Race as a Material Ideology

By Jason Walsh
2014, Vol. 10 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |

This is not to suggest that all European immigrants actively claimed whiteness and were racist towards African Americans as soon as they arrived. Guglielmo makes it clear that it was a long, slow process for Italian immigrants to develop any kind of white consciousness (Guglielmo 6). Nor is it to suggest that European immigrants in early 20th century America were never themselves victims of racial discrimination. Most importantly, it is not to suggest that when white consciousness did develop among these immigrants it was simply the triumph and continuation of past hatred and racism in America, which would now be perpetrated by immigrant white labor upon black labor. It is to suggest, however, that upward social mobility has real material results, that there is a relationship between upward social mobility and the racial categories of "black" and "white," and that this relationship is useful in explaining the eventual categorization of most European immigrants into the "white" category.

In a racial hierarchy with "white" at the top and "black" at the bottom, then, there is a strong correlation between upward social mobility and racial category. Upward social mobility has direct economic consequences in the type of jobs that are available, access to education, and more. Consequently, groups of people with different perceptions of their possibility of upward movement have divergent material interests. Racism is thus an ideology existing in both repressive (Immigration Acts, Jim Crow laws) and ideological (education discrimination, political disenfranchisement, negative cultural representations of immigrants and African Americans) state apparatuses which divides the working class by creating divergent material interests between those who see themselves as having upward social mobility and those who do not, a division which is closely tied to white and black racial lines. Furthermore, racism serves to reproduce the relations of production both by fostering job competition, which reinforces the notion of human labor as a commodity, and by dividing the working class against itself along real economic lines of upward social mobility.


A theory of racism as an Althusserian ideology removes the problem of appealing to false consciousness from an analysis of racism and explains the working class racism of early 20th century Irish and Italian immigrants as a product of divergent material interests within the working class. By elucidating the material consequences of racial categories along lines of social mobility, by acknowledging that historically there have been "economic advantages to racist practices by white unionists" (Willhelm 103), and by concluding that racism is a material force, this manner of theorizing racism places the emphasis squarely on the material conditions of racist practices rather than on ideological conditions.

This offers several avenues for further research. Historically and economically, one would expect to see Anglo whites in the early 20th century before they had fully gained "white" status. In Economics of Racism, Victor Perlo uses census data to analyze income differentials and trends in income for black and white workers. He shows that, from range" (Perlo 54). In other words, the median income for a black family was stagnant at roughly half of that for a white family. Looking at this ratio and its change over time, as well as its rate of change, offers one way to quantify economic equality and upward mobility. A similar method, targeted at Anglo and non-Anglo whites in the early 20th century, could be used to determine trends in income and analyze overall mobility. The idea of divergent material interests raises historical questions as well. If black, Anglo, and non-Anglo white workers all had different material interests, how did this manifest itself in practice? Did these groups consequently have different attitudes and approaches towards workplace organizing or broad working-class movements?

Theoretical questions remain as well. Althusser's understanding of the structure of ideologies has not been touched on in this paper. The doubly-mirroring interpellation of subject by Subject could possibly be productively deployed on the problem of the relationship between whiteness, blackness, and the gradient in between. What is the Subject of racial ideology? Can this shed any light on the importance of skin color, i.e. the fact that darker-skinned people, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, were generally subject to worse discrimination than lighter-skinned people?

By arguing that upward social mobility has material consequences and is closely correlated with "black" and "white" racial categories, we can see that racism is an ideology which divides the working class between groups that do and do not have chances of upward movement. Racism is not a conspiracy foisted on workers by the capitalist class, it is not a hangover of natural human xenophobia, and it is not simply a case of false consciousness: it is a material force which divides the working class by creating divergent material interests along lines of upward social mobility.


I would like to thank John Flores and Mark Pedretti for their assistance during both research and writing of this paper.


"20th Century Immigration." Wisconsin Historical Society Wisconsin Historical Society, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2012.

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Esch, Elizabeth D. And David R. Roediger. The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History. New York: Oxford, 2012. Print.

Guglielmo, Thomas A. White On Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. New York: Oxford, 2003. Print.

Liem, Paul and Eric Montague. "Toward a Marxist Theory of Racism: Two Essays by Harry Chang." Review of Radical Political Economics 17.3 (1985): 34-45. Web. 30 Sep. 2012.

Moufawad-Paul, Joshua. "'Dividing the Working Class'?" M-L-M Mayhem! Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000. Print.

Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso, 2007. Print.

West, Cornel. "Toward A Socialist Theory Of Racism." eserver.org. n.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sep. 2012.

Willhelm, Sidney M. "Can Marxism Explain America's Racism?" Social Problems 28.2 (1980): 98-112. Web. 30 Sep. 2012.

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