Publication Date

Summer 1987


[Excerpt] This intimate dependence of white egalitarianism upon black exclusion forms the central theme of Herbert Hill's essay. Arguing that this condition is neither episodic nor solely of historical interest, Hill asserts that these racist attitudes (and the action that flowed from them) were systemic across two centuries of working class development and actually provide the central continuous rational for understanding institutional trade union activity from the early nineteenth century into the present. America's labor unions. Hill writes, are "the institutional expression of white working class racism, and of policies and practices that resulted in unequal access, dependent on race, to employment and union membership." (p. 31) In Hill's perception, as in that of "A Colored Philadelphian" in 1830, the opposition of white workers to class categories based upon "unnatural and artificial distinctions, independent of merit" collapses when confronted with a caste system based on racial prejudice. This understanding is essential if one is to comprehend much in both labor's past and present. How else to understand those radicalized workers in the American Railway Union who, in the midst of their monumental struggle with the Pullman Corporation in 1894, proudly boasted of their commitment to that egalitarian tradition by publicizing the fact that their convention delegates vetoed union president Eugene V. Debs's motion that black workers be included in the movement. The rejection of even their leader's motion, the union newspaper ingenuously asserted, confirmed for the rank and file their organization's commitment to internal democratic procedures.

This central perception in Hill's essay reflects certain important aspects in recent American historiography. As Edmund Morgan has suggested in his stunning history of colonial Virginia, American Slavery, American Freedom, that juncture of slavery and freedom, defined by racial categories and intensified by class antagonisms, has its origins in the very core of the American experiment. As the nation developed, neither working people nor their institutions remained separate from that reality. Alexander Saxton also made that point quite clearly in his study of immigrant Chinese-white working class relations in California in the late ninetteenth century. A racist attitude, first formed in the context of black-white relations, dominated this encounter, Saxton argued, and to a great extent determined the structure, orientation and political vision of the California labor movement into the twentieth century. More recently Gwendolyn Mink has built upon these insights in examining the role of nativism and racism in structuring organized labor's response to immigration restriction. In addition, she has argued, the racism evident in the legislative battles over immigration dominated organized labor's search for a viable political alliance on the national level. Hill's essay shares some of these insights yet its overall tone is nonetheless troublesome for at least three interrelated reasons. The essay is conceptually ahistorical, far too selective when it does use historical evidence and is ultimately more of a lawyer's brief than a reasoned analysis.


Suggested Citation
Salvatore, N. (1987, Summer). Workers, racism and history: A response [Electronic version]. New Politics, 22-26.

Required Publisher’s Statement
© New Politics. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Contact New Politics at or at:

New Politics
155 West 72nd St., Room 402
New York, NY 10023 USA