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Aaron Brenner - Color of Politics (Review)

Aaron Brenner - Color of Politics (Review)

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Published by: IsaacSilver on Nov 24, 2010
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The~Color of Politics
J .
.aron Brenner
Michael Goldfield,
The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of  Amer:~an Politics
(NewYork:The New Press, 1997), $19.95 paper, 404page:.The idea that the United States is an exceptional nation is asold ;s the country itself. Most variants of this concept trumpet thespec al uniqueness ofAmerica. Chauvinists from Hector St.John deCrei ecoeur to Alexisde Tocqueville to Theodore Roosevelt to LouisHar to Newt Gingrich have portrayed America as as an expansiveand inclusive democracy, an efficient and flourishing economy, anda su rerior and exemplary civilization, alone in a world either cor-rupl ed by Old World aristocracy, blighted by uncivilized hordes,imp -riled bytotalitarian Communism, stifled bybig government, orcon aminated by miscegenating multiculturalism. In every case, a
exclusively American trait-diversity, religiosity, localden ocracy, individualism, liberalism, social mobility-has set thenatim apart from, and above, all others.Of course, variants of American exceptionalism exist on theleft too. Here, America is unique not for what it is, but for what itlad s: a socialist tradition, a labor party, and/or a strong labor
·ement. Many of the characteristics that chauvinists celebrate asevicence of American greatness are precisely those that left criticslarr ent, and cite as the reasons America has no socialism-the lack of 
feudal past, individualism, liberalism, religiosity,the frontier. Yetthe left often adds another item to its balance sheet of AmericanAaronBrenner teaches HistoryatJames MadisonCollege,MichiganStat~ University. He is currently workingon a book titled
 Reb,llion, 1966-75.
exceptionalism: race. The argument is straightforward: the £meri-can labor and socialist movements have been crippled by the racialdivisions within the American working class. Itseems undenial: Ie,yetfew explanations of American exceptionalism (why there is
so-cialism in the United States) have made race so central to theiranalysis as Michael Goldfield's
The Color of Politics: Race a.
the MainsjJTings
American Politics.
For Goldfield, racial division has been
Achilles' heel. If [heAmerican left, "the key to unraveling the secret of American
I(cep-tionalism." (p. 30) Indeed, race has been "much more."
e hasbeen the central ingredient, not merely in undermining soli. laritywhen broad struggles have erupted, not merely in dividing wo
but also in providing an alternative white male nonclass worl. lviewand structure of identity that have exerted their force during bothstable and confrontational times. It has provided the everyday fl ame-work in which labor has been utilized, controlled, and exploit-d bythose who have employed it. And race has been behind many (
thesupposed principles of American government (most notably s atcs'rights) that are regarded as sacred by some people today." (p.: 0)To make his case for the centrality of race in American pol ticaldevelopment, Goldfield reinterprets American political histor- as aseries of crucial turning points, historical intersections at which raceset the direction of politics and from which the system of ricialdomination was created and perpetuated (albeit in continual y al-tered form and content). These turning points were the late
ven-teenth-century creation of racial slavery, the American Revolu ion,the Civil War and Reconstruction, the "System of 1896," and theGreat Depression and the New Deal. Heightened class conflict
har-acterized each turning point, creating real opportunity and
real progress for black and white workers. Yet, in every case,
division determined that the ruling classes would ultimately triumphover the working classes.Throughout his retelling of U.S. history, Goldfield places theinterplay of race and class at the center of his story. In his intro luc-tion, he critiques attitudinal, psychological, and cultural expl
tions of race, and insists upon "the class and economic roots of r: cialformation and systems of racial oppression." Then, as he worksthrough the history, he tries to expose these roots and the poisor ousfruit they ultimately sprout. He does a magnificent job sketching theclass context-the balance of class forces-in which each of hiscritical political struggles take place, setting each successive con .est
within the race and class configuration left by the previous struggle.Then he demonstrates in devastating fashion how various economicand
.olitical elites mobilized racial division in support of higherprofi
and their own social and poli tical power. Finally, he shows howthe cutcorne of each struggle-always lost by the working class,partie ularly the black working class-reconfigured and reinforcedthe s' stems of racial and class domination.
most of his own original research ison the period sincethe I epression, Goldfield draws on the best materialist social andpolit cal history for his arguments in the five chapters that cover thethree hundred years prior to the Great Depression. In almost all caseshe is well-served. For example, Edmund Morgan, Theodore Allen,and ]sarbara Fields have persuasvely argued that the system of racialslave 'y emerged out of the class conflicts between colonial Virginiatoba. co planters and their predominantly white indentured ser-
vants ,
not from the racist minds of English settlers. Planters switchedfrorr white servants to black slaves as a means of social control otheir white workers-a classic example of divide-and-conquer. Bydille
legally and socially between white and black labor,sorn. thing they had rarely done before the emergence of classconf ict in the 1670s (much of it interracial), the planters dividedthe
force, created a white identity, and used that identity toestal.lish a "social buffer between the ruling classes and the mostexpl iited laborers" (p. 43). As a result, within about a decade fromthe nid-1670s to the mid-1680s, the Virginia work force had beentr.m .forrned from two-thirds white servants to two-thirds black slaves.In tl e process, the meanings of blackness and whiteness were createdin A nerica.Having established the origins of race and racism, the rest o
lfield's sweeping history focuses on the evolution of race andclas., the constant and intertwined reconfigurations of white su-pre] :lacy and ruling-class power. The struggles of the working classes,hlac k and white, constitute the heart of the story, but so, too, doesthe iolitical and economic power of elites. In Goldfield's story of theAm,
Revolution, which draws mostly on the writing of JesseLen.isch, Marcus Rediker, and Donald Robinson, working-classmol
often interracial and composed of seamen, artisans, journey-mel
and even slaves, constituted a real force pushing the emerging
nat on toward an ticolonial rebellion. The working classes even
the struggle over who should rule at home once they hadhel led win the battle of home rule.

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