Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Theodore W. Allen: The Invention of the White Race, Vol. 1 and 2

(I'm currently moving residences so I have had my Internet service turned off--thus my silence these days, plus I have been enjoying the beautiful spring days we have been gifted with, very important to take advantage of them before the dog days of summer hit Kentucky. Lots of bike riding and reading in parks/coffee shops...)

Theodore W. Allen's book The Invention of the White Race (Summary of Volume 1 and Summary of Volume 2), which I first read as an assigment in Dr. Ronald Strickland's course on Marxism, was paradigm-shifting in moving me past the last vestiges of my early indocrination into tribal allegiances based upon skin/ethnicity. His book, along with my later reading of Many-Headed Hydra and The Wages of Whiteness, outlined how the construction and naturalization of a superior white race had served to keep the working classes from recognizing their true power in numbers, effectively fragmenting them through petty, destructive hatreds.

I was never the same after reading Theodore W. Allen. He pushed me to a higher level, and when I think upon these issues, I am standing on his shoulders.

Michael Dean Benton

In Memoriam: Theodore W. Allen
by Jeffrey B. Perry
Cultural Logic

Theodore W. Allen, a working class intellectual and activist and author of the influential two-volume history The Invention of the White Race (Verso:1994, 1997), died on January 19, 2005, surrounded by friends in his apartment at 97 Brooklyn Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He was 85. The cause of death was cancer, which he had battled for 15 years. Announcement of the death was made by his close friend Linda Vidinha.

Allen, an ardent opponent of white supremacy, spent much of his last forty years researching the role of white supremacy in United States history and examining records of colonial Virginia as he documented and analyzed the development of the "white race" in the latter part of the seventeenth century. His main thesis, that the "white race" developed as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor unrest as manifest in Bacon's Rebellion of 1676-77, was first articulated in February 1974 in a talk he delivered at a Union of Radical Political Economists meeting in New Haven. Versions of that talk were published in 1975 in Radical America and in pamphlet form as "Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race."

In the 1960s "Ted" Allen significantly influenced the direction of the student movement and the new left with an article entitled "Can White Radicals Be Radicalized?" which developed the argument that white supremacy, reinforced among European Americans by the "white skin privilege," was the main retardant of working class consciousness in the United States and that efforts at radical social change should direct principal efforts at challenging the system of white supremacy and urging "repudiation of white skin privilege" by European Americans.

Allen was in the forefront in challenging phenotypical (physical appearance-based) definitions of race, in challenging "racism is innate" arguments, in challenging theories that the working class benefits from white supremacy, in calling attention to the crucial role of the buffer social control group in racial oppression, in documenting and analyzing the development of the "white race" in the latter part of the seventeenth century, and in clarifying how "this all-class association of European-Americans held together by 'racial' privileges conferred on laboring class European-Americans relative to African-Americans--[has served] as the principal historic guarantor of ruling-class domination of national life" in the United States. These contributions differentiate his work from many writers in the rapidly growing white race as "a social and cultural construction" ranks, which his writings helped to spawn.

In The Invention of the White Race Allen focused on Virginia, the first and pattern-setting continental colony. He emphasized that "When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no white people there" and he added that he found "no instance of the official use of the word 'white' as a token of social status before its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691." He also found, similar to historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., that throughout most of the seventeenth century conditions for African-American and European-American laborers and bond-servants were very similar. Under such conditions solidarity among the laboring classes reached a peak during Bacon's Rebellion: the capitol (Jamestown) was burned; two thousand rebels forced the governor to flee across the Chesapeake Bay and controlled 6/7 of Virginia's land; and, in the latter stages of the struggle, "foure hundred English and Negroes in Arms" demanded their freedom from bondage.

To Allen, the social control problems highlighted by Bacon's Rebellion "demonstrated beyond question the lack of a sufficient intermediate stratum to stand between the ruling plantation elite and the mass of European-American and African-American laboring people, free and bond." He then detailed how, in the period after Bacon's Rebellion the white race was invented as "a bourgeois social control formation in response to [such] laboring class unrest." He described systematic ruling class policies, which extended privileges to European laborers and bond-servants and imposed and extended harsher disabilities and blocked normal class mobility for African-Americans. Thus, for example, 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," Allen emphasized that this was not an "unthinking decision"! "Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie; it proceeded from a conscious decision in the process of establishing a system of racial oppression, even though it meant repealing an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century."

For Allen, "The hallmark, the informing principle, of racial oppression in its colonial origins and as it has persisted in subsequent historical contexts, is the reduction of all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, beneath that of any member of the oppressor group." The key to understanding racial oppression, he wrote, is the social control buffer -- that group in society, which helps to control the poor for the rich. Under racial oppression in Virginia, any persons of discernible non-European ancestry in colonial Virginia after Bacon's Rebellion were denied a role in the social control buffer group, the bulk of which was made up of working-class "whites." In contrast, Allen explained, in the Caribbean "Mulattos" were included in the social control group and were promoted into middle-class status. For him, this was "the key to the understanding the difference between Virginia 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)." The difference "was rooted in the objective fact that in the West Indies there were too few 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." (In 1676 in Virginia, for example, there were approximately 6,000 European-American bond-laborers and 2,000 African-American bond-laborers.)

In 1996, on radio station WBAI in New York, Allen discussed the subject of "American Exceptionalism" and the much-vaunted "immunity" of the United States to proletarian class-consciousness and its effects. His explanation for the relatively low level of class consciousness was that social control in the United States was guaranteed, not primarily by the class privileges of a petit bourgeoisie, but by the white-skin privileges of laboring class whites; that the ruling class co-opts European-American workers into the buffer social control system against the interests of the working class to which they belong; and that the "white race" by its all-class form, conceals the operation of the ruling class social control system by providing it with a majoritarian "democratic" facade.

Entire Essay

Cultural Logic Interview of Allen

Allen's "In Defense of Affirmative Action in Employment Policy"

Allen's "'Race' and 'Ethnicity': History and the 2000 Census"

Allen's "Be Fair: Reverse Discrimination"


Anonymous said...

Good stuff. I also recommend Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color, which is along the same lines.

Also, if you're interested in a historiographical review of several of the major books in the field of whiteness studies (and, it might be said, an elucidation of their major faults), check out this essay.

Michael said...

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Anonymous said...

I've printed some A4:s of "The Invention of the White Race" and i'm gonna buy this book for Christmas