A DREADFUL DECEIT The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama’s America


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It’s the Economy
‘A Dreadful Deceit,’ by Jacqueline Jones

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.

Jacqueline Jones celebrates working-class interracial solidarity: A Ford auto plant in Detroit, 1963.Bettmann/Corbis
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.

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