable and necessary to engage questions of elite manipulation and the repression of poor whites [I would extend that to poor African Americans as well].” I think there are far too few studies that address these questions in our current scholarly moment.

      Thank you.

  • I didn’t have to read very far to see a fundamental dishonesty in your method. You say ” Coates’s insufficiently-supported and profoundly-wrongheaded statements, including this one: working-class whites, not elites, “have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of” racism.” but when I trace the link back to find the Coate ‘s quote, I find he doesn’t say “not elites,” that was your addition. He says: “The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. ”

    I’m always suspicious of carefully crafted quotes.

    • Don’t see the conflict. “those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of.” Does Coates think of the elite as part of the masses? I don’t think so, and don’t think white workers, on the whole, have benefited from racism.

      • “on the whole” is not the point, the question is have they ever acted as agents of the bourgeoisie in enforcing slavery and racism? And the question isn’t even did they “benefit” from slavery in some cosmic way, but did they perceive not being reduced to chattel, as opposed to wage slavery, as a benefit? Otherwise come up with the reason so many died on the wrong side of the civil war

    • The whole point of Coates’ essay is to suggest blaming the white working class. So the rendering of Coates’ view by Pearson is accurate. To parse a summary quote to deny this, in order to attack the person accurately summarizing it, is just not fair either.
      Coates is a competent intellectual who is well-rewarded and whose words are so influential. He should be the one taken to task for a highly provocative essay that is so full of hopelessness and essentializing the white working class–and in the face of clear evidence that the white working class did not vote for Trump at levels that middle-class and elites did. So he ignores class differences to lump. But his mostly white elite audience needs a target and he provided it, and then also made it clear that it was all hopeless.
      I don’t think Pearson rejects the salience of racial conflict or racism, and racial hierarchies in this essay. But along with Masterless Men he raises the point that it fuels debate about causation, possibilities that cuts through that essentializing of whiteness ringing through so much of recent literature.

  • I’m not a scholar, and very much an outsider to this discussion, but it strikes me that trying to analyze American racial attitudes without placing them in a world historical context is bound to miss something. It’s a manifestation of American exceptionalism, that sees the US as somehow profoundly different (and better) than other countries and peoples.

    I believe this is false. To properly understand the American Black/white situation, you should be familiar with similar situations in other parts of the world: Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, Rohingyas and Burmese in Myanmar, Greeks and Turks, Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Muslims and Jews (and not just in contemporary Israel/Palestine), and the Jews in European countries before WWII, various Muslim sects (not just Shias and Sunnis), many different African tribes, Montagnards and Vietnamese, minority European groups in Eastern and Central Europe, Ukrainians and Russians … and the list could go on. The US is just one more example, and far from the worst, of a universal human tendency.

    • No, the US is the first and most important example. The very concept and category of “white people” and”the white race” was developed in the US colonies in the mid 1600s’ and then exported to Europe and the rest of the world, meaning none of those subsequent situations can be understood without first coming to grips with the mother of all racial and national oppressions.

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