Deborah Gray White on northern racism
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Q: How did people think about race in this period?
A: One of the things that they [white workers] have to worry about, particularly white men, is whether or not, as wage slaves, they will fall into slavery themselves..... White workers do fear, very much so, that they will lose their freedom. And in fact, it is that fear of loss of freedom that forces them to differentiate themselves from the slave. And in differentiating themselves from the slave, they must differentiate themselves from the black man, from the black person. They have to gain an identity as a white worker, one that is very different from what it means to be a black worker in American society in the antebellum South.
American freedom exists above the color line. And I think it is that color line, that line that differentiates between white and black, that makes it possible for there to be freedom among white people, for there to be such a thing as upward mobility. No one would ever fall below the line. No white person is ever going to fall below that line that demarks freedom and slavery. They can never be slaves. And as a result, they can never perhaps be wage slaves. They can always somehow have opportunity. It is the black man who is doing the hardest, the heaviest, the most demeaning labor, that makes it possible for white people to believe that they will never have to do that. It makes American freedom possible. That makes mobility and equal opportunity for whites possible. It is freedom that exists above the color line.
And so in American society, unlike most European societies, class becomes demarcated not so much along socio-economic levels -- how much do you make. But class really gets differentiated along lines of color -- blacks versus whites. As long as you were white, then you could never be black. As long as you were white, you could never be a slave. And as long as you were white, you could never do the most demeaning, the most horrible work. You could never be exploited like a slave. That was what black people did.
Deborah Gray White
Professor of History
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