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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

“The Invention of the White Race” Volume 1: “Racial Oppression and Social Control” by Theodore W. Allen Special Sale for 50% Off

“The Invention of the White Race,” Volume 1: “Racial Oppression and Social Control” by Theodore W. Allen is available in a Special Sale for 50% off, with bundled e-book and free shipping from Verso Books till January 1, 2017. This new expanded edition has an internal study guide, a new editor’s introduction, and supplemental notes that are ideal for classroom and/or study group use. See HERE

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.

His challenge to these ideological props of white supremacy is both historical and theoretical. Allen offers meticulous use of sources, probing analysis of “Racial Oppression and Social Control” (the sub-title of this volume), and important comparative study that includes analogies, parallels, and differences between the Anglo-American plantation colonies, Ireland, and the Anglo-Caribbean colonies. He chooses these examples, all subjected to domination by Anglo ruling elites, in order to show that racial oppression is a system of social control not based on phenotype (skin color, etc.) and to show that social control factors impact how racial oppression begins, is maintained, and can be transformed.

A major purpose for his writing Volume I was to lay the conceptual groundwork for Volume II free of what he refers to as the “White Blindspot” -- the hindered vision caused by the “historically omnipresent factor of white supremacism in United States history” that W. E. B. Du Bois “warned us about in Black Reconstruction.” To work free of that blindspot Allen uses the approach in Volume I of “looking into an Irish mirror for insights into the nature of racial oppression and its implication for ruling-class social control in the United States.”

Allen begins his wide-ranging first volume by offering a critical examination of the two main historiographical positions on the slavery and racism debate. He addresses and strongly criticizes the psycho-cultural approach, and he seeks to free the socio-economic approach from certain weaknesses. He then proceeds, using that “mirror of Irish history,” to develop a definition of racial oppression in terms of social control; a definition that is “free of the howling absurdities of ‘phenotype,’ or classification by complexion.” In the process Allen offers compelling analogies between the oppression of the Irish in Ireland (under Anglo-Norman rule and under “Protestant Ascendancy”) and white supremacist oppression of African Americans and Indians. He also shows the relativity of race by examining the sea-change in which Irish haters of racial oppression in Ireland were transformed into “white American” defenders of racial slavery and racial oppression.

In the course of his treatment Allen emphasizes that maximizing profit and maintaining social control are two priority tasks of the ruling class. He also offers a comparison of the different outcomes of “Catholic Emancipation” (outside of Ulster) in Ireland and “Negro Emancipation” in America. The difference centers upon what group is the key component incorporated into the ruling class’s intermediate social control stratum to serve its interests. In Ireland (outside of Ulster) it was the Catholic bourgeoisie, in the United States it was the “white race,” composed primarily of laboring people who were not promoted out of their class. The first outcome, in which members of the oppressed group are incorporated into the social control stratum, he describes as national oppression. The second outcome, in which members of the oppressed group are excluded from the social control stratum and denied normal class mobility, he describes as racial oppression.

In discussing the topics of this volume’s subtitle, Racial Oppression and Social Control, Allen emphasizes that racial oppression is one form of ruling class response to the problem of social control; national oppression is another. . . .

With stunning international and domestic examples Allen shows how racial oppression (particularly in the form of religio-racial oppression) was developed and maintained by the phenotypically-similar British against the Irish Catholics in Ireland; how the phenotypically-similar Anglo bourgeoisie established national oppression in the Anglo-Caribbean and racial oppression in the continental Anglo-American plantation colonies; how racial oppression was transformed into national oppression due to ruling class social control needs in Ireland (while racial oppression was maintained in Ulster); how the same people who were victims of racial oppression in Ireland became “white American” defenders of racial oppression; and how in America racial oppression took the form of racial slavery, yet when racial slavery ended racial oppression remained and was re-constituted in new form.

For a Table of Contents and comments by scholars and activists see HERE

For a slide presentation/talk viewed by over 103,000 people on Theodore W. Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race,” at the Brecht Forum in New York see HERE

For a recent presentation on “Theodore W. Allen and ‘The Invention of the White Race’” at a “Multiracial Organizing Conference” in Greensboro, NC see HERE

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