The White Race Was Invented: Here’s How It Happened

Sean Ahern Jan 7, 2015

Review: The Invention of the White Race Volume I: Racial Oppression and Social Control and Volume II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America by Theodore William Allen (1994, 1997, New Expanded Edition, Verso 2012)

Editor's Note: Race has once again surged to the forefront of debate in the United States amid an epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men and the protests which have ensued. For those who seek a deeper understanding of how and why race became such a central part of the American experience, the writings of the independent working-class historian Theodore William Allen have become indispensable.

Allen argues that race is not "natural" but instead is a "social control formation" created by plantation owners in 17th century colonial America and used to this day by the U.S. ruling class to maintain its dominance over workers of all races. In this lengthy review of Allen's seminal two-volume The Invention of the White Race, New York City public school teacher and activist Sean Ahern explores the decades of research and thinking that Allen poured into his work and why it remains as relevant as the day he first published his first article on the "white blindspot" 50 years ago.


The Invention of the White Race is a scrupulously documented, fairly argued and profoundly radical history. It arrives at a propitious moment in the end game of the American Empire and will be of particular interest to educators, students and working people interested in learning the lessons of our past.  It contains the root of a general theory of United States history and the basis for a revolution in US labor history and in social history.  Students of African American history, political economy, Irish American history, gender studies and colonial history will find in Allen’s work much of interest to recommend.

For those considering the projected impact of demographic change in the 21st  century The Invention offers a lens through which to assess how the “white race” was invented and reinvented in the past and the ways in which ruling class-interests may seek to  adapt, adjust or reinvent it in the present.  After 300 years of functioning as a ruling class social control buffer, the US bourgeoisie will not, in this writer’s opinion, willingly abandon its tried and trusted guardian, the so called “white race.”

A Lesson from W.E B. Du Bois

Allen’s analysis of the “white blindspot” was a critical first step that led him to develop his thesis on the invention of the “white race” as a social control formation. His view of the history of class struggle in the US was radically altered by his reading of W.E B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in the early 1960's. Dubois described Black Reconstruction as a “normal working class movement, successful to an unusual degree, despite all disappointments and failures.”  Its final defeat was due to “the race philosophy” of white supremacy which made labor-unity or labor class-consciousness impossible.

Together with Ester Kusic to whom The Invention is dedicated, Allen developed a new approach that placed the struggle against white supremacy and the white skin privilege system at the center of a strategy for proletarian revolution in the United States.

Two quotations from Black Reconstruction will serve to identify the sparks of insight that eventually led Allen to write The Invention of the White Race:

“The south, after the war [Civil War], presented the greatest opportunity for a real national labor movement which the nation ever saw or is likely to see for many decades.  Yet the labor movement, with but few exceptions, never realized the situation.  It never had the intelligence or knowledge, as a whole, to see in black slavery and reconstruction, the kernal and meaning of the labor movement in the United States.”

It is only the Blind spot in the eyes of America, and its historians, that can overlook and misread so clean and encouraging a chapter of human struggle and human uplift.”

Allen came to refer to that “Blind spot” identified by Du Bois as the “white blindspot.”

Labor & White Chauvanism

Informed by Dubois's reference to “the kernel and meaning of the labor movement in the United States,” Allen set about in the late 1960’s  to re-examine three previous periods of economic crises and intensified class struggle; 1) the Civil War and Reconstruction, 2) the Populist Movement and 3) the Great Depression.  His aim was to discern the effects of the white skin privilege system and the prevalence of white chauvinism in the defeat of past working class and populist movements.  Allen took Du Bois' phrase “the kernel and meaning” as the title for his own unpublished manuscript that set forth his findings.   He shared this manuscript with comrades in the late sixties and early 70's. This background provides some context to The Invention as it led Allen to a critical review of what he termed the reigning consensus on “American Exceptionalism.”  This is in reference to a body of work that offered explanations, all “white blind” in Allen’s estimation, for why there was no working class based political alternative to the bourgeois parties. Contributors to this “consensus” included socialists and non socialist students of labor history. Although the old ‘consensus’ was tattered, no alternative had yet emerged.  The Invention may be viewed in this context as Allen’s opening contribution towards a revolution in US labor history.  In fact this was the working title of Allen’s last book which he did not live to complete.

The debate over the origin of “anti negro prejudice” in the US or the “Origins Debate” as it was referred to, was a central preoccupation of  American historians, not only African American historians,  since racism first came to be viewed by much of official society as an evil in itself following World War II. 

The Civil Rights movement and urban rebellions made racial discrimination a central defining issue in the political life of the nation,  a central issue that continues down to the present day.  Some of America’s most prominent historians participated in a search for understanding how racial supremacy and racial oppression came to be in the hope that we might in fact end it. It came to be known as the “Origins Debate.” [Note Allen preferred the singular “Origin,” which he used in the subtitle to volume two.  He saw the origin of racial oppression in class struggle.]

By 1968 with the forces of racism rallying around the George Wallace campaign and other instances of the “white backlash” north and south, “so from the ranks of American historians there emerged a cohort of defenders of the basic validity of the old assumption of “natural racism.”” (Allen Invention, I, 4) The fullest expression of this view was put forward by Winthrop D.  Jordan in his 1968 book entitled White over Black:  American Attitudes Towards the Negro 1550-1812.  Jordan’s book was offered in the context of the “Origins Debate” to refute the thesis of Oscar and Mary Handlin that racism was  a deliberately contrived ruling class policy rather than the outcome of some inborn or preconditioned “race consciousness.”  Chapter 2 of White Over Black was entitled “An Unthinking Decision”  in which Jordan attributed racism to an inherent, timeless aversion to all things black in the psychological and cultural make up of the English.

The breadth of the counter revolution as evidenced by the well orchestrated “backlash” in the intellectual and political life of the nation led Allen to a comprehensive review of the “Origins Debate” and a more probing consideration of what he came to describe in the volumes under consideration as the invention of the “white race” and the “incubus of the white identity.”

As an independent scholar, autodidact and self-described proletarian intellectual, Allen joined this search in the early 1970s. His startling thesis first presented at a 1974 talk before the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE) was published in Radical America and republished with complete annotation as a pamphlet under the title “Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race.” This is available on line at Cultural Logic and in pamphlet form from the Institute for the Study of Working Class Life at SUNY Stony Brook.  It serves the new reader well as a concise introduction to volume two of The Invention of the White Race in particular. 

Over the course of the next  twenty years of writing and researching The Invention of the White Race, Allen reviewed a remarkable amount of the scholarly literature and conducted his own exhaustive examination of the primary sources; those colonial records that survived the Civil War.

"I Am Not White"

Allen’s thesis on the invention of the white race is based on certain key historical facts that came into focus for him once his own “white blind spot” was removed.  In the acknowledgements section of Volume One Allen identifies in first place his “obligation to two fellow proletarian intellectuals in this regard; Charles Johnson and William Carlotti who “cleared away ideological barnacles left from my previous moorings and taught me to say, as Carlotti did, “I am not 'white.’” (Note here may be made of Allen’s reference to his own past.  Allen was a West Virginia coal miner and UMW local leader during the heyday of the CIO and a member of the Communist Party from 1936 until the mid-late 50s.  Perry’s biographical essay on Allen is appended to volume one )

Allen’s thesis posits a causal connection between the “so- called 'white race,' the quintessential 'Peculiar Institution” and bourgeois social control extending from the colonial era to the present:

 “Only by understanding what was peculiar about the Peculiar Institution [the so called white race] can one know what is exceptionable about American Exceptionalism; know how in normal times, the ruling class has been able to operate without “laborite” disguises; and know how, in critical times, democratic new departures have been frustrated by reinventions of the “white race.” (Allen, Invention I, 1)

Allen’s thesis is not based on his discovery of any formerly unknown facts.  Rather it is his claim that certain aspects of the historical record of great significance were passed over while others of truly minor significance served as the impetus for massive misdirected scholarly tomes such as was the case with Winthrop D. Jordan’s White Over Black.  Additionally he points out that on certain crucial matters even so esteemed a scholar as Edmund Morgan cast a blind eye to facts of great significance in his American Slavery, American Freedom.  These were related to the impact of racial slavery on the class position of the European American laborer after the invention of the “white race.”

Allen's argument presented in his thesis article and fully elaborated in the two volumes rests, in his estimation, on;

“three main bearing points from which it cannot be toppled. First, that racial slavery constituted a ruling class response to a problem of labor solidarity.  Second, that a system of racial privileges for the property less “whites” was deliberately instituted in order to align them on the side of the plantation bourgeoisie against the African-American bond laborers.  Third, that the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the African-Americans, but was 'disastrous' for the property less “whites” as well.”   (Allen, “Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race,” 1975, note 63)

In Allen's review of the literature only the African American historian Lerone Bennett Jr. in his 1970 Ebony article, “The Road Not Taken,” and in chapter III of The Shaping of Black America (Chicago 1975) had set these three bearing points together

The Origens Debate

Allen’s introduction to volume one is an excellent literature review of the “Origins Debate” for the specialist and non specialist alike. He frames the debate as occurring between two groups; the psycho-cultural and the socio economic.  Allen identifies “with” the socio economic category, but “is not altogether of them.”  “This book” Allen states, “is intended as a contribution toward freeing the socio-economic thesis” of “serious compromising ambiguities and inconsistencies.”  He recasts the socio-economic argument in “a new conceptual mode.”  This new mode is based on a definition of racial oppression.

Allen defines racial slavery in volume one “as a particular form of racial oppression, and racial oppression as a sociogenic – rather than a phylogenic – phenomenon, homologous with gender and class oppression.”  

Allen expands this definition of racial oppression as it evolved in the colonial era through what he calls the “Irish Mirror.” “Irish history presents a case of racial oppression without reference to alleged skin color…”  “The assault upon the tribal affinities, customs, laws and institutions of the Africans, the American Indians and the Irish by English/British and Anglo American colonialism reduced all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any social class within the colonizing population.  This is the hallmark of racial oppression in its colonial origins, and as it has persisted in subsequent historical contexts.”

Allen distinguishes racial oppression from national oppression by reference to the needs of the elite for social control over the subject population.  In societies in which the racially oppressed constitute a majority of the population the racial oppressor group had to rely on a purely military/police form of social control as there was no intermediate buffer control group on which to rely.  Such systems proved to be inherently unstable and costly to sustain and led the ruling elite to coop a stratum of the subject population thereby enlisting them in a new social control system based on national oppression. 

In societies where the racially oppressed were a minority, a system of racial privileges for the laboring class members of the oppressor group was used to ensure that the lower class would not make common cause with their counterparts among the racially oppressed and would in any confrontation take the side of the elite in keeping the racially oppressed down.   Under national oppression social control rested on an intermediate strata which differentiated itself by class and status and was permitted to manage their own affairs and the control of the society on behalf of the elite.

In contrast to national oppression, racial oppression relied on strata from the laboring class of the oppressor race.  Their enlistment into the oppressor race was based on a system of privileges that did not alter their subordination to the elite.  To the contrary these privileges fastened them more tightly to the ruling class by reducing the likelihood that laboring class members of the oppressor race would join with the racially oppressed against the system of racial oppression (put in place by the ruling elite) and challenge the existing order.

Racial oppression took different forms in the colonial era depending on the particular conditions, need for social control and cost benefit calculation of the ruling elite. After the plantation elite established the system of racial oppression of African-American, the Indians in Anglo America were increasingly displaced from their ancestral home. The African-Americans in the continental Anglo American colonies, who were transported in chains and sold as chattel, became the main plantation labor force once the “white race” was invented.   The Irish Catholics in Ireland were reduced to cotters and agricultural laborers in their own land under the rent racking religio-racial oppression of the Protestant Ascendency, absentee English landlords and Ulster Plantation.  The Indian was not allowed to assimilate as illustrated in the case of the Cherokee Trail of Tears.  The African American could not pass even with only one drop of African blood.  The Irish Catholic was effectively prevented from converting. 

The common threads linking these examples of racial oppression were the destruction of original forms of social identity and the blockage of the oppressed group from assimilation into the social identity normal to the colonizing power.  Distinctions of rank or wealth were accorded no recognition. Civil rights were eliminated. Literacy was made illegal. Family rights were displaced and traditional authorities were denied.  Below the lowest member of the oppressor race, by definition, all members of the oppressed were made subordinate.

 Racial oppression as a form of social control in societies in which the majority is from the oppressor race is based on the counterfeit of social mobility accorded the laboring class members of the oppressor race in the form of racial privileges.  The privileges are the basis on which the laboring class members of the oppressor race are enlisted by the elite to hold down the subject population. They perform this social control function even though they share a class position with the large majority of the racially oppressed.

Colonial Plantations

In colonial Virgina and Maryland the particular conditions of labor shortage and capitalist monoculture first led the Anglo American planter bourgeoisie to create a peculiar form of chattel bondage for the largely European-American workforce

Exploitation of Indian labor as a primary source of profit was not possible due to the initial vulnerability of the English colonialists; to the fact that the Powhatan were not highly organized (as were the Aztec and the Inca); and to the fact that the English lacked the ability to subdue the native population who had an entire continent to their backs.  As the plantation system grew and pushed the Indians off the coastal tidewater plains, the planter bourgeoisie relied on the Indians as a buffer to return escaping bond laborers and for trade with the interior even they continued to amass great wealth through extended land grabs that pushed the native population further inland.

The reduction of the largely English workforce from wage laborers and tenants to bond servitude was already in place in the 1620's and is described in volume two chapter 5 entitled “The Massacre of the Tenantry.”  The interest on the part of the plantation bourgeoisie to extend the length of service of bond-laborers is well documented. The status of African-American bond laborers prior to the invention of the “white race” was according to Allen “indeterminate” in that it was being fought out.

Extending the term of bond-servitude was an effort by the exploiters of labor power to increase their rate of profit under the particular conditions of labor shortage they faced in the pattern setting Chesapeake Bay colonies in the 17th century. Efforts to extend the term of service to life on African American laborers and even to extend that to their offspring  is consistent with such bourgeois aims.  The English had imposed slavery on English vagabonds in England in 1547, Scottish coal miners and salt pan workers were enslaved from the first decade of the 17th century to the last decade of the 18th century and the English were heavily involved in the “Irish slave trade” of the 1650s.  Most importantly from the perspective of the invention of the ”white race,” efforts to extend the term of servitude of  bond laborers, European or African, only inflamed the situation and incited further resistance.  High mortality rates also lessened the significance of a limited term vs a life term of bondage.

In volume two Allen relies on the primary sources to show how the “white race” was invented as a bourgeois social control formation by the planter bourgeoisie in the latter part of the 17th century. The 'white race' as described by  Allen was based on a series of racial privileges first put in place in the latter third of the 17th century  by the Planter bourgeoisie to divide and control  a rebellious  agrarian proletariat composed of European-American and African-American laborers in the Chesapeake Bay colonies of Virginia and Maryland.  The character of these privileges laid the basis for the “white identity” that altered the class stand but not the class position of the European-American laborers (both bond and free), who were  officially now defined as “white” through a series of laws passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1705 and 1724.  Allen finds no mention of the term “white” used in reference to European-Americans in any legal statute or court papers until 1691.  Hence his 1994 volume one book jacket comment– “When the first African-American arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no “white” people there.”

The plantation was a capitalist enterprise.  Although the bond labor form was a contradiction of the basic requisites of capitalist development it was necessitated by the conditions of labor shortage that prevailed in the colonial period.  There was no reserve army of labor and the thirst for profit did not incline the planter bourgeoisie to wait for one. Over time the higher wage levels in the colonies would eventually have drawn off a larger pool of laborers to create one but a thirst for profit emerging out of the vagaries of the tobacco monoculture combined with a crisis of overproduction leading to the decline in prices did not incline the planter bourgeoisie to wait. The capitalist monoculture based on tobacco production was subject to the vagaries of the market including the crisis of overproduction that drove tobacco prices down for much of the 17th century. This in turn led the planter bourgeoisie to increase the term of servitude by recourse to a number of ways which in turn fomented rebellions and resistance from the bond laborers themselves.

Although bond labor had existed in surplus producing societies prior to capitalism the bondage that prevailed in pre capitalist societies was a two way bondage; the workers could not leave and the master could not send them away. Bond labor in the capitalist monoculture plantation society created a one-way bondage in which the worker could not quit but the capitalist could end the tie with the worker through their sale or exchange

The profit motive and the crisis of overproduction which depressed the price of tobacco for much of the 17th century combined to lead the planter bourgeoisie to increase the term of servitude by recourse to a number of ways that fomented rebellion and resistance from the bond laborers themselves.  The planter bourgeoisie, following the drive for capital accumulation, was in the process of digging their own graves.

Hereditary Bondage

There is much more in the way of specific content that shows in detail how the “white race” was invented by the ruling elite that no single review can summarize but there is one crucial piece related to family life that is instructive.  The imposition of lifetime hereditary bond-servitude on the African American was dependent on the denial of English Common Law principle of partus sequitur patrem. (the status of the child follows that of the father).

In 1656 Elizabeth Keyes a bond laborer, daughter of a African American bond laborer and a European American father to whom her mother was bound, successfully sued for her freedom dues by asserting the right under English common law “the child of a woman slave begotten by a freeman ought to be free.”  Both of her parents had died and her father’s estate had passed through a number of overseers.

Although her father’s will left specific instructions for her release from bondage, the overseers of the estate refused to grant Elizabeth Key her freedom.  In the Northumberland County court the defense claimed that the status of the child (Elizabeth Key) should follow that of her mother who was alleged to be that of a lifetime bond laborer.  A jury of 12 men supported Key’s claim for freedom and arrears for the time she had been held following English Common Law.

The Northumberland ruling was appealed to the Virginia General Court by the overseers of her father’s estate.  The exact ruling of the General Court was destroyed by fire in 1865 but a transcript made in 1860 and dated 12 March 1656 is believed by historians to refer to the General Courts acceptance of the defense’s argument and overturning of the Northumberland County Court ruling.  Only days later a special commission of the Assembly was chosen to make a determination of the matter and expressed the sense “of the Burgesses of the present Assembly,” holding that Key was entitled to freedom, freedom dues and compensation “for the time shee hath served longer than she ought to have done.”

One of the estate overseers appealed to Governor Berkeley who ordered a suspension of further proceedings pending a rehearing by the General Court.  There is no record of a further rehearing but the Northumberland Court that had initially supported Key’s suit disregarded Berkeley’s instructions and ordered that Key be released immediately and compensated.  The attention and controversy indicated by the surviving records gives us a sense of the importance of the case to both planters and laborers at the time.

Six years later, the Assembly, in 1662 reversed itself and the ancient English common law by asserting that “all children born in this country shall be held bond or free by the condition of their mother.”  The reversal of this long standing law of patrilineal descent was not done for the sake of egalitarianism.  The 1662 ruling of the Assembly followed pragmatically as a matter of course from the proprietary interest of the owners of bond labor in securing control over those laborers and extending it to their offspring.  It removed a major legal obstacle to the later imposition of lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude.  In Allen’s view: “If the principles affirmed in the findings of the Northumberland County jury and the special committee of the General Assembly had prevailed, the establishment of racial slavery would have been prevented.” (II,196)

The following year the English Government rechartered the Company of Royal Adventurers to Africa to challenge the Dutch monopoly over the trade in human chattels.  This challenge led to the Second Anglo Dutch War concluded with The Treaty of Breda (1667) that gave the Anglo American colonies direct access to African labor.  In 1672 the Royal Africa Company was given the monopoly to supply African labor to the Anglo- American colonies. 

The reversal of English common law and the increase in the supply of chattel labor from Africa were crucial steps towards the imposition of lifetime hereditary chattel bond servitude but merely increasing the numbers of lifetime bond servants did not establish the system of social control and in fact actually stoked the spirit of rebellion among the laboring population, European and African.  In the latter part of the 17th century in Virginia that spirit reached a peak during the civil war phase of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676-77.

Racial slavery in the Chesapeake was not according to Allen an “unthinking decision,” but rather it was the solution developed by the plantation bourgeoisie in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) to the two over riding challenges faced by them in 17th century Virginia since the establishment of the tobacco monoculture, namely labor shortage and social control.

Bacon's Rebellion

Allen cites the numerous examples and forms of common resistance by the European and African American proletarians as prima facie evidence that the “white” race did not exist.  The most significant and widespread example of this resistance was the second phase of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 when an army composed of European-American and African American bondservants and freemen, drove the planter bourgeoisie from the mainland to the safety of ships offshore and burnt the capital city of Jamestown to the ground.

Sir William Berkeley, the Royal Governor of the Virginia Colony during Bacon's Rebellion, that very same Governor who 20 years earlier had tried and failed: to block Elizabeth Key from attaining her freedom; to overrule the finding of the special committee of the Assembly; to stop the Northumberland County court from following the decision of a jury, now gazed woefully on the shore from which he had been forced to flee by an army of Elizabeth Keys.  Berkeley wrote in despair to a friend “How miserable that man is that Governes a People where six parts of seaven are Poor, Endebted, Discontented and Armed.”  May we live to hear the plaintive cries of woe from the oligarchs of our own day! Bacon’s Rebellion was the turning point that brought home the necessity of social control to the planters, without which as Allen notes, “no profit may be derived.”  

Through the guile of the elite and their own faltering leadership the rebels were eventually subdued and subjected to vicious reprisals.  Charles II is reported to have reacted to news of Berkeley’s vendetta by noting; “that old fool has hanged more men in that naked country than I did for the Murther of my father.” (II, 370n104). Subsequent revolts only highlighted the instability of elite power in the face of labor unrest.  Their answer to the problem took shape early in the acts of reprisal taken against the rebels which took the harshest form against the African-American. Gradually a body of laws and customs were drummed up to divide the European from the African through the gradual imposition of a series of privileges for the European bond servants and severe racial proscriptions on the African.

Codifying the "White Race" in Law

The planter bourgeoisie response over the course of the next 30 years accorded new status for European American bond labor increasingly referred to as “whites”, a new term that does not appear in the Virginia statues until 1691. Nascent “white” laborers were marked as favored through the degradation of the African American.  In this way, combined by the force of laws and all the powers that accrue to the wealthy, a counterfeit of mobility was cast like a veil over European American laborers and a spike was driven through the incipient solidarity that had joined them in arms together with the African Americans during Bacon’s Rebellion.

 The “white race” was enshrined by statute in 1705 and 1723.  English lawmakers charged with reviewing the laws and rulings of the colonial courts and Assembly questioned why property owning African Americans should be denied the right to vote and acquire property like other free persons.     

The Governor of Virginia at this time, William Gooch responded and declared that the Virginia Assembly had decided “to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos.”  Allen considers Gooch’s response to be an important example from the historical record that has been given scant notice by historians. An analysis of Gooch’s explanation, in Allen’s view, “gets to the heart of the motives of the Anglo-American continental plantation bourgeoisie in imposing not just a system of lifetime bond-servitude only on persons of African descent, but a system of racial oppression, by “denying recognition of, refusing to acknowledge, delegitimizing, so far as African-Americans were concerned, normal social distinctions characteristic of capitalist society.” (II,242)  This was no “Unthinking Decision.”

Gooch also defended the law of 1723 on grounds that bring to mind the case of Elizabeth Key, the “mulatto” offspring of an African American mother and European-American father whose suit for freedom was upheld by a jury.  Gooch had prefaced his defense of the law by reference to an alleged revolt plot among African American bond laborers in 1722, “wherein the Free Negros & Mulattos were much suspected to have been concerned…”  Gooch added that they law was passed to “make the free Negros sensible that a distinction ought to be made between their offspring and the descendants of an Englishman.”  “Those descended from a white Father or Mother,” were in his estimation “the worst of our imported Servants and convicts.”  Gooch argued that the law served as a way of “discouraging that kind of copulation.”

The Act of 1723 also specifically denied, amongst a host of other things, the right of any Negro to defend him or herself against any “white” person, or to bear witness against the attacker in a court of law.

Allen points out that the denial of the right of self-defense to all African-Americans becomes a point of convergence between white supremacy and male supremacy.  It essentially legalized the rape of any African-American woman by any European-American male.  The American form of male supremacy develops in the peculiar form of white male supremacy from this point on.

These statutes capped over two generations of effort on the part of the Planter bourgeoisie to extend chattel bond servitude to lifetime hereditary bond servitude and now they had found the means to an end;  one that divided European against African laborers and enlisted the former as captor and enforcer of the system over the latter.

In churches and from the courthouses the new laws were read out to drive home the message of the new racial order.  What had been the rights of Englishmen now became the privileges of “whites.”  A counterfeit of social mobility was the privilege created by the imposition of racial slavery on the African American. Additionally to that counterfeit of social mobility was added the very clear cut “right of any white male to assume familiarity with any African-American woman.  Racial oppression is merged with gender oppression.

For the plantation elite this right added rape as a form exploitation that increased their wealth and they exercised this form of exploitation with abandon.  We have that rapist of Monticello, author of the Declaration of Independence, still hailed today in classrooms across America as the apostle of American Democracy.  For the poor whites this “right” further obscured the injustice and cruelty of the system that the “white identity” was established to defend.  It was a “right” that planted the seed of hatred between men and women; deepened the divide between the poor “white” and the racially oppressed Black, woman, man and child; a hatred that comes down to us in that strongest invective of American slang: Motherfucker!

The plantation elite prospered off the labor of the slaves but the majority of the whites who did not own slaves did not. The poor “white” was made to hate the slave rather than the system of racial slavery that was responsible for his marginalization and impoverishment. But as Allen describes in detail the effect of the invention of the “white race” secured the dominance of the plantation bourgeoisie whose wealth and plantations grew in inverse proportion to the impoverishment of the “free white” laborer.  The counterfeit of mobility did not allow the poor white to rise up in the social order, only to flee to the mountains, the west, to drive the Indians further inland and then squat on “unclaimed” land, clear it, only to be displaced again by the land engrossing plantation bourgeoisie who had taught them to hate the enslaved rather than the system of racial slavery that was responsible for their own marginalization and impoverishment.

The poor whites fled a system that had little place for them except as patrols and overseers over the enslaved whom they had once fought side by side with as European Americans, (not as “whites”) for a true freedom.  They fled from a system they did not understand but they carried with them the seeds of their own misfortune, the “white identity.”  The transformation of the misery of the Berkeley's to the Golden Age of the Chesapeake was achieved by the invention of the “white race” which has come down to us as the “Ordeal of America.”

Edmund Morgan’s American Freedom American Slavery had done so much to challenge the natural racism of the psycho cultural group, now dropped the ball.  He claimed that the enslavement of the African left “too free poor [Europeans] to matter”  thereby leaving open the interpretation that enslavement of the African had benefited the “white” laborer.

Rejecting White Skin Privilege

Theodore W Allen’s the Invention of the White Race began as a spark of intuition” that came to him “in the charged ambience of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.” The concluding paragraph from Volume Two points the reader to the author’s motivating impulse:“… the present day United States bears the indelible stamp of the African-American civil rights struggle of the 1960s and after, a seal that the “white backlash” has by no means been able to expunge from the nation’s consciousness. Perhaps in the impending renewal of the struggle of the “common people” and the “Titans” the Great Safety Valve of 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 a vis those of the ruling class.”

Frankly speaking, three centuries of paralyzed will does not exactly inspire hope in the laboring class European-American’s prospects for a successful defense of their class interests.  Allen’s reference here to labor history is sure to incite outraged responses that damn him as a reprobate and recite the list of past martyrs for labor’s cause. But as Allen said at the beginning of his project in 1969; “If it was Solidarity Forever, why must it be again?” 

The intent of his reference to “paralyzed will” in the concluding paragraph cited above is not to disparage the revolutionary potential that inheres in the European American sector of the proletariat, but only to free its putative leaders, the so called conscious element, from their “white” identity. The issue at stake is not whether or not the European-American worker can be radicalized, but whether the ‘white’ radical can be.       

Allen’s use of the terms “perhaps” and “may” in the concluding paragraph admits the possibility for change but it is a far cry from any pre determined optimism that the choice made will be the right one from the perspective of proletarian solidarity.  The right choice is an informed, conscious one based on particular conditions, strategic and tactical considerations all viewed in the light of history.  Yet regarding the impending renewal of the struggle between the “common people” and the “Titans” there is no doubt in the author’s view expressed here that this conflict is indeed irrepressible and that where there is repression there is resistance. Nor is there any doubt expressed concerning the immediate and long term interest of the European-American proletarian in seeing and rejecting what he terms the “Great Safety Valve of white skin privileges.” 

The revolutionary prospects for the European American proletarian then hinges, in the authors view, on the urgent necessity and willingness to see, for once “seen,” the “white” identity, which seemed solid and timeless, a “natural attribute,” shows itself to be the “incubus” that has “paralyzed their will.”

While it has not been common for the privileged laborers of the oppressor race to have thrown off their privileges and their oppressor race identity and made common cause with the oppressed race, there has also not been such a well supported case made for why it is in their interests to do so and for this we may be thankful to Theodore W. Allen for never giving up even when he knew he would not live to see the day.

Note:  Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race (2 Vols. The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1:Racial Oppression and Social Control and The Invention of the White Race, Volume2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America) has been recognized by increasing numbers of scholars and activists as a seminal work since it was first published by Verso Books in the 1990s.  The second edition offers a number of entry points and is designed to attract a broader audience.  It features an expanded index, internal study guide, a selected bibliography and a biographical sketch of the author prepared by Jeffrey B. Perry, Allen’s literary executor and author of the acclaimed Hubert Harrison The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, and editor of A Hubert Harrison Reader.

This review was first published in

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