Second in the series: Organize the White Working Class!
This article also appeared in CounterPunch.
There is no better place to start organizing than with political strategy inspired by Theodore W. Allen’s classic book: The Invention the White Race: Volume I Racial Oppression and Social Control and Volume II: The Origins of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America.
Before we continue, a word or two about Ted Allen.
Ted Allen was a working-class white man without college training but with a long history of activism and a deep determination to uncover the truth about how racism came to be in America. Allen was a Marxist and used a class-based analysis to guide his study. Jeffrey B. Perry continues Allen’s work today, and you should view his presentations on Allen’s legacy.
Much of the power of Allen’s ideas comes from his unmatched devotion to research. He spent more than 20 years digging deep into the colonial archives of Virginia and mastered what is, arguably, the most extensive body of evidence ever produced on race in early colonial America. Allen contested and bested some of the most acclaimed historians in the field. The working-class reader cannot help but revel in the fact that a worker without a degree kicked Ivy League butt.
But getting class identity jollies aside, Allen’s work is such a useful guide to action because he did what no other historian did. Allen created an argument that might help us discover a truly political strategy to fight racism among whites based on empowerment, class solidarity, community interest, and self-interest, rather than relying on morality, guilt, and shame. In other words, Allen innovated a revolutionary approach to fighting white racism and white privilege.
The Invention of the White Race
What Allen discovered transformed our understanding of race in America and can transform our organizing practice and activism. He shocked readers with a startling finding:
“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no “white” people there; nor according to colonial records would there be for another sixties years.”1
Oh, yes, there were English and Irish, but nowhere in the colonial record is there evidence that law or society granted special privileges to people based on European origin.
The white race and white identity were “invented,” Allen argued, by the ruling elite of Virginia, in order to divide laboring people in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. The white race was constructed and used as a political instrument to divide and conquer.
How did this come to be?
By 1620 or so, a system of unfree labor became the dominant labor system in Virginia. The system was essentially slavery, some “bond-laborers” had time-limited contracts, but most servitude was open to interpretation by custom. A majority of these bond-laborers were Europeans.
The archival evidence is clear, as well, that the role of African and African Americans was “indeterminate.”2 From 1619 to the years following Bacon’s Rebellion, the status of black people was contested in the courts and in the fields. Africans held a variety of social and economic positions: some were limited term slaves, some free, some endured lifetime bondage, while others were property holders, even including a few slave owners.
It was not until after Bacon’s Rebellion, or the second phase of Bacon’s Rebellion to be precise, that law and society created a new custom of racism, and for that to happen, the white race had to be invented. What was the trigger?
“[I]n Virginia, 128 years before William Lloyd Garrison was born, laboring class African-Americans and European-Americans fought side by side for the abolition of slavery. In so doing, they provided the supreme proof that the white race did not then exist.”3
The Rebellion occupied the capital of Jamestown and pointed the way toward freedom for everyone, by contesting the rule of the oligarchs who had grown rich on slave labor and land stolen from the natives.
“[I]t was the striving of the bond-laborers for freedom from chattel servitude that held the key to liberation of the colony from the misery that proceeded from oligarchic rule…4
After the rebellion was suppressed, law and custom began to shift. Europeans were increasingly designated as “white” in the historical record, and given privileges that conferred a “presumption of liberty” while blacks were increasing subjected to legal and cultural limits to their freedoms. Whites were encouraged to view blacks with contempt and see their inferior social positions as proof of innate inferiority.
Allen summarized the early system of white privilege as “simply the right to be free.”
All authorities agree…that the conditions of the masses of white industrial and agricultural workers, North and South, were abominable in the decades before the Civil War. Still they had their white-skin privileges: The white worker was an actual or potential citizen, with citizen’s rights; the black had no rights. The white, as possessor–if not immediately, then within a definite time–of his own person, had legal freedom of movement; the black did not own himself. The white, if bound by indenture, debtor apprenticeship, or in some other manner, might still succeed in escaping into the free-moving white world much more easily than the black worker. As possessor of himself, the white workers could–even though not always immediately– take a better job, if he could find one; the black had no such chance. The white worker, if opportunity afforded, could learn to read and then study as a means of improving his lot; the black worker was forbidden by law even to learn to read. The white worker could aspire to become a farmer, a merchant or an industrialist; the black had only flight, revolt, revenge to dream of. At this point, the white skin privilege of the white worker was simply the right to be free…5
The white race, white supremacy, and black subordination were all products of the same historical period in which the slave system was recreated as a racist system to prevent the threat of united action by the people. Today the new oligarchy still relies on their ability to divide and conquer.
Here is Allen’s legacy and challenge to us: racism is historical, it is the product of human activity. If it was then, it is now. Racism was founded on a system of privileges designed to win working class white people’s support for slavery. And so it is to white privilege that we must look if we want to free ourselves from being the tools and fools of the rich and powerful.
We must be pawns no more.
- Allen, Invention of the White Race Vol. II p X
- Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 178
- Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 214-21
- Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 212
- Can White
Workers Radicals be Radicalized. p176 in Revolutionary Youth & The New Working Class/Lost writing of the SDS.