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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

Jeffrey B. Perry Open Letter in Response to “Challenging White Privilege From the Inside” by Kyle Spencer in the "New York Times," February 20, 2015

Unfortunately, the “New York Times” article on “Challenging White Privilege From the Inside” (February 20, 2015) totally ignores the seminal contributions of Theodore W. Allen (1919-2005) who did pioneering work on “white privilege” and “white skin privilege” from the mid-1960s until his death in 2005.

Also ignored is the fact that by June 15, 1969, Allen’s work, and that of others, had impacted Students for a Democratic Society so much that the organization’s national office was calling "for an all-out fight against 'white skin privileges.'” (Thomas R. Brooks, "The New Left is Showing Its Age," “New York Times,” June 15, 1969, p. 20.)

Allen’s important analysis of “white privilege,” which was developed into his two-volume “classic” “The Invention of the White Race,” should be of interest to “Times” readers.

After pointing out that the word “white” as a symbol of social status did not appear in any Virginia Colonial Records until 1691 and demonstrating that the “white race,” as we know it, did not exist in early 17th Century Virginia (the pattern-setting plantation colony), Allen develops the thesis that 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 “white race” privileges to define and maintain the “white race” and to establish a system of racial oppression; 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. He describes these “white privileges” as a “poison bait” (like a shot of heroin) for European-American workers.

Allen’s work also challenges “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.”

In addition, Allen shied away from the term “whiteness.” As he explained, “it’s an abstract noun, it’s an abstraction, it’s an attribute of some people, it’s not the role they play. And the white race is an actual objective thing. It’s not anthropologic, it’s a historically developed identity of European Americans and Anglo-Americans and so it has to be dealt with. It functions . . . in this history of ours and it has to be recognized as such . . . to slough it off under the heading of ‘whiteness,’ to me seems to get away from the basic white race identity problem.”

Theodore W. Allen’s work is essential for understanding “white privilege” and the “white race.”

Here is a video on Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race” and the development of the system of “white privileges”

The fullest treatment of the development of Theodore W. Allen’s work can be found in “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy,” available in PDF format HERE (at the top left) and HERE.

For information on Theodore W. Allen’s Vol. II: "The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America" (including comments from scholars and activists) published by Verso Books with a new, internal study guide CLICK HERE.

For information on Theodore W. Allen’s Vol. I: “Racial Oppression and Social Control" (including comments from scholars and activists) published by Verso Books with a new, internal study-guide CLICK HERE.

For articles, audios, and videos by and about Theodore W. Allen CLICK HERE.

For Sean Ahern’s review of Theodore W. Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race” (Verso Books) in "Black Commentator" CLICK HERE.

For another video “On Theodore W. Allen, ‘The Invention of the White Race,’ and White Supremacy in U.S. Labor History” – An Interview with Jeffrey B. Perry at the Labor and Working Class History Association Conference in New York City CLICK HERE.
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