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Permanent Strangers

AMERICAN WORK: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor. By Jacqueline Jones . W. W. Norton: 562 pp., $25.95

March 22, 1998|ANTHONY M. PLATT | Anthony M. Platt is author of "E. Franklin Frazier Reconsidered." He is a professor of social work at Cal State Sacramento

Not since the 1960s have we seen such a literary outpouring about race relations in the United States. More than 30 years ago, the country's racial discussion focused on exposing the destructiveness of racism and debating the merits of radical versus liberal solutions. Revolutionaries such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis on the one hand, and the reformist Kerner Commission on the other, defined the boundaries of the public discourse. By the 1990s, however, liberal and radical perspectives were eclipsed by the successes of the New Right: Affirmative action is gutted; the jails and prisons are filled with more African Americans and Latinos than ever before; a record number of black families has been dropped from welfare rolls; and old-style nativism is once again guiding immigration policy.

The current academic debates recall the atmosphere of the pre-civil rights 1950s. Racism is a problem of the past, argue Dinesh D'Souza in "The End of Racism" and Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom in "America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible." On the contrary, responds David Shipler, it's alive and flourishing, for we remain "a country of strangers," as he has titled his latest book.

We shouldn't need a book that once again demonstrates the deep-rootedness of racism in the United States and patiently explains how racial conflicts "remain the moral burden of the country's history." But we do, and the challenge is eloquently and thoughtfully met by Jacqueline Jones, chair of the history department at Brandeis University and author of three previous books, including the prize-winning "Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family From Slavery to the Present."

"American Work," as the author notes, is based on her previous research and hundreds of specialized studies produced by a generation of intellectuals, schooled in the activist '50s and '60s, who fundamentally changed how we conceptualize and do American history. It is a pleasure to read an academic historian who writes creatively, with attention to texture and detail. Jones communicates her passion without sacrificing analytical sophistication. The book ambitiously covers four centuries of American race relations by focusing on the history of work, in particular the ways in which race has operated to divide the labor force, to provide "certain kinds of workers with advantages over others" and to relegate Africans, slaves and African Americans to the hardest, most demeaning and most precarious ways of earning a living. Unlike most neoconservative writers, Jones puts class at the heart of her analysis of race.

The book is organized as a chronological narrative with three major sections: the Colonial era from the early 17th century through the Revolution; the 19th century, with a focus on the Civil War; and the modern and postmodern eras of the 20th century. This is not so much a comprehensive history as it is an illustrative analysis of key moments in the transformation of American work. The author treats the 20th century quite cursorily, almost as an afterthought, but the earlier history is filled with rich, complex details: We vicariously experience what it was like to stoop in the humid tobacco fields of the 17th century Chesapeake region or to exert enormous physical strength clearing the forests for crops in 18th century Georgia or to do backbreaking, repetitive tasks in the new factory jobs unleashed by industrialism.

Jones argues that race is not an inherent identity based on biological or ethnic characteristics but a "fluid set of rationalizations, always shifting in response to considerations related to military defense, labor supply and demand, and technological innovation." Nor is racism a universal and transcendental phenomenon, she argues, but rather socially constructed, historically specific policies shaped by the labor market, ideology, government intervention and political resistance. She makes this point by persuasively showing that before the institutionalization of slavery, Africans were just one of many exploited groups in the New World. In 17th century Virginia, Maryland and Georgia, for example, almost all workers were "bound to some form of exploitative relationship--children governed by their elders, servants by their masters, sharecroppers and tenants by their landlords, hirelings by their employers, women by their fathers and husbands, Indians and Africans by white men, criminals and sexual renegades by the state and church."

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