[Blackstudies-l] [SocialistWorker.org] Theodore Allen on race and privilege

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Tue Apr 28 11:56:00 EDT 2015

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Readers' Views

Author Jeffrey B. Perry discusses the writings of Theodore Allen and, in
particular, the evolution of the concept of white privilege.

April 28, 2015
INTEREST IN the work of Theodore W. Allen continues to grow, and people
increasingly inquire about his writings on /The Invention of the White
"white privilege" and the working class. In response to recent queries, I
offer this brief introductory paragraph followed by three passages that
some of his thinking on these topics.

The independent, anti-white supremacist, working-class intellectual Theodore
W. Allen (1919-2005) is one of the most important thinkers on race and class
of the 20th century. His seminal two-volume classic /The Invention of the
White Race/ (Volume 1: /Racial Oppression and Social Control/ [1] and Volume
2: /The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America/ [2]) was published in
1994 and 1997 by Verso Books and in 2012 was re-published by Verso in new
expanded form (that includes internal study guides in each volume). Allen
began his pioneering research on "white privilege" in 1965 and continued to
write on the topic for 40 years.

The "Introduction" to Volume I of the 2012 edition of /The Invention of the
White Race/ explains:

>Theodore W. Allen's /The Invention of the White Race/, with its focus on
>social control and the nature of racial oppression, is one of the
>twentieth-century's major contributions to historical understanding. This
>two-volume work, first published in 1994 and 1997, and considered a
>"classic" by 2003, presents a full-scale challenge to what Allen refers to
>as "The Great White Assumption"--the unquestioning acceptance of the "white
>race" and "white" identity as skin color-based and natural attributes
>than as social and political constructions. Its thesis on the origin and
>nature of the so-called "white race" contains the root of a new and radical
>approach to United States history, one that challenges dominant narratives
>taught in schools, colleges, universities, and the media. With its
>equalitarian motif and emphasis on the class struggle dimension of history
>it contributes mightily to our understanding of American, African American,
>and Labor History and it speaks to people desiring and struggling for
>worldwide. Its influence can be expected to continue to grow in the
>twenty-first century.
>Readers of the first volume of /Invention/ were startled by Allen's bold,
>back-cover assertion that "When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in
>1619, there were no 'white' people there; nor, according to the colonial
>records, would there be for another sixty years." That statement, based on
>20-plus years of primary research in Virginia's colonial records, reflected
>the fact that Allen found no instance of the official use of the word
>"white" as a token of social status prior to its appearance in a Virginia
>law passed in 1691. As he later explained, "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 that--based on the commonality of experience, the
>demonstrated solidarity between African-American and European-American
>laboring people, and the indeterminate status of African-Americans--the
>"white race" was not, and could not have been, functioning in early
>It is in this context that he offers his major thesis--that the "white
>was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to
>solidarity as manifested in the latter (civil war) stages of Bacon's
>Rebellion (1676-77). To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the
>ruling elite deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to
>and maintain the "white race" and to implement a system of racial
>oppression, and 2) the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of
>the African-American workers, but was also disastrous for European-American
>In developing these theses Allen challenges the two main ideological props
>of white supremacy--the notion that "racism" is innate (and it is therefore
>useless to challenge it) and the argument that European-American /workers/
>benefit from "white race" privileges and white supremacy (and that it is
>therefore in their interest not to oppose them).
>His challenge is both historical and theoretical. He counters these
>arguments through meticulous use of sources, through probing analysis of
>"Racial Oppression and Social Control" (the sub-title of this volume), and
>through important comparative study that offers analogies, parallels, and
>differences between the Anglo-American plantation colonies, Ireland, and
>Anglo-Caribbean colonies. Allen chooses these examples, all subjected to
>domination by Anglo ruling elites, in order to show that racial oppression
>is a system of social control not based on phenotype, or skin color, and to
>show how social control factors impact how racial oppression begins and how
>it can be maintained, transformed, or ended.
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THE CORE theses in Allen's analysis were evidenced in the early 1970s. Allen
writes in his "Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The
of the White Race" [3] (1975; reprinted with new editor's introduction by
/Cultural Logic/ and by the Center for the Study of Working Class Life,
University of New York, Stony Brook, 2006), n. 63:

>Of all the historians of the "social" school whose work I have read, only
>the Black historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., in his article, "The Road Not
>Taken," /Ebony/, vol. 25 (1970), no. 10 (August), pp. 70-77, and in Chap.
>III of his new book /The Shaping of Black America/ (Chicago, 1975),
>in placing the argument on the three essential bearing-points from which it
>cannot be toppled. First, racial slavery and white supremacy in this
>was a ruling-class response to a problem of labor solidarity. Second, a
>system of racial privileges for white workers was deliberately instituted
>order to define and establish the "white race" as a social control
>formation. Third, the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of
>the Afro-American workers but was also "disastrous" (Bennett's word) for
>white worker. Others (such as the Handlins, Morgan and Breen) state the
>first two points to some degree, but only Bennett combines all three.
>Although I learned of Bennett's essay only in April 1975, the same three
>essentials have informed my own approach in a book I have for several years
>been engaged in writing (and of which this present article is a spin-off),
>on the origin of racial slavery, white supremacy and the system of racial
>privileges of white labor in this country.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE ARTICLE "The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert
Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White
Supremacy" [4] (/Cultural Logic/," 2010) describes (with documentation) key
components of Allen's analysis of "white race" privilege:

>As he developed the "white race" privilege concept, Allen emphasized that
>these privileges were a "poison bait" and explained that they "do not
>permit" the masses of European American workers nor their children "to
>escape" from that class. "It is not that the ordinary white worker gets
>/more/ than he must have to support himself," but "the Black worker gets
>/less/ than the white worker." By, thus "inducing, reinforcing and
>perpetuating racist attitudes on the part of the white workers, the
>present-day power masters get the political support of the rank-and-file of
>the white workers in critical situations, and without having to share with
>them their super profits in the slightest measure." As one example, to
>support his position Allen would provide statistics showing that in the
>South where race privilege "has always been most emphasized...the white
>workers have fared worse than the white workers in the rest of the
>Probing more deeply, Allen offered an additional important insight into why
>these race privileges are conferred by the ruling class. He pointed out
>"the ideology of white racism" is "not appropriate to the white workers"
>because it is "contrary to their class interests." Because of this "the
>bourgeoisie could not long have maintained this ideological influence over
>the /white/ proletarians by mere racist ideology." Under these
>white supremacist thought is "given a material basis in the form of the
>deliberately contrived system of race privileges for white workers."
>Allen added, "the white supremacist system that had originally been
>in around 1700 by the plantation bourgeoisie to protect the base, the
>chattel bond labor relation of production" also served "as a part of the
>'legal and political' superstructure of the United States government that,
>until the Civil War, was dominated by the slaveholders with the complicity
>of the majority of the European-American workers." Then, after
>"the industrial and financial bourgeoisie found that it could be
>to their program of social control, anachronistic as it was, and
>incorporated it into their own 'legal and political' superstructure."
>Allen felt that two essential points must be kept in mind. First, "the
>race-privilege policy is deliberate bourgeois class policy." Second, "the
>race-privilege policy is, contrary to surface appearance, contrary to the
>interests, short range as well as long range interests of not only the
>workers but of the white workers as well." He repeatedly emphasized that
>"/the day-to-day real interests"/ of the European American worker/ "is not
>the white skin privileges, but in the development of an ever-expanding
>of class conscious workers/."
>Allen made clear what he understood as the "interests of the working class"
>and referred to Marx and Engels in/ The Communist Manifesto/: "1. In the
>national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries they
>out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat,
>independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development
>which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass
>through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement
>as a whole." He elsewhere pointed out, "The Wobblies caught the essence of
>it in their slogan: 'An injury to one is an injury to all.'"
>Throughout his work Allen emphasizes, "that the initiator and the ultimate
>guarantor of the white skin privileges of the white worker is not the white
>worker, but the white worker's masters" and the masters do this because it
>is "an indispensable necessity for their continued class rule." He
>how "an all-pervasive system of racial privileges was conferred on
>laboring-class European-Americans, rural and urban, /exploited and insecure
>though they themselves were/" and how "its threads, woven into the fabric
>every aspect of daily life, of family, church, and state, have constituted
>the main historical guarantee of the rule of the 'Titans,' damping down
>anti-capitalist pressures, by making 'race, and not class, the distinction
>in social life.'" That, "more than any other factor," he argues, "has
>the contours of American history--from the Constitutional Convention of
>to the Civil War, to the overthrow of Reconstruction, to the Populist
>of the 1890s, to the Great Depression, to the civil rights struggle and
>'white backlash' of our own day."
>Based on his research Allen wrote, "history has shown that the white-skin
>privilege does not serve the real interests of the white workers, it also
>shows that the concomitant racist ideology has blinded them to that fact."
>He emphasized, "'Solidarity forever!' means 'Privileges never!'"
It is hoped that these brief remarks will lead more people to explore the
work of Theodore W. Allen [5].

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Readers' Views
SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions [6] to discussion
debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left.
expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Readers' Views
SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions [7] to discussion
debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left.
expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

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[3] http://clogic.eserver.org/2006/allen.html
[4] http://clogic.eserver.org/2010/2010.html
[6] http://socialistworker.org/contact
[7] http://socialistworker.org/contact
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