The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History

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In 1907, pioneering labor historian and economist John Commons argued that U.S. management had shown just one "symptom of originality," namely "playing one race against the other."

In this eye-opening book, David Roediger and Elizabeth Esch offer a radically new way of understanding the history of management in the United States, placing race, migration, and empire at the center of what has sometimes been narrowly seen as a search for efficiency and economy. Ranging from the antebellum period to the coming of the Great Depression, the book examines the extensive literature slave masters produced on how to manage and "develop" slaves; explores what was perhaps the greatest managerial feat in U.S. history, the building of the transcontinental railroad, which pitted Chinese and Irish work gangs against each other; and concludes by looking at how these strategies survive today in the management of hard, low-paying, dangerous jobs in agriculture, military support, and meatpacking. Roediger and Esch convey what slaves, immigrants, and all working people were up against as the objects of managerial control. Managers explicitly ranked racial groups, both in terms of which labor they were best suited for and their relative value compared to others. The authors show how whites relied on such alleged racial knowledge to manage and believed that the "lesser races" could only benefit from their tutelage. These views wove together managerial strategies and white supremacy not only ideologically but practically, every day at workplaces. Even in factories governed by scientific management, the impulse to play races against each other, and to slot workers into jobs categorized by race, constituted powerful management tools used to enforce discipline, lower wages, keep workers on dangerous jobs, and undermine solidarity.

Painstakingly researched and brilliantly argued, The Production of Difference will revolutionize the history of labor and race in the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Winner of the International Labor History Association Book of the Year Award

Honorable Mention, C.L.R. James Award of the Working Class Studies Association

"David Roediger and Elizabeth Esch have completed a masterful work on the complex history of race and labor in the United States. ... The Production of Difference delivers a readable history, rich in primary sources, fluid in prose, and inspiring in passion. The authors successfully blend labor and race history into a single narrative that is the exception among race and class critical scholars.... [A] thought-provoking synthesis of race and labor scholarship." —Labor Studies Journal

"Well told and conceptualized... [A] provocative and useful book." —Joe R. Feagin, Monthly Review

"A work of considerable scholarship, which convincingly documents the pervasiveness of racial and ethnic distinctions that plagued American society and shaped many workplace practices." —CHOICE

"In this bold, captivating study, Roediger and Esch detail the U.S. history of racial management from the antebellum plantation to the building of the Panama Canal, and from the domestic household to Taylorist factory assembly lines. With historical depth and concise analyses, they demonstrate how racialized divisions of labor were as much the modern means for maximizing profit as they were the means to foster competition among different racial, national, and ethnic groups. In doing so, they provide the most compelling case for the necessity of cross-racial workers' solidarity." —Lisa Lowe, University of California, San Diego

"Fascinating... highly readable... The book's wide scope gives it a bold and provocative edge, and should make it of interest to scholars in several fields." —Indiana Magazine of History

"A remarkable and provocative book that breaks new ground in the study of racial and class formation in American history .. A powerful and timely contribution, The Production of Difference should provoke new debates on the role of management in the construction of race from the nineteenth century to today." —Chris Rhomberg, Journal of American History

"This wide-ranging account of management-by-race-from southern slave plantations and the construction of the transcontinental railroads to Frederick Winslow Taylor's factories and the Philippines' Benguet Road-convincingly documents that discrimination (albeit sometimes mixed with race development theory) has long formed a central strand of American business practice." —Leon Fink, University of Illinois at Chicago

"The Production of Difference is a masterful work that should revolutionize the research and teaching of U.S. management history. Breaking much new ground, Roediger and Esch's book vividly demonstrates that the management of U.S. labor originated not with Frederick Taylor and scientific management but instead with U.S. slavery's plantation system. Destined to become a classic, it is essential reading for every serious scholar, and should be assigned for all courses, in U.S. management history." —Victor G. Devinatz, Illinois State University

"In these well-documented case studies David Roediger and Elizabeth Esch convincingly show how the rise of the United States from a semi-peripheral economy in the early nineteenth century to capitalism's hegemonic power in the twentieth century was attended by an increasingly sophisticated strategy of 'race management'-building on methods first tried out on slave plantations, and playing different segments of the working class off against each other. The book opens up a whole new field of research." —Marcel van der Linden, International Institute of Social History

"This book is a marvel of historical research. It puts new light on how slavery and westward expansion helped to embed racial thinking in 'labor management' and how racial thinking continued as a means to divide and rule and to maximize profits. The Production of Difference requires us to rethink root causes of the persistent perpetuation of racism in American life." —Michael Honey, author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign

"A 'must read,' The Production of Difference is of great importance to a readership that goes beyond the academic. The issues it addresses are of strategic importance to mounting any struggle for progressive change, not to mention a movement for social transformation that challenges white supremacist national oppression and the capitalist system of the US, of which it is part." —Bill Fletcher Jr., Race & Class

"The authors make a compelling case for the importance of racial and ethnic stereotyping in the management of labor. Their examination of the symbiotic relationship between racial theorists and employers is subtle and persuasive." —Robert H. Zieger, American Historical Review

"The implication of the authors' diligent research and exacting analysis is that what has been termed 'American exceptionalism' may actually be just a byproduct of 'race management,' which, inter alia, has wrung superprofits out of compulsory labor and manipulating racial and ethnic tensions within the US labor force...This book should be viewed as a landmark in numerous fields-labor history, the history of US management, and racial and ethnic studies." —Gerald Horne, Enterprise & Society

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199739752
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

David R. Roediger is Babcock Professor of History, University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, and the author of How Race Survived U.S. History and The Wages of Whiteness, among other titles.
Elizabeth D. Esch is Assistant Professor of History and American Studies and a member of the Consortium for Critical Interdisciplinary Study at Barnard College-Columbia University.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Introduction Race in the History of U.S. Management: An Introduction Part I Facing South Ch 1 Settling on Slavery: The Antebellum South and the Origins of U.S. Race Management Ch 2 Managing Contradictions and Managing a Race: The Slave as Asset and Animal Part II Facing West Ch 3 Infrastructure, Internal Expansion, and Race Management Ch 4 The Worlds of U.S. Race Management Part III Changing the Whole Story Ch 5 Scientific Management, Racial Science, and the Studied Unstudiedness of Race Management Ch 6 The Crisis and Concentration of Race Management: Immigrant Rebellion, Immigrant Restruction, and Turns to Black and Mexican Labor Notes Index

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