Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Invention of the White Race


Counterpunch |  Theodore W. Allen’s two-volume The Invention of the White Race, republished by Verso Books in a New Expanded Edition, presents a full-scale challenge to what Allen refers to as “The Great White Assumption” – “the unquestioning, indeed unthinking acceptance of the ‘white’ identity of European-Americans of all classes as a natural attribute rather than a social construct.” Its thesis on the origin and nature of the “white race” contains the root of a new and radical approach to United States history, one that challenges master narratives taught in the media and in schools, colleges, and universities. With its equalitarian motif and emphasis on class struggle it speaks to people today who strive for change worldwide.

Allen’s original 700-pages magnum opus, already recognized as a “classic” by scholars such as Audrey Smedley, Wilson J. Moses, Nell Painter, and Gerald Horne, included extensive notes and appendices based on his twenty-plus years of primary source research. The November 2012 Verso edition adds new front and back matter, expanded indexes, and internal study guides for use by individuals, classes, and study groups. Invention is a major contribution to our historical understanding, it is meant to stand the test of time, and it can be expected to grow in importance in the 21st century.
“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.”
That arresting statement, printed on the back cover of the first (1994) volume, reflected the fact that, after poring through 885 county-years of Virginia’s colonial records, Allen found “no instance of the official use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status” prior to its appearance in a 1691 law. As he explained, “Others living in the colony at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally they and their Virginia-born children were English, they were not ‘white.’” “White identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be only after the passage of some six crucial decades” that the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”

Allen was not merely speaking of word usage, however. His probing research led him to conclude – based on the commonality of experience and demonstrated solidarity between African-American and European-American laboring people, the lack of a substantial intermediate buffer social control stratum, and the “indeterminate” status of African-Americans – that the “white race” was not, and could not have been, functioning in early Virginia.

It is in the context of such findings that he offers his major thesis — the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the later, civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77).  To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the ruling elite, in its own class interest, deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to define and maintain the “white race” and 2) the consequences were not only ruinous to the interests of African-Americans, they were also “disastrous” for European-American workers, whose class interests differed fundamentally from those of the ruling elite.  The Invention of the White Race Volume II