White Capital, Black Labor

The racial hierarchy of American industry was built on the ruins of slavery. A new book on the history of black workers shows how far we have—and haven't—come.
By Malcolm Harris ,

Forging a Laboring Race: The African American Worker in the Progressive Imagination.

(Photo: New York University Press)

Paul R.D. Lawrie’s book Forging a Laboring Race: The African American Worker in the Progressive Imagination begins with the imaging of Ben Bailey. A boxer in late-19th-century Philadelphia, Bailey was immortalized in the photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge’s animated photos of horses in motion are more famous, but by the time he met up with Bailey, he was studying human movement. Of his 95 models, Bailey was the only non-white person, but he was also the first one to be subject to a new method: a measurement grid that moved Muybridge’s studies from qualitative to quantitative. For Lawrie, this moment represents something crucial to understanding the 20th century. Why did Muybridge measure the black guy first?

“Intersectionality” has become a surprisingly charged political term of late, and Lawrie never uses it, but his book is a good example of how an intersectional way of looking at history works. Forging a Laboring Race is about two concurrent problems that faced American policymakers at the dawn of the 20th century: the so-called “labor problem” and the “negro problem.” The first was about how to transition an agrarian workforce into a skilled and semi-skilled industrial one; the second about how to incorporate black Americans into the nation as free people. Although we’ve named and conceived of the two separately, they remain historically inextricable. There was never one without the other.

Ending slavery obviously didn’t end anti-black racism, but it did force it to mutate. A divine racial order with black permanently subservient to white couldn’t hold if the groups were now supposed to be equal under the law. Black Americans throughout the South could no longer be counted as property; they were to join the ranks of labor. How, then, were the government and employers supposed to understand racial difference? Racial theology was on the wane with abolition, but racial science was just kicking into gear. Americans didn’t have much use for Continental European scholars’ nationalist subdivision of whites, but eugenics — the study and promotion of racial hygiene — caught on. If the white god of slavery was dead, then the order of races was a question for scientific investigation and policy expertise.

With the United States entering World War I, first by way of munitions production and then militarily, Lawrie writes that “the Negro, which heretofore had served as a regional — generally southern — metaphor for the racial perils of progress, now became in both theory and practice a national industrial agent: the ‘Negro problem’ was now an American problem.” A sizable portion of white intellectuals thought the problem would solve itself. Frederick L. Hoffman, an actuary at Prudential Insurance, pioneered the quantitative evaluation of free black workers. Until then, black and white Americans had been insured at the same rates, but the numbers couldn’t justify it: White workers lived longer. Using measurements of venereal disease, criminality, and respiratory capacity, Hoffman predicted that, exposed to competition with white workers, African Americans would quickly go extinct.

That did not happen. Nor were white workers by virtue of their whiteness any better at any industrial task. Lawrie does a good job illustrating the central absurdity of racial science: It’s arbitrary. Race is a social, not a biological, fact, and all the existential-biological conclusions anyone draws will be indefensible. Racial scientists then have to be able to explain the flipped coin no matter which face it lands on. White supremacists could summon race science to claim out of one side of their mouth that black people were too weak to live, while out of the other spewing panic about how fast they might spread unchecked. Racists could make up reasons why black people breathe easier than whites, or the opposite: why they have resistance to disease, or susceptibility. Some thought black-white race mixing produced weaker hybrids; others (citing France’s lauded Dumas family) said the white race could benefit from just a splash of blackness. Whatever the difference was, it could be found, measured, and used to explain white supremacy.

But the new course of anti-black racism did not operate in isolation from other social phenomena. Public and private policymakers were turning to Taylorism and scientific management to structure industrial production, and every black American tested by industrial and state scientists was measured both as a representative of their race and as a laborer. The Negro and labor problems were intertwined, and progressives thought the government could solve them both with sound science and a firm hand. Lawrie quotes the proposal of white feminist reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman:

The whole body of negroes who do not progress, who are not self-supporting, who are degenerating into an increasing percentage of social burdens or actual criminals, should be taken hold of by the state. This proposed organization is not enslavement, but enlistment…. To be drafted to a field of labor that shall benefit his own race and the whole community, need not be considered a wrong to any negro. It should furnish good physical training and as much education as each individual can take.

The Division of Negro Economics (within the Department of Labor) was the short-lived federal answer to the intertwined problems of multiracial modernity, and with its pro-black agenda the DNE relied on a non-biological idea of racial difference. The cultural school (including Franz Boas and W.E.B. Du Bois) explained measurable distinctions between black and white Americans as a product of separate and unequal social environments. Given the right opportunities and access — nothing too overwhelming at first — black people could eventually be just as good as white people.

But those opportunities, whether from the DNE or the Urban League or another reform organization, weren’t everything they were cracked up to be. The DNE was most effective, Lawrie writes, at “forging links between white capital and black labor.” The Urban League wanted to create a new black professional class, but it had more success moving black southern agricultural workers into northern agricultural jobs. Additionally, the government-mediated relationship between white capital and black labor antagonized white labor, which didn’t want the competition.

The hope that economic rationality would dissolve racial difference went unfulfilled. Lawrie writes:

Standardization also held the promise of freeing black laborers from the anti-black animus, which characterized many of the “brains under the foreman’s cap” and relegated blacks to the most menial of occupations. As racialist ideology regarding the unsuitability and disposability of black labor continued to inform management policies and practices through the war and into the postwar years, the potentially emancipatory nature of industrial standardization failed to materialize for most blacks.

The truth was that white capital found the color line useful, both to break up labor solidarity and to lower wages. The “Negro problem” was not a problem at all. It was a solution to the only problem capital has ever recognized: how to get more for less.

Even though the cultural theory of racial hierarchy is now itself seen as racist — replaced by the also racist idea of an individual competitive hierarchy — the idea of white capital as a solution to the problem of racial inequality persists. “Education for jobs” remains the most popular progressive answer to the nation’s enduring “Negro problem.” Forging a Laboring Race reminds us that’s how we got here in the first place.

Join the Conversation