David R. Roediger (born July 13, 1952) is the Foundation Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Kansas University, where he has been since the fall of 2014. Previously, he was an American Kendrick C. Babcock Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). His research interests include the construction of racial identity, class structures, labor studies, and the history of American radicalism. He writes from a Marxist theoretical framework.
Roediger was born on July 13, 1952 in Columbia, Illinois. He attended local public schools through high school. He earned a bachelor of science degree in education from Northern Illinois University in 1975. He went on to do graduate study and earned a PhD in history from Northwestern University in 1980, where he wrote a dissertation under the direction of George M. Fredrickson.
He was assistant editor of the Frederick Douglass Papers at Yale University from 1979 to 1980.
After receiving his doctorate, Roediger was a lecturer and assistant professor of history at Northwestern University from 1980 to 1985. He served as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri in 1985, rising to full professor in 1992. He moved to the University of Minnesota in 1995, and was chair of the university's American Studies Program from 1996 to 2000.
In 2000, he was appointed professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Roediger has also served as the director for the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society at UIUC. Beginning in the fall of 2014, he will be the Foundation Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Kansas University. Roediger is a member of the board of directors of the Charles H Kerr Company Publishers, a position he has held since 1992.
Roediger's research interests primarily concern race and class in the United States, although he has also written on radicalism in American history and politics.
In 1989, Roediger and historian Philip Foner co-authored Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day, a book that provides a highly detailed account of the movement to shorten the working day in the United States. The work broke new ground by combining labor history with a study of culture and the nature of work. The book also extended the history of the eight hour day movement to colonial times. The authors argued that debate over the length of the work-day or work-week has been the central issue of the American labor movement during periods of high growth.
Roediger's book, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class]], was published in 1991. Along with Alexander Saxton's Rise and Fall of the White Republic(1990) and Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), this work is often cited as the starting point of contemporary whiteness studies.
Theodore W. Allen's “Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race" (1975), a pamphlet that later was expanded into his seminal two-volume work “The Invention of the White Race,” Vol. 1: “Racial Oppression and Social Control” (1994, 2012) and “The Invention of the White Race,” Vol. 2: “The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America” (1997, 2012); has also been influential in this field. Allen later wrote of Roediger's work:
"...because of its almost universal acceptance for use in colleges and universities, has served as the single most effective instrument in the socially necessary consciousness-raising function of objectifying "whiteness," and in popularizing the "race-as-a-social-construct" thesis. As one who has been the beneficiary of kind supportive comments from him for my own efforts in this field of historical investigation, I undertake this critical essay with no other purpose than furthering the our common aim of the disestablishment of white identity, and the overthrow of white supremacism in general."
In the work, Roediger argued that "whiteness" is a historical phenomenon in the United States, as many different ethnicities now considered "white" were not initially perceived as such here. The Irish, for example, as Roman Catholics and from rural areas, were not considered "white" - meaning accepted as members of the Anglo-American Protestant majority society - until they began to distinguish themselves from black slaves and freedmen; from the New York Draft Riots of 1863, to riots in Philadelphia against black voting, and the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, ethnic Irish were prominent in violent confrontations against black Americans, with whom they competed for jobs, physical territory and political power. Roediger believes their struggle reflects the emergence of the modern theory of color consciousness, through which notions of "nations" and "races" were increasingly linked to color as the primary category of human difference. Roediger claims that the social construction of the concept of a white race in the United States was a conscious effort by slave owners to gain distance from those they enslaved, who were generally non-European and non-Christian. In addition, white working peoples gained distance from their Southern proletarian complements, the slaves. By the 18th century, he says, "white" had become well-established as a racial term in the United States; by the end of the 19th, it had become an all-encompassing one.
Weaving together economic theory, psychology, and the histories of immigration, industrialization, class formation and slavery, Roediger in this work addressed what has become a common question in labor history, specifically, and American political culture more generally: why, historically, have working class blacks and whites not found common cause in their shared suffering at the bottom of the social ladder? (W.E.B. DuBois also posed this question in his seminal work, Black Reconstruction (1935), as he saw a failure of labor in creating connections across racial lines.) In the nineteenth-century context where the small-scale, autonomous craftsmen were being replaced, slowly but inexorably, by the factory system - with great consequences for the "liberty" of ordinary Americans, Roediger suggested that for workers to embrace "whiteness" and a caricatured representation of black slaves provided them with a meaningful symbolic "wage," replacing the status values of independence and craft skill for workers.
This idea that "whiteness" has enormous surplus value for the working class has influenced a generation of scholars including, most recently, cultural critic Thomas Frank. Most immediately, it was considered by scholars to have contributed to what analysts had observed to be the splitting of the civil rights consensus of the national Democratic Party and the shift among many of the white working class to vote for Republican Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, pushing him to victory.
Wages of Whiteness won the Merle Curti Award in 1992 from the Organization of American Historians, for the best work of social history in 1991.
Roediger is researching the interrelation between labor management and the formation of racial identities in the U.S.1992, the Merle Curti Award for his book, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, by the Organization of American Historians.
1999, the Carlton C. Qualey Memorial Award for his article, "Inbetween Peoples," co-authored with James Barrett. The award is given by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society for the best article in the Journal of American Ethnic History.