Slide Presentation/Book Talk on
"The Invention of the White Race, Social Control, and The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America”
A presentation by Jeffrey B. Perry
based on the new, expanded edition of
Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race
For information on hosting a slide presentation/book talk contact email@example.com
Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race, with its focus on racial oppression and social control, is one of the twentieth-century’s major contributions to historical understanding. Its two volumes (Racial Oppression and Social Control and The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America) emphasize the centrality of struggle against white supremacy to efforts at social change and present 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.”
Readers of the first edition of The Invention of the White Race (in 1994) were startled by Allen’s bold assertion on the back cover: “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 statement, based on twenty-plus years of research of Virginia’s colonial records, reflected the fact that Allen found “no instance of the official use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status” prior to its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691. As he later 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 – 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 deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to define and maintain the “white race” and implement a system of “racial oppression” and 2) the consequences were not only ruinous to African-Americans, they were also “disastrous” for European-American workers.
In the course of discussing these topics Allen, in Volume I, reviews the history of the debate over "Which came first – racism or slavery?" He uses the mirror of Irish history for a definition of racial oppression and for an explanation of the phenomenon in terms of social control, rather than phenotype, or classification by complexion. Compelling analogies are presented between the oppression of the Irish, in Ireland, and white supremacist oppression of Indians and African-Americans. Examples are offered to show that racial oppression is a deliberate ruling-class social control policy that differs from national oppression in terms of the recruitment of the intermediate social control buffer. Examination of similarities and differences in the social control systems developed in the Anglo-American plantation colonies, the Anglo-Caribbean, and Ireland show how racial oppression may, or may not be, replaced by national oppression under the same ruling class. In addition, Allen shows the “relativity of race” in the “sea-change” by which Irish haters of racial oppression in Ireland were transformed into opponents of Abolitionism and supporters of racial oppression in America.
With the conceptual groundwork laid, free of the “White Blindspot,” Allen focuses, in Volume Two, on the plantation colonies of Anglo-America during the period from the founding of Jamestown to the cancellation of the original ban on slavery in the colony of Georgia in 1750. He pays particular attention to the pivotal events of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 and the 1705 revisal of Virginia laws, particularly the “Act concerning Servants and Slaves.” He also discusses the English background, the origin and peculiarities of Virginia’s original plantation labor supply, and the implications for the evolution of the bond-labor system in Anglo-America; why the Spanish example could not be followed in regard to the labor force; the consequence of the economic addiction to tobacco; the chattellization of labor; the oppression and resistance of the bond-laborers, African-Americans and European-Americans, together; the growing interest on the part of the Anglo-American continental plantation bourgeoisie in reducing African-Americans to lifetime, hereditary bond-servitude; the John Punch and Elizabeth Key cases; the divided mind of the English law on the enslavability of Christians; the sharpening class struggle - in the absence of a system of racial oppression - between the plantation elite on the one hand, and the debt-burdened small planters and the majority of the economically productive population, the bond-laborers, three-fourths English, one-fourth African-American; the dispute over “Indian policy” between “frontier” planters and the ruling elite; the eruption of the social contradictions in Bacon’s Rebellion, in which the main rebel force came to be made up of English and African-American bond-laborers, together demanding an end to bond-servitude; the defeat of the rebels, followed by a period of continued instability of social control; apprehension of a recurrence of rebellion; the social control-problem in attempting to exploit newly-gained African sources of labor by reducing African-Americans to life-time, hereditary bondage, especially considering the refuge available for escaping bond-laborers in the mountains at the back of the colonies, and in a continent beyond; the invention of the white race - as the solution to the problem of social control, its failure in the British West Indies, its establishment in the continental plantation colonies, signaled by the enactment of “Act concerning Servants and Slaves,” which formally instituted the system of privileges for European-Americans, of even the lowest social status, vis-à-vis any person of any degree of African ancestry, not only bond-laborers, but “free Negroes,” as well; the remolding of male supremacy as white-male supremacy as an essential element of the system of white-skin privileges; the creation of white male privileges with regard to African-American women; and how the “Ordeal of Colonial Virginia” gave birth to the Ordeal of America.
Invention’s thesis on the origin and nature of the “white race” and the origin of the system of racial oppression in Anglo-America 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 egalitarian motif, focus on class struggle, and emphasis on the centrality of struggle against white supremacy it contributes significantly to our understanding of American History, African American History, and Labor History and speaks to people today who strive for change worldwide. Its influence will continue to grow in the twenty-first century.