In “White Skin Privilege?” Socialistworker.org October 30, 2013, Bill Mullen mischaracterizes the work of the anti-white supremacist, working class intellectual Theodore W. Allen (1919-2005) on “white skin privilege.” This is particularly unfortunate since Allen’s extraordinary body of work is extremely important to those struggling today and since there is much to learn from his seminal writings.
In his “White Skin Privilege?” article Mullen asserts, without elaboration, that Theodore W. Allen became a critic of “‘white skin privilege’ analysis.”
In fact, Allen pioneered his “white skin privilege” analysis in 1965 and continued to develop it for the remaining forty years of his life. I base my statement on the writings, audios, and videos at Theodore W. Allen (with audio and video links), on my intimate familiarity with Allen and his work for over thirty years, and on the fact that I am currently, preserving, indexing, and inventorying his Papers.
Mullen cites as a reference for his statement that Allen became a critic of “‘white skin privilege’ analysis” Allen’s review “On Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness.” In the review cited by Mullen, however, Allen says nothing to substantiate Mullen’s claim. Instead, Allen emphasizes important points he had made earlier: that “the problem of white supremacy and the white-skin privilege . . . have historically frustrated the struggle for democracy, progress and socialism in the U.S." and that “the white-skin privilege is the Achilles Heel of the American working class."
In discussing, what he calls “‘the white skin privilege’ argument” Mullen writes: “Fundamentally, the idea is that racism is inevitable under capitalism because all whites, no matter their class, benefit from the unequal distribution of social resources along racial lines.”
Allen’s position, however, is quite different from this. Allen argues that racial oppression is not inevitable under capitalism and he describes how racial oppression begins, how it is maintained, and how it can be transformed.
Allen also consistently challenges the “white” assumption and describes how the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor solidarity.
Finally, and very importantly, Allen emphasizes that European-American workers do not “benefit” from “white skin privileges,” that these “white skin privileges” are a “poison bait,” a “baited hook,” and they are not in the interest of working class people.
These points are made clearly in The Invention of the White Race where Allen develops his major thesis that 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 establish a system of racial oppression; 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 developing these theses Allen challenges 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 was a historical materialist who believed that class struggle was the driving force of history and the key to understanding the origin of racial oppression in the Anglo-American plantation colonies.
Readers interested in learning more about Allen’s work are encouraged to look at the in-depth treatment in “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” (Cultural Logic, 2010) available at JeffreyBPerry.net (top left). For those interested in Allen’s two-volume “classic” The Invention of the White Race (Verso Books, 1994, 1997; 2012) see Vol. 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control and Vol. 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America and see Allen’s online “Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race” (in two parts).
Jeffrey B. Perry is the author of Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 (Columbia University Press, 2008). He edited and introduced Allen's Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race (1975; Center for the Study of Working Class Life, State University of New York, Stony Brook, 2006), wrote "The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy", and contributed new introductions, back matter, internal study guides, and expanded indexes for the new (Verso Books, November 2012) expanded edition of Allen's two-volume The Invention of the White Race.
Published in SocialistWorker.org (November 11, 2013). In that publication the SocialistWorker.org editor removed the word "Seminal" from the title of my original submission.