BOOK REVIEW / When white boys want to rap: Towards the abolition of whiteness - David Roediger: Verso, pounds 11.95

BEFORE the 17th century, European immigrants to America knew who they were - English, Scottish, Italian, whatever. But after the arrival of slaves from Africa they found a new and all-inclusive identity: they became 'white'. Initially it was not at all easy to decide who was white and who was not. The Irish, who were regarded as being on the outer fringes of civilisation, had to work hard to be accepted as white. Asian Indians and Mexican Americans were partly identified as white before being declared non-white. Chinese and Japanese became non- white from the start.

But whiteness was not created on the basis of race. Indeed, whites are not assumed to have a 'race', even though they may be racist. The new identity was framed, argues David Roediger in this insightful collection of essays, purely on the basis of an ideology of domination. 'It is not that whiteness is oppressive and false,' Roediger asserts, 'it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false.'

Throughout the world, whiteness is now identified with certain kinds of behaviour and ideology. In Ghana's Ashanti region, for example, Chinese, Korean and Japanese now in Ghana are commonly regarded as whites because they behave like Europeans. Conversely, certain types of behaviour are associated with blacks. Many Americans and Europeans always see in exactly the way that their white interest demands that they see. In the Simi Valley trial, the white jury saw Rodney King being beaten by a number of policemen. One juror was even able to describe King, despite the fact that he was down and being kicked, as in 'control' of the situation.

Roediger seeks to abolish the 'ontologically empty' and 'metaphysical' category of whiteness. The ideology of whiteness oppresses not only the blacks but also the whites themselves. It is employed to make whites settle for despair in politics and anguish in the daily grind of life. For Roediger the woman campaigning for David Dukes and 'white rights' is just as much a victim of whiteness as her 'blacks on welfare' ('they get a new car every year') targets. Unseating the loaded metaphorical associations of whiteness would free both blacks and whites, for it would confront racism as well as lead to the recovery of the 'sense of oppression' in the white working class.

Since whiteness acquires meaning through a social context, it has to be tackled in conjunction with class oppression. The issues of race, Roediger argues, cannot be separated from the issues of class. He cites a study of chemical workers in New Jersey which showed that white male workers identified themselves as 'working men' and as 'middle class'. They saw other white men in their neighbourhoods in exactly the same terms, whether they were wage workers or not. But black workers, doing precisely the same jobs, were seen as 'loafers' and 'intruders'.

At the other end of the colour spectrum, Roediger points out, new immigrants to the United States now call themselves 'black' because the 'racial' category more accurately describes their politically oppressed class status. Asian Indians, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Turks, Chinese, Bangladeshis, Arabs, and even Cypriots and some Irish, now identity themselves as blacks.

The growth of a politics based on a popular giving up on whiteness constitutes Roediger's strategy for subduing the two-headed dragon of race and class. And his main weapon is black culture. White youth is increasingly suspicious of the emptiness of white culture and is turning en masse towards non- white cultures.

Black youth culture has redemptive possibilities, which were first identified by Baldwin when he declared that the 'white man' will 'become a part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully'. Baldwin's 'lie' of whiteness is on the retreat, thanks to black music, film, dance, speech and fashion.

Roediger's analysis is powerful; indeed, nothing short of brilliant. But common sense leaves him when he pins all his hopes on hip-hop. Somehow, I can't see rappers and street slang saving humanity from the evils of whiteness.