Jan 28, 2020

Before the White Race Was Invented

By Jonathan Scott / solidarity-us.org
Before the White Race Was Invented
Wiki Media Commons

Theodore W. Allen
The Invention of the White Race
Volume One: Racial Oppression and Social Control
Volume Two: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America
(London and New York: Verso, 1994 and 1997).

THERE ARE FOUR main theses advanced by Theodore Allen in his two-volume history of racial oppression, The Invention of the White Race. The burden of his study is to show:

(1) that racial oppression is a “sociogenic” rather than a “phylogenic” phenomenon;

(2) how the introduction of racial oppression was a deliberate ruling-class decision;

(3) the way in which the propertyless classes in continental Anglo-American and United States society have been recruited into the “intermediate buffer control stratum” (the so-called “middle class”) through anomalous white-skin privileges; and

(4) the nature of class society under the capitalist mode of production.

As far as his first thesis, there is no item of American “common sense” more popular than the idea that race is the same as “phenotype” or skin color. From white racist conceptions of athleticism — that African Americans dominate certain sports because of distinctively “black” features and attributes — to the renewal of eugenics in American social science to justify the lop-sided rate of incarceration for African Americans, this bit of “racial” common sense — Allen terms it “psycho-culturalism” — has insinuated itself into every aspect of life in the Unites States.

One of the great contributions of Allen’s study is a complete debunking of the myth that race and skin color are the same thing.

Conversely, one thing that has made the psycho-culturalist myth so enduring is the idea that American slavery was a “peculiar” or “paradoxical” or “exceptional” phenomenon — terms deeply ingrained in the mainline of American social science. The task for American historians has been to explain away the fact that democratic development in continental Anglo-American and United States history coincided with centuries of racial slavery, racial oppression, and white supremacy.

While the psycho-culturalists argue that racism is impossible to eradicate because of the permanence of alleged skin color, the paradox theorists contend that racial slavery and racial oppression gave birth to American democracy, but that race today is nothing more than a vestige of plantation economics.

Edmund Morgan, for instance, made this his departure point in American Slavery, American Freedom, where his thesis is that racial slavery and racial oppression were necessary flaws in the unfolding telos of American democracy. Through racial slavery and racial oppression, poor whites were shown by their rulers the difference between enslavement and freedom, between labor bond-servitude and wage labor.

Yet his “paradox” argument is actually the corollary of the skin color obsession, since race for Morgan is a ephemeral — it existed only as a temporary measure designed to “separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks,” and therefore once the numbers of “dangerous free whites” went down, race withered away and class became the dominant feature of American history.

For the psycho-culturalists everything is racial, from the clothes we wear and the food we eat to the way we walk, talk, think, dream, and desire. For the psycho-culturalists, anything not determined by race is abnormal and peculiar.

Strange bedfellows these twin ways of thinking, and their many combinations and encounters in U.S. history — the march of democracy and supraracialism  –attest to how truly “peculiar” the ideology of white supremacy really is: the absent center of Morgan’s work.

For example, the Eisenstein of the United States, D.W. Griffith, served as a national advocate for the re-enslavement of African Americans; many of the largest mass uprisings in U.S. history were pogroms against African Americans; the first and most enduring U.S. national-popular art form is blackface minstrelsy; and campaigns for the presidency continue to be decided on “the race question,” whether it be in the form of “getting the Southern vote,” or where the candidate stands on national policies and programs such as integration and affirmative action, and his record in either enforcing or opposing and repealing them.

It is in this world of the surreal that historians of the “white race” conduct their researches and publish their theses and documentation.

The experience of reading Allen is like leaving this dream room and slamming the door shut on the way out. It is “white race” which is “peculiar,” not racial slavery and racial oppression.

“White-skin privileges,” the basis of the “white race” form of oppression, are peculiar precisely because they depend for their persistence on the shakiest of assumptions and thus the wildest of fantasies: that in America social mobility is guaranteed by the color of your skin.

This was the slogan of the “white race” rioters and lynch mobs in July 1863, as they set about burning alive African Americans in New York and destroying millions of dollars of their property (vol. 1, 188-192). Comprised mainly of Irish Americans, the white lynch mobs of New York are known in history texts euphemistically as the “New York Draft Rioters.”

Colonialism As A Model

Examples such as this allow Allen to establish his definition of racial oppression, and to cast out various lines of inquiry. For example, where did the Catholic Irish immigrants get the idea that they would gain if African Americans were made to lose? And how were Irish Americans able to perform their function so well, with such precision and expertise?

Allen’s research shows that all the major Irish American newspapers in New York were clamoring for the repeal of laws entitling African Americans to the same employment opportunities afforded laboring-class Euro-Americans. They fought tirelessly to make white-skin privilege a basic right of U.S. citizenship. Moreover, the Irish American establishment was fervently pro-slavery.

For example, they threw their political influence behind the campaign to renew the international slave trade; they argued that the rights and privileges sanctified by the U.S. Constitution were white-only rights and privileges — that non-whites were non-persons and should be treated that way by every court in the land — and they mobilized thousands of newly arrived Catholic Irish immigrants against their own national leader, the Catholic Liberator Daniel O’Connell, who had come to the United States from Ireland to aid the Abolitionist movement.

Here the Irish American establishment had recourse to two constitutional principles, that of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and the 1790 Rule of Naturalization. The latter provided that “any alien, being a free white person… may be admitted to become a citizen” of the United States, while the former involved the Catholic Irish directly in white racial oppression by encouraging, in Allen’s words, “even the most destitute of European-Americans… to exercise this racial prerogative [the presumption white-only citizenship] by supporting the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act” (vol. 1, 185).

Furthermore, under the Jacksonian Democratic Party “spoils system,” where “manhood suffrage” laws adopted between 1820 and 1830 recognized only “whites” as “men,” the Irish American political machine converted Tammany Hall into a bulwark of white supremacy in the Northern metropolises, a legacy still with us today (vol. 1, 186-187). In 1826 and 1846, for instance, Tammany Democrats bitterly fought every attempt to restore the rights that African Americans had been robbed of during the 1820s and ’30s (vol. 1, 187).

What, then, was the special significance of the Irish American case? Allen argues that it was that

“(1) they were the largest immigrant group in the ante-bellum period; (2) they explicitly rejected their own national heritage to become part of the system of (white) racial oppression of African-Americans; and (3) by virtue of their concentration in Northern cities — above all, New York, the locale of the most important Northern links with the plantation bourgeoisie — they became a key factor in national politics” (vol. 1, 186).

But how did they know so well what to do to gain favor with the oppressing class, the plantation bourgeoisie? Allen writes:

“Irish-Americans were not the originators of white supremacy; they adapted to and were adopted into an already ‘white’ American social order. A modern Irish historian puts it in terms of later-arriving Catholic Irish imitating the example of earlier-arriving Ulster Protestants. The Catholic Irish who chose to follow the ‘pre-existing presbyterian logic’ in seeking ‘popular rights,’ were met by the slaveholders’ Jacksonian Democratic Party that ‘had to promote outsiders and small men.’ Those ‘popular rights’ of Irish-Americans were given the form of white-skin privileges, the token of their membership in the American ‘white race'” (vol. 1, 199).

The key to appreciating Allen’s definition of racial oppression is in the formulation above. Irish Americans became instant white supremacists because they already knew the system inside and out, since it had been imposed on them for centuries by the English in Ireland. As Allen puts it: “Irish history presents a case of racial oppression without reference to alleged skin color or, as the jargon goes, ‘phenotype'” (vol. 1, 22).

The heart of Volume One consists of empirical research into the history of racial oppression in Ireland so that “the Irish Mirror,” as Allen nicely terms it, can reflect back the true nature of racial oppression in history, its origins and its social function in capitalist society. This approach, which is new in American historiography, lays a conceptual groundwork “free of the ‘White Blindspot'”(the myth that race and skin color are one and the same (vol. 1, 23).

Racism As Social Control

Allen’s definition of racial oppression, which can be seen clearly in the white race pogrom of 1863, is as follows:

“The assault upon the tribal affinities, customs, laws and institutions of the Africans, the American Indians and the Irish by English/British and Anglo-American colonialism reduced all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any class within the colonizing population. This is the hallmark of racial oppression in its colonial origins, and it has persisted in subsequent historical contexts” (vol. 1, 32).

Skin color has nothing to do with the social function of racial oppression –what Allen terms “social control” — since the system was designed to maintain British colonial rule over the Irish masses, a situation in which no differences in “phenotype” obtained.

The Protestant system of Penal Laws, for example, operated to exclude the Catholic majority from all positions of authority in Ireland, from parliament to the professions to the ownership of property. In this way, the Penal Laws were no different than Jim Crow or South African apartheid. “The essential elements of discrimination against the Irish in Ireland,” writes Allen,

“and against the African-Americans, which gave these respective regimes the character of racial oppression, were those that destroyed the original forms of social identity, and excluded the oppressed groups from admittance into the forms of social identity normal to the colonizing power. Take away these elements, and racial oppression would cease to exist” (vol. 1, 81 82).

The defining characteristics of racial oppression, which Allen analyzes throughout Volumes One and Two, are:

(1) declassing legislation, directed at property-holding members of the oppressing group;

(2) deprivation of civil rights;

(3) illegalization of literacy; and

(4) displacement of family rights and authorities (vol. 1, 82).

In addition to documenting the history of racial oppression against the Irish in Ireland, Allen uses Volume One to show the compelling parallels between the Irish, Americans Indians, and African Americans. Each of the four characteristics of racial oppression is analyzed in the context of these three peoples and their overlapping histories. This aspect of Volume One is the book’s centerpiece.

Free of the “White Blindspot,” which denied the common links between the Irish, American Indians, and African Americans — Allen shows that no definition of racism in American social science includes the parallels between the Irish and African Americans — Volume Two turns its attention to the plantation colonies of Anglo-America during the period from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the repeal of the original ban on slavery in the colony of Georgia in 1750.

A Pivotal Event

The main events are Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 and the 1705 revision of the Virginia laws, in particular, the “Act concerning Servants and Slaves.” For brevity’s sake, this review will concentrate solely on Allen’s original account of Bacon’s Rebellion, which is the pivotal event of Allen’s second volume.

The subject of the eleventh chapter of Volume Two, “Rebellion and Its Aftermath,” is the civil war phase of Bacon’s Rebellion, April 1676 to January 1677. Rather than a narrative presentation, the chapter is an analysis of “those elements of the rebellion that relate most meaningfully to the origin of racial oppression in continental Anglo-America” (vol. 2, 205).

Frustrated at being cut out of fundamental changes in Virginia land policy, which allocated the best new tidewater land to wealthy capitalist investors and developers, and agitated over laws prohibiting them from trading with the Indians, the smallholders of colonial Virginia began to organize in 1676 an opposition faction within the ranks of the numerically tiny colony elite.

The opposition faction proposed a land-tax incentive to induce the redistribution of the land. But it was at this very moment — May 1676 — that the whole structure of ruling-class social control collapsed in Virginia, as the poor and propertyless took up arms against the plantation bourgeoisie as a whole, seeing no future in a society based on chattel bond-servitude.

There were close to fifteen thousand laboring people on the move. The Governor and his military apparatus went into hiding, and the county courts, where bond-laborers had their terms of servitude extended and where lashes were laid on, were shut down by the rebel laborers.

Colony commissioners reported to England that only five hundred laborers could be made to go to war against the rebels. The majority of the rebels were chattel bond-laborers — six thousand European Americans and two thousand African Americans).

Moreover, the sole reason for the large plantation owners’ rejection of the smallholders’ land-tax plan was to preserve chattel bond-servitude; without it, they told them, Virginia’s tobacco monoculture could not move forward, to use the language of today’s defenders of multinational capital — Clinton’s favorite saying when promoting free trade arrangements that favor big capital, such as GATT and NAFTA and lately “fast track.”

All of the essential elements of Bacon’s Rebellion had to do with the social relations of production at the time, in specific, the relations between workers — Euro-American and African American bond-laborers — and the oligarchy of owners of large plantations, an imperial interest that had total control of the land and fur monopolies.

In this way, Allen’s placement of the bond-laborers themselves, as well as the social relations of production, at the center of the history of Bacon’s Rebellion is a radical divergence from undialectical, bourgeois accounts of the rebellion, and also a departure from the thesis of equal rights and anti-racism which has regarded the rebellion an early event in the “frontier” phenomenon, whereby the path of white imperialism rolled over the rights of American Indians.

Three main points emerge from Allen’s treatment of the history of the Virginia Colony.

First, rather than a “natural” outgrowth of English tradition, Allen suggests that chattel bond-servitude in the Virginia Colony was “as strange to the social order in England after the middle of the sixteenth century as Nicotiniana tabacum was to the soil of England before that time” (vol. 2, 103). Thus, the obsession with the so-called “paradox” theory of American history and society — that democratic development in the United States has occurred simultaneously with the establishment and continuous functioning of racial slavery and racial oppression — is, like most negative obsessions, based on a massive form of self-deception, practiced by a whole class and perpetuated by this class through all the organs of official culture.

As is the case today, laboring-class men and women back then were supposed to believe that the super-exploitation of their labor power by big capitalists was necessary if they — big capitalists — were to compete successfully with their European (today Asian) economic rivals. Thus, all social relations not based on the pursuit of immediate profit, such as the New England system of equitably distributed small landholdings, would have to be eradicated. How this was carried out is thoroughly documented by Allen in chapter five, “The Massacre of the Tenantry.”

While reaping enormous profits from the tobacco crop of 1622, the plantation bourgeoisie (through the colony authorities) ordered severe restrictions on the planting of corn, a ban on hunting for food in the forests, and the abandonment of half the population and the withdrawal of the colony into a restricted perimeter. These policies starved the peasantry to death. One-third of the surviving tenants, laborers and apprentices in the entire colony were left without employers or means of employing themselves (vol. 2, 93).

Reversing Gains

But the only “paradox” of this epochal starting point of U.S. “democracy” is the fact that the “democratic” developers of American society reversed the gains of democratic development in England, such as the laws against treating English workers as chattel — that is, transferring them without their prior consent from one employer to another — as well as the restrictions imposed on employers in punishing runaway laborers — e.g. they couldn’t add years to their servitude (vol. 2, 96).

In Anglo-America, punishing runaway laborers by adding years to their servitude became a standard punishment, and chattel bond-servitude the most basic form of labor. Not really a “paradox,” then, the chattelization of labor in Anglo-America is more accurately described, in Allen’s words, as “a monstrous social mutation in English class relations” (vol. 2, 101).

Second, freedom for the eight thousand bond-laborers would have revolutionized colonial Virginia from a plantation monoculture to a diversified smallholder economy (vol. 2, 211). As Allen shows in his research, there was no distinction drawn by the insurrectionary bond-laborers between “black” and “white.” In fact, the words didn’t yet exist.

They fought side by side, “the English and Negroes in Armes” as they were then known to the panicked ruling class, providing “the supreme proof,” as Allen has it, that “the white race did not then exist” (vol. 2, 215). This is precisely why Bacon’s Rebellion is such a critical turning point in the American class struggle: it revealed the ruling class’ weakest link and the fulcrum on which every equalitarian upsurge in U.S. history would depart, from the Abolitionists down to the civil rights movement.

Bacon’s Rebellion showed a clear and bold awareness on the part of the oppressed that the only thing standing between them and their oppressors was the bourgeois state apparatus itself. To paraphrase Langston Hughes in his poem “White Man,” the rebel bond laborers saw that their oppressor’s name “ain’t really White Man… it’s something Marx wrote down fifty years ago that rich people don’t like to read… C-A-P-I-T-A-L-I-S-T.”(1)

Third, just as the massacre of the tenantry in the 1620s had prepared the ground for the institution of chattel bond-servitude, so the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion “cleared the way for the establishment of the system of lifetime hereditary bond-servitude,” since this clear and bold awareness on the part of the poor and landless had to be twisted and denuded for the capitalist class to reproduce itself (vol. 2, 239).

Necessary for completing the task was the invention of the “white race”: the imposition by the Anglo-American continental plantation bourgeoisie of a system of lifetime bond-servitude only on persons of African descent, and the establishment of white racial oppression “by denying recognition of, refusing to acknowledge, delegitimizing so far as African Americans were concerned, the normal social distinctions characteristic of capitalist society” (vol. 2, 242).

Essential to this ruling-class project “is the insistence on the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group (vol. 2, 243). Beginning from this principle of ruling-class social control, the Anglo-American bourgeoisie opted for white racial oppression and established its defining characteristics, continuing down to the present, to prevent Bacon(s Rebellion from happening again.

If one is looking for a short answer to the question, “Why?” — Why did the Anglo-American bourgeoisie single out African Americans from among the many poor and propertyless in opting for racial oppression, given that skin-color has nothing to do with the system itself? — it is that, whilst in the British West Indies where there was no “white race” form of oppression because there were too few laboring-class Europeans to fill the social control stratum (the petty bourgeoisie), in the continental colonies there were too many (vol. 2, 244). There were too many European laboring people with no place to go — with no social mobility — which made them a constant threat to the ruling class, the best example of a ticking time bomb that there ever was, and that still is.

As DuBois put it in Black Reconstruction (pace Marx), “The black man enslaved was an even more formidable and fatal competitor than the black man free.” Allen articulates it this way:

“It was in the interest of the slave-labor system to maintain the white-skin privilege differential in favor of the European American workers. At the same time, however, it was equally in the interest of the employers of wage-labor, as well as of bond-labor, that the differential be kept to no more than a minimum necessary for the purpose of keeping the European-American workers in the white race( corral… The chains that bound the African-American thus also held down the living standards of the Irish-American slum-dweller and canal digger as well (vol. 1, 198).”

Thus, the “white race” was invented as a means of defusing this bomb. With white racial oppression in place, the ruling class could promote poor and propertyless European-Americans into the “middle class,” the same way the British promoted “mulattos” in the Caribbean, but they would have to do so strictly in token-name only, saving them countless billions of dollars, since the fantasy of social mobility was made conditional not on acquiring their own property, their own means of employment, or their own education, but on keeping African Americans poor and oppressed.

In this way the ruling class would save a tremendous amount of money also, since they were relieved of having to employ a full-time army to do it. The legacy of the Anglo-American ruling class’ decision to impose white racial oppression is a real living legacy, for as the economist Doug Henwood has recently documented in Left Business Observer, the U.S. middle class is the smallest in the First World, the poverty rate for whites is nearly forty percent, and sixty percent of whites start employment at the minimum wage.(2)

Yet this short answer(the ticking time bomb) depends on a thorough knowledge of what Bacon’s Rebellion meant to the ruling class: the prospect of laboring-class African Americans and laboring-class Euro-Americans “confederating,” to use the word that the ruling class had on their lips in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, in class struggle against their capitalist oppressors. Still the order of the day, and the fulcrum on which all fundamental social change in U.S. society finally rests.


  1. Langston Hughes, “White Man,” Good Morning Revolution, ed. Faith Berry (New York: Citadel, 1973), 4-5.
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  2. See Doug Henwood’s article, “Who’s Poor?” Left Business Observer, no. 61 (December 13, 1993), 4 5, for the figures on white poverty rates as well as statistics on the U.S. middle class. For figures on whites working minimum wage jobs, see his article, “Life on the Floor,” Left Business Observer, no. 65 (August 31, 1994), 3-4.
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ATC 72, January-February 1998

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