The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South. (Reviews).
Michelle Brattain's new book The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South addresses race, work, and politics in Rome, Georgia with the reminder that whiteness is as much a social invention as is any other marker of human characteristics, and it is one that can and has been used tot economic and political purposes. Brattain argues that the politics of whiteness benefited white textile workers in Rome, Georgia, and that workers were aware of the benefits of whiteness. The book's seven chapters take readers from the initial local excitement of introducing mill work to Rome, Georgia, to the 1934 strike, unionization for two of the mills in the 1940s, political action by the TWUA in the 1940s and 1950s, one unsuccessful and one successful strike in 1948, and the multiple responses to civil rights and to the downsizing of mills in the 1960s and beyond. Racial privilege is always either in the background or is explicitly used as leverage in struggles over work and unionizing.
Brattain discusses the textile industry in and around Rome, Georgia from the 1880s to the 1960s. She weaves the ideology of town boosters, union organizers, and textile workers into a piece that suggests that whiteness subordinated other political or economic factors. Whiteness protected jobs from black competition until the late 1960s, and for practical purposes, beyond that. Town boosters proudly claimed that Rome was a fine place to work, as evidenced by the overwhelming presence of Anglo-Saxon textile workers in the factories. More often than not, the Textile Workers Union of America acceded to southern segregation, hoping thereby to avoid the divisiveness of racial politics and gain white union representation in the textile mills. When workers did unionize, they did so knowing that white privilege was not threatened by union membership. Successful political campaigns played both to whiteness and to regionalism. By the end of the book, Brattain has convincingly demonstrated the power of whiteness to trans form itself from an overtly racist concept to one that still uses conservative concepts to maintain its position of privilege.
Brattain primarily focuses on the Anchor Duck and Tubize mills in Rome and the Pepperell mill in Lindale as the sites where race, politics, and worker decisions were played out. While all three mills employed paternalism in worker/manager relations, Lindale did so most successfully and for the longest period of time. Workers in the Anchor Rome and Tubize plants unionized in the 1940s, while Lindale workers resisted unionization until the mid 1960s. Race-baiting was used to prevent unionizing at the Anchor Rome mill, but was unsuccessful because white workers knew that segregation was firmly in place in the mill. The threat of integration if a union was formed did not convince workers who believed integration was unlikely to occur, and who therefore discounted the racial rhetoric of union opponents. In other situations, however, the threat of potential racial integration effectively thwarted union programs or political goals. In 1950, the TWUA's Political Action Committee tried to convince Floyd County voters to oust Judge H. E. Nichols, a bitter enemy of the union. With reason to remember Judge Nichols' legal maneuvers in opposition to the union during the 1948 strikes, union members did vote against the judge, but lost the election and the judge maintained his office. During the campaign, Judge Nichols painted the TWUA as outside foreigners, most likely communist in affiliation, and likely to end segregation. These tactics worked in the county, although Brattain says that the union won more votes than they had in the past. Workers in the Pepperell plant, who were not unionized, voted for Judge Nichols, apparently concurring with the negative view of the TWUA. Workers voted according to their perceived interests, which were not always those of the union, for example, workers supporting Eugene and Herman Talmadge when it appeared to not be in their best interest. Brattain argues that for many workers, the Talmadge populist touch was more familiar and appealing than the arguments of TWUA organizers who, after all, were outsiders. In this sense, whiteness was defined as both a racial and a regional characteristic. The union fared better when it adopted the southern practice of getting what it needed through local networking. The argument that the loss of union dollars would harm the community impressed city boosters. Union members used this argument and local connections to obtain favors in the 1950s and 60s.
Brattain does not suggest that racial exclusion always worked for whites, and certainly it did not work for local black workers who could only gain low-paying, low-status jobs in the textile industry. What did work was the protection of short-term interests, even when those interests appeared to be only the sense of racial superiority that all whites shared. The strength of this view was such that the TWUA often bowed to local prejudices. In a region where the rural hold on political outcomes was disproportionate to the population, the union had to overcome strongly held antipathies toward the CIO and its liberal tenets. It could not do this by addressing race issues directly, but could attain success through a combination of bread and butter unionism and through indirect appeals to local boosterism. The union could organize most successfully when it overlooked race issues, and Brattain indicates that even when African Americans did gain more jobs in the plants, they were still under-represented by the union and underrepresented in the most economically advantageous positions in the plants. The strength of whiteness was such that de facto segregation maintained white control well after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 dictated the end of segregation.
Brattain's book is well written, and is a fascinating read on how local and state politics worked to protect local white privilege. Brattain makes good use of local union records, newspaper accounts and editorials, and oral history interviews. One suspects that many whites who were not textile workers were also influenced by traditional appeals to white privilege, just as one suspects that the concept of whiteness and its influence on decisions made by American workers transcends the borders of a town in Georgia, and has much to say about how Americans share or do not share access to wealth and power throughout America today. Whiteness continues to dominate our cultural landscape, though now often couched in conservative language that presents whites as a beleaguered people, and minorities as somehow less qualified to attain positions of prestige and influence.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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