AMERICAN WORK by Jacqueline Jones


Black and White Labor Since 1600
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 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)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-393-04561-7
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1997


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