Critical Theory in the American University: A Critical Issue, Part Two

This material depends on familiarity with  Part One. Please read that before proceeding here.

David Roediger is a White professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois. He is a leading voice in the White abolitionist movement, as it is called: “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false,” he asserts, “it’s that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false.”  As does Peter McClaren (see Part One), Roediger proposes that Whites become “race traitors.”13 He is best known for his book, Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.14 In it, he draws on Marxist ideology and psychoanalysis to sketch the development of racism in the American White working class during the nineteenth century. The book is arguably legitimate academic scholarship. That said, it comes down to portraying Blacks as victims and painting White working people negatively as racists: that’s who they are. That is not the only defensible way to perceive either labor history or the White working class.

If students only encounter this Roediger book, which is how it works in universities these days, they could well assume that this is the definitive take on White identity—overall, not just among working class Whites—and that what was true, or purported to be true, in the nineteenth century still prevails today. That is to say, that the problem in race relations is White racist animosity and feelings of superiority toward African Americans and desires to suppress or hurt them, which is the basic thrust of the Roediger book.

In contrast, my own research with contemporary Whites, from all classes, who have a negative posture toward Blacks collectively is that, in the main, they aren’t racists in the way Roediger paints White people; rather, they have disrespect for Blacks’ conduct and want to get away from them (see my book, One Sheaf, One Vine: Racially Conscious White Americans Talk About Race). The strongest impulse among Whites that take issue with Blacks is not “White supremacy” (the term that is most often used these days), but rather White separatism. It is not hate, but rather disdain based on their perceptions of the behavior and intellectual ability of large percentages of the Black community. If universities are going to do more than preach the racial gospel, they will need to come to grips with contemporary racial realities. Whatever the merits of Wages of Whiteness as an historical account, it does not does suffice in that regard.

Sato and Lensmire suggest that White students would do well to begin their investigations into their own racial identities by reading Roediger’s edited book, Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White.15 Again, defensible scholarship; that’s not the issue.  The issue is with the book’s bias, and whether White students who read it will consider what these Black writers have to say about them to be the last word on who they are, which it most certainly isn’t. White students should also read what White writers say about them as a race—that should be obvious—including White writers who think positively about them.

The titles of the six parts of Black on White give an indication of its take on White people: “Confronting Whiteness and Seeing Through Race”; “Whiteness as Property: The Workings of Race”; “The White World and Whiter America”; “Some White Folks”; “White Women, White Men”; and “White Terrors.” (Are Black university students reading books with sections called “Black Terrors”?) And there is this in Roediger’s introduction to the book:

No thinker so fully brought together the many dimensions of African-American studies of whiteness as [Black novelist and essayist] James Baldwin [1924–1987].  Attention to power, to property, to work, to tragedy, to culture, to terror, to gender, to sexuality, to variety, to complexity, to contradiction, and to change informed his deep and persistent inquiries into what it has meant to be white.  It is hard to imagine Baldwin resorting to language quite so cumbersome and clinical as the academically popular phrase, the “social construction of whiteness.”  His subtle disarming of biologically driven racial categories left room for individual decisions and tragedies.  Adopting and treasuring a white identity is, he wrote, “absolutely a moral choice” since “there are no white people.”  The choice was made by men and women themselves undergoing a “vast amount of coercion” over generations.  It was a choice based on blood-soaked practices. “Slaughtering cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping black women,” were not, for Baldwin, mere symptoms of white racism but the terrors which forged white identity. . . . Baldwin likened the process of becoming White to being “trapped in a factory.”  Baldwin called White people out of the factory. “As long as you think you are white,” he observed, tough-lovingly, “there’s no hope for you.”16

I think you get the picture of what’s going on here.  This is what Professors Sato and Lensmire mean by their White students making sense of who they are. They point out that most of their students are women. Tomorrow’s White mothers can pass this view of themselves on to their children.

And then there is Rev. Thandeka’s book, Learning to Be White: Race, God and Money in America17 that Sato and Lensmire say is a “powerful way into critical whiteness studies.” Thandeka is Black and describes herself as a Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, journalist, congressional consultant, and the head of a project called “We Love Beyond Belief.” Going by Learning to Be White, Rev. Thandeka’s love for White people might be a bit qualified.  The publisher’s blurb of the book says, “Thandeka explores the politics of the white experience in America.  Tracing the links between religion, class, and race, she reveals the child abuse, ethnic conflicts, class exploitation, poor self-esteem, and a general feeling of self-contempt that are the wages of whiteness.”18

On the Amazon site for Thandeka’s book, Roediger shares how impressed he is with it: “No other study so fully demonstrates the origins of white identity in misery and defeat, as well as in power and privilege.  Whiteness, Thandeka shows, is a shame which divides and afflicts whites as well as the nation.”

In her book, Thandeka (remember, she’s a minister) takes on a pastoral air.  She sums up her argument:

In sum, our primer of psychological concepts allows us to examine the structure of a Euro-American’s white racial identity as an impaired sense of core self, an inability to relate to others with self-integrity.  This impairment is the result of episodes in which a person’s difference from a white ideal was attacked by her or his own caretaker(s).  The white self-image that emerges from this process will include the emotional fallout from the self-annihilating process that created it: the breakup of one’s own sense of coherency, efficacy, and agency as a personal center of activity.  Whenever the content of this white racial image is exposed, white self-consciousness can feel shame—and rage. . . .

Our primer lets us identify and name the actual feelings of self-contempt engendered in persons who are forced to act “white” in order to survive in their own communities.  We call these feelings white shame.  Using this primer, we can affirm that such human feelings of shame do

•indicate the presence of a broken spirit, a fallen human nature, a fracture to one’s core ability to relate, and

•reveal that sin is indeed present.

Our explanations of these sinful feelings, however, have a critical social edge.  In short, we take into account the social environment that creates “whites” and engenders feelings of “white” shame.  We note the pervasive child abuse practices, racial indoctrination programs, and class exploitation strategies of Euro-American communities that impair their members’ abilities to relate wholeheartedly to others.  Our critical investigation thus helps us make sense of the pervasive racial and class fears found in so many Euro-Americans today: shame.  They feel white shame because the persons who ostensibly loved and respected them the most actually abused them and justified it in the name of race, money, and God.19

Child abuse?  Class exploitation? Poor self-esteem? Self-contempt? Misery and defeat? Shame? Rage? Broken spirit? Fallen human nature? Fractured ability to relate?  Sin? This is what it means to be White? An entire race of people in this country? Not only is this ignorant and bigoted, it is outright nutty. Using this garbage as a course text to depict White identity is contemptible.


Came the day for the class I teach, fourteen students, all White, to consider the Noll issue, “Does a ‘Deficit Model’ Serve Poor Children Well?” and the Payne (“fix the inferiors”) and Sato and Lensmire (take advantage of children’s strengths) articles. This was a couple of weeks ago as I write this. The students were to have read the Noll material and come to class prepared to share their best insights and assessments with the rest of us.

What’s your scholarship on this Noll issue? I began.

Hands shot up. In turn, just about every student pitched in with his or her best thinking.  All that spoke up, no exceptions, had a negative view of the Payne article. They picked up a tinge of racism in her list of teaching practices.  In contrast, they were mightily impressed with Sato and Lensmire’s argument.  These White teacher education students need to take a hard look at themselves, they asserted; they are the problem, for sure, absolutely. The class was upbeat, animated, everyone nodding yes to what other people are saying; a good time was being had by all.  The students felt on top it: Ruby Payne was off-base and they had things wired, no doubt about it.

I wasn’t surprised at these responses.  There’s a politically correct orthodoxy that permeates school settings at all levels, not just the university, and students can be counted upon to parrot it on cue and congratulate themselves for being so wise as they are, and to feel assured that they will get strokes from the instructor and other students for being among the progressive-minded select; these reiterations and testimonies are surefire feel-good moments for students.  I was quiet through all of this, and I suppose that gave students pause a tad, but still, everybody in the class as far as I could tell felt confident that the boat was sailing in the right direction.

After just about everybody spoke their minds and responded to what others offered, I asked whether anybody had taken the time to check into the Roediger and Thandeka books that Sato and Lensmire had recommended so highly and so prominently. Things quieted down a little.  Pause.  No, we didn’t do that.

Again the response was no surprise to me.  About race or anything else, students read what they are told to read; that’s it, not a page more than that. All they need to know is basically, sort of, what the writing is about and to have an opinion about it and state that succinctly in class or write it down.  And really, I’m not blaming them for coming at their schoolwork that way, or not completely anyway.  The reality is that university students aren’t really studying anything; they are taking courses. A syllabus is handed out at the beginning of the semester telling them exactly what to read and what to write and when, when to be in class, and when the tests are.  Student as assembly line worker.  That’s the game on the table, and students play it.  No muss, no fuss.

And truth be told, I play the game too. I know what I’m supposed to do, hand out the syllabus, keep things moving and don’t ruffle any feathers from 1:00 to 2:15 Tuesdays and Thursdays, and don’t put students off by giving out bad grades.  I’d get grief from administrators and the students themselves if I departed from any of that, and I just don’t want to endure the hassle, especially on top of the static I get for being on the wrong side of the diversity crusade and all the rest of the thought reform program going on, and for my blasphemy against the church of socialist ideologue John Dewey in the college of education where I work. I’m not proud of the duck-and-cover posture I am in just about all the time these days, but there it is.

I said I had gone to the library and checked Amazon and the Internet, and that what I found out about the Roediger and Thandeka books gave me pause.  I briefly went into what I’ve talked about here, Whites being linked to racism, child abuse, ethnic conflicts, class exploitation, poor self-esteem, and self-contempt.  I read the Roediger testimonial for the Thandeka book on Amazon, lauding her linking White identity to power and privilege and saying that it is a shame that divides and afflicts both Whites themselves and the nation.  I said I found that view of White people both false and offensive.  Imagine if Black people, or Jewish people, or Asian people, or Hispanic people, or any people, were characterized in that condemning way? I said. Doesn’t this raise some issues about Sato and Lensmire’s presentation?  What do you think?

Things got real quiet. Slight smiles, people glancing around.  What’s he up to, I imagined them thinking.  I’ve heard about him.  He’s a White supremacist, my advisor told me.  Nothing bad has happened so far, and he’s been a nice guy, but, I mean, why’s he bringing this stuff up?

I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought I was still in my duck-and-cover mode with the Roediger and Thandeka comments. I honestly thought I was just taking my turn sharing my analyses of the Noll case.  Hey, how about these two books?  I looked them up, good for me.  You ought to do this kind of thing.  If Payne is a racist, isn’t this Roediger and Thandeka material at least questionable, don’t you think?  No big deal.  How insensitive I was.  I should have been savvy enough to anticipate the reaction I’d get.

I suppose it took me about two minutes to say what I had to say about Roediger and Thandeka and about my concerns about using those books with teacher education students.  During that time, the class, which had up to this point in the hour been very attentive and engaged changed on a dime.  Eyes dropped to the desks or the floor.  Little conversations sprung up. The few students who continued to look at me smiled, nervously it seemed.  They appeared embarrassed.  It was clear to me that I’d crossed a line.  I shouldn’t have been saying what I was saying. The message came through loud and clear: stop what you are doing . . . please.

Nevertheless, I pressed on.  Could I have your attention up here? I say.  Slowly, one by one, they look at me, reluctantly it seemed. What are your thoughts about what I just said?

No response.  Silence.  I’m getting nervous and tense, and frankly, at that point I just wanted to go home—it was very near the end of the class hour—and I’m sure that didn’t help matters.  More silence.  Discomfort.  Smiles.  My eyes are shifting around like the ball in a pinball machine.

Finally a young man raised his hand and went into a kind of speech, complete with hand gestures for emphasis.  The only thing I picked up about it was that it didn’t have anything to do with what I had just brought up, or even with Noll’s deficit issue as a whole. He was going on and I was glancing back and forth between the student driving home his points and the other students and the clock up high on the back wall—bing-bing-bing-bing—focusing in on nothing. The other students were looking at the one talking, but I didn’t know whether they were paying attention.

After about three minutes of this student’s efforts to inform us about whatever it was, he suddenly, so it seemed to me, stopped.

Silence.  The air hung heavy in room 303 Kalkin Hall.  Uh, well, I gasped, remember the Noll issue we’ll be dealing with next time—

Boom, notebooks started going into backpacks, jackets get donned, mobile phones appeared, and students started to depart, some chatting amiably with one another, nobody looking at me, and I’m still going on about what we are going to be doing in the next class.  And then there I am alone in the front of an empty classroom.  After a few seconds pause, I put my notes and books in my book bag, erased the blackboard, and left the room, closing the door behind me.


So what do I make of all this?  What stands out? That is next in Part Three.

Robert S. Griffin’s writings on universities include those contained in a review of the book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism in The Occidental Quarterly, Summer 2006.

13. This material on Roediger, including the quote, can be found online in a review of Learning to Be White by Laurie Garrett-Cobbina.

14. David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso, 2007).

15. Black on White, op. cit.

16. Ibid., pp. 20-22.

17. Learning to Be White, op. cit.

18. The publisher’s blurb is on the Amazon site for the Thandeka book.

19. Learning to Be White, pp. 127 and 133-134.

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