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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

Theodore W. Allen Draws from Lerone Bennett Jr. in Treatment of White Supremacy and Racial Slavery

Which came first, racism or slavery? In the post-World War II era of national liberation upsurge, a related controversy has occupied much attention of American historians. One side, the "psycho-cultural" side, holds that white supremacy is "natural", the result of an "unthinking decision"; that it derives from human attributes not subject to effective eliminative social action. The other side, the "social" side, believes that racism arises from socio-economic, rather than natural, conditions; that (at least by implication) it is susceptible of elimination by social action.

Evidence of early instances of enslavement of Afro-Americans is stressed by the "psycho-cultural" school as proof of the "natural antipathy" of white and black. On the other hand, as Jordan (foremost of the "psycho-culturals") puts it, "Late and gradual enslavement undercuts the possibility of natural and deep-seated antipathy towards Negroes . . . if whites and Negroes could share the same status of half freedom for forty years in the seventeenth century, why could they not share full freedom in the twentieth." (Winthrop D. Jordan, "Modern Tensions and the Origins of American Slavery," Journal of Southern History, vol. 28 [1962], pp. 19-30, loc. cit., p. 20.)

Of all the historians of the "social" school whose work I have read, only the black historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., in his article, "The Road Not Taken," Ebony, vol. 25 (1970), no. 10 (August), pp. 70-77, and in Chap. III of his new book The Shaping of Black America (Chicago, 1975), succeeds in placing the argument on the three essential bearing-points from which it cannot be toppled. First, racial slavery and white supremacy in this country was a ruling-class response to a problem of labor solidarity. Second, a system of racial privileges for white workers was deliberately instituted in order to define and establish the "white race" as a social control formation. Third, the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the Afro-American workers but was also "disastrous" (Bennett's word) for the white worker. Others (such as the Handlins, Morgan and Breen) state the first two points to some degree, but only Bennett combines all three.

Although I learned of Bennett's essay only in April 1975, the same three essentials have informed my own approach in a book I have for several years been engaged in writing (and of which this present article is a spin-off), on the origin of racial slavery, white supremacy and the system of racial privileges of white labor in this country.
The comparative study of the systems of social control in the various slave-labor plantation colonies in the Americas, combined with a study of Bacon's Rebellion, its origin and aftermath, can contribute much to the resolution of the question, in favor of "deliberate choice" and against "unthinking decision." In the continental plantation colonies (Virginia was the pattern-setter) the Anglo-American ruling class drew the color line between freedom and slavery on race lines; any trace of African ancestry carried the presumption of slavery. The same Anglo-American ruling class drew the freedom-slavery line differently in Jamaica and Barbados (as did other European ruling classes elsewhere in the Americas). The poor white became not only economically, but politically and socially, marginal in the British West Indies generally. In the southern continental colonies the bourgeoisie came to base their system of social control upon the white proletarian and semi-proletarian and subsistence agricultural classes. In the southern plantation colonies the free person of any degree of African ancestry was forced into an illegal or semi-legal status, as a general rule. The same Anglo-American ruling bourgeoisie deliberately created and nurtured this group as a petit-bourgeois buffer-control stratum in the Caribbean island societies. These are all decisive differences which cannot be explained on the basis of "psychology" or "English cultural heritage."

Finally, and more important, while the Anglo-American bourgeoisie had, by their prior experience in Providence Island and Barbados, learned the profitability of equating, or seeking to equate, "Negro" and "slave," the masses of European (at that stage almost all English) bond-servants in Virginia had not accepted that point of view. Instead, they intermarried, conspired, ran away, and finally revolted in arms together with African bond-servants. Racial slavery could not have existed, and did not exist, under those circumstances. Under such circumstances, to attempt to solve the "labor problem" by increasing the number of African bond-servants, reducing them to hereditary lifetime servitude, and making them the main productive labor base of the society would have been like trying to put out the Jamestown fire with kerosene.
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Theodore W. Allen There Were No "White" People There Early 17th Century Virginia Presentation by Jeffrey B. Perry



Theodore W. Allen
– There Were No "White" People There –
Early 17th Century Virginia
Presentation by Jeffrey B. Perry


Theodore W. Allen (1919-2005) pioneered his “white skin privilege” analysis in 1965, wrote the ground-breaking “Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race” in 1974/1975, and wrote the seminal two-volume "The Invention of the White Race" in 1994 and 1997 (since reprinted in new expanded form in 2012 by Verso Books).

His "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 (Vol. 1: "Racial Oppression and Social Control" and Vol. 2: "The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America") details how the "white race" was invented as a ruling-class social control formation and a system of racial oppression was imposed in response to labor solidarity in the wake of Bacon's Rebellion (1676-77), how the "white race" was created and maintained through "white race" privileges conferred on laboring class European-Americans relative to African-Americans, how these privileges were not in the interest of African-Americans or laboring class European-Americans, and how the "white race" has been the principal historic guarantor of ruling-class domination Theodore W. Allen – There Were No White People There – In Early 17th Century Virginia in America.

This brief video elaborates on Allen’s point that "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." 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.”

For a longer Slide Presentation/Talk on Theodore W. Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race” at the Brecht Forum in New York City on January 31, 2013, 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 offers the fullest treatment of the development of his thought and discusses this subject. See the article at Click Here

For information on Theodore W. Allen Click Here and Click Here
For information on Jeffrey B. Perry Click Here
This segment was videoed on August 16, 2014, by Fred Nguyen of Fan Smiles.

There we no "white" people there, 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.

There we 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 we 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."

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