A common thread runs through much of the recent “pop-academic” work on white supremacy in the United States: racism is a psychological attribute of whites. Racism is a disposition—a worldview—which whites embrace consciously or, perhaps more often than not, subconsciously. It is this psychological disposition which, in turn, creates and perpetuates racial inequality.

Some popular accounts make the generalized claim that all whites possess this worldview to varying degrees, like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, while others, in an attempt to absolve educated liberals—like themselves—emphasize the racial hatred and degeneracy of a group variously labeled as the white working-class, poor whites, or white trash. Besides broad claims regarding childhood socialization—what Philipp Rehm, in a different context, has characterized as the “waving one’s hands and blaming the parents” argument—very little is said with regards to what actually causes this disposition.

David Roediger’s earlier, and much more sophisticated psychological account of white supremacy, The Wages of Whiteness, draws on the seminal work of W.E.B. Du Bois to argue that whites’ racial animus is grounded, ultimately, in whites’ attempt to secure a “public and psychological wage.” For Roediger—unlike the pop-academics—racism is not an unexplained or otherwise uncaused disposition: racism is embraced because the psychological superiority white supremacy bestows on whites—particularly white workers—functions as a “wage.” Whites perpetuate white supremacy because the psychological wages of whiteness are a concrete benefit whites experience through white supremacy’s operation.

Without discounting the importance of this psychological wage, Du Bois himself considered this particular “wage of whiteness” as a secondary and buttressing mechanism in the perpetuation of racial inequality. Indeed, well before he explicitly embraced a Marxist analysis of race in the late-1920s and early-1930s, Du Bois was a consummate materialist when it came to white supremacy in the US. In his 1899 study of Philadelphia’s Black community, The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois argued that the racial animosity of white workers towards Blacks is grounded primarily in racialized labor market competition:

“[A] more potent part [of the motives to exclude Black workers from desirous occupations and industries] is the natural spirit of monopoly and the desire to keep up wages. So long as a cry against ‘Irish’ or ‘foreigners’ was able to keep those people out of some employments, that cry was sedulously used. So to-day the workmen plainly see that a large amount of competition can be shut off by taking advantage of public opinion and drawing the color line. Moreover, in this there is one thoroughly justifiable consideration that plays a great part: namely, the Negroes are used to low wages—can live on them, and consequently would fight less fiercely than most whites against reduction.”

Similarly, in his 1920 account of the East St. Louis race riot, “Of Wealth and Work,” Du Bois argues that the massacre of the Black population occurred because Black workers were compelled to undercut the prevailing wages of white workers:

“If the white workingmen of East St. Louis felt sure that Negro workers would not and could not take the bread and cake from their mouths, their race hatred would never have been translated into murder. If the black workingmen of the South could earn a decent living under decent circumstances at home, they would not be compelled to underbid their white fellows.”

After visiting the Soviet Union in 1926, declaring himself a “Bolshevik,” and thoroughly studying Marx’s work—including teaching a number of seminars on “Marx and the Negro Problem” at Atlanta University in the early-1930s—Du Bois systematized this materialist analysis in his 1935 magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois characterizes the American labor movement as consisting of two contradictory currents: one which strives to establish the economic, social, and political equality of Blacks, and another that strives to better the wages and conditions of white workers by monopolizing the labor pool (i.e., limiting competition).

In this zero-sum conceptualization, a victory by one current means a loss for the other: if Black workers are able to enter a previously all-white industry or occupational group, white workers are faced with increased competition, potential job loss, and potential wage reduction. This, what Du Bois called in an earlier work, “modern economic paradox”—made possible by the anarchic structure of capitalism—results in an obfuscation of the class struggle: the primary antagonism of the American class structure is not between workers and their employers, but between Black workers and white workers.

In short, workers confront each other in the labor market neither as atomized individuals, nor as an undifferentiated proletariat with identical propensities to collectively challenge the boss’s rule. Rather, workers confront each other in the labor market as racialized entities, whose individual material interests are furthered along with their socially constructed race. Hence the “exceptionalism” of the American labor movement: One segment of the working class concentrates most of its activism on excluding the other segment from higher-paying jobs to protect against potential job displacement and wage decline, and the other segment concentrates most of its activism on eliminating the mechanisms and undermining the organizations through which the first segment excludes them.

All of this is to say that, for Du Bois, whites embrace racism not because they are imbued by a psychological predisposition nor because they’re grasping for a shred of psychological superiority. Rather, they embrace white supremacy because the threat of job displacement—and the economic hardship that implies—drives whites to pursue their economic interests in racialized terms.

There is good historical evidence that Du Bois’s analysis is accurate for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. More recently, I have shown using statistical analysis of public opinion data that contemporary xenophobia is largely grounded in job insecurity, as Du Bois’s theory would predict. While anti-Black racism is much less grounded in labor market competition than it was prior to the 1960s, racism is still grounded in economic competition, more broadly construed. Due to the racialization of housing polices during the New Deal, state-sanctioned segregation has led to a similar dynamic in the housing market, and, relatedly, in the allocation of public education.

However, Du Bois and the pop-academics do have one thing in common: they do not see an interracially united working class as the solution to the problem. The pop-academics—conceptualizing racism as a mental pathology—demand simply that whites confront their inherently racist psyche; the liberal’s version of Maoism’s self-crit. White Americans must “embark on a self-critical project of looking inward to examine and work against racist biases that many have barely known they had,” as John McWhorter summarizes this literature’s ultimate prescription. White workers, lacking education and otherwise basking in their ignorance, are unlikely or unwilling to engage in such a project. Thus, it’s up to educated white liberals to pick up the slack.

Du Bois, on the other hand, assumed that the relative economic advantage that accrued to whites as a result of white supremacy was simply too much to overcome. White workers would never give up this relative advantage and unite on an equitable class-basis with Black workers. This led to a number of political positions on the part of Du Bois that can be interpreted as off-putting or at least surprising if viewed outside of this context.

As I document in much greater detail in my Critical Sociology article “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: WEB Du Bois, Left-Wing Radicalism, and the Problem of Interracial Labor Unionism,” Du Bois was wont to advocate for Black strikebreaking, even in cases where the union and/or the strikers involved were dedicated to interracial unity.

For instance, Du Bois called on Black workers to actively break the 1912 NYC Waiters’ Strike, despite the fact that the strike was conducted by the Industrial Workers of the World, a union well-known—even to Du Bois—for its interracialism. Du Bois was also acerbically critical of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and, in particular, the role of the Communist Party USA in the labor movement, characterizing members of the latter group as “neither wise nor intelligent.” This despite the fact that the Communist Party—working through the CIO—was the major impetus for the massive interracial union wave of the 1930s, as well as much of the activism in the first wave of what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has characterized as the “long civil rights movement.”

While I believe Du Bois’s materialist account of white supremacy in the United States is absolutely indispensable when it comes to explaining the contemporary political and social moment, the assumption that white workers are unable to overcome the material “wages of whiteness” is a dangerous, if not simply defeatist, political position grounded in short-term and selective memory, and, more often than not, elitist condescension. After World War II, Du Bois himself realized this, giving the CIO credit for “softening race prejudice among the masses,” and increasingly associating himself with Communist Party activism, formally joining the party in 1961.

Rather than ascribing a transhistorical logic to white working-class behavior, like the pop-academics and Du Bois pre-WWII, we would do better to actually analyze, rather than explain away or ignore those exceptional historical instances when white workers do, in fact, reject white supremacy en masse and organize on an equitable class-basis with non-white workers. As Winston James convincingly put it:

“In short, the lazy shorthand—the white working class is incurably racist—that is passed off as analysis will not do. It cannot account for Big Bill Haywood, Joe Hill, and the Wobblies; it cannot account for the principled antiracism of Oscar Ameringer, who did splendid antiracist work among the Oklahoma Socialists; nor can it account for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Robert Minor in the Communist Party or for the later phase of Eugene Debs’s life. One may respond by saying that these are aberrations in American history that need not detain us. But not only is such a response too easy—and too cheap—the fact is that there are too many aberrations of this kind—which means they are not aberrations in any meaningful sense—even in these racist United States, for them to be so lightly dismissed. We need, therefore, to explain them.”

Cody Melcher is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY).

This article is based on Cody R. Melcher (2020) “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: WEB Du Bois, Left-Wing Radicalism, and the Problem of Interracial Labor Unionism,” Critical Sociology 46(7-8): 1041-1055.

Image: Frank Walts, Portrait of W. E. B. Du Bois, cover illustration for The Crisis magazine, February 1918.