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The Invention of The White Race by Theodore W. Allen Special 50% Off Free Shipping and Bundled E-Book

The Invention of
The White Race

by Theodore W. Allen
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Essential for Understanding "Race and Class" in the U.S.
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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. This two-volume classic, first published in 1994 and 1997, presents 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.” Its thesis on the origin and nature of the “white race” 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 equalitarian motif and emphasis on class struggle it speaks to people today who strive for change worldwide. Its influence on our understanding of American, African American, and labor history will continue to grow in the twenty-first century.

Readers of the first edition of The Invention of the White Race 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 -- 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 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 the two main ideological props of white supremacy – the notion that “racism” is innate, and it is therefore useless to struggle against it, and 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.

In an effort to assist readers and to encourage meaningful engagement with Allen’s work this new edition of The Invention Of the White Race includes new introductions, appendices, internal study guides, and expanded indexes.

For reader's comments, an introduction, the Verso Books discount offer, and a link to Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control CLICK HERE

For reader's comments, an introduction, the Verso Books discount offer, and a link to Volume 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America CLICK HERE

For further information on the work of Theodore W. Allen CLICK HERE

For an in-depth discussion of Allen's work see Jeffrey B. Perry, “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” at the top left HERE and also at "Cultural Logic" HERE

For a video of a slide presentation/talk on Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race” by Jeffrey B. Perry see



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This Video on The Invention of the White Race by Theodore W. Allen Just Passed the 30,000-Viewers Mark on YouTube Allen's Work is of Great Importance




This Video on The Invention of the White Race
by Theodore W. Allen
Just Passed the 30,000-Viewers Mark on YouTube


The slide presentation/talk opens with some insights from Hubert Harrison, “The Father of Harlem Radicalism.” Harrison and Allen are two of the most important writers and thinkers on "race" and class in the twentieth century and people are strongly encouraged to view and share this video and to discuss their work with others.

For information on Vol. II: "The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America" (including comments from scholars and activists) published by Verso Books CLICK HERE
For information on Vol. I: Racial Oppression and Social Control" (including comments from scholars and activists) published by Verso Books CLICK HERE
For articles, audios, and videos by and about Theodore W. Allen CLICK HERE

For comments from scholars and activists on "Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918" (Columbia University Press) CLICK HERE and CLICK HERE
For the Columbia University Press webpage on Hubert Harrison see CLICK HERE
For a video of a Slide Presentation/Talk on Hubert Harrison CLICK HERE
For articles, audios, and videos by and about Hubert Harrison CLICK HERE

The article “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy,” by Jeffrey B. Perry, HERE discusses their work in detail.
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This Video on The Invention of the White Race by Theodore W. Allen Just Passed the 25,000-Viewers Mark on YouTube




This Video on The Invention of the White Race
by Theodore W. Allen
Just Passed the 25,000-Viewers Mark on YouTube


It opens with some insights from Hubert Harrison, “The Father of Harlem Radicalism.” Harrison and Allen are two of the most important writers and thinkers on "race" and class in the twentieth century.
You are encouraged to view and share this video and and discuss their work with others.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Gq77rOuZck

To see “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy,” by Jeffrey B. Perry, CLICK HERE

For a short video of Theodore W. Allen CLICK HERE

This video introduction to Hubert Harrison is part of a five-part presentation series on Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen. This segment was videoed on July 26, 2014 by Fred Nguyen of Fan Smiles.

For information on Theodore W. Allen CLICK HERE

For a Slide Presentation/Talk on Theodore W. Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race” CLICK HERE

For information on Hubert Harrison CLICK HERE
and CLICK HERE

For a video of Slide Presentation/Talk on Hubert Harrison CLICK HERE

For information on Jeffrey B. Perry CLICK HERE
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"THERE WERE NO WHITE PEOPLE THERE" -- 1619

"THERE WERE NO WHITE PEOPLE THERE" -- 1619

“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619"

On the back cover of the 1994 first edition of The Invention of the White Race Vol. I: Racial Oppression and Social Control, author Theodore W. Allen writes, “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.” He based this statement on the fact that, after twenty-plus years of meticulous research and examination of 885 county-years of pattern-setting Virginia’s colonial records, he found “no instance of the official use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status” prior to 1691.

As he subsequently 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 another sixty years before the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”

"THERE WERE NO WHITE PEOPLE THERE" -- 1640

The men who ran away with John Punch (Barack Obama's) ancestor in 1640
were "Victor, a [D]utchman" and "a Scotchman called James Gregory"

The Journal of the Executive Council of Colonial Virginia dated 9 July 1640 discusses the case of John Punch, President Barack Obama's ancestor. It is the only known account of the case and it reads as follows:

"Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes apiece one called Victor, a [D]utchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is Expired ... the third being a Negro named John Punch shall serve his said master and his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere."

In this 1640 document the two servants captured with John Punch are described as "a [D]utchman” and “a Scotchman." They were not described as "white." The “white race” was not functioning in early Virginia.

"THERE WERE NO WHITE PEOPLE THERE" -- 1676-77

From Captain Thomas Grantham's Account


During Bacon's Rebellion (1676-77) Captain Thomas Grantham played a decisive role in bringing about the final defeat of the rebels. He procured the treachery of a new rebel general to help him in securing the surrender of the West Point (Virginia) garrison of three hundred men in arms. Then Grantham tackled the main stronghold of the rebels, which was three miles up country. In Grantham's own words:

"I there met about four hundred English and Negroes in Arms who were much dissatisfied at the Surrender of the Point, saying I had betrayed them, and thereupon some were for shooting me and others were for cutting me in peeces: I told them I would willingly surrender myselfe to them, till they were satisfied from His Majestie, and did engage to the Negroes and Servants, that they were all pardoned and freed from their Slavery: And with faire promises and Rundletts of Brandy, I pacified them, giving them severall Noates under my hand that what I did was by the order of his Majestie and the Governor....Most of them I persuaded to goe to their Homes, which accordingnly they did, except about eighty Negroes and twenty English which would not deliver their Armes."

Grantham tricked these one hundred men on board a sloop with the promise of taking them to a rebel fort a few miles down York River. Instead, however, he towed them behind his own sloop, brought them under the guns of another ship, and forced their surrender. In his account of the incident he wrote that the rebels "yeilded with a great deal of discontent, saying had they known my purpose they would have destroyed me."


The Invention of the “White" Race
and Fixing “a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos”


In discussing the post-Bacon’s Rebellion period, The Invention of the White Race describes how Virginia’s plantation elite contrived a new social status, a “‘white’ identity,” designed to set European-Americans at a distance from African Americans and “to enlist European-Americans of every class as . . . supporters of capitalist agriculture based on chattel bond-labor” of African-Americans.

They did this not by fostering social mobility, but by re-issung “long-established common law rights, ‘incident to every free man,’ . . . in the form of ‘white’ privileges.” These included “the presumption of liberty, the right to get married, the right to carry a gun, the right to read and write, the right to testify in legal proceedings, the right of self-directed physical mobility, and the enjoyment of male prerogatives over women.”
“[T]he record indicates . . that laboring-class European-Americans in the continental plantation colonies showed little interest in ‘white identity’ before the institution of the system of ‘race’ privileges at the end of the seventeenth century.”

Invention makes the extremely important points that the successful function of this new “white” status required that all African Americans “be excluded from it” and that this decision was a conscious ruling-class policy.

“[W]hen African-Americans were deprived of their long-held right to vote in Virginia . . .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.” This was clearly not an ‘unthinking decision’! Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie” that repealed “an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.”

Not only was the invention of the "white" race ruinous to the interests of African-Americans, it was also ruinous to the interests of European-American poor and working people. As the author of The Invention of the White Race, Theodore W. Allen, points out -- “ . . . their (the poor “whites”) own position, vis–a-vis the rich and powerful . . . was not improved, but weakened, by the white-skin privilege system.” Read More 
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On the Differential Treatment of John Punch

In Vol. 2 of “The Invention of the White Race,” sub-titled “The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America,” Theodore W. Allen addresses the question of the differential treatment of John Punch at some length and with many footnotes from original sources. I strongly recommend that volume. Many of the key points he makes can be found online in Theodore W. Allen, “Summary of the Argument of the Invention of the White Race” available Here.

Drawing from Allen, I offer the following brief comments:

Status of African-Americans

Allen maintains that the relative social status of African-descended and European-descended people in a very “Volatile” Virginia society up through Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77) “can be determined to have been indeterminate.” It was indeterminate because “it was being fought out . . .in the context of the great social stresses of high mortality, the monocultural [tobacco] economy, impoverishment, an extremely high sex ratio - all based on or deriving from the abnormal system of chattel bond-servitude.” He argues that Bacon’s Rebellion was the critical moment of that social struggle and “posed the question of who should rule.” The answer, “contrived over the next several decades, would not only determine the status of African-Americans, but would install the monorail of Anglo-American historical development, white supremacy.”

Allen further argues that the General Court’s order relating to John Punch [see below] “is equally proof that he was not a lifetime bond-laborer when he ran away” and, by that act, “he was demonstrating his unwillingness to submit to even limited-term bond-servitude.” Thus, “The John Punch case . . . epitomized the status of African-Americans in seventeenth-century Virginia. On the one hand, it showed a readiness of at least some of the plantation elite to equate ‘being a negro’ with being a lifetime bond-laborer. On the other hand, development of social policy along this line was obstructed by several factors.” [italics mine]

Among those factors cited by Allen were the “institutional inertia presented by English common law, . . .and by . . . principles of Christian fellowship”; the many examples of “normal social standing and mobility for African-Americans”; and the “opposition of African-Americans, both bond-laborers and non-bond-laborers, with the general support - certainly without the concerted opposition - of European-American bond-laborers, and other free but poor laboring people, determined by a sense of common class interest.” Allen discusses all of these factors, along with the insubstantiality of an intermediate buffer social control stratum, at great length.

Some Background

By 1640 the Virginia General Court was receiving daily complaints about “servants that run away from their masters” and, writes Allen, the problem “had reached such proportions that the Colony Council made the recapture of runaway bond-laborers a public concern, and ordered that the expense of recovering fugitives be borne, not by the owner, but by the public treasury of the respective counties.” This was the situation in June 1640 when three Virginia bond-laborers, “Victor, a Dutchman . . . a Scotchman called James Gregory. . . . [and] a negro named John Punch,” escaped together to Maryland. After they were caught they were brought back to face the Virginia General Court.” Also in June 1640, the Virginia Colony Council and General Court commissioned a Charles City County posse to pursue “certain runaway negroes.” The cost was to be shared by all the counties from which they had run away and Allen says that this suggests “that the phenomenon was extensive.”

Limited and Lifetime Servitude

Allen explains “the reduction of the almost totally English labor force from tenants and wage-laborers to chattel bond-servitude in the 1620s was a negation of previously existing laws.” Regarding imposing two distinct categories of servitude -- limited term and lifetime servitude – Allen emphasizes that “the death-rate was so high for several decades, that there would have been no practical advantage for employers in seeking to institute such a distinction.”

Just such a distinction was anticipated, however, “when the Virginia General Court . . .imposed lifetime bond-servitude on John Punch.” The question is fairly asked, writes Allen, “why did the appetite for profit not lead the Court to sentence John Punch’s European-American comrades to lifetime servitude also?”

Why the disparate treatment?

If the court “was motivated by ‘white’ supremacist thinking,” comments Allen, it “is not a fact of the record.” He mentions other possibilities. “Under English common law Christians could not be enslaved by Christians; presumably, Scots and Dutchmen were Christians; but Africans were not.” Since “England’s relations with Scotland and Holland were critical to English interests,” there “might well have been a reluctance to offend those countries” while “no such complication was likely to arise from imposing lifetime bondage on an African, or African-American.” The “Court members in all probability were aware of the project then under way to establish an English plantation colony on Providence Island, using African lifetime bond-laborers” and “they surely knew that some Africans were already being exploited elsewhere in the Americas on the same terms.” [italics mine] They “might have been influenced by such examples to pursue the same purpose in Virginia.” They were also aware that “the African-American bond-laborers arriving in Virginia from the West Indies (or Brazil via Dutch colonies to the north of Maryland) did not come with English-style, term-limiting indentures” and “the members of General Court may thus have felt encouraged to impose the ultimate term, lifetime, in such cases.” Whatever the reasoning, “citing John Punch’s ‘being a negro’ in justification of his life sentence, was resorting to mere bench law, devoid of reference to English or Virginia precedent.” Allen then emphasizes, what the record does show in this case is “a disposition on the part of some, at least, of the plantation bourgeoisie to reduce African-Americans to lifetime servitude.” [italics mine]

Lengthened Service

As the proportion of bond-laborers who were surviving their terms increased, “some employers began to see an appeal in extending the bond-laborers’ terms generally. The ‘custom of the country’ for English bond-laborers in Virginia, which had been set at four years in 1658, was increased to five in 1662.” Also, with “the flourishing of the Irish slave trade” after Cromwell’s conquest, “laws were enacted to make Irish bond-laborers, and, after 1658, ‘all aliens’ in that status, serve six years.”

A 1660 law “equalized at five years the length of ‘the custom of the country,’ without distinction of ‘aliens,’ but that same law for the first time restricted term-limiting to those ‘of what christian nation soever.’” [Ireland now qualified as a “christian country.”] Since “the only ‘christian nations’ were in Europe, this clause was most particularly, though not exclusively, aimed at persons of African origin or descent.” Allen concludes that this exclusion of African-Americans from the limitation on the length of servitude imposed on bond-laborers, “reflected and was intended to further the efforts made by some elements of the plantation bourgeoisie to reduce African-American bond-laborers to lifetime servitude.” This, he adds, was “a form of class oppression of bond-laborers by owners, somewhat like the slavery of Scots miners and salt-pan workers from the end of sixteenth century to the eve of the nineteenth century.”

Not yet a system of racial oppression

This was, Allen emphasizes, “a long way from the establishment of a system of racial oppression.” Although “its implicit denial to African-Americans of even the lowest range of social mobility, from bond-labor to freedom, contained a seed of a system racial oppression,” that “seed could not be fully developed without a strong intermediate social control stratum.” And that did not exist in the period up to Bacon’s Rebellion.


The Plantation Bourgeoisie

Allen explains that the “English bourgeoisie finally secured direct access to African labor at the end of the Second Dutch War, concluded at the Treaty of Breda in 1667” and five years later, with the establishment of the Royal African Company, England embarked on a career that within less than forty years made English merchants the preeminent suppliers of African bond-labor to the Western Hemisphere.” Now, “finally the plantation bourgeoisie was brought within reach of the realization of the vision foreshadowed in a number of laws already enacted” that aimed at “enrichment through the imposition of lifetime, hereditary bond-servitude of Africans and African-Americans.” The “anticipated reduction in labor costs would have been desirable for the employing class at any time, but as the end of the seventeenth century neared, it appeared to offer the bourgeoisie both a way of evading the unresolvable contradictions between [tobacco] monoculture and diversity, and a significant easing of the contention between English and continental branches of the business with respect to profits from low-priced tobacco.”

Allen comments that it was “a conscious decision, not an unthinking one” by Virginia’s plantation bourgeoisie to opt for monoculture and chattel bond-servitude.” However, “a lack of capacity to command’ had made it impossible for the plantation bourgeoisie to impose the necessary social discipline on free and middle-rank tobacco farmers.”

The Invention of the "White" Race

Allen concludes: “Given the English superstructural obstacles and the already marked resistance of African-Americans to lifetime hereditary bondage, a rapid and large addition of African bond-laborers to the population in the 1670s, would certainly tend to reduce the effectiveness of the already weak social control stratum.” In that situation, writes Allen, the “white race” was “invented” as a ruling class social control formation “whose distinguishing characteristic was not the participation of the slaveholding class, nor even of other elements of the propertied classes; . . . [but] the participation of the European-American laboring classes: non-slaveholders, self-employed smallholders, tenants, and laborers.” He calls attention to the fact that “Whatever might have been the case with . . . members of the ruling class, the record indicates that laboring-class European-Americans in the continental plantation colonies showed little interest in ‘white identity’ before the institution of the system of ‘race’ privileges at the end of the seventeenth century.” He then emphasizes that “this white race social control system begun in Virginia and Maryland, would serve as the model of social order to each succeeding plantation region of settlement.”


Addendum

Ancestry.com cites the following paragraph from the Journal of the Executive Council [of Colonial Virginia] dated 9 July 1640 as “the only one surviving account that certainly pertains to John Punch’s life”:

Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes apiece one called Victor, a [D]utchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is Expired ... the third being a Negro named John Punch shall serve his said master and his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere.

See also my August 3, 2012 piece "No Basis for Claims John Punch Was 'Indentured' and Two Servants Were 'White'" available at http://www.jeffreybperry.net/blog.htm?post=868025 Click Here

Jeffrey B. Perry
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“No Basis for Claims John Punch was ‘Indentured’ and Two Servants Were ‘White’”

In "Obama's slavery roots on mom's side" the "History News Network" (1 August 2012) repeats inaccuracies from Sheryl Gay Stolberg's (30 July 2012) "New York Times" article "Obama Has Ties to Slavery Not By His Father but His Mother, Research Suggests." HNN and Stolberg write “ In 1640, Mr. [John] Punch then an indentured servant, escaped from Virginia and went to Maryland. He was captured there and, along with two white servants who had also escaped, was put on trial.”

There is no basis for the claims that John Punch was "indentured" and that the other two servants were "white."

Ancestry.com (in the article Stolberg discusses) cites the following paragraph from the Journal of the Executive Council of Colonial Virginia dated 9 July 1640 as “the only one surviving account that certainly pertains to John Punch’s life”:


"Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes apiece one called Victor, a [D]utchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is Expired ... the third being a Negro named John Punch shall serve his said master and his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere."

There is no indication in the 1640 document that John Punch was “indentured.” While the document specifically indicates that the other two “servants” James Gregory and Victor did have “Indentures” it does not say this about Punch. There is no documentation that Punch signed an indenture (particularly not for transportation to Virginia) and it is extremely unlikely that he did. What is likely is that he was previously subjected to limited-term chattel bond-servitude (the passage makes reference to John Punch serving “his said master and his assigns”).


Theodore W. Allen in his seminal two-volume study "The Invention of the White Race," in Volume II on "The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America," shows that in Virginia chattelization was imposed on free laborers, tenants, and bond-servants increasingly after 1622, that it was imposed on both European and African descended laborers, that it was a qualitative break from English labor law, and that the chattelization of plantation labor constituted an essential precondition of the emergence of the subsequent lifetime chattel bond-servitude imposed on African-American laborers in continental Anglo-America under the system of racial slavery and racial oppression.

The other two servants captured with John Punch were not “white” and were not described as such. The 1640 record says only they were “Victor, a [D]utchman” and “a Scotchman called James Gregory.” In Volume I of "The Invention of the White Race," subtitled "Racial Oppression and Social Control," Allen emphasizes there were no “white” people in Virginia at that time and he explains that after examination of 885 county-years of pattern-setting Virginia’s colonial records, he found no instance of the official use of the word “white” as a token of social status prior to 1691. This was not merely a matter of semantics; he also found that the “white race” as we know it was not, and could not have been, functioning in early Virginia.

It is important to understand that through much of the seventeenth century there was a commonality of experience between European and African descended laboring people in Virginia who fought together, ran away together, made love together, and, in general, resisted their oppression together. When economic hard times worsened after 1660 there were numerous examples of militant labor solidarity culminating in the later, civil war stages of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77) in which European and African descended chattel bond-laborers fought together demanding their freedom from bondage.

Allen insightfully explains how in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to such labor solidarity; how a system of racial privileges was deliberately instituted as a conscious ruling-class policy in order to define and establish the “white race”; how a system of “racial slavery” was imposed that was also marked by severe racial proscriptions against free people of African descent; and how the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the African-American workers and other direct victims of racial oppression, it was also disastrous for “white” workers.

As people organize to protest the growing hard times today it is most important to accurately learn our seventeenth-century history and whose class interests are served by white supremacist appeals.

Jeffrey B. Perry
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