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


  • Roediger, David R.

    (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

  • Esch, Elizabeth D.

    (Barnard College)


In 1907, pioneering labor historian and economist John Commons argued that US 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 let us see afresh 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.

Suggested Citation

  • Roediger, David R. & Esch, Elizabeth D., 2012. "The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199739752.
  • Handle: RePEc:oxp:obooks:9780199739752

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    Cited by:

    1. Linda McDowell & Esther Rootham & Abby Hardgrove, 2016. "The Production of Difference and Maintenance of Inequality: The Place of Young Goan Men in a Post-Crisis UK Labour Market," Gender, Work and Organization, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 23(2), pages 108-124, March.
    2. Jenny Rodriguez & Evangelina Holvino & Joyce K. Fletcher & Stella M. Nkomo & Jenny K. Rodriguez & Evangelina Holvino & Joyce K. Fletcher & Stella M. Nkomo, 2016. "The Theory and Praxis of Intersectionality in Work and Organisations: Where Do We Go From Here?," Gender, Work and Organization, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 23(3), pages 201-222, May.
    3. Linda McDowell, 2015. "Roepke Lecture in Economic Geography—The Lives of Others: Body Work, the Production of Difference, and Labor Geographies," Economic Geography, Clark University, vol. 91(1), pages 1-23, January.
    4. McSweeney Brendan & Brown Donna & Iliopoulou Stravroula, 2016. "Claiming too much, delivering too little: testing some of Hofstede’s generalisations," The Irish Journal of Management, De Gruyter Open, vol. 35(1), pages 34-57, April.
    5. Lisa D. Cook & Trevon D. Logan & John M. Parman, 2017. "Racial Segregation and Southern Lynching," NBER Working Papers 23813, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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