[Marxism] Jeff Perry on the new edition of Ted Allen's "The Invention of the White Race"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed May 1 09:58:00 MDT 2013

Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race

by Jeffrey B. Perry

The Invention of the White Race, Vol. I: Racial Oppression and Social 
Control (New Expanded Edition, Verso Books, November 2012) ISBN: 

The Invention of the White Race, Vol. II: The Origin of Racial 
Oppression in Anglo-America (New Expanded Edition, Verso Books, November 
2012) ISBN: 9781844677702

Theodore W. Allen’s two-volume The Invention of the White Race, 
republished by Verso Books in a New Expanded Edition, presents a 
full-scale challenge to what Allen refers to as “The Great White 
Assumption” – “the unquestioning, indeed unthinking acceptance of the 
‘white’ identity of European-Americans of all classes as a natural 
attribute rather than a social construct.” Its thesis on the origin and 
nature of the “white race” contains the root of a new and radical 
approach to United States history, one that challenges master narratives 
taught in the media and in schools, colleges, and universities. With its 
equalitarian motif and emphasis on class struggle it speaks to people 
today who strive for change worldwide.

Allen’s original 700-pages magnum opus, already recognized as a 
“classic” by scholars such as Audrey Smedley, Wilson J. Moses, Nell 
Painter, and Gerald Horne, included extensive notes and appendices based 
on his twenty-plus years of primary source research. The November 2012 
Verso edition adds new front and back matter, expanded indexes, and 
internal study guides for use by individuals, classes, and study groups. 
Invention is a major contribution to our historical understanding, it is 
meant to stand the test of time, and it can be expected to grow in 
importance in the 21st century.

“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no 
‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would 
there be for another sixty years.”

That arresting statement, printed on the back cover of the first (1994) 
volume, reflected the fact that, after pouring through 885 county-years 
of Virginia’s colonial records, Allen found “no instance of the official 
use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status” prior to its 
appearance in a 1691 law. As he explained, “Others living in the colony 
at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, 
and naturally they and their Virginia-born children were English, they 
were not ‘white.’” “White identity had to be carefully taught, and it 
would be only after the passage of some six crucial decades” that the 
word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”

Allen was not merely speaking of word usage, however. His probing 
research led him to conclude – based on the commonality of experience 
and demonstrated solidarity between African-American and 
European-American laboring people, the lack of a substantial 
intermediate buffer social control stratum, and the “indeterminate” 
status of African-Americans – that the “white race” was not, and could 
not have been, functioning in early Virginia.

It is in the context of such findings that he offers his major thesis -- 
the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation 
in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the later, civil war 
stages of Bacon's Rebellion (1676-77).  To this he adds two important 
corollaries: 1) the ruling elite, in its own class interest, 
deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to define and 
maintain the “white race” and 2) the consequences were not only ruinous 
to the interests of African-Americans, they were also “disastrous” for 
European-American workers, whose class interests differed fundamentally 
from those of the ruling elite.

In Volume I Allen offers a critical examination of the two main lines of 
historiography on the slavery and racism debate: the psycho-cultural 
approach, which he strongly criticizes; and the socio-economic approach, 
which he seeks to free from certain apparent weaknesses. He then 
proceeds to develop a definition of racial oppression in terms of social 
control, a definition not based on “phenotype,” or classification by 
complexion. In the process, he offers compelling analogies between the 
oppression of the Irish in Ireland (under Anglo-Norman rule and under 
“Protestant Ascendancy”) and white supremacist oppression of African 
Americans and Indians.

Allen emphasizes that maximizing profit and maintaining social control 
are two priority tasks of the ruling class. He describes how racial 
oppression is one form of ruling class response to the problem of social 
control and national oppression is another.  The difference centers on 
whether the key component of the intermediate social control stratum are 
members of the oppressor group (racial oppression) or the oppressed 
group (national oppression).

With stunning international and domestic examples he shows how racial 
oppression (particularly in the form of religio-racial oppression) was 
developed and maintained by the phenotypically-similar British against 
the Irish Catholics in Ireland; how a phenotypically-similar Anglo 
bourgeoisie established national oppression in the Anglo-Caribbean and 
racial oppression in the continental Anglo-American plantation colonies; 
how racial oppression was transformed into national oppression due to 
ruling class social control needs in Ireland (while racial oppression 
was maintained in Ulster); how the same people who were victims of 
racial oppression in Ireland  became “white American” defenders of 
racial oppression in the United States; and how in America racial 
oppression took the form of racial slavery, yet when racial slavery 
ended racial oppression remained and was re-constituted in new form.

In Volume II, on The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, Allen 
tells the story of the invention of the “white race” in the late 
seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Anglo-American plantation 
colonies. His primary focus is on the pattern-setting Virginia colony, 
and he pays special attention to the fact that England alone, of all the 
European colonizing powers, exported so many of its own surplus poor 
laboring population. He also pays particular attention to the process by 
which tenants and wage-laborers in the majority English labor force in 
Virginia were reduced to chattel bond-servants in the 1620s. In so 
doing, he emphasizes that this reduction was a qualitative break from 
the condition of laborers in England and from long established English 
labor law, that it was not a feudal carryover, that it was imposed under 
capitalism, and that it was an essential precondition of the emergence 
of the lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude imposed upon 
African-American laborers under the system of racial slavery.

Allen describes how, throughout much of the seventeenth century, the 
status of African-Americans was being fought out and he documents 
significant instances of labor solidarity and unrest, especially during 
the 1660s and 1670s. Most important is his analysis of the civil war 
stage of Bacon’s Rebellion when, in the final stages, "foure hundred 
English and Negroes in Arms" fought together demanding freedom from bondage.

It was in the period after Bacon's Rebellion, in response to class 
struggle, that the “white race” was invented as a ruling-class social 
control formation. Allen describes systematic ruling-class policies, 
which conferred “white race” privileges on European-Americans while 
imposing harsher disabilities on African-Americans resulting in a system 
of racial slavery, a form of racial oppression that also imposed severe 
racial proscriptions on free African-Americans. He emphasizes that when 
African-Americans were deprived of their long-held right to vote in 
Virginia and Governor William Gooch explained in 1735 that the Virginia 
Assembly had decided upon this curtailment of the franchise in order "to 
fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos," it was not an 
"unthinking decision." Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation 
bourgeoisie and was a conscious decision in the process of establishing 
a system of racial oppression, even though it entailed repealing an 
electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.

The key to understanding racial oppression, Allen argues, is in the 
formation of the intermediate social control buffer stratum, which 
serves the interests of the ruling class. In the case of racial 
oppression in Virginia, any persons of discernible non-European ancestry 
after Bacon's Rebellion were denied a role in the social control buffer 
group, the bulk of which was made up of laboring-class "whites." In the 
Anglo-Caribbean, by contrast, under a similar Anglo- ruling elite, 
"mulattos" were included in the social control stratum and were promoted 
into middle-class status. For Allen, this was the key to understanding 
the difference between Virginia’s ruling-class policy of  “fixing a 
perpetual brand” on African-Americans, and the policy of the West Indian 
planters of formally recognizing the middle-class status “colored” 
descendant and other Afro-Caribbeans who earned special merit by their 
service to the regime. This difference, between racial oppression and 
national oppression, was rooted in a number of social control-related 
factors, one of the most important of which was that in the West Indies 
there were “too few” poor and laboring-class Europeans to embody an 
adequate petit bourgeoisie, while in the continental colonies there were 
'’too many’' to be accommodated in the ranks of that class.

The references to an “unthinking decision” and “too few” poor and 
laboring class Europeans are consistent with Allen's repeated efforts to 
challenge what he considered to be the two main arguments that undermine 
and disarm the struggle against white supremacy in the working class: 
(1) the argument that white supremacism is innate, and (2) the argument 
that European-American workers “benefit” from “white race” privileges 
and that it is in their interest not to oppose them and not to oppose 
white supremacy. These two arguments, opposed by Allen, are related to 
two master historical narratives rooted in writings on the colonial 
period. The first argument is associated with the “unthinking decision” 
explanation for the development of racial slavery offered by historian 
Winthrop D. Jordan in his influential, White Over Black. The second 
argument is associated with historian Edmund S. Morgan’s similarly 
influential, American Slavery, American Freedom, which maintains that, 
as racial slavery developed, “there were too few free poor 
[European-Americans] on hand to matter.” Allen’s work directly 
challenges both the “unthinking decision” contention of Jordan and the 
“too few free poor” contention of Morgan. Allen convincingly argues that 
the “white race” privileges conferred by the ruling class on 
European-Americans were not only ruinous to the interests of 
African-Americans; they were also against the class interest of 
European-American workers.

The Invention of the White Race is a compelling work that re-examines 
centuries of history. It also offers Allen’s glimpse of “the future in 
the distance.” When he completed Volume II sixteen years ago, the 
78-years-old Allen, in words that resonate today, ended by describing 
“unmistakable signs of maturing social conflict” between “the common 
people” and “the Titans.” He suggested that “Perhaps, in the impending . 
. . struggle,” influenced by the “indelible stamp of the 
African-American civil rights struggle of the 1960s,” the “white-skin 
privileges may finally come to be seen and rejected by laboring-class 
European-Americans as the incubus that for three centuries has paralyzed 
their will in defense of their class interests vis-à-vis those of the 
ruling class.” It was with that prospect in mind, with its profound 
implications for radical social change, that the independent, working 
class intellectual/activist Theodore W. Allen (1919-2005) concluded The 
Invention of the White Race.

More information about the Marxism mailing list