Historicizing White Nostalgia: Race and American Fordism

By Laura Renata Martin

The figure of the white blue collar worker looms large in recent left efforts to make sense of the horizon of class struggle in the age of Trump. In the wake of the election, articles and commentary from leftist sources have attempted to make sense of support for Trump amongst that fabled demographic, the “white working class.” While generally offering cogent analysis of the major economic and political realignments of the past quarter century, some of these think-pieces veer into uncritical nostalgia for an imagined past. The strength of the Trump vote in key regions of the former industrial heartland, in particular, has led some on the left to wax poetic about the left-labor coalition that once dominated those regions. Some have gone so far as to lay part of the blame for Trump’s popularity at the feet of “identity politics,” implicitly or explicitly placing feminist and antiracist politics in opposition to class-based organizing. Not everyone agrees with this reductive analysis, of course. For some of us, the election and its aftermath are further evidence that the left must finally put to rest its love affair with the idea of the white male blue collar worker as the standard bearer of revolutionary consciousness.

Today’s political climate, with its rising tide of far-right political formations and ever more pervasive violence against Black and Brown people, demands that we come to terms with this figure — as myth, as symbol, and as real historical actor. To do that, we must examine the symbolic power that a much-mythologized world of blue collar culture continues to hold over much of the left. At their core, the invocations of a “forgotten” white working class refer back to what is still sometimes seen as the “heyday” of that world: the age of the Fordist assembly line, the Keynesian welfare state, and the business-labor social contract.

This world is explored in depth in Jefferson Cowie’s cultural and political study of the collapse of Fordism in the 1970s, Stayin’ Alive: The Last Days of the Working Class. Cowie begins and ends the book with the figure of Dewey Burton, a white blue collar “everyman” whose life story, within Cowie’s narrative, encapsulates the trajectory of the American industrial working class in the 1970s. Dewey is introduced as a Ford auto worker and New Deal Democrat captivated by George Wallace’s brand of racist populism in 1972, and enraged over the issue of busing. Burton was interviewed by the New York Times that same year about his views on the subject. Standing on his front porch next to a DayGlo “This family WILL NOT be bused” sticker on his front door, Burton told the reporter: “I’m not going to pay big high school taxes and pay more for a home so that somebody can ship my son 30 miles away to get an inferior education.” Increasingly despairing of his economic future as the auto industry reeled from layoffs and closures, he continued his rightward drift, eventually voting for Reagan in the 1980 election.

The New York Times interviewed Burton five times between 1972 and 1980, using his views as a gauge for those of the broader working class, because he fit their image of an “authentic” industrial worker. Cowie returns to him throughout his book for the same reason, honing in on tastes and interests that he views as representative: Burton loves restoring and racing cars; he has longish hair and listens to rock music; he watches All in the Family.

Anti-busing protest in Louisville, Kentucky, 1975

Race both is and is not present in Cowie’s discussion of Burton, and of the industrial working class that is the subject of his book. Cowie certainly points out that Burton’s bitterness over the issue of busing reveals a profound lack of awareness of the resources to which he had access as a white man in the postwar era, resources that included government-backed mortgages. He knows that race is part of the story he is telling, and yet it never becomes central enough to his narrative to alter its basic perspective. He slips between presenting his main characters as representatives of the working class and as representatives of the white working class, revealing a conceptual fuzziness that goes largely unexamined. As critical as Cowie may be of some of Burton’s views, ultimately Stayin’ Alive reads like an homage to him and men like him. Though written years before Trump’s political rise, it feels a lot like some of the think pieces that have come out in the last six months: drenched in nostalgia for a “lost world.”

Nostalgia for this world reaches its pinnacle in formulations such as these, from a recent editorial in Insurgent Notes:

Concentrated industrial production made possible remarkable forms of camaraderie on the shop floor and, beyond the workplaces, the establishment of towns and small and large cities where working-class families were able to create communities that came quite close to the kinds of communities we might imagine desirable in a postcapitalist society—communities where forms of mutual support were all but universally present and opportunities for children to pursue expanded horizons were real rather than advertising slogans. [2]

In this imagining, the current moment lacks the economic foundation to produce the forms of class unity and solidarity that flourished in mid-20th-century American industrial towns. Apparently, the world built by Fordism allowed the working class to construct a sense of shared identity that was crucial to the development of class consciousness. But statements such as these fail to address the ways that racial and gender formations played a role in delineating the boundaries of unity and solidarity, granting some people access to the benefits of the “community,” and keeping others out entirely.

The timeline invoked by these kinds of formulations usually marks the early 1970s — the breakdown of Fordism and the beginning of the welfare state’s extended period of contraction — as the starting point for decline. In this sense, current debates over the fate of the white working class are also debates about the meaning of that breakdown and, at a deeper level, the periodization of capitalism and class struggle. What exactly “broke down” in the 70s, and what remained in its aftermath? What has or hasn’t changed? And how have these changes impacted our ability to build the kind of solidarity necessary to engage in revolutionary struggle?

Nostalgia for the cultural and political institutions of mid-20th century America rarely foregrounds race, but that doesn’t mean that race is not present in the ideological formulations underpinning that nostalgia. For instance, to what extent was the shared culture of white blue collar workers also based on racial identity — the shared experience of whiteness in postwar America? Of course, I am not suggesting that all blue-collar workers were white, or that industrial work and union participation were white experiences. However, to the extent that some on the left today look to the past with fond nostalgia for a lost working-class culture, I contend that such backward glances fail to examine how deeply white supremacy shaped and limited that sense of a shared culture.

Because so many people on the left continue to suggest that the way to undermine right-wing populism is to return to the needs of the “forgotten” industrial working class, it is more urgent than ever that we revisit the Fordist era, placing race at the forefront of our analysis. We must interrogate its continued function as the symbol for a time and place when the “real” working class had meaningful political and economic power, and when a fuzzily imagined broad working-class identity prevailed. If we do so, we find that institutional white supremacy was neither incidental to nor antithetical to Fordism, but rather a key component of it. The post-Fordist “decline of the working class” thesis does not sufficiently examine how the same institutions that created the cultural and political forms of the blue collar worker simultaneously re-fashioned and updated white supremacy as a mechanism for the reproduction of capitalist social relations. The reproduction of these relations, and the production of this “stable,” unified class identity amongst primarily white male industrial workers, was contingent on a racial division of labor and of social reproduction that produced an unstable, precarious, non-unionized, non-white sector of the class simultaneously. [3] In other words, Fordism was not just about a particular relationship between labor and capital, but about the relationships and divisions between working-class people themselves.

In the Fordist era and beyond, working-class whites played an important role in maintaining racial institutions in order to protect their own material interests. White supremacy is not entirely imposed on the working class “from above” by the ruling class (as many leftists/marxists persist in arguing), but is also made by the concrete actions of white working-class people. This does not mean that all or even most working-class whites historically fought against racial equality, or that they always had the political power to do so, but that the actions of some made a difference. It also means that current arguments over the extent to which the white working class is racist are mostly beside the point. What’s more important than trying to guess what’s really in the hearts and minds of whites is to understand how and when they materially uphold white supremacist institutions. At key points in U.S. history their actions have helped “make” race since the concept emerged centuries ago, and they continue to do so in the present.

American Fordism as a Racial Regime

In a recent exchange, Michael Dawson and Nancy Fraser powerfully theorized the fraught relationship between capitalism and white supremacy, asserting that the production of racial hierarchy — what Dawson calls “the ontological distinction between superior and inferior humans” — has historically and structurally been necessary for and central to the development of capitalism. In Dawson’s words:  

[T]he associated binary that expropriation under capitalism divides the world into distinguishes racialized superior and inferior humans. Sometimes and in some places this binary is framed as “human/subhuman”; in others, as “full citizens/second-class citizens” or “civilized/uncivilized.” In each case the division marked a racialized group whose labor, property, and bodies could be subject to expropriation, exploitation, and violation without recourse to (particularly civic/political) resources available to those classified as fully human. [4]

As this quote suggests, both Dawson and Fraser understand capitalism as more than an economic system. It is, in Fraser’s words, an “institutionalized social order,” a web of institutions that together reproduce the totality of social relations. The state, with its ability to grant political rights and give or withhold the status of free citizen, as well as the authority to enact violence upon (some) human bodies, is a critical piece of this social order. [5]

But capitalism, as an institutionalized social order, is not static, and neither are the ways that it has developed racial hierarchy. Racial capitalism can be historicized, and both Dawson and Fraser sketch out the beginnings of this history. [6] They detail the role of enclosures, conquest, and plunder in the rise of commercial capitalism. Fraser writes that this period was followed by the regime of “ liberal capitalism,” following the abolition of slavery and the growth of mechanized manufacturing. In this phase:

[T]he United States perpetuated its ‘internal colony’ by transforming recently emancipated slaves into debt peons through the sharecropping system….The rise of large-scale factory-based manufacturing forged the proletariat imagined by Marx, upending traditional life forms and sparking class conflict. [7]

In the next phase, what Fraser calls “state-managed capitalism” and I am calling here Fordism, the boundaries between exploitation and expropriation were blurred, but not abolished: “expropriation no longer precluded exploitation but combined directly with it, entering into the internal constitution of wage labor, segmenting labor markets and exacting a confiscatory premium from racialized labor.” [8]

Anti-busing protest in Boston, 1974

This last “phase” in the history of racial capitalism is, more or less, the world that gave birth to the figure of the white industrial worker as invoked by the left today, and it is the world that I attempt to delineate here. As Dawson and Fraser’s analysis suggests, what was distinctive about it was not its reliance upon white supremacy, since that has been a constant throughout capitalism’s life span. What seem more unique are the specific institutional mechanisms through which white supremacy was reproduced during this “phase.” The key elements of Fordist white supremacy include: the establishment of a racialized two-tiered welfare state reliant on strikingly different models of the family and reproductive labor; segmented labor markets and racial hierarchies instituted within workplaces and industrial unions; a racialized urban/suburban divide; conflict between upwardly mobile property-owning white ethnics and recently urbanized Black and Brown people over taxation and public spending; and the consolidation of policing around “inner city” property and “vice” crimes.

The Fordist era is often understood as a period in which the capitalist class decided, for various reasons, to increase its investment in the workforce. [9] This fact does not mean, however, that capitalists invested in all of their workers equally. In the U.S. context, Fordism attempted to resolve capital’s need to manage two contradictory impulses: its short term impulse to hyperexploit (up to and including working to death) its workers in order to suck as much surplus value from them as possible; and its longer term impulse to construct stable relationships of reproduction with workers that would ensure their survival and ability to participate in consumption, as well as their willingness to legitimate the system of exploitation itself. Racializing processes, including the creation of different labor regimes for white and non-white proletarians, allowed capital to partially resolve this contradiction by employing different strategies for the two groups. Non-white proletarians, in particular Black proletarians in urban industrial centers, were “superexploited” or “hyperexploited”: made to function as the most flexible and expendable portion of the working class, the portion made to pay the price for the inevitable volatility of market forces, being hired and fired at will, having wages lowered at will, and productivity increased at will. [10] The fact that these workers absorbed the worst of capital’s blows allowed the capitalist class to maintain white male industrial workers as a relatively stable and secure fraction of the working class (and, linked through the institution of the nuclear family, many white working-class housewives and low-wage female workers) able to participate in postwar mass consumption and provide an important legitimation function throughout the Cold War era. In addition, white workers actively participated in the maintenance of this dividing line for their own material benefit by attempting to prevent non-whites from breaking out of their irregular/insecure status and securing for themselves the benefits of the Fordist deal and the status of “free” citizens (in the form of mass movements).

In the realm of socialized reproduction, the capitalist state employed a two-tiered strategy for managing the inevitable failure of market forces to provide for the reproduction of the working class. In the case of the more stable fraction of the class, unprecedented wealth was redistributed to (mostly white and male) workers and their families through an expanded welfare state, via programs that were framed as earned income. In the case of the unstable fraction of the class, much smaller amounts of wealth were redistributed through state programs that were framed as “unearned” handouts. [11]

In other words, beginning with the rise of the Keynesian welfare state, racialization took the form of a racial division between, on the one hand, the “free laborer” (and the state-recognized family attached to that laborer) who has secured for himself a certain rate of exploitation and become accustomed to wages that allow him to reproduce himself with a certain degree of material comfort; and, on the other hand, the irregular worker whose status as racially or ethnically “different” both allows him to enter into wage labor on the basis of this difference (as cheaper labor) and makes him expendable and surplus (always the easiest to fire).

Fordism had its own internal contradictions, however, and it was out of these contradictions that the major rebellions of the postwar era emerged. The migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West (and, to some extent, the urban South) laid the groundwork for urban Civil rights and Black Power movements. These movements fought private employers and the redistributive state for access to the same jobs and state benefits as white workers. Affirmative action programs made some progress in bringing Black and Brown workers into certain employment sectors, including construction and public sector employment. And welfare rights groups fought for state redistribution of wealth to allow Black and Brown families access to the same levels of consumption as their white counterparts.

Waged Work

Beginning with World War I, African American urbanization—driven in part by the aggressive recruiting of urban industrial employers—created a new Black population, no longer employed in agriculture, and ready and eager to enter into an industrial working class that, for over fifty years, had been the province of European white ethnic immigrants and their children. American capitalism’s immense productive capacities drew more and more people into industrial work, but that does not mean that it functioned as a racial equalizer. It is certainly true that mass production provided new economic opportunities and status for a significant minority of Black Americans. But it is also true that, by pulling Black Americans into cities to compete for jobs with blue collar white ethnics, Fordism became the incubator for a racial hierarchy in which an older generation of white workers found it in its material interest to guard  access to the factory gates and union rolls. [12]

Black industrial workers in Los Angeles during World War II

In other words, Fordism both created new employment opportunities for African Americans, leading to an aggregate increase in wages and wealth, and put in place a new system of white supremacy that derived its meaning, in part, from the new relationships forged between urban white ethnics and Black urban migrants.

Black Americans, mostly Black men, began to gain entry in significant numbers into some sectors of industrial employment in the early 20th century, in particular during World War I. Their integration was encouraged by the nativist movements of the 1920s, culminating in the dramatic restriction of southern and eastern European and the almost total elimination of Asian immigration with the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. When industrial employers looked for sources of cheap labor that could be easily hired and fired, they could no longer rely on the waves of immigrants pouring in from Europe. This factor, combined with the temporary needs of wartime production during the second World War, gave some Black men (and a smaller number of women) an opportunity to break into the industrial sector.

However, the factory did not necessarily become the site where a new colorblind working class was forged. Examples of Black and other non-white workers winning equality on the job certainly do exist, and there is a strong case to be made that the factory system encouraged workers to build solidarity across racial lines. Yet the introduction of Black workers also led to the establishment of new mechanisms for instituting hierarchies between white and Black workers, and to a re-fashioning of the meaning of race within the working class.

The case of Fordism’s namesake, the Ford Motor Company, is illustrative. In 1919, Henry Ford became one of the first factory owners in the U.S. to hire Black workers in significant numbers. However, these workers were given the most dangerous jobs and the lowest pay, because Ford knew they had fewer alternatives than white workers, and because white workers repeatedly quit or walked out on the job when they had to work alongside Black people. Over time, this practice led to the establishment of segregated departments within the factory. For instance, by the 1930s, the foundry at Ford’s River Rouge plant became known as a Black department. Foundry workers initially were paid premium wages because the work was both dangerous and difficult. As Beth Tompkins Bates writes, foundry employees were “forced to work in extreme heat…, suffered burn injuries and inhaled nauseous fumes.” But when Ford began hiring Black workers into the department, white workers quit. As the department became increasingly Black, wages decreased. Job segregation became the norm, and eventually Ford’s wage differential between white and Black workers reached 11%. [13] The point here is not to show that some white workers were racist, or to try to determine how many individual workers were racist and how many were not. Rather, it is to show that the actions of some white workers — whether or not they were a minority — sufficed to play a role in constructing a new system of racial hierarchy and white supremacy on the shop floor — a racial hierarchy rooted in the creation of different labor regimes for white and Black workers.

Labor historians often describe the post-World War II period as a time when business unionism became hegemonic. Labor lost some of the historic gains it had achieved through the militant strikes of the 1930s. With the threat of automation looming, unions made major concessions to capital by bargaining away their control over the labor process in exchange for pensions and higher wages. [14] This aspect of postwar Fordism was also racialized, as Stan Weir discusses in his account of rank-and-file dissent within the ILWU. Some unions built hierarchies into their contracts through the creation of tiered workforces. In the case of the ILWU, the union leadership, despite serious rank-and-file opposition, established “A” and “B” workers in 1960. The majority of “B men,” as they were called, were African American. They had to work under union jurisdiction but had no job security and little control over working conditions. For instance, they were frequently made to work over 50% more tonnage than “A” status workers. [15]

These Black auto and longshore workers were, in some respects, the lucky ones. Much of the progress made during World Wars I and II in opening new employment to African Americans was reversed shortly after the end of World War II, when they were the first fired from the shrinking defense manufacturing sector and were largely unable to secure jobs in the booming suburban manufacturing plants. As a result of “last hired, first fired” policies, Ruth Gilmore explains, “African Americans who had migrated from the South and East to fight their way into wartime industries and their…children were poorer in real terms in 1969 than they had been in 1945.” [16]

Ford Highland Park Plant

Viewed in broad terms, the story of Black employment during the postwar period is a narrative of, simultaneously, upward mobility and increasing un- and sub-employment. In other words, patterns of employment during this period suggest that Black Americans became increasingly economically stratified as a group. A growing number of African Americans were able to break into industrial and clerical work, and their entry led to a significant increase in the size of the Black middle class. At the same time, the majority of African Americans remained clustered at the bottom of the occupational ladder in low-paying service and unskilled labor. And the percentage of unemployed and underemployed, though fluctuating with the vagaries of the economy, generally increased throughout the postwar era, at the same time that it shrank for white workers.

At the height of the postwar boom, African Americans as a group, and other urban non-white groups such as Puerto Ricans and Chicanos, experienced economic stagnation rather than ascendency. In 1975 the Union of Radical Political Economists wrote that “in spite of over a decade of government sponsored programs, in 1975 four out of every ten Black persons and at least three out of every ten Spanish-speaking persons were in poverty…at least six out of ten Black and Spanish speaking female-headed families were in poverty in 1975….Nearly one half of all Black families had an income combination that included wage earnings and some form of social welfare payments.” [17] Their experiences were all the more stark when contrasted with the rising fortunes of white families. Between 1960 and 1975 the absolute dollar gap between Black and white median family income increased from $2,602 to $5,489. By 1975 Black families were five times as likely to be in poverty while receiving some type of social welfare payments than white families. [18] Thus, while for white industrial workers the 1960s (but not the 1970s, of course) were a time of relative economic stability and improved quality of life, for non-white groups, and African Americans in particular, urban life and labor was becoming increasingly precarious.

Fordism and the Family: Racialization, the Welfare State, and Social Reproduction

The family unit has played a key role in organizing the reproduction of the working class in capitalism. Its heteropatriarchal structure has enabled capitalists to minimize the costs of reproducing their workforce; this work is largely unwaged and performed by women within the household. This does not mean that women have not historically worked for wages, but it does mean that, regardless of the waged labor they perform, women are and have been, at the societal level, expected to perform reproductive labor within the household without compensation. Additionally, even though in reality family structures have always been more diverse than dominant discourses would suggest, at a societal level production and reproduction continue to be organized around the heterosexual nuclear family, in which a “family wage” flows through the husband to his wife and children. In addition to providing a framework for the performance of unwaged household labor, this normative structure also enforces heterosexuality and patriarchal gender norms.

The Fordist era witnessed the full flowering of the ideology of the housewife as a regulative ideal. The figure of the housewife was a product of the social contract forged between labor and capital during World War II, the era of mass consumption-based prosperity beginning in the 1950s, and the growing purchasing power of the white working class. She represented the economic achievements of white male workers who were able to support their families on a single income, as well as the new-found independence these workers had achieved through the purchase of homes (with government-backed mortgages). In other words, the ability of women to stay home and perform unwaged labor was pegged to the ability of men to earn enough money to support the entire family.

The heterosexual nuclear family ideal was particularly difficult for many non-white people to achieve. The 1950s and 1960s saw the publication of numerous think pieces discussing the “crisis of the Black family,” by which was meant the increase in female-headed households among Black city dwellers. Black men were much less likely to earn a steady family wage than were white men. The ideal of a single wage supporting an entire family was unachievable for many Black proletarians, who faced tremendous discrimination in the workplace. In the South, Black families had relied on wages from multiple earners, in addition to the unpaid reproductive labor provided by large extended families, including grandparents, aunts, and siblings. As African Americans migrated to the urban North and West, they lost many of the extended family ties that had helped them weather economic storms. Families broke up under the pressures of under- and unemployment, and not infrequently Black women found themselves the sole caretakers and wage earners in their families. As a result, growing numbers of Black women relied on state redistribution to secure the means to reproduce themselves and their families. Their white counterparts were more likely to rely on a male breadwinner whose wage and job security would actually support a family, to find work of their own in the formal economy, or to receive money from a pension fund. [19]

As these family structures developed, the welfare state developed racialized policies to intervene in the reproduction of families. Race became intertwined with social policy in a distinctly Fordist way with the creation of the New Deal welfare state in the 1930s. The New Deal achieved dual objectives: it created a set of protections for the industrial working class, and it reinforced racial segregation and hierarchy through social welfare programs, labor policy, and housing policy. As Jill Quadagno demonstrates, it created both the unionized worker with job security and wages that granted access to the world of mass consumption and a non-unionized, precarious worker whose relationship to wage labor was contingent, and who relied on state redistribution rather than union pensions and benefits to meet reproduction needs. [20]

The cornerstone of the New Deal was the Social Security Act of 1935, which provided old age insurance and unemployment compensation for the industrial labor force. The Social Security Act also created two means tested programs, Aid to Dependent Children and Old Age Assistance. They provided minimal support to those outside the waged economy. ADC was restricted to single parent families and paid benefits only to children. [21]

When creating these programs in the midst of the Great Depression, FDR sought to preserve the New Deal’s fragile coalition of northern immigrant workers and southern whites by weaving racial inequality into the welfare state. In 1935 more than ¾ of African Americans lived in the South, and the majority were sharecroppers and domestic workers. Others worked as day laborers when planters needed extra hands at picking time. Black women performed these tasks and also worked as maids in the homes of white women. Southern politicians feared that if subsidies were given to black sharecroppers or maids the Southern labor system would collapse. Federal Old Age Insurance paid directly to retired black men and women would give them more cash in a month than they would receive in a year of working in the fields or in white homes. In order to secure the support of Southern congressmen FDR excluded agricultural workers and domestic servants from both Old Age Insurance and Unemployment Compensation. Instead these groups of workers were only given access to the means tested programs, the social assistance programs that were and continue to be seen as “handouts.” Unlike other programs, means tested programs such as ADC allowed local welfare authorities to determine benefit levels and set eligibility rules. [22] States generally set payments much lower than those offered through federal programs such as Social Security and Unemployment Insurance. [23]

The history of Aid to Dependent Children is worth examining, as it reveals one of the key mechanisms used by the state to regulate racial and gender formations in the Fordist era. Since the 19th century the federal government had provided Mothers’ Pensions to some single mothers as a means of supporting their children. From its inception the pension program was designed to regulate women’s sexual morality, participation in the waged workforce, and marital arrangements. Pensions were granted only to “deserving” mothers of “good moral character,” almost exclusively white women who had been widowed or abandoned by their husbands. Women who had children out of wedlock, who divorced their husbands, or who were considered sexually “deviant” (in particular lesbians and sex workers) were generally excluded from the benefits system, based on “morality” clauses written into state and local policy. Mothers’ Pensions became Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) in 1935 but retained the former’s “morality” restrictions. [24]

1940 poster of the Aid to Dependent Children program

The nature of ADC subsidies highlighted a stark racial division in the way the state viewed women’s waged and unwaged labor, inside and outside of the home. For white women, childrearing and housework were considered tasks to which they should be devoted full time, without the expectation of wages for their labor; their wages were expected to flow to them indirectly through their husbands. For women of color, and especially Black women, childrearing and housework were considered tasks that should be performed (unwaged) in addition to wage labor outside the home. After all, in most parts of the country women of color were key to the functioning of low paid service economies, and their presence in the labor market was needed in order to provide an adequate supply of cheap labor. As Premilla Nadasen writes, in the 1950s and 60s “local officials routinely tightened eligibility restrictions and forced recipients into the labor market, particularly in the South during periods of labor shortage. Thus, Black women’s status as welfare recipients was bound up with their relationship to the labor market. Black women, more often seen as laborers than as mothers, were considered less deserving of public assistance than other women.” [25]

Over time, the Social Security Act, the cornerstone of the New Deal welfare state, became more inclusive; however, the timing of inclusion is significant. In 1956 Congress extended coverage to farm and domestic workers, although it only covered domestic workers who worked consistently for a single employer. The changes occurred in the wake of both the large scale migration of African Americans to northern and western cities and the mechanization of southern agriculture; as a result southern plantation owners no longer had the same stake in preserving its domination over a rural Black population. Thus, ironically, just as African Americans were becoming a majority urban group, they were given access to the welfare state based on outdated employment patterns.

Housing and the Spatial Organization of Race/Class after World War II

At the same time that Black Americans became much more urban, urban manufacturing — the economic motor of the pre-World War II city — began its flight to the suburbs. This flight was part of a larger process by which capitalists sought to reduce costs associated with locating manufacturing in cities. Manufacturers found a new advantage in relocating to land outside of cities, where land rents were cheaper, there was ample space to build expansive new facilities, and new highway and public transit systems overcame the problem of distance. The spatial logic that built the system of urban manufacturing began to unravel, and by the postwar era a new kind of logic was emerging. Suburban housing developments catering to the white working-class grew up outside of cities, located near the new manufacturing plants, while Black and Brown families remained behind in the inner cities.

The New Deal played a major role in reinforcing patterns of racial segregation throughout this suburbanization process. The National Housing Act of 1934 created the Federal Housing Administration, which insured lending institutions against loan defaults. The FHA was told to only insure mortgages that were “economically sound.” In practice this meant a system of redlining. A red line was drawn around areas of cities considered “risky”—a term that functioned as a code for poor, segregated Black and Brown neighborhoods. As a result most Black and Brown families were ineligible for federally insured loans. Until 1948 the FHA also encouraged the use of restrictive covenants banning African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans from given neighborhoods because they would cause property values to decline. The New Deal essentially created a two tiered housing policy: federal housing programs provided secure loans for the white working class (facilitating its transition to property ownership and the trappings of “middle class” identity–and changing its relationship to the issue of taxation) and subsidized rentals in public housing for the non-white working class. [26]

Wall built by white homeowners in 1940 to to preserve residential segregation in 8 Mile, Detroit.

A number of historians have shown how stratification within the working class after World War II was organized spatially, with a precarious non-white population housed in segregated central city neighborhoods and a unionized white working class moving from urban ethnic enclaves to suburban areas. As Robert Self has argued in his study of geographical reorganization in postwar Oakland, the racial rebellions and counter-rebellions of the 1960s must be understood in part as responses to the specific way that racial hierarchies were expressed spatially, as inequality was mapped onto the physical landscape of cities and suburbs in ways that brought whites and non-whites into conflict over resources. As African Americans in the Oakland flatlands increasingly relied on subsidies from the state to supplement under- and unemployment, white suburbanites were paying property taxes on their recently purchased homes. As a result, the issue of taxation became a rallying cry for white workers, who were drawn into right-wing populist politics in part over their perception that their hard-earned dollars were being funneled, through property taxes and state welfare, into the pockets of inner city residents. [27]

White workers also did their part to preserve their neighborhoods as white enclaves. In 1940, the residents of 8 Mile in Detroit built a 6-foot concrete wall between themselves and a neighboring Black area in order to ensure that they would continue to be approved for FHA loans. [28] African American children in 1940s and 1950s Chicago learned not to venture into what were widely understood as white areas if they wanted to avoid beatings by local youth, who patrolled the borders of their neighborhood. In Levittown, the iconic Pennsylvania suburb built to house returning GIs after the war, the neighborhood rallied together to terrorize an African American family who attempted to move into the development in 1957. The suburb made national headlines when crowds of Levittowners gathered to throw rocks through the family’s windows, paint KKK symbols on the house, and display a Confederate flag. [29]

California voters celebrate the passage of Proposition 13, a 1978 initiative that lowered property taxes and was seen as part of a “taxpayer revolt” against the welfare state.

Postwar Policing and Race/Class

The 1950s and 1960s saw a reorientation of police work toward surveying and managing nonwhite populations concentrated in segregated “ghettos.” The Midnight Notes Collective describes this shift in police work during the 1960s:

The police community repression function became…far more directed toward the ‘irregular’ sectors of the class…the police developed a differentiated model….The ‘good’ (white) workers are presumed to be a part of society and thus to be protected. The ‘bad’ (largely non-white) workers are…to be treated as enemy and contained. [30]

Thus urban precariousness, closely correlated with race, became a dividing line within the U.S. working class. On one side were white industrial workers, many of them recent property owners, who increasingly identified with the police and saw themselves as the potential victims of property crimes. On the other side were those left behind in decaying central cities, who became the main targets of urban policing. As Michelle Alexander has shown, by the early 1960s the target of urban policing had shifted from organized crime (generally managed by white ethnic groups) and labor militancy to property and vice crimes and juvenile gang activity in poor non-white–and especially African American–parts of the city. In the eyes of many police officers, the work of policing had become the work of policing people of color. [31]

Sign posted in Detroit across from a newly built federal housing project.

In this context, important sectors of the white working class moved politically rightward, throwing into jeopardy the Democratic Party-labor alliance around which postwar Keynesianism revolved. Increasingly, members of the unionized white working class saw their material interests at odds with those of an economically and socially precarious urban non-white working class. The police apparatus represented a measure of protection in the face of an urban population in revolt against its ghettoization, isolation, and systemic poverty. Blue-collar union support for policing soared in the aftermath of the urban rebellions of the mid-1960s, as white workers came together to protect the benefits they had accrued through Fordism’s racial order.

Resisting the Racial Regime

Much has been written about the rebellions of the postwar era, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to attempt to describe and analyze all of them. It is important to point out, however, that in some ways these rebellions can be seen as attempts to challenge Fordism’s mechanisms for reproducing racial hierarchy. Because of the relative social and economic stability achieved by many white unionized workers at the time, some of the era’s social movements took the form of demands for access to that same level of comfort and stability — for a racially undifferentiated proletariat that would have access to high wages, union benefits, unemployment and retirement benefits on an equal basis. The welfare rights movement, organized and led by Black women, also fought for access to the consumption practices of the white working class when it demanded credit at major department stores for poor women. These struggles created tremendous pressure on the federal government to include Black and Brown people in the benefits of the Fordist compromise secured in the 1930s.

Beginning in the 1950s and peaking in the mid-1960s, civil rights organizing focused increasingly on securing decently-paid wage work for Black people (usually Black men). In cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, groups like the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE organized sit-ins at the job sites of major employers. They demanded an end to discrimination in hiring practices and, in some cases, the establishment of quotas for hiring minority employees. Civil rights groups also fought for job training and employment programs funded through liberal Great Society programs, affirmative action policies in industries like construction, and an end to racial discrimination in unions. [32]

San Francisco Auto Row Sit In, 1964

The welfare rights movement was in some ways a counterpart in the reproductive sphere to the struggles over racial hierarchies in production. Welfare rights activists—of which an estimated 85% were African American—sought to dismantle the racial hierarchy in women’s reproductive labor. They fought for larger payments, easier eligibility, access to consumer credit, an end to dehumanizing treatment by welfare workers, and an end to the restrictions on sexuality and family structures placed upon recipients by the welfare system.

Women sought payments from the state as a substitute for the payments that they did not receive through a husband’s wages. But there were internal conflicts within the movement over whether the goal of organizing should be to induce the state to find stable, higher paid employment for single mothers, or to pay women for the work of childrearing so that, like married white women, they would not be forced to work both inside and outside the home. [33]

Some welfare rights groups also fought for access to consumer credit at department stores, arguing that low welfare stipends prevented them from securing the material benefits achieved by large sectors of the postwar white working class. And they fought for special grants from the government to cover one-time costs such as high school graduation clothes and winter coats. As Nadasen writes: “The grants provided items or opportunities that would foster in their children the self-esteem and self-confidence necessary for success…These mothers believed their children should be treated the same and experience the same things as other children.” [34] In this sense, the welfare rights movement sought to break down the hierarchy in women’s reproduction of a new generation of workers, a hierarchy that played a role in the reproduction of that system in the next generation.

Boston welfare rights activists protest the Vietnam War.

The emphasis on consumption in the welfare rights movement makes sense when we consider the dynamics of the Keynesian welfare state in the postwar era. According to the Keynesian orthodoxy of the time, investment in the reproduction of the working class was necessary in order to stimulate mass consumption, which would then stimulate economic growth and lead to full employment. Providing cash assistance to the poor was a means of creating more consumers, but tight government purse strings when it came to means-based assistance meant that poor people could not participate in postwar consumer culture to the degree that many white “middle class” workers could. Similarly, denial of access to credit at the same time that it was becoming a requirement for accessing more expensive durable goods such as cars kept poor people from acquiring many of the trappings of “middle class” identity. The Office of Economic Opportunity (one of the primary governmental agencies in charge of the War on Poverty) considered this inequality one of the causes of the urban rebellions of the mid-60s:

There is increasing evidence to suggest that discontent and disorder in cities across the country are in no small part consumer revolts against a system that has for years permitted the unscrupulous to take advantage of those least able to pay — a system that has at the same time deprived the poor of any real choice in the quality of goods they can buy, the prices they pay or the method of financing or source of credit available to them. [35]

In response to the pressures of the civil rights movement, and in a context of unprecedented prosperity, the federal government undertook its last major redistributive project of the twentieth century, this time seeking to expand some of the benefits of the Fordist-Keynesian social compact to urban Black and Brown people. The War on Poverty, initiated by the Johnson administration in 1964, was an attempt to manage some of the contradictions created by Fordist-Keynesian economic and social development in the postwar era. These contradictions included the social tensions arising from the simultaneous creation of an urban racialized precarious population and the rapid growth of the white “middle class,” as well as the breakdown of existing systems of capital accumulation in central cities. The era’s relative affluence, combined with the specter of massive social unrest presented by the Civil Rights movement, the growth of youth gangs, and the emerging phenomenon of urban rioting, led many liberals to view an expanded welfare state as a potential solution.

The National Welfare Rights Organization marching as part of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

Although the effects of these efforts were much more limited than some of their supporters had hoped, the War on Poverty project did direct millions of federal dollars into local programs providing employment training, tutoring, and other resources to mostly Black and Brown, poor urban residents. War on Poverty funds also went to training local staff to show people how to navigate the welfare system. The number of recipients on the welfare rolls exploded as welfare rights activists, working with War on Poverty staffers, actively recruited eligible mothers. [36]

Implications for the Present

An analysis of the Fordist era that foregrounds race can offer insights for the contemporary left in the age of Trump and right reaction. First and foremost, it shows the extent to which current nostalgia for the political alignments of the mid-20th century rely on false assumptions about a “golden age” of working-class identity and solidarity. It reminds us that some sectors of the left continue to downplay the depth of historical and contemporary racial divisions in the working class, and to minimize the extent to which white workers have played a role in maintaining those divisions. It makes clear that the white blue-collar worker is a symbol whose meaning has been overdetermined, a myth that reveals more about its makers than about the past as it really happened.

Such an analysis also suggests that current efforts on the left to parse out how much of white working-class support for Trump is economically motivated versus how much is racially motivated are based on an inadequate understanding of race and capitalism. It is not uncommon to come across statements such as this one (by Sam Gindin, in Jacobin):

“It is not news that there are nativist and racist attitudes within the white US working class. But…the deciding factor in the key Midwest states was not the white working class’s enthusiasm for Trump’s xenophobia and misogyny but the built-up anger against an establishment that had for so long ignored their class concerns.” [37]

But an analysis of Fordism that centers race shows that capitalist institutions are structured in such a way that white workers often identify their short and medium term class interests with policies and practices that uphold white supremacy. They don’t need to hold consciously white supremacist views (although they may) to want to keep their property values high, have their children attend the best-resourced public schools, and prevent non-citizens or non-whites from being hired at their workplaces for lower wages. It’s why Dewey Burton can simultaneously assert that he supports racial equality and oppose school integration. Racism is not just a set of irrational beliefs imposed on white workers by the ruling class in order to mask their real economic interests. In fact, it can’t be parsed out from and opposed to class concerns. In order to challenge white supremacy, whites must not just disavow it as an idea, but work to dismantle it even when doing so results in a loss of a relative advantage. In the mid-twentieth century, this included working with civil rights groups to integrate white neighborhoods and schools, fight for affirmative action and an end to racism in unions, and secure greater access to state funds for the care of poor families. It also meant materially supporting the struggles of people of color for autonomy and self-determination.

A march against racism in the auto industry and the UAW organized by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit.

The subject of revolutionary struggle cannot be found by looking to an imagined past. Nor can it be found by emphasizing the present moment’s difference from that past. The flip side of Fordist nostalgia is the optimistic assertion, visible in parts of the ultra left, that the breakdown of Fordist production has created conditions that are in fact more conducive to solidarity and successful revolutionary struggle. The point of this essay is not just that we should lay to rest the figure of the white blue collar worker: it’s that we should lay to rest the impulse to argue that any of capitalism’s developments will create conditions that produce class unity. White supremacy and heteropatriarchy are extremely durable features of capitalism, and post-Fordism is no exception. If anything, the maintenance of white supremacy has only become more central to capitalist social relations. In the U.S., the war on drugs, militarized policing, welfare reform, exclusion from the formal labor market, the rise of the prison-industrial complex, the policing of borders and access to citizenship, and the mass displacement of Black and Brown people from gentrifying cities are all nodes in the evolving institutional reproduction of white supremacy. The breakdown of Fordism, the rise of “precarious labor,” the growth of surplus populations, and the slowing of systemic growth do not point to the emergence of a new revolutionary subject, united through its shared experience of being cast out of production. This romantic assessment of the present moment relies on many of the same assumptions held by those who idealize the past: an insistence that large-scale changes in the capital accumulation process are spread relatively evenly among the working class, and that there is a clear and direct link between this process and the production of class consciousness. The real lesson of the Fordist era is that racism will always be a powerful way for parts of the working class to maneuver for relative advantages, and that solidarity can only be won through serious commitment to fighting white supremacy in all of its forms — including within the white working class. Such a commitment cannot be forged without definitely laying to rest the left’s continued investment in the white industrial worker as the true revolutionary subject.


Works Cited

[1] Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2012), 4.

[2] Editorial, “U.S. Party Elites Hemorrhage at the Edges,” Insurgent Notes, April 17, 2016.

[3] See the recent exchange between Michael Dawson and Nancy Fraser in Critical Historical Studies, which historicizes this binary: Michael Dawson, “Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order,” Critical Historical Studies 3, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 143-161; Nancy Fraser, Nancy Fraser, “Expropriation and Exploitation in Racialized Capitalism: A Reply to Michael Dawson,” Critical Historical Studies 3, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 163-178.

[4] Dawson, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” 149.

[5] Fraser, “Expropriation and Exploitation,” 173.

[6] Cedric Robinson does this in much greater depth in his groundbreaking Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

[7] Fraser, “Expropriation and Exploitation,” 174.

[8] Fraser, “Expropriation and Exploitation,” 175.

[9]  I recognize that the concept of Fordism is contested, and that it is, in some ways, a shaky construct. However, if used with some awareness of its imprecision, it can have significant explanatory power. In this essay, when I use the term, I am referring to the following conditions, as they emerged in the U.S.: First, at the beginning of the twentieth century production in leading industries was re-organized along the principles of Ford’s assembly line, leading to an era characterized by the standardization of production and an increasing reliance on unskilled labor. Second, the emergence of the modern welfare state in the 1930s in the U.S. and Western Europe signaled the start of an era in which capital began to invest more significantly in the reproduction of its workforce. Third, militant labor movements led to the expansion of industrial unionism and an era of relative strength for organized labor, which was able to secure higher wages and benefits for many workers through a “social contract” with big business and a political alliance with the Democratic Party. Fourth, record profits beginning in the postwar era fueled mass consumption and a rising quality of life for many workers.

[10] Dawson uses the term “superexploitation.”

[11] See Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[12] This dynamic is discussed in Dan Georgakas, Marvin Surkin, and Manning Marable, Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2012), and James Boggs, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1963).

[13] Beth Tompkins Bates, The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[14] Martin Glaberman, Wartime Strikes: The Struggle Against The No-strike Pledge In The UAW During World War II (Detroit, Mich. : Bewick/Ed, 1980); Stanley Aronowitz, False Promises: The Shaping Of American Working Class Consciousness (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992).

[15]  Stan Weir, “USA–The Labor Revolt,” in International Socialist Journal, April-June 1967. Two-tier systems became more common in industrialized economies in the 1980s. See Harrison Bennett and Barry Bluestone, The Great U-turn: Corporate Restructuring And The Polarizing Of America (New York: Basic Books, 1988).

[16] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

[17] Herman Thomas, “Impact of the Economic Crisis on Minorities,” Union of Radical Political Economists, ed., U.S. Capitalism in Crisis  (New York: Union for Radical Political Economists, 1978), 79-81.

[18] Ibid., 81.

[19] See Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: W. Morrow, 1984). Also Rhonda Y. Williams, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[20] Quadagno, The Color of Welfare.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Quadagno, The Color of Welfare, 20-21.

[23] Nadasen, Welfare Warriors, 4.

[24] Quadagno, The Color of Welfare, 119.

[25] Nadasen, Welfare Warriors, 9.

[26] Quadagno, The Color of Welfare, 23.

[27] Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[28] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[29] Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen, Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 171-190.

[30] Midnight Notes Collective, “Policing Us,” Midnight Notes 8 (1985).

[31] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press  Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2010).

[32] Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

[33] Nadasen, Welfare Warriors, 125-155.

[34] Ibid., 93.

[35] Ibid., 105.

[36] Frances Fox Piven, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977).

[37] See also another recent Insurgent Notes editorial: “We have heard from a friend who has followed the hard right for years that many people attracted to it could, alternatively, be attracted to a consistent vision of an alternative to capitalist society, which up till now has not existed. They will not, however, be attracted to a defense of the existing state of affairs—no matter how dressed up in liberal notions of understanding, tolerance and opportunity. As a West Virginia friend wrote: “Racism was the icing on the ‘fuck you’ cake.” We think that’s right, and a reason not to despair too much.” Editors, “We’re Tempted to Say We Told You So, But We Won’t,” Insurgent Notes 14 (November 2016).


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