University of South Carolina

Pioneer on ‘whiteness’ joins USC History Center

By Peggy Binette,, 803-777-5400

A scholar and pioneer in the study of whiteness has joined the University of South Carolina History Center as its first distinguished visiting professor.

David Roediger, a historian from the University of Illinois, is spending the semester teaching, conducting research and exploring how notions about race are created. Roediger argues that racial categories don’t simply include non-white peoples and that whiteness itself is a racial category.

“The idea that white people have a racial identity that is not simply the norm helps us to understand why political alliances and social structures form as they do, often uniting the rich and poor within races,” Roediger said.

Roediger said his interest in whiteness emerged from his training in African American history.

“I was trained in African-American history and have always regarded the critical studies of whiteness as part of ethnic studies, beginning with slave folktales about whites and with Indian stories making sense of settlers,” Roediger said. “Today, as well, the leading studies of whiteness are again done in ethnic studies and with great attention to the fact that nobody is only one thing – that whites are also divided by class, gender, sexuality, religion and more.”

Larry Glickman, chairman of USC’s history department, said Roediger’s research has spurred debate.

"His research has produced useful debate about how to historicize concepts that we think of as natural,” said Glickman. “Categories of race aren’t clear, and they change over time. Take the Irish, who were not considered white until after the Civil War. David Roediger’s research and teaching open up a whole new world that is particularly exciting for how broad categories of race develop over time. It is a provocative and important dialogue.”

Roediger is the Kendrick C. Babcock Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Illinois. His 1991 book, “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class,” sparked international debate and launched a field of study, spurring more than 500 publications to date that address the concept of whiteness.

A winner of the Merle Curti Prize for U.S. Social History, Roediger also is the author of “Our Own Time,” “Toward the Abolition of Whiteness,” “How Race Survived U.S. History,” “Colored White” and “Working Toward Whiteness.”

David Crockett, an associate professor of marketing at USC, said Roediger’s work has had a tremendous impact on his research.

“Professor Roediger's work has been deeply influential for my research,” said Crockett. “My research looks at issues of social inequality as they happen in the marketplace, especially racial inequality. His research places many of the race and ethnic conflicts that we see happening today in historical context.”

Crockett, who was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri-Columbia when Roediger was teaching there in the late 1980s, encourages students and others to attend Roediger’s speaking events at USC.

“His insightful work puts truth to the lie that our present moment is given, rather than arrived at through a series of choices that might have been made differently,” said Crockett. “He demonstrates that racial identities were constructed out of thin air to reinforce relations of domination by processes that were at times invisible and at other times extremely violent. Anyone reading his work or hearing him speak will see that a different past was always possible, and by extension, a different future is as well.”

Kathy Forde, an associate professor of journalism who teaches media and civil rights history, said her students will benefit from Roediger’s teaching.

"Professor Roediger's teaching will help students develop a more sophisticated understanding of how race emerged as a social construct in American history, a construct that shaped not only black but also white class identities and, indeed, the social order of the country,” Forde said. “Our students have much to gain from learning this history. Understanding the past can help us better understand and perhaps even solve our present problems. These include structural racism in our country's educational and prison systems."

In addition to teaching a graduate seminar, Roediger will give a public lecture Feb. 6 and participate in a workshop on whiteness March 23.

USC's College of Arts and Sciences launched its History Center in 2010 to offer programming and academic activities that highlight an annual theme for the public, scholars and students. This year’s theme is constructing categories. USC’s history center is one of three in the Southeast. Others are at the University of Texas and the University of Tennessee.


American Spring

• Who: David Roediger, USC History Center visiting professor


• What: Public lecture, “American Spring: The Spread of the Emancipationist Impulse to White Americans after the Civil War.”


• When: 4 p.m.


• Where: Gambrell Hall, Room 152



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Posted: 02/01/12 @ 11:00 AM | Updated: 02/01/12 @ 4:39 PM | Permalink