Working-class politics had so little room to maneuver in hard times that racial sympathy was shoved aside. In a famous 1844 public correspondence with the abolitionist Gerrit Smith, labor reformer George Henry Evans spoke for many labor leaders when he declared himself “formerly” an advocate of abolition: “This was before I saw that there was white slavery.”
Workers on the very bottom may have negotiated the cementing of their class position beneath the artisan class by denying that position through celebrations of their free-white status as well as embracing it through unseemly– and unrepublican– activities such as racist mobbing and other forms of public racial antagonism. Thus did popular racism aid the formation of the white working class: “whiteness” was capacious enough to allow entry to almost any nonblack worker, and resilient enough to mask the class tensions that were worked out in the modality of race.
– Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993) by Eric Lott