American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor

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9780393318333: American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor

“[Jones’s] painstakingly researched volume is an invaluable antidote to those who argue that our shameful past has no relevance to our perplexing present.” ―David Kusnet, Baltimore Sun

This is history at its best―the epic, often tragic story of success and failure on the uneven playing fields of American labor, rooted in painstaking research and passionately alive to its present-day implications for a just society. Jacqueline Jones shows unmistakably how nearly every significant social transformation in American history (from bound to free labor, from farm work to factory work, from a blue-collar to a white-collar economy) rolled back the hard-won advances of those African Americans who had managed to gain footholds in various jobs and industries. This is a story not of simple ideological "racism" but of politics and economics interacting to determine what kind of work was "suitable" for which groups. Here is a "useful and sobering" (Kirkus Reviews) account of why the connection between success and the work ethic was severed long ago for a substantial number of Americans. American Work goes far beyond the easy sloganeering of the current debates on affirmative action and welfare versus workfare to inform those debates with rich historical context and compelling insight.

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About the Author:

Jacqueline Jones is also the author of Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (winner of the Bancroft Prize in American History; a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize). She chairs the history department at Brandeis University.

From Kirkus Reviews:

A well-researched but unbalanced study of the interelation of race and labor in American history. Bancroft Prizewinning historian Jones (Brandeis Univ.; The Dispossesed, 1992; Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, 1985) sets out to explore how and why black and white workers have been treated differently throughout American history, both before and after emancipation. Her study begins with a look at the failed policy of enslaving Indians and the subsequent practice of importing African slaves. Some black slaves in the South won or bought their freedom, but most free blacks found themselves either with few prospects as far as skilled labor was concerned or compelled to work for the same people to whom they had been enslaved. Meanwhile, in the mostly ``free'' North, job competition between free blacks and whites often exploded in violence; immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere would destroy black property and assault African-Americans who they felt were vying for their jobs. This is one of the primary paradoxes that Jones addresses: White Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries could simultaneously view blacks as intellectually and functionally inferior and yet fear that these perceived inferiors could take their jobs. The truth, of course, is that prejudicial hiring practices kept this from happening, even after the passing of civil rights legislation in the 20th century. Unions, while giving lip service to brotherhood and equality, were likewise discriminatory toward racial minorities. Disappointingly, Jones devotes much of the book to the period from early settlements up to the Civil War. The discussion of work-related discrimination in the 20th century, by contrast, seems too terse and insufficiently detailed. For instance, the fate of the laws meant to enforce equal opportunity and affirmative action doesn't get the close attention that it requires. In the end, the subject is probably too large for one volume. Nonetheless, this is a useful and sobering work. (34 b&w photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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