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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

"Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race Presents a Full-Scale Challenge to 'The Great White Assumption'”






Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race is one of the twentieth-century’s major contributions to historical understanding. This extraordinary two-volume work, first published in 1994 and 1997, presents a full-scale challenge to what Allen refers to as “The Great White Assumption” -- the unquestioning acceptance of the “white race” and “white” identity as skin color-based and natural attributes rather than as social and political constructions. It’s thesis on the origin and nature of the so-called “white race” contains the root of a new and radical approach to United States history, one that challenges dominant narratives taught in schools, colleges, universities, and through the media. With its “equalitarian motif” and emphasis on the “class struggle” dimension of history it speaks to people desiring and struggling for change world-wide and its influence can be expected to continue to grow in the twenty-first century.

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Posting to Louis Proyect's "The Unrepentant Marxist" Website on the Work of Theodore W. Allen,

Regarding your comments on David Roediger’s How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon (Verso Books, 2008) and on Roediger’s treatment of Bacon’s Rebellion in his chapter 1 (“Suddenly White Supremacy”) – I offer the following:

For those interested in the subject matter of Roediger’s Chapter 1, I much prefer and strongly recommend the documentation and analysis in Theodore W. Allen’s two-volume The Invention of the White Race, (Verso Books, 1994, 1997, new expanded edition 2012) -- Vol. 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control and especially vol. 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. [Allen uses “Origin” because it is “consistent with the argument of the book, which shows class struggle to have been the origin of racial oppression, rather than ascribing racial oppression to ‘natural’ and/or pre-American ‘prejudices.’"]

Allen’s work is extensively and meticulously footnoted unlike Roediger’s work, which doesn’t have a single footnote.

Allen’s The Invention of the White Raace, with its focus on racial oppression and social control, is one of the twentieth-century’s major contributions to historical understanding. It presents a full-scale challenge to what he 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.” With its rigorous documentation, equalitarian motif, emphasis on the class struggle dimension of history, groundbreaking analysis, and theory on the origin and nature of the “white race” Allen’s work contains the root of a new and radical approach to United States history.

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, “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 in order to define and maintain the “white race” and established a system of racial oppression; 2) the consequences were not only ruinous to the interests of African-Americans, they were also “disastrous” for European-American workers.

In Volume II, on The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, Allen tells the story of the invention of the “white race” in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Anglo-American plantation colonies. His primary focus is on the pattern-setting Virginia colony, and he pays special attention to the reduction of tenants and wage-laborers in the majority English labor force to chattel bond-servants in the 1620s. In so doing, he emphasizes that this was a qualitative break from the condition of laborers in England and from long established English labor law, that it was not a feudal carryover, that it was imposed under capitalism, and that it was an essential precondition of the emergence of the lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude imposed upon African-American laborers under the system of racial slavery. Allen describes how, throughout much of the seventeenth century, the status of African-Americans was indeterminate (because it was still being fought out) and he details the similarity of conditions for African-American and European-American laborers and bond-servants. He also documents many significant instances of labor solidarity and unrest, especially during the 1660s and 1670s. Most important is his analysis of the civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion when "foure hundred English and Negroes in Arms" fought together demanding freedom from bondage.

It was in the period after Bacon's Rebellion that the “white race” was invented as a ruling-class social control formation. Allen describes systematic ruling-class policies, which conferred “white race” privileges on European-Americans while imposing harsher disabilities on African-Americans resulting in a system of racial slavery, a form of racial oppression that also imposed severe racial proscriptions on free African-Americans. He emphasizes that when African-Americans were deprived of their long-held right to vote in Virginia and 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," it was not an "unthinking decision." Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie and was a conscious decision in the process of establishing a system of racial oppression, even though it entailed repealing an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.

In developing his analysis Allen's repeatedly challenges what he considered to be the two main arguments that undermine and disarm the struggle against white supremacy in the working class: (1) the argument that white supremacism is innate, and (2) 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.

These two arguments, opposed by Allen, are related to two master historical narratives rooted in writings on the colonial period. The first argument is associated with the “unthinking decision” explanation for the development of racial slavery offered by historian Winthrop D. Jordan in his influential, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. The second argument is associated with historian Edmund S. Morgan’s similarly influential, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, which maintains that, as racial slavery developed, “there were too few free poor [European-Americans] on hand to matter.” Allen’s work directly challenges both the “unthinking decision” contention of Jordan and the “too few free poor” contention of Morgan.

Allen also offers 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.


For those who are interested, I also recommend Allen’s critical review “On Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (Revised Edition),” Cultural Logic, IV, No. 2 (Spring 2001).

Finally, my article “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” (Cultural Logic, July 2010), esp. pp. 2, 10-11, 63, 74-88, 102, 109 discusses additional Allen comments on Roediger’s work.

Jeffrey B. Perry
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