Racial (chattel) slavery became established in colonial America, and the consequences for working class organizing in the USA
“I ask indulgence for only one assumption, namely that while some people may desire to be masters, all persons are born equally unwilling and unsuited to be slaves.” The Invention of the White Race (I, 1).
The Invention of the White Race, Volume I: Racial Oppression and Social Control and Volume II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America by Theodore William Allen (1994, 1997, New Expanded Edition, Verso 2012)
Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race (2 Vols., I: Racial Oppression and Social Control and II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America), has been recognized by increasing numbers of scholars and activists as a seminal work since it was first published by Verso Books in the 1990s. The second edition offers a number of entry points and is designed to attract a broader audience. It features an expanded index, an internal study guide, a selected bibliography and a biographical sketch of the author all prepared by Jeffrey B. Perry, Allen's literary executor and author of the acclaimed Hubert Harrison The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, and editor of A Hubert Harrison Reader.
The Invention of the White Race is a scrupulously documented, fairly argued, and profoundly radical history. Given the central place that race occupies in the corporate assault on public education and teacher unions, it will be of particular interest to readers of Substance, educators, students and working people interested in understanding the role of white supremacism and the white identity in the defeat of popular movements in our nation's history. It contains the root of a general theory of United States history and the basis for a revolution in US labor history and in social history. Students of African American history, political economy, Irish American history, gender studies and colonial history will find in Allen’s work much of interest to recommend.
For those considering the projected impact of demographic change in the 21st century, The Invention offers a lens through which to assess how the “white race” was invented and reinvented in the past and the ways in which ruling class-interests may seek to adjust, adapt or reinvent it in the present. After 300 years of functioning as a ruling class social control buffer, the US bourgeoisie will not, in this writer’s opinion, willingly abandon its tried and trusted guardian, the so called “white race.”
Genesis of the thesis
Allen's view of the history of class struggle in the U.S. was radically altered by his reading of W.E.B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in the early1960's. Dubois described Black Reconstruction as a “normal working class movement, successful to an unusual degree, despite all disappointments and failures.” Its final defeat was due to “the race philosophy” of white supremacy, which made labor-unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. Together with Esther Kusic, to whom the Invention is dedicated, Allen developed a new approach that placed the struggle against white supremacy and the white skin privilege system at the center of a strategy for proletarian revolution in the US.
Two quotations from Black Reconstruction identify key sparks of insight that eventually led Allen to write The Invention of the White Race:
“The south, after the war [Civil War], presented the greatest opportunity for a real national labor movement which the nation ever saw or is likely to see for many decades. Yet the labor movement, with but few exceptions, never realized the situation. It never had the intelligence or knowledge, as a whole, to see in black slavery and reconstruction, the kernel and meaning of the labor movement in the United States.” [emphasis added]
“It is only the Blind spot in the eyes of America, and its historians, that can overlook and misread so clean and encouraging a chapter of human struggle and human uplift.”
Allen came to refer to that “Blind spot” identified by Du Bois as the “white blindspot.” Recognition of the “white blindspot” was a critical first step that led Allen to develop his thesis on the invention of the “white race.”
Informed by Dubois's Black Reconstruction and his reference to the “kernel and meaning of the labor movement in the United States,” Allen set out in the late-1960’s to re-examine three previous periods of economic crises and intensified class struggle: 1) the Civil War and Reconstruction, 2) the Populist Movement and 3) the Great Depression.
His aim was to discern the effects of the white skin privilege system and the prevalence of white chauvinism in the defeat of past working class and populist movements. Allen took Du Bois' phrase “the kernel and meaning” as the title for his own unpublished manuscript that set forth his findings. He shared this manuscript with comrades in the late sixties and early 70's. This background provides some context to The Invention as it led Allen to a critical review of what he termed the reigning consensus on “American Exceptionalism.” This is in reference to a body of work that offered explanations, all “white blind” in Allen’s estimation, for why there was no working class-based political alternative to the bourgeois parties.
Contributors to this “consensus” included socialists and non-socialist students of labor history. Although the old ‘consensus’ was tattered, no alternative had yet emerged. The Invention may be viewed in this context as Allen’s opening contribution “Toward a Revolution in U.S. Labor History.” In fact this was the working title of Allen’s last book, which he did not live to complete.
The debate over the origin of “anti-negro prejudice” in the US was a central preoccupation of many American historians, not only African American historians, since racism first came to be viewed by much of official society as an evil in itself following World War II. The Civil Rights movement and urban rebellions made racial discrimination a central defining issue in the political life of the nation; a central issue that continues down to the present day. Some of America’s most prominent historians participated in a search for understanding how white supremacy and racial oppression originated in the hope that we might in fact end it. It came to be known as the “Origins Debate.” [Note Allen preferred the singular “Origin,” which he used in the subtitle to volume two. He saw the origin of racial oppression in class struggle.]
By 1968 with the forces of white supremacy rallying around the George Wallace campaign and other instances of the “white backlash” north and south (which the 1968 NYC teachers strike is a particularly tragic example of) “so from the ranks of American historians there emerged a cohort of defenders of the basic validity of the old assumption of ‘natural racism’” (Allen, Invention, I, 4)
The fullest expression of this view was put forward by Winthrop D. Jordan in his 1968 book entitled White over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro 1550-1812. Jordan’s book was offered in the context of the “Origins Debate” to refute the thesis of Oscar and Mary Handlin that racism was a deliberately contrived ruling class policy rather than the outcome of some inborn or preconditioned “race consciousness.” Chapter 2 of White Over Black was entitled “An Unthinking Decision” and in it Jordan attributed racism to an inherent, timeless aversion to all things black that existed in the psychological and cultural make up of the English.
The breadth of the counter revolution as evidenced by the well orchestrated “backlash” in the intellectual and political life of the nation led Allen to a comprehensive review of the “Origins Debate” and a more probing consideration of what he came to describe in the volumes under consideration as the invention of the “white race” and the “incubus of white identity.”
As an independent scholar, autodidact, and self-described proletarian intellectual, Allen joined this search in the early 1970s. His startling thesis first presented at a 1974 talk before the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE) was published in Radical America and republished with complete annotation as a pamphlet under the title “Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race.” This is available on line at Cultural Logic and in pamphlet form from the Institute for the Study of Working Class Life at SUNY Stony Brook. It serves the new reader well as a concise introduction to volume two of The Invention of the White Race in particular. Over the course of the next twenty years of writing and researching The Invention of the White Race, Allen reviewed a remarkable amount of the scholarly literature and conducted his own exhaustive examination of the primary sources; those colonial records that survived the Civil War.
Allen’s thesis on the invention of the white race is based on certain key historical facts that came into focus for him once his own “white blind spot” was removed. In the acknowledgements section of volume one Allen identifies in first place his “obligation to two fellow proletarian intellectuals in this regard; Charles Johnson and William Carlotti who “cleared away ideological barnacles left from my previous moorings and taught me to say, as Carlotti did, ‘I am not 'white.’” (Note here may be made of Allen’s reference to his own past. Allen was a West Virginia coal miner and UMW local leader during the heyday of the CIO and a member of the Communist Party from 1936 until the mid-late 50s. Perry’s biographical essay on Allen is appended to volume one.)
Allen’s thesis posits a causal connection between the “so-called 'white race,' the quintessential 'Peculiar Institution” and bourgeois social control extending from the colonial era to the present:
Only by understanding what was peculiar about the Peculiar Institution [the “white race”] can one know what is exceptionable about American Exceptionalism; know how in normal times, the ruling class has been able to operate without “laborite” disguises; and know how, in critical times, democratic new departures have been frustrated by reinventions of the “white race.”
Allen’s thesis is not based on his discovery of any formerly unknown facts. Rather it is his claim that certain aspects of the historical record of great significance were passed over while others of truly minor significance were incorrectly emphasized as the impetus for massive, misdirected scholarly tomes such as was the case with Jordan’s White Over Black. Additionally he points out that on certain crucial matters even so esteemed a scholar as Edmund Morgan cast a blind eye to facts of great significance in his American Slavery, American Freedom. These were related to the impact of racial slavery on the class position of the European American laborers after the invention of the “white race.”
Allen's argument presented in his thesis article and fully elaborated in the two volumes rests, in his estimation, on: . . . three essential bearing points from which it cannot be toppled. First, that racial slavery constituted a ruling class response to a problem of labor solidarity. Second, that a system of racial privileges for the propertyless “whites” was deliberately instituted in order to align them on the side of the plantation bourgeoisie against the African-American bond laborers. Third, that the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the African-Americans, but was “disastrous” for the propertyless “whites” as well.
In Allen's review of the literature only the African American historian Lerone Bennett Jr. in his 1970 Ebony article, “The Road Not Taken,” and in chapter III of The Shaping of Black America (Chicago 1975) had set these three bearing points together.
Allen’s introduction to volume one is an excellent literature review of the “Origins Debate” for the specialist and non-specialist alike. He frames the debate as occurring between two groups; the psycho-cultural and the socio economic. Allen identifies “with” the socio economic category, but “is not altogether of them.” “This book” Allen states, “is intended as a contribution toward freeing the socio-economic thesis” of “serious compromising ambiguities and inconsistencies.” He recasts the socio-economic argument in “a new conceptual mode.” This new mode is based on a definition of racial oppression.
Allen defines racial slavery in volume one “as a particular form of racial oppression, and racial oppression as a sociogenic – rather than a phylogenic – phenomenon, homologous with gender and class oppression.” Allen expands this definition of racial oppression as it evolved in the colonial era through what he calls the “Irish Mirror.” “Irish history presents a case of racial oppression without reference to alleged skin color…” “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 social class within the colonizing population. This is the hallmark of racial oppression in its colonial origins, and as it has persisted in subsequent historical contexts.”
Allen distinguishes racial oppression from national oppression by reference to the needs of the elite for social control over the subject population. In societies in which those to be racially oppressed constitute a majority of the population the racial oppressor group had to rely on a purely military/police form of social control in the absence of intermediate buffer control group on which to rely.
Such systems proved to be inherently unstable and costly to sustain and led the ruling elite to seek to co-opt a stratum of the subject population thereby enlisting them in a new social control system based on national oppression. In societies where those to be racially oppressed were a minority, a system of racial privileges for the laboring class members of the oppressor group was used to ensure that these laborers would not make common cause with their counterparts among the racially oppressed and that they would, in any confrontation, take the side of the elite in keeping the racially oppressed down. Under national oppression social control rested on an intermediate strata which was differentiated by class and status and was permitted to manage their own affairs to some degree and to control aspects of the society on behalf of the elite.
In contrast to national oppression, racial oppression relied on strata from amongst the laboring class of the oppressor race. Their enlistment into the oppressor race was based on a system of privileges that did not alter their subordination to the elite. To the contrary these privileges fastened them more tightly to the ruling class by sealing off the possibility of joining with the racially oppressed in struggle against the system of racial oppression (that had been put in place by the ruling elite) and challenging the existing order. To the counterfeit of mobility in the 17th century was added the counterfeit of freedom in the 18th but that is not the subject of this review. Racial oppression took different forms in the colonial era depending on the particular conditions, need for social control and cost benefit calculation of the ruling elite.
After the plantation elite established the system of racial oppression of African-Americans, the Indians in Anglo America, were increasingly displaced from their ancestral home. The African-Americans in the continental Anglo American colonies, who were kidnapped, transported in chains and sold as chattel, became the main plantation labor force after the “white” race was invented. The Irish Catholics in Ireland were reduced to cotters and agricultural laborers in their own land under the rack-renting religio-racial oppression of the Protestant Ascendency, absentee English landlord, and Ulster Plantation. The Indian was not allowed to assimilate as illustrated in the case of the Cherokee Trail of Tears.
The African American could not pass even with only one drop of African blood in their lineage. The Irish Catholic was effectively prevented from converting. The common threads linking these examples of racial oppression were the destruction of original forms of social identity and the blockage of the oppressed group from assimilation into the social identity normal to the colonizing power. Distinctions of rank or wealth within the subject population were accorded no recognition. Civil rights were eliminated. Literacy was made illegal. Family rights were displaced and traditional authorities were denied. Below the lowest member of the oppressor race, by definition, all members of the oppressed were made subordinate.
Racial oppression as a form of social control in societies in which the majority is from the oppressor race is based on the counterfeit of social mobility accorded the laboring class members of the oppressor race in the form of racial privileges. The privileges are the basis on which the laboring class members of the oppressor race are enlisted by the elite to hold down the subject population. They perform this social control function, even though they share a class position with the large majority of the racially oppressed.
In colonial Virginia and Maryland the particular conditions of labor shortage and capitalist monoculture first led the Anglo-American planter bourgeoisie to create a peculiar form of chattel bondage for the largely European-American workforce.
Exploitation of Indian labor as a primary source of profit in Virginia was not possible due to: the initial vulnerability of the English colonialists; to the fact that the Powhatan were not highly organized (as were the Aztec and the Inca); and to the fact that the English lacked the ability to subdue the native population who had an entire continent to their backs. As the plantation system grew and pushed the Indians off the coastal tidewater plains, the planter bourgeoisie relied on the Indians as a buffer to return escaping bond-laborers and for trade with the interior even while they continued to amass great wealth through expanded land grabs that pushed the native population further inland.
The reduction of the largely English workforce from wage laborers and tenants to bond servitude was undertaken by the plantation bourgeoisie in the 1620's and is described in volume two, chapter 5 entitled “The Massacre of the Tenantry.” The interest on the part of the plantation bourgeoisie to extend the length of service of bond-laborers is well documented. The status of the African American bond-laborers prior to the establishment of the “white race” was according to Allen “indeterminate” in that it was being fought out.
Extending the term of bond-servitude was an effort by the exploiters of labor power to increase their rate of profit under the particular conditions of labor shortage they faced in the pattern-setting Chesapeake Bay colonies in the 17th century. Efforts to extend the term of service to life on African American laborers and even to extend that to their offspring is consistent with such bourgeois aims. The English had imposed slavery on English vagabonds in England in 1547, Scottish coal miners and salt pan workers were enslaved from the first decade of the 17th century to the last decade of the 18th century and the English were heavily involved in the “Irish slave trade” of the 1650s. Most importantly from the perspective of the invention of the” white race,” efforts to extend the term of servitude of bond laborers, European or African, only inflamed the situation and incited further resistance. High mortality rates also lessened the significance of a limited term versus a life term of bondage.
In volume two Allen relies on the primary sources to show how the “white race” was invented as a ruling-class social control formation by the planter bourgeoisie in the latter part of the 17th century. The “white race” as described by Allen was based on a series of racial privileges first put in place in the latter part of the 17th century by the planter bourgeoisie to divide and control a rebellious agrarian proletariat composed of European-American and African-American laborers in the Chesapeake Bay colonies of Virginia and Maryland. The character of these privileges laid the basis for the “white identity” that altered the class stand but not the class position of the European-American laborers (both bond and free), who were officially now defined as “white” through a series of laws passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1705 and 1723.
Allen finds no mention of the term “white” used in reference to European-Americans in any Virginia statute or court papers until 1691. Hence his 1994 volume one book jacket comment-- “When the first African-American arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there.” The plantation was a capitalist enterprise. Although the bond labor form was a contradiction of the basic requisites of capitalist development it was sought by the plantation bourgeoisie because of the relative labor shortage that prevailed in the colonial period. There was no reserve army of labor and a thirst for profit did not incline the planter bourgeoisie to wait for one. Although bond-labor had existed in surplus producing societies prior to capitalism the bondage that prevailed in pre-capitalist societies was a two-way bondage; the workers could not leave and the master could not send them away.
Bond-labor in the capitalist monoculture plantation society in the Anglo American continental colonies created a one-way bondage in which the worker could not quit, but the capitalist could end the tie with the worker through their sale or exchange.
The profit motive and the crisis of overproduction that depressed the price of tobacco for much of the 17th century prompted the planter bourgeoisie to increase the term of servitude by recourse to a number of policies that fomented rebellions and resistance from the bond laborers themselves. The planter bourgeoisie, following the drive for capital accumulation, was in the process of digging their own graves. While there is much in the way of specific content that shows in detail how the “white race” was invented by the ruling elite that no single review can summarize, there is one crucial piece related to family life that is especially instructive. The imposition of lifetime hereditary bond-servitude on the African American was dependent on the denial of the English Common Law principle of partus sequitur patrem (the descent of the child follows that of the father).
In 1656 Elizabeth Key a bond-laborer, daughter of an African American bond-laborer and a European-American father to whom her mother was bound, successfully sued for her freedom dues by asserting the right under English common law that “the child of a woman slave begotten by a freeman ought to be free.” Both of her parents had died and her father’s estate had passed through a number of overseers.
Although her father’s will left specific instructions for her release from bondage, the overseers of the estate refused to grant Elizabeth Key her freedom. In the Northumberland County court the defense claimed that the status of the child (Elizabeth Key) should follow that of her mother who was alleged to be that of a lifetime bond laborer.
A jury of 12 men, however, followed English common law and supported Key’s claim for freedom and arrears for the excess time she had been held. The Northumberland ruling was appealed to the Virginia General Court by the overseers of her father's estate. The exact ruling of the General Court was destroyed by fire in 1865 but a transcript made in 1860 and dated 12 March 1656 is believed by historians to refer to the General Court's’ acceptance of the defense’s argument and overturning of the Northumberland County Court ruling.
Only days later a special committee of the Virginia Assembly was chosen to make a determination of the matter and expressed the sense of “of the Burgesses of the present Assembly,” holding that Key was entitled to freedom, freedom dues and compensation “for the time shee hath served longer than shee ought to have done.” One of the estate overseers appealed to Governor Berkeley who ordered a suspension of further proceedings pending a rehearing by the General Court.
There is no record of any further rehearing but the Northumberland Court that had initially supported Key’s suit, disregarded Governor William Berkeley’s instructions and ordered that Key be released immediately and compensated. The attention and controversy indicated by the surviving records gives us a sense of the importance of the case to both planters and laborers at the time. Six years later, the Assembly, in 1662, reversed itself and English common law by asserting that “all children born in this country shall be held bond or free by the condition of their mother.”
The reversal of this long-standing law of patrilineal descent was not done for the sake of egalitarianism. The 1662 ruling of the Assembly followed pragmatically as a matter of course from the proprietary interest of the owners of bond-labor in securing control over those laborers and extending it to their offspring. It removed a major legal obstacle to the later imposition of lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude. In Allen’s view: “If the principles affirmed in the findings of the Northumberland County jury and the special committee of the General Assembly had prevailed, the establishment of racial slavery would have been prevented.” (II, 196) The following year in 1663 the English Government re-chartered the Company of Royal Adventurers to Africa to challenge the Dutch monopoly over the trade in human chattels.
This challenge led to the Second Anglo Dutch War which was concluded with The Treaty of Breda (1667) that gave the Anglo-American colonies direct access to African labor. In 1672 the Royal Africa Company was given the monopoly by England to supply African labor to the Anglo American colonies. The reversal of English common law and the increase in the supply of chattel labor from Africa were crucial steps towards the imposition of lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude, but merely increasing the numbers of lifetime bond servants did not establish racial oppression or racial slavery and in fact actually stoked the spirit of rebellion among the laboring population, European and African. In the latter part of the 17th century in Virginia that spirit reached a peak during the civil war phase of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676-1677.
Racial slavery in the Chesapeake was not according to Allen an “unthinking decision,” but rather it was the solution developed by the plantation bourgeoisie in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) to the two over-riding challenges faced by them in 17th century Virginia since the establishment of the tobacco monoculture, namely labor shortage and social control.
Allen cites the numerous examples and forms of common resistance by the European- and African American proletarians as prima facie evidence that the “white” race did not exist. The most significant and widespread example of this resistance was the second phase of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 when an army composed of European-American and African American bondservants and freemen, drove the planter bourgeoisie from the mainland to the safety of ships offshore and burnt the capital city of Jamestown to the ground.
William Berkeley, the Royal Governor of the Virginia Colony during Bacon's Rebellion, who 20 years earlier had tried and failed to block Elizabeth Key from attaining her freedom; to overrule the finding of the special committee of the Assembly; and to stop the Northumberland County court from following through on the decision of a jury, now gazed woefully on the shore from which he had been force to flee by an army of Elizabeth Keys. Berkeley wrote in despair to a friend “How miserable that man is that Governes a People where six parts of seaven are Poor, Endebted, Discontented and Armed.”
May we live to hear the plaintive cries of woe from the oligarchs of our own day!
Bacon’s Rebellion was the turning point that brought home the necessity of social control to the planters, without which as Allen notes, “no profit may be derived.” Through the guile of the elite and their own faltering leadership the rebels were eventually subdued and subjected to vicious reprisals. Charles II is reported to have reacted to news of Berkeley’s vendetta by noting “that old fool has hanged more men in that naked country than I did for the Murther of my father.” (II, 370n104) Subsequent revolts only highlighted the instability of elite power in the face of labor unrest. Their answer to the problem took shape early in the acts of reprisal taken against the rebels that took the harshest form against the African-American.
Gradually a body of laws and customs were drummed up to divide the European from the African through the gradual imposition of a series of privileges for the European, including European bond-servants and through severe racial proscriptions on the African. The planter bourgeoisie response over the course of the next 30 years was to create a new status for European-American bond labor increasingly referred to as “whites,” a new term that does not appear in the Virginia statutes until 1691. Nascent “white” laborers were marked as favored through the degradation of the African American. In this way, combined by the force of laws and all the powers that accrue to the wealthy, a counterfeit of mobility was cast like a veil over European-American laborers and a spike was driven through the solidarity that had joined them in arms together with the African Americans during Bacon’s Rebellion.
The white race was enshrined by statute in 1705 and 1723. English lawmakers charged with reviewing the laws and rulings of the colonial courts and Assembly questioned why property owning African Americans should be denied the right to vote and acquire property like other free persons. The Governor of Virginia at this time, William Gooch, responded and declared that the Virginia Assembly had decided “to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos.” Allen considers Gooch’s response to be an important example from the historical record that has been given scant notice by historians. An analysis of Gooch’s explanation, in Allen’s view, “gets to the heart of the motives of the Anglo-American continental plantation bourgeoisie in imposing not just a system of lifetime bond-servitude only on persons of African descent, but a system of 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.” (II, 242) This was no “Unthinking Decision.”
Gooch also defended the law of 1723 on grounds that bring to mind the case of Elizabeth Key, the “mulatto” offspring of an African American mother and European American father whose suit for freedom was upheld by a jury. Gooch had prefaced his defense of the law by reference to an alleged revolt plot among African American bond laborers in 1722, “wherein the Free Negros & Mulattos were much suspected to have been concerned…” Gooch added that the law was passed to “make the free Negros sensible that a distinction ought to be made between their offspring and the descendants of an Englishman.” “Those descended from a white Father or Mother,” were in his estimation “the worst of our imported Servants and convicts.” Gooch argued that the law served as a way of “discouraging that kind of copulation.”
The Act of 1723 also specifically denied, amongst a host of other things, the right of any Negro to defend him or herself against any “white” person, or to bear witness against the attacker in a court of law. Allen points out that the denial of the right of self-defense to all African-Americans also becomes a point of convergence between white supremacy and male supremacy. It essentially legalized the rape of any African American woman by any European- American male. The American form of male supremacy develops into the peculiar form of white male supremacy from this point on.
These statutes capped over two generations of effort on the part of the planter bourgeoisie to extend chattel bond-servitude to lifetime hereditary bond servitude and now they had found the means to an end; one that divided European against African laborers and enlisted the former as captor and enforcer of the system over the latter. In churches and from the courthouses the new laws were read out loud and posted on walls to drive home the message of the new racial order. What had been the rights of Englishmen now became the privileges of “whites.” A counterfeit of social mobility was the privilege created by the imposition of racial slavery on the African American. Additionally to that counterfeit of social mobility was added the very clear cut “right” of any white male to assume familiarity with any African-American woman.
Racial oppression was merged with gender oppression. For the plantation elite this right added rape as a form of exploitation that increased their wealth and they exercised this form of exploitation with abandon. We have that rapist of Monticello, author of the Declaration of Independence, still hailed today in classrooms across America as the apostle of American Democracy. For the poor white male however, this “right” further obscured the injustice and cruelty of the system that the “white identity” was established to defend.
It was a “right” that planted the seed of hatred between men and women and deepened the divide between the poor “white” and the racially oppressed Black, woman, man and child. A hatred that comes down to us through that strongest invective of American slang: Motherfucker! The plantation elite prospered off the labor of the enslaved but the majority of the “whites” who did not own enslaved laborers did not. But, as Allen describes in detail, the effect of the invention of the “white race” secured the dominance of the plantation bourgeoisie whose wealth and plantations grew in inverse proportion to the impoverishment of the “free white” laborer.
The counterfeit of mobility did not allow the poor white to rise upwards in the social order, only to flee to the mountains, the west, to drive the Indians further inland and then squat on “unclaimed” land, clear it, only to be displaced again by the land engrossing plantation bourgeoisie who had taught them to hate the enslaved rather than the system of racial slavery that was responsible for their own marginalization and impoverishment. The poor whites fled a system that had little place for them except as patrols and overseers and social control force over the enslaved who they had once fought side by side with as European-Americans, (not as “whites”) for a true freedom. They fled from a system, they did not understand but they carried with them the seeds of their own misfortune, the white identity.
The transformation of the misery of the Berkeley's to the Golden Age of the Chesapeake was achieved by the invention of the “white race,” which has come down to us as the “Ordeal of America.” Edmund Morgan’s American Freedom, American Slavery had done so much to challenge the natural racism of the psycho-cultural group, but it now dropped the ball. Morgan claimed that the enslavement of the African left “too free poor [Europeans] to matter,” thereby leaving open the interpretation that enslavement of the African had benefited the “white” laborer. Conclusion
Theodore W Allen’s The Invention of the White Race began as a spark of intuition that came to him “in the charged ambience of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.” The concluding paragraph from Volume Two points the reader to the author’s motivating impulse:
“… the present day United States bears the indelible stamp of the African-American civil rights struggle of the 1960s and after, a seal that the “white backlash” has by no means been able to expunge from the nation’s consciousness. Perhaps in the impending renewal of the struggle of the “common people” and the “Titans” the Great Safety Valve of white skin privileges may finally come to be seen and rejected by laboring-class European-Americans as the incubus that for three centuries has paralyzed their will in defense of their class interests vis-à-vis those of the ruling class.”
Frankly speaking, three centuries of paralyzed will does not exactly inspire hope in the laboring class European-American’s prospects for a successful defense of their class interests. Allen’s reference here to labor history is sure to incite outraged responses that damn him as a reprobate and recite the list of past martyrs for labor’s cause. But as Allen said at the beginning of his project in 1969, “If it was Solidarity Forever, why must it be again?” The intent of his reference to “paralyzed will” in the concluding paragraph cited above is not to disparage the revolutionary potential that inheres in the European-American sector of the proletariat, but only to free its putative leaders, the so called conscious element, from their “white” identity.
The issue at stake is not whether or not the European-American worker can be radicalized, but whether the “white” radical can be. Allen’s use of the terms “perhaps” and “may” in the concluding paragraph admits the possibility for change, but it is a far cry from any pre-determined optimism that the choice made will be the correct one from the perspective of proletarian solidarity. The correct choice is an informed, conscious one based on particular conditions, strategic and tactical considerations all viewed in the light of history. Yet regarding the impending renewal of the struggle between the “common people” and the “Titans” there is no doubt in Allen’s view as expressed here that this conflict is indeed irrepressible and that where there is repression there is resistance. Nor is there any doubt expressed concerning the immediate and long-term interest of the European-American proletarian in seeing and rejecting what he terms the “Great Safety Valve of white skin privileges.”
The revolutionary prospects for the European-American proletarian then hinges, in Allen’s view, on the urgent necessity and willingness to see, for once “seen,” the “white” identity, which seemed solid and timeless, a “natural attribute,” shows itself to be the “incubus” that has “paralyzed their will.” While it has not been common for privileged laborers of the oppressor race to have thrown off their privileges and their oppressor race identity and made common cause with the oppressed race, there has also not been such a well supported case made for why it is in their interests to do so and for this we may be thankful to Theodore W. Allen for never giving up even when he knew he would not live to see the day. Theodore W. Allen’s “Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race” and selected other writings are available online.
[Sean Ahern. NYC parent and public school teacher/member United Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 2, AFL-CIO. 2013].
New research shows the dramatic gap in household wealth that now exists along racial lines in the United States cannot solely be attributed to personal ambition and behavioral choices, but rather reflects policies and institutional practices that create different opportunities for whites and African-Americans.
So powerful are these government policies and institutional practices that for typical families, a $1 increase in average income over the 25-year study period generates just $0.69 in additional wealth for an African-American household compared with $5.19 for a white household. Part of this equation results from black households having fewer opportunities to grow their savings beyond what's needed for emergencies.
"Public policies play a major role in widening the already massive racial wealth gap, and they must play a role in closing it," said Dr. Thomas Shapiro, director of the IASP and a principal author of the report "We should be investing in prosperity and equity, instead we are advancing toxic inequality. A U-turn is needed."
The study, "The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide," was conducted by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis University.
"The gap presents an opportunity denied for many African American households and assures racial economic inequality for the next generation," said Tatjana Meschede, a co-author of the policy brief.
The research is unique in that it has followed nearly the same 1,700 working-age households over what is now a 25-year period – from 1984 to 2009. Unlike standard statistical comparisons, the authors of the study say this approach offers a unique opportunity to understand what happens to the wealth gap over the course of a generation and the effect of policy and institutional decision-making on how average families accumulate wealth.
In gross terms, there is no question that the difference in median wealth between America's white and African- American households has grown stunningly large. The new study found the wealth gap almost tripled from 1984 to 2009, increasing from $85,000 to $236,500. The median net worth of white households in the study has grown to $265,000 over the 25-year period compared with just $28,500 for black households.
The dramatic increase in the racial wealth gap has accelerated despite the country's movement beyond the Civil Rights era into a period of legal equality and the election of the first African-American president. The resulting toxic inequality now threatens the U.S. economy and indeed, American society, the study concludes.
"All families need a financial cushion to be economically secure and create opportunities for the next generation," said Shapiro. "Wealth – what we own minus what we owe – allows families to move forward by moving to better and safer neighborhoods, investing in businesses, saving for retirement and supporting their children's college aspirations. Our economy cannot sustain its growth in the face of this type of extreme wealth inequality."
Setting out to determine what was driving the disparity today, researchers were able to statistically validate five fundamental factors that together account for two-thirds of the proportional increase in the racial wealth gap. Those five factors include the number of years of home ownership; average family income; employment stability, particularly through the Great Recession; college education, and family financial support and inheritance. While marriage is another factor, its impact is quite small, the study found.
"In the context of the social sciences, whenever you can isolate the factors that really explain what's happening, that's a huge step forward," said Shapiro. "And what these particular factors provide is compelling evidence that various government and institutional policies that shape where we live, where we learn and where we work propel the large majority of the widening racial wealth gap."
Each of the factors highlights a number of specific reasons that whites and African- Americans accumulate wealth at different rates. When it came to housing, for example, home equity rose dramatically faster for whites due to the following:
Based on these and other historical factors, the home ownership rate for white families is 28 percent higher.
"The report shows in stark terms that it's not just the last recession and implosion of the housing market that contributed to widening racial wealth disparities," said Anne Price, director of the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. "Past policies of exclusion, such as discriminatory mortgage lending, which continues today, ensure that certain groups reap a greater share of all America has to offer while others are left out."
The report recommends that policymakers take steps such as strengthening and enforcing fair housing, mortgage and lending policies; raising the minimum wage and enforcing equal pay provisions; investing in high- quality childcare and early childhood development, and overhauling preferential tax treatments for dividend and interest income and the home mortgage deduction.
"By disaggregating the factors that lead to the wealth gap, this research is informing leaders and helping them to focus their advocacy efforts toward policy solutions," said Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity.
Contact: Charity Adams
REPORT: For Each & Every Child
Race is the stupidest idea in history
By Leonard Pitts- miamiherald.com
On New Year's Day, it will be 150 years since Abraham Lincoln set black people free from slavery.
And there is no such thing as black people.
The first of those statements is not precisely true; a clarification will be offered momentarily. The second statement is not precisely false. And the clarification begins here:
It is a clarification needed not simply because it helps us to better understand the milestone of history we commemorate this week, but also because it helps us to better understand America right here in the tumultuous now. The Republican Party, to take an example not quite at random, enters the new year still nursing its wounds after an election debacle most observers laid upon its inability to sway Hispanics, young voters and, yes, black people. Then there is the Trayvon Martin shooting, the mass incarceration phenomenon, the birther foolishness.
A century and a half later, in other words, race is still a story. Black people are still a story.
How can that be, if there is no such thing as black people?
Granted, most of us think otherwise. The average 18-year-old American kid, says historian Matt Wray, thinks of race "as a set of facts about who people are, which is somehow tied to blood and biology and ancestry."
But that kid is wrong. If you doubt that, try a simple challenge: Define "black people."
Maybe you think of it as African ancestry. But Africa is a place on a map — not a bloodline. And, as the example of Charlize Theron, the fair-skinned, blond actress from South Africa, amply illustrates, it is entirely possible to come from there, yet not be what we think of as "black." Indeed, Theron, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008, is by definition an African American. Yet, she fits no one's conception of that term, either.
19th Century brother and sister photo portrait.
Or, you might define "black people" by physical appearance: i.e., people with dark skin and coarse hair. If so, consider Gregory Howard Williams, a pale-skinned American educator and author of the memoir Life On The Color Line, who did not learn he was "black" until he was 10. Or consider Walter White, the former executive secretary of the NAACP, whose 1948 autobiography begins: "I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond." Consider the people from India who have dark skin or the ones from Asia, the Middle East or Latin America who have coarse hair.
And perhaps here, you are tempted to throw up your hands and paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who famously said of pornography that he might not be able to define it, "but I know it when I see it."
The difference is that pornography, at least, exists. But there is no such thing as black people. Or white people. Or Asians. Or Indians.
What is my point? It's simply this: Race is the stupidest idea in history.
Or, as Wray puts it, "race was a big mistake."
To which Nell Irwin Painter adds the observation that a decade of research and writing on the subject taught her "that if you try to consider race as a real thing, it makes no sense."
Wray, a Temple University professor and the author of Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, and Painter, a former professor at Princeton and the author of The History of White People, are leading lights in a burgeoning field of study whose aim is nothing less that the deconstruction of race. It seeks to answer the question of when, how, and why we ever got it into our heads there is such a thing as race; when, how, and why we decided we could divide human beings into subgroups whose members all shared similar traits and that those subgroups could be ranked, superior to inferior.
The "when," as it turns out, is pretty easy to answer, though the answer is surprising, in light of how conditioned we are to think of race as something that always was and always will be. The concept of race, says Painter, dates from about the mid-18th Century. It is less than 300 years old.
Though there were always a few people, she says, who attempted to impute character or worth from a stranger's color, it was more likely in that era for people to make those judgments based upon a stranger's religion or wealth. "So if you were a light-skinned person and you met a dark-skinned person in rags, and you weren't [in rags], you'd feel superior," says Painter. "But if you were in rags and that other person was in rags, you'd be trying to figure if that person had something that you could get."
Then came race — that which would allow one person in rags to feel superior to another person in rags. Early on, it was defined not by appearance but as a function of climate. Greek scholars believed people from places where the seasons do not change were placid. Those from places of dramatic seasonal shifts were wild and unsociable. Those from hot places were impulsive and hot-tempered. Those from cooler climes were stiff and intellectual.
Race was also defined geographically. Hippocrates, the great Greek physician, thought people who lived in low-lying areas tended to be dark-skinned, fat, cowardly, ill-spoken and lazy. Those who lived in flat, windy places would be large in stature, "but their minds will be rather unmanly and gentle."
And then, there were those who decided the key to race lay in measuring the size and shape of people's skulls.
"American scientists and anthropologists get ahold of this concept by the early 1800s," says Wray. "For the whole of the 19th Century, they're refining and tweaking their models to really give scientific weight and authority to the notion that these racial differences can be empirically verified. In other words, they're out there in the world. We just have to figure out whether it's the distance between the eye sockets and the bridge of the nose, or some combination of measurements from the back of the skull to the chin divided by the circumference of the head that will give us the kind of golden ratio we're looking for — in other words, the one that will enable us to definitively say, this person is African, this person is Caucasian and so forth."
The great Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston was fascinated by this thinking. She was known to stand on New York City street corners with a pair of calipers, asking passersby for permission to measure their skulls.
In 1895, D.B. Brinton, an American anthropologist, published a complicated chart purporting to categorize all the races of humankind. He ended up with more than a hundred kinds of Caucasian alone.
Brinton and Hurston were never able to quantify race. No one was. And yet, the nation — indeed, the world — was never able to give it up. Race was, and is, too useful.
Says Wray, "It has enabled in the United States for us to justify and legitimate the conquest of Indian land and the near genocide of Native American tribes. It enabled us for such a long time to justify slavery and when we got done with that justification, when people called B.S. on that, we said, 'Well, this is how we can explain Jim Crow.' When the Civil Rights Movement happens in the 1950s and '60s, when African Americans rise up and say, 'Enough Jim Crow,' then we use it to justify mass incarceration of black Americans. We find the idea of race and inherent racial differences and the idea that some people are frankly, just better than others, to be indispensible."
It is worth remembering that when newcomers from Europe flocked to these shores in search of opportunity, they did not automatically see themselves as white. They were French, English, Scottish, Spanish or German, and far from having some identity in common, they were often in contention for the riches of this land. Whiteness was something that had to be learned and earned, particularly for those — Jews, Poles, southern Italians, Hungarians, the Irish — who were regarded as congenitally inferior. They were seen as white, says Painter, but it was a sort of defective whiteness. They were "off white" for want of a better term, and as such, a threat to American values and traditions. And they were mistreated accordingly until, over the passage of generations of assimilation, they achieved full whiteness.
University of Illinois history professor David R. Roediger recounts a telling episode in his book, Working Toward Whiteness. It seems David, a Russian Jew, has come to America seeking refuge from anti-Semitic persecution. He arrives in Georgia and begins working with his cousins as a peddler. But soon there is a problem. His cousins complain that he is too friendly with his black customers. "The schvarters here are like we are in Russia," they explain. To treat them too well is to risk his own acceptance.
David replies that he cannot bring himself to treat the blacks as he himself was treated in Russia. "It is easy," he tells his cousin, "for you to forget how to feel and what it is like to be hurt and stepped on when you think of yourself as white today and forget what it was like being a Jew yesterday."
As Jon Stewart noted recently on The Daily Show, that history is what lends a certain pungent edge to some of the post-election hand wringing among conservatives. Surely, the gods of irony laughed aloud when a television personality named O'Reilly (Bill) and a guest named Goldberg (Bernie) lamented how newcomers were changing "traditional America."
As whiteness was invented, so was blackness. When Africans were gathered on the shores of that continent to be packed into the reeking holds of slave ships for the voyage to this country, they saw themselves as Taureg, Mandinkan, Fulani, Mende or Songhay — not black. As Noel Ingnatiev, author of How The Irish Became White, has observed, those Africans did not become slaves because they were black. They "became" black because they were enslaved.
But though blackness and whiteness were invented they still, to a remarkable degree, govern perception — and thus, destiny.
Some months ago, my wife Marilyn and I were at dinner with two other couples and somehow, we all got talking about identity. One couple, brown-skinned like Marilyn and me, saw themselves, like Marilyn and me, as black or African American. The other, fair-skinned couple, pointedly declined to define themselves as white. She said she saw herself as Jewish; he defined himself as a first-generation Polish American.
It struck me, not simply because it underlined the ultimate falsity of these identities, white and black, but also because it highlighted what has always struck me as the problematic nature of one of them in particular: white. I've often thought the word "white" had a tendency to discomfit the people to whom it is applied, to carry some hint of accusation that is no less real for being unspoken. In my experience, white people are often ill at ease with being referred to as white people.
There is, I think, a reason for that. "Black" and "white" are equally artificial, but black fairly quickly took on the contours of a real culture. The people to whom it was applied, after all, were required to live in close proximity to one another, sharing the same often-squalid circumstances, the same mistreatment and oppression, conditions that no degree of personal excellence or achievement could mitigate or help them escape. These pressures shaped them, drew them together.
"White," on the other hand, was held together only by the single condition of being not black, being a member of the advantaged class. It has little existence apart from that.
As illustration, try a mind experiment. If someone says to you that she enjoys black literature, what do you interpret her to be saying? Likely that she reads Ernest Gaines, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. But what is "white literature?" What is "white music?" What is "white art?" How often, in media, does one even see "white" used — physical descriptions of crime suspects aside — where it is not positioned as a counterpoint to "black?"
This is the thing that is often misunderstood by people who try to impute some sinister double standard to things like the Miss Black America Pageant. "If there was a Miss White America Pageant," they are fond of saying, "black people would have a fit."
But there is a Miss Italia USA pageant. And a Miss German America pageant. And a Little Miss Irish Princess contest. And a Miss Russian California.
So the problem isn't black people having a fit. It is white people recognizing, if only viscerally and instinctively, that "white" is a problematic word to be avoided when possible.
What, then, do we do with this history? Where does it take us as the future dawns?
Some would say it takes us nowhere. Some would say the best thing we can do with race is leave it alone. If I had a dollar for every person who has ever told me that talking about race causes racism, or even half that much for every person who has ever told me the "hyphenated Americanism" of African Americans causes racism, I'd never have to buy another Powerball ticket in life.
But such people are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. People embrace hyphenated Americanism because no other Americanism has been available to them. And if we stopped talking about race tomorrow, racism would persist; all we would lose is the language by which we frame and confront it.
You don't end race by silence, nor do you end it by blaming it on the people it has been used against.
Again, race persists because race is useful. If you want to end race, stop allowing race to be useful. Consider some of the political debates of the recent past and note how issues with no obvious racial component soon end up being about race.
"I think you see it with health care now," says the historian, Roediger. "Very quickly, something that's kind of a fundamental human right, it'll end up being talked about as if it were a racialized entitlement. The achievement of the right in making the word 'welfare,' which means good, sound like a bad thing, is so connected with the way they can pull on race."
But Roediger does sense that a change is afoot, that perhaps the utility of race has peaked. The election, he says, showed "that this kind of Republican refrain of 'food stamp president' doesn't work quite as well when so many white people are on food stamps and know people who they know are trying to get jobs and can't get jobs."
As a result, he says, the GOP, which has, for generations been able to "take advantage of race," now faces a race problem of its own. "I think there are fewer whites who respond to these kind of dog whistle, coded appeals, partly because they have misery in their own families, partly because anti-racism has made some progress."
There is no such thing as black people.
Except, of course, that there is — even if we have to use what might be dubbed the Justice Potter Stewart standard to define them.
Race is the stupidest idea in history. It is also, arguably, the most powerful. It determines who goes to jail and who goes to college, who gets loans and who gets rejections, who gets the job and who gets the unemployment check. It determines the life you live and the assumptions that are made about you.
For example, Gregory Howard Williams, the man who did not know he was "black" until he was 10, once told the story of how, when he became dean of his law school, a white woman congratulated him on this well-deserved achievement. "Then," said Williams, "she found out that I was black, and her first response — not to me, but to someone else — was, 'Did he get the job because he was black?' When she looked at me and assumed I was white, she assumed that I was qualified for the job. When she discovered I was black, she assumed that I was unqualified for the job."
Then there is Walter White, the "Negro" with blond hair and blue eyes, who was, as a child, cornered in his house with his father, a mail carrier, by a white mob intent on violence. "There's where that nigger mail carrier lives!" they cried. "Let's burn it down! It's too nice for a nigger to live in!"
Back in 2000, a group of scientists announced that, after mapping the genetic codes of five people, self-identified as African American, Caucasian, Asian and Hispanic, they had been unable to tell them apart. As one researcher put it, "The concept of race has no scientific basis."
That same week, I was in New York City where I stood on 44th Street with my hand raised, watching empty cab after empty cab pass me by. The irony was pointed. Science could not define "black," but a New York City cab driver certainly could.
This is the reality to which our history delivers us, one in which these artificial designations — "black," "white," "Asian," etc. — are considered to have all these inborn markers for intelligence, criminality, athleticism, honesty, cleanliness, and we accept it without question, accept it like sunshine and air, as a thing that simply is. And it seems beyond us to look into the face of that other person who sits on the other side of that artificial designation and see reflected in his or her eyes, our own tears, our own laughter, our own self.
A century and a half ago Tuesday, the first Republican president issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. Except that, as most historians will tell you, it didn't actually free anybody; it applied only to slaves in states like Florida and Mississippi, which were then in rebellion and no longer recognized U.S. authority, while ignoring those in states like Maryland and Kentucky, which remained in the Union. As the movie Lincoln shows, it actually took the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.
But the one thing Abraham Lincoln's document did do was challenge a nation's understanding of its fundamental social order, its comprehension of the way things were and were meant to be. At a time when the very humanity of "black" people was in controversy and any suggestion that they might actually be equal to whites was met with scornful laughter, this homely country lawyer put the idea of freedom on the table and forced the nation for the very first time to grapple with that which it had previously accepted without question, like sunshine and air.
Getting the nation to think seriously about the concept of black people, free, was, as much as anything, a triumph of imagination.
One hundred fifty years later, getting the nation to understand that there is no such thing as black people will require a similar jolt to hidebound thinking. If and when it comes, perhaps a nation that once freed itself from slavery will finally free itself from race, as well.
The end of court-ordered school desegregation and the resegregation of American public schools
THE HISTORY OF RACISM
The concept of "Race" was created by racist in order to justify the permanent multicentury enslavement of the People of Africa for the sake of capitalist profit maximization.
"Race" and Racism is now normalized within humanity everywhere on Planet Earth.
Today, ALL people are measured by the "degree of Darkness/Blackness" they possess. "Race" has defined how capitalism and its imperial quest has developed. On the other hand, it has also been shaped by the levels of Resistance Blackfolk and other People of Color have have asserted over the centuries in our struggle to be Free.
These short videos help contextualize the centrality of Race, Racism and Resistance for our Parents, Educators and, most importantly our Youth.
Theodore W. Allen
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