Theodore W. Allen on "White-Skin Privilege" and "'White Race' Privilege"
I would like to thank Dan La Botz for commenting on my response to his review article "Lessons of the American Revolutionary Left of the 1970s: A Review of Truth and Revolution."
In my first response I tried to do three things:
First I tried to make clear that, based on the historical record, Theodore W. Allen pioneered the “white-skin privilege” analysis in 1965 and he was the originator and principal developer of the theory.
Second, I tried to make clear that Allen did not consider “white-skin privileges” to be “benefits” for working people. Allen argues that “white-skin privileges” were created and maintained by the ruling-class to serve its interests for purposes of social control. He emphasized that “white-skin privileges,” conferred on European-American workers by the ruling class, are ruinous to the class interests of European-American workers and all workers and that “the day-to-day real interests of the white workers is not their white-skin privileges, but in the development of an ever expanding union of class conscious workers.”
Third, I tried to call attention to the importance of Allen’s writings, particularly the new Verso Books publication of his two-volume, magnum opus The Invention of the White Race, which is due out in November.
As I understand La Botz’ response to my posting, he accepts my first and second points on Allen’s pioneering role and that Allen did not consider “white-skin privileges” as a benefit.
Regarding my third point -- I do not read La Botz’ response as one that encourages the reading of Allen. I feel that is unfortunate because, as I stated, Allen was a major anti-white supremacist working-class intellectual/activist whose writings have much to offer us today.
I am not alone in this sentiment. I encourage people to read the comments on Allen’s work by such scholars and labor, left, and anti-white supremacist activists as Bill Fletcher, Jr., Audrey Smedley, Tim Wise, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Gene Bruskin, Tami Gold, Muriel Tillinghast, Joe Berry, George Schmidt, Noel Inatiev, Carl Davidson, Mark Solomon, Gerald Horne, Wilson Moses, David Roediger Joe Wilson, Charles Lumpkins, Michael Zweig, Margery Freeman, Michael Goldfield, Spencer Sunshine, Ed Peeples, Russell Dale, Gwen Midlo-Hall, Sam Anderson, Gregory Meyerson, Younes Abouyoub, Peter Bohmer, Dennis O’Neill, Ted Pearson, Juliet Ucelli, Stella Winston, Sean J. Connolly, Vivien Sandlund, Dave Marsh, Russell R. Menard, Jonathan Scott, John D. Brewer, Richard Williams, William L. Vanderburg, Rodney Barker, and Matthew Frye Jacobson.
I also encourage people to read easily accessible Allen articles including:
Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race
"Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race"
"In Defense of Affirmative Action in Employment Policy"
"'Race' and 'Ethnicity': History and the 2000 Census"
“On Roediger's Wages of Whiteness"
In addition, my article “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” offers a section (beginning on p. 99) on Allen’s last major unpublished work, “Toward a Revolution in Labor History.”
In reading La Botz’ original review and response to my posting it seems that the position he initially inaccurately attributed to Theodore W. Allen – the idea that “white skin privileges” are a “benefit” to “white” workers – was in fact La Botz’ position, not Allen’s. If I read La Botz correctly, he says “white skin privilege” was a set of “benefits” that somehow “accrued to those deemed to be white” and, to La Botz, it is “obvious” that “‘white skin privilege’ provided immediate, short term . . . benefits to whites.”
Here is where I think that Allen’s anti-white supremacist, class-conscious historical analysis is particularly instructive.
Allen is talking about European-American workers, not about the “white” ruling class and not about the multi-class formation “whites” that La Botz says accrue “benefits.” Allen historically details how ruling-class “whites” benefit from the system of “white-skin privileges” – it is in their class interests. He is emphatic, however, that for European-American workers, “white-skin privileges” are not in their interest and they should be challenged.
Allen’s details the origin of the system of “white race privileges” as he argues:
1. The “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation and a system of “racial slavery,” a form of racial oppression, was implemented in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the latter (civil war) stages of Bacon's Rebellion (1676-77).
2. A system of racial privileges was deliberately instituted as a conscious ruling-class policy in order to define and establish the “white race” as a social control formation
3. The consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the African-American workers, it was also disastrous for “white” workers.
He also describes how “The normal course of capitalist events brings on a deterioration of the conditions of the laboring classes” and deep crises such as those of the 1870s, 1890s, and 1930s. In each of these “three periods of national crisis [the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Populist Revolt of 1890s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s] characterized by general confrontations between capital and urban and rural laboring classes” Allen details how “The key to the defeat of the forces of democracy, labor and socialism was in each case achieved by ruling-class appeals to white supremacism, basically by fostering white-skin privileges of laboring-class European-Americans.”
“The “Developing Conjuncture . . .” (pp. 34, 87-89) article cited above describes how Allen developed the “white race” privilege concept and how he emphasized that these privileges were a “poison bait” and they “do not permit” the masses of European-American workers nor their children “to escape” from that class. He explained, “It is not that the ordinary white worker gets more than he must have to support himself,” but “the black worker gets less than the white worker.” By, thus “inducing, reinforcing and perpetuating racist attitudes on the part of the white workers, the present-day power masters get the political support of the rank-and-file of the white workers in critical situations, and without having to share with them their super profits in the slightest measure.” As one example, to support his position Allen used statistics showing that in the South where race privilege “has always been most emphasized . . . the white workers have fared worse than the white workers in the rest of the country.”
Probing more deeply, Allen offered an additional important insight into why these race privileges are conferred by the ruling class. He pointed out that “the ideology of white racism” is “not appropriate to the white workers” because it is “contrary to their class interests.” Because of this “the bourgeoisie could not long have maintained this ideological influence over the white proletarians by mere racist ideology.” Under these circumstances white supremacist thought is “given a material basis in the form of the deliberately contrived system of race privileges for white workers.”
Allen added, “the white supremacist system that had originally been designed in around 1700 by the plantation bourgeoisie to protect the base, the chattel bond labor relation of production” also served “as a part of the ‘legal and political’ superstructure of the United States government that, until the Civil War, was dominated by the slaveholders with the complicity of the majority of the European-American workers.” Then, after emancipation, “the industrial and financial bourgeoisie found that it could be serviceable to their program of social control, anachronistic as it was, and incorporated it into their own ‘legal and political’ superstructure.”
It Serves the Interest of the Ruling Class, Not the Interests of the Working Class
Allen felt that two essential points must be kept in mind. First, “the race-privilege policy is deliberate bourgeois class policy.” Second, “the race-privilege policy is, contrary to surface appearance, contrary to the interests, short range as well as long range interests of not only the Black workers, but of the white workers as well.” He repeatedly emphasized that “the day-to-day real interests” of the European American worker “is not the white-skin privileges, but in the development of an ever-expanding union of class conscious workers.”
Allen made clear what he understood as the “interests of the working class” and referred to Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto: “1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.” He elsewhere pointed out, “The Wobblies caught the essence of it in their slogan: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’”
Throughout his work Allen emphasizes, “the initiator and the ultimate guarantor of the white skin-privileges of the white worker is not the white worker, but the white worker’s masters” and the masters do this because it is “an indispensable necessity for their continued class rule.” He describes how “an all-pervasive system of racial privileges was conferred on laboring-class European-Americans, rural and urban, exploited and insecure though they themselves were” and how “its threads, woven into the fabric of every aspect of daily life, of family, church, and state, have constituted the main historical guarantee of the rule of the ‘Titans,’ damping down anti-capitalist pressures, by making ‘race, and not class, the distinction in social life.’” That, “more than any other factor,” he argues, “has shaped the contours of American history – from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to the Civil War, to the overthrow of Reconstruction, to the Populist Revolt of the 1890s, to the Great Depression, to the civil rights struggle and ‘white backlash’ of our own day.”
Based on his research Allen wrote, “history has shown that the white-skin privilege does not serve the real interests of the white workers, it also shows that the concomitant racist ideology has blinded them to that fact.” He emphasized, “‘Solidarity forever!’ means ‘Privileges never!’”
From the perspective of wanting to encourage reading of the writings of Theodore W. Allen, it is unfortunate that in his review La Botz, in addition to incorrectly characterizing a main aspect of Allen’s “white skin privilege” theory, also provides a link to a version of “White Blindspot” that is not the most complete version -- it is a link to a version that doesn’t include Allen’s very important article “Can White Workers Radicals Be Radicalized?” [Note -- "Workers" was crossed-out by Allen, but kept in the title. In the future this article will be cited using Workers/Radicals to indicate that the word "Workers" is crossed out and the word "Radicals" remains.]
The most complete version of “White Blindspot” had three component parts; the one that La Botz linked to only had two. As I explain in “The Developing Conjuncture . . .” -- “the most complete version was published as Noel Ignatin (Ignatiev) and Ted (Theodore W.) Allen, White Blindspot & Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized? (Detroit: The Radical Education Project and New York: NYC Revolutionary Youth Movement, 1969). That stapled, mimeo publication had three components, an article by Ignatin and Allen entitled “White Blindspot,” “A Letter of Support” that was written by Allen, and Allen’s extremely important article “Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized?” (The “White Blindspot” linked to buy La Botz only had the first two pieces.)
The activist Dennis O’Neill, in “Some Thoughts on the Contributions of Ted Allen,” explains that Allen and Ignatiev wrote “'White Blindspot' (including another piece entitled ‘Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized?’), which became one of dozens of pamphlets published by the SDS-affiliated Radical Education Project. Within six months of its publication, this cheaply mimeographed piece by two little-known authors set the terms for nearly all discussion of racism and what to do about it within the most influential radical group on US campuses. The concept quickly spread throughout the broader Left and there too set the terms in a discussion that had been raging since 1965.”
Thus, in terms of encouraging readers to read Allen’s important writings, it is unfortunate that when La Botz offered his link to “White Blindspot” it only included the first two pieces “White Blindspot” and “A Letter of Support” and it did not include Allen’s “Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized?”
The more complete version of “White Blindspot”, with the three components and including Allen’s “Can White Workers/ Radicals Be Radicalized?” is available online and is also available as a link on my webpage in the section “Theodore W. Allen (with audio and video links)”. I very much encourage people to read it.
“Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized?” takes up a number of issues that I think should be of special interest to readers today.
The Six-Point Rationale
It first addresses the issue of “general historians and labor and socialist specialists” who “have sought to explain the ‘traditional’ generally low level of class consciousness of the United States working class as compared with that of the workers of many other industrial countries.” Writing in the late 1960s, Allen described the prevailing consensus among left and labor historians as a consensus that attributed the low level of class consciousness among American workers to such factors as the early development of civil liberties, the heterogeneity of the work force, the safety valve of homesteading opportunities in the west, the ease of social mobility, the relative shortage of labor, and the early development of “pure and simple trade unionism.”
Allen argued that the “classical consensus on the subject” was the product of the efforts of such writers as Frederick Engels, “co-founder with Karl Marx of the very theory of proletarian revolution”; Frederick A. Sorge, “main correspondent of Marx and Engels in the United States” and a socialist and labor activist for almost sixty years; Frederick Jackson Turner, giant of U.S. history; Richard T. Ely, Christian Socialist and author of “the first attempt at a labor history in the United States”; Morris Hillquit, founder and leading figure of the Socialist Party for almost two decades; John R. Commons, who, with his associates authored the first comprehensive history of the U.S. labor movement; Selig Perlman, a Commons associate who later authored A Theory of the Labor Movement; Mary Beard and Charles A. Beard, labor and general historians; and William Z. Foster, major figure in the history of U.S. communism with “his analyses of ‘American exceptionalism.’”
Allen challenged this “old consensus” as being “seriously flawed . . . by erroneous assumptions, one-sidedness, exaggeration, and above all, by white-blindness.” He also countered with his own theory that white supremacism, reinforced among European-Americans by “white-skin privilege,” was the main retardant of working-class consciousness in the U.S. and that efforts at radical social change should direct principal efforts at challenging the system of white supremacy and “white-skin privilege.”
Probing further, Allen also discussed reasons that the six-point rationale had lost much of its force and in so doing he provided important historical analysis. He noted that the free land safety valve theory had been “thoroughly discredited” for many reasons including that the bulk of the best lands were taken by railroads, mining companies, land companies, and speculators and that the costs of homesteading were prohibitive for eastern wage earners. He similarly pointed out that heterogeneity “may well . . . have brought . . . more strength than weakness to the United States labor and radical movement”; that the “rise of mass, ‘non aristocratic,’ industrial unions has not broken the basic pattern of opposition to a workers party, on the part of the leaders”; and that the “‘language problem’ in labor agitating and organizing never really posed any insurmountable obstacle.”
He then focused on what he described as “two basic and irrefutable themes.” First, whatever the state of class-consciousness may have been most of the time, “there have been occasional periods of widespread and violent eruption of radical thought and action on the part of the workers and poor farmers, white and black.” He cited Black labor's valiant Reconstruction struggle; the Exodus of 1879; the “year of violence” in 1877 marked by “fiery revolts at every major terminal point across the country”; the period from “bloody Haymarket” in 1886 to the Pullman strike of 1894 during which “the U.S. army was called upon no less than 328 times to suppress labor's struggles”; the Populists of the same period when Black and white poor farmers “joined hands for an instant in the South” and when Middle Western farmers decided to “raise less corn and more hell!”; and the labor struggles of the 1930's marked by sit down strikes and the establishment of industrial unionism.
Allen emphasized that in such times “any proposal to discuss the relative backwardness of the United States workers and poor farmers would have had a ring of unreality.” He reasoned, “if, in such crises, the cause of labor was consistently defeated by force and cooptation; if no permanent advance of class consciousness in the form of a third, anti-capitalist, party was achieved . . . there must have been reasons more relevant than ‘free land’ that you couldn't get; ‘free votes’ that you couldn't cast, or couldn't get counted; or ‘high wages’ for jobs you couldn't find or
. . . the rest of the standard rationale.”
His second, “irrefutable” theme was that each of the facts of life in the classical consensus had to be “decisively altered when examined in the light of the centrality of the question of white supremacy and of the white-skin privileges of the white workers.” He again reasoned, “‘Free land,’ ‘constitutional liberties,’ ‘immigration,’ ‘high wages,’ ‘social mobility,’ ‘aristocracy of labor’” are “all, white-skin privileges” and “whatever their effect upon the thinking of white workers may be said to be, the same cannot be claimed in the case of the Negro.”
In another very compelling section of “Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized?” (with great relevance today), Allen offered important historical analyses of three previous crises [the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Populist Revolt of 1890s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s] characterized by general confrontations between capital and urban and rural laboring classes. He explained how, in each case, the ruling class moved to maintain power by turns to white supremacy and by reinforcing “white race” privileges and, as he later summed up, “The key to the defeat of the forces of democracy, labor and socialism was in each case achieved by ruling-class appeals to white supremacism, basically by fostering white-skin privileges of laboring-class European-Americans.”
In yet another section of “Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized?” (and in another section of “A Letter of Support”) Allen offers additional insights that should be of great interest to contemporary readers. Allen was a very serious and principled proletarian scholar and he tried to honestly identify and address objections people might have to what he was saying. As he would later do in his major work, The Invention of the White Race, Allen put forth arguments that might be raised by those who challenged what he said, and then sought to address those positions in an informed and principled way.
In “A Letter of Support” he specifically countered the arguments that: (1) he “exaggerate[d] the importance of the Negro question”; (2) that “the fight against white supremacy . . . cannot be regarded as THE key; there are others, equally important, such as the struggle against the Viet Nam war and imperialist war in general, or solidarity with the nationally oppressed peoples of the world struggling against the yoke of imperialism”; (3) “that the struggle against white supremacy and the corrupting effects of the white-skin privilege cannot be the key for the simple reason that it is not possible to ‘sell’ the idea to the white workers, who have those privileges and who are saturated with the white supremacist ideology of the Bourgeoisie” (or, as some argue, “That it is not really in the white workers’ interests” to oppose white supremacy); and (4) that what he proposed amounted “merely [to] whites reacting subjectively out of feelings of guilt.”
In “Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized?” Allen similarly sought to “cut the ground out from all the artful-dodging” (the artful dodge concept is derived from the Charles Dickens character Jack Dawkins, who was known as the Artful Dodger, in Oliver Twist) of “white” “radicals” on the issue of the centrality of the fight against white supremacy. (Hence, the crossing out of the word “Workers” and insertion of the word “Radicals” in the title “Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized?”)
The five artful dodges that Allen addressed and countered were:
1) “‘level up; don’t level down! . . . don’t ‘take anything away from the whites’”;
2) “the new working class – the technical specialists and educators – will be able to deal with the white-skin privilege . . . because they are almost completely insulated from the effects of Negro competition, they are not affected by the white supremacy that the lower orders of whites have taken on”;
3) “the immediate interests of the white workers are in conflict with those of the Negro, . . . But their long-range interests in ‘the revolution’ are in common. Therefore, we need a strategy of ‘parallel struggles’ with each group fighting for ‘its own interest’ against the Establishment. Eventually our efforts will join when the long-range tasks are at hand. In the meantime, however, racism cannot be the main issue among the white workers; at the same time it must be the main issue among the black workers.”;
4) “Eventually, when the depression and/or austerity times roll around, the corporations will move to cut their losses by reducing the privileges that they have extended to the white workers. When that time comes, the white workers will sing ‘Solidarity, forever!’ again and join the black workers in the struggle against capital”;
5) “Don’t waste time on the United States white workers . . . The privileges of these workers are paid for by the super-profits wrung out of the super-exploited black, yellow and brown labor . . . The victorious national liberation struggles of these peoples will, sooner, or later, chop off these sources of white-skin privilege funds. Then, not before, the white workers will ‘get the message.’ Meantime, the role of white radicals is simply to ‘support’ the colonial liberation struggles.”
Allen’s responses to the four arguments against and to the five artful dodges still have great relevance today. His responses can be found online in "White Blindspot" and "Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized?. In another effort to stimulate the reading of works by Allen, I encourage readers to go directly to that site to read them in their entirety.
In sum, I would again strongly encourage people to read writings of the anti-white supremacist proletarian intellectual/activist Theodore W. Allen, to read (in particular) the newly expanded Verso Books edition of The Invention of the White Race, and to ponder Allen’s use of the word “Solidarity” taken from “Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized?” --