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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

Re: Naomi Zack “What ‘White’ Privilege Really Means” from “New York Times” by Jeffrey B. Perry Drawing on Work of Theodore W. Allen

Re: “What ‘White’ Privilege Really Means” – a Naomi Zack interview by George Yancy in the November 5, 2014, “New York Times” online "Opinionator" column “The Stone.”

On the subject of “white privilege” I encourage people to read the work of Theodore W. Allen (1919-2005) who pioneered his "white skin privilege" analysis in the 1960s and authored the two-volume classic “The Invention of the White Race” in the 1990s.

Allen maintains that the "white race" was invented as a ruling-class social control formation and that a system of racial oppression was imposed in response to labor solidarity in the wake of Bacon's Rebellion (1676-77); that the "white race" was created and maintained through "white race" privileges conferred on laboring class European-Americans relative to African-Americans; and that these privileges were not in the interest of African-Americans or laboring class European-Americans.

Unlike Naomi Zack, Allen was not “motivated by a great need to work and not to be bored.” Rather, he sought historical understanding in order to challenge white supremacy and to contribute toward efforts at radical social change.

Allen documents how the word “white” as a symbol of social status did not appear in a Virginia colonial record until 1691. He further explains how "rights" in England were denied to European-American and African-American laborers through most of the 17th century in Virginia as a system of chattel-bond servitude was imposed (particularly after 1622). He then explains how, in response to Bacon’s Rebellion and other instances of labor solidarity, the 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.” The distinguishing characteristic of this “white race” was the participation of the laboring classes and the key to this “counterfeit of social mobility” was “to reissue long-established common law rights, ‘incident to every free man,’ but in the form of ‘white’ privileges: 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.” Allen stressed, “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.

Allen also emphasizes that to say race is a “social construct,” as does Zack, is not enough. He maintains that it must be emphasized that the “white race” is a ruling class social control formation. To simply say that race is a “social construct” leaves the back door open for those like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Dinesh D’Souza who might at any time “adapt their thesis to ‘race-as-a-social-construct’ by describing racial prejudice as proceeding from ‘white’ Americans’ reaction to the ‘crisis of the Negro family,’ and a vast train of ‘social pathology’ that Moynihan ascribes to it; or, to the historical ‘cultural dysfunctionality’ of which D’Souza accuses African-Americans.”

Basing his work on decades of historical research, and with an awareness of the dangers in the Moynihan and D’Souza arguments, Allen emphasizes that the "white race" was invented and is maintained as a ruling-class social control formation and that it serves ruling class interests.

For more on Theodore W. Allen’s important work CLICK HERE and CLICK HERE

For a video of a slide presentation/talk on Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race” 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

Jeffrey B. Perry

The Naomi Zack interview by George Yancy entitled “What ‘White’ Privilege Really Means” is available online HERE

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