Theodore Allen's Work Against White Supremacy Growing In Importance Years After His Death

the seminal two-volume "The Invention of the White Race"
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Theodore W. "Ted" Allen (August 23, 1919-January 19, 2005) was an anti-white supremacist, working class intellectual and activist. He developed his pioneering class struggle-based analysis of "white skin privilege" beginning in the mid-1960s; authored the seminal two-volume "The Invention of the White Race" in the 1990s; and consistently maintained that the struggle against white supremacy was central to efforts at radical social change in the United States.

Born on August 23, 1919, in Indianapolis, Indiana, he grew up in Paintsville, Kentucky and Huntington, West Virginia (where he graduated from high school), and then went into the mines and became a United Mine Workers Local President. After hurting his back in the mines, he moved to New York City and lived his last fifty-plus years in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn where he worked various jobs including as a postal worker at the Bulk Mail Center in Jersey City, NJ and as a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library.

"The Invention of the White Race"

Allen's two-volume "The Invention of the White Race" (Verso Books, 1994, 1997; new expanded edition 2012; and new consolidated (2 vols. in 1) edition (January 2022) with its focus on racial oppression and social control is one of the twentieth-century's major contributions to historical understanding. It presents a full-scale challenge to what he refers to as "The Great White Assumption" — the unquestioning acceptance of the "white race" and "white" identity as skin color-based and natural attributes rather than as social and political constructions. Its thesis on the origin, nature, and maintenance of the "white race" and its understanding that racial slavery in the Anglo-American plantation colonies was capitalist and enslaved Black laborers were proletarians, contain the basis of a revolutionary approach to United States labor history.

On the back cover of the 1994 edition of Volume 1, subtitled "Racial Oppression and Social Control", Allen boldly asserted "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."

In this context he offers his major thesis — that the "white race" was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor 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 define and maintain the "white race" and to implement a system of racial oppression, and 2) the consequence was not only ruinous to the interest of African Americans, it was also disastrous for European-American workers.

In Volume II, subtitled "The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America", Allen tells the story of the invention of the "white race" and the development of the system of racial oppression in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Anglo-American plantation colonies. His primary focus is on the pattern-setting Virginia colony, and he pays special attention to the reduction of tenants and wage-laborers in the majority English labor force to chattel bond-servants in the 1620s. In so doing, he emphasizes that this was a qualitative break from the condition of laborers in England and from long established English labor law, that it was not a feudal carryover, that it was imposed under capitalism, and that it was an essential precondition of the emergence of the lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude imposed upon African-American laborers under the system of racial slavery.

Allen describes how, throughout much of the seventeenth century, the status of African-Americans was indeterminate (because it was still being fought out) and he details the similarity of conditions for African-American and European-American laborers and bond-servants. He also documents many significant instances of labor solidarity and unrest, especially during the 1660s and 1670s. Of great significance is his analysis of the civil war stage of Bacon's Rebellion when thousands of laboring people took up arms against the ruling plantation elite, the capital (Jamestown) was burned to the ground, rebels controlled 6/7 of the Virginia colony, and Afro- and Euro-American bond-servants fought side-by-side demanding an end to their bondage.

It was in the period after Bacon's Rebellion that the "white race" was invented as a ruling-class social control formation. Read more.

Dr. Jeffrey B. Perry is the author of "Hubert Harrison, The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918" (Columbia University Press, 2008) and "Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927" (Columbia University Press, November 2020). He is also the editor of, and wrote "Introductions" for "A Hubert Harrison Reader" (Wesleyan University Press, 2001); Theodore W. Allen's "The Invention of the White Race" Vol. 1: "Racial Oppression and Social Control" (New Edition, Verso Books 2012); Theodore W. Allen's "The Invention of the White Race" Vol. 2: "The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America" (New Edition, Verso Books 2012); Allen's "The Invention of the White Race" (consolidated, 2 volumes in 1, Edition Verso Books, 2022) and Hubert H. Harrison, "When Africa Awakes: The 'Inside Story' of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World" (New Edition, Diasporic Africa Press, 2015).

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