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Steve Martinot

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The Racialized Construction of Class in the United States

Author Steve Martinot explores the history of racialization processes in the formation of the United States. He examines how racism has served as a barrier to working-class organization, and by implication, to systemic transformations. For Martinet, liberation in the United States presupposes deracializing, an issue that is unintelligible to most white people. The author’s historical analysis of colonial Virginia thus attempts to show that in the colonies and the nation that emerged from them, domination took the form of whiteness (and from it, race). Within a structure of corporate social control, racism and white supremacy were invented to serve as the primary mode of organizing the structure of labor. The term “racism” thus describes the process that produced a class structure. This essay traces the development of the slave market and differential punishments, ever more severe for Africans than for the English, that transformed African bond-laborers first into commodified wealth and then into inheritable property. Sexuality was legislated as a cultural practice to guard the purity of white women, extending corporate structure and interests into all personal affairs. Social categories were created wherein “black” became a racializing term for African-Americans only in reference to the racialization of the English as “white,” as opposed to the earlier signifier, “Christian.” With abolition, black slave labor was excluded from the corporate state and unions; relegated to unskilled labor, they lost their former crafts in a process of exclusion that defined the working class as white. When, with the rise of industry, different forms of labor relations (wage labor, prison labor, etc.) emerged, they were integrated into this overarching white social machine under the aegis of the corporate state. To explain the double economy comprised of two qualitatively different systems of political economy that emerged, Martinet uses colonialism and the prison as analogies. This dual structure largely explains why the labor movement did not advocate labor solidarity across the border with Mexican workers in response to NAFTA, but took a protectionist stance instead, in solidarity with American business, and has always seen immigration as competition.

race; racialization; whiteness; African Americans — history; labor and laboring classes — United States — history; labor unions — United States; Marxism — class consciousness; racism — United States

Citation: Social Justice Vol. 27, No. 1 (2000): 43-60