The Production of Difference:

Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History

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

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

ISBN-10: 0199739757
ISBN-13: 978-0199739752


International Labor History Association book of the year:

“The Production of Difference” by David R. Roediger and Elizabeth D. Esch

The International Labor History Association (ILHA) has announced the ILHA Book of the Year Award for 2012 as follows: The volume, The Production of Difference, published by Oxford University Press (2012), is by David R. Roediger and Elizabeth D. Esch.

The ILHA writes:

Covering the period 1830-1930 while offering a series of case studies, the book examines race management, with a transnational trajectory. Roediger and Esch locate a key fulcrum implemented by U.S. managers of labor, including slave owners, to enhance profits and undermine labor solidarity at home and abroad. The authors investigate the early use of race management during pre-Civil War years, later tracing related developments in the post-Civil War years with special attention paid to anti-Chinese initiatives, railroad practices, mining and meatpacking, domestic and agricultural labor. Furthermore, the authors analyze the issue of race management in the pre-World War I years and its transnational variations in the Philippines, South Africa, and Panama. The intellectual apparatus employed to valorize racialized personnel management receives concerted attention.

Roediger and Esch document the structurally embedded character of race management within slavery and capitalism, revealing its conception, application, and ruthless intent within production sectors across temporal boundaries. Amply documented with engaging footnotes, the volume offers a superb rendering that will no doubt become a source of information and reference to labor historians and students of labor history.

The Production of Difference also received honorable mention as a runnerup for the C.L.R. James Book Prize of the Working Class Studies Association.