Thinking about Theory

One of the ironies of recent politics is that while white mainstream journalists, pundits and ordinary people are more willing to acknowledge the existence of white privilege, some sections of the predominantly- white socialist left remain resistant to it. Some socialists see class as all-encompassing and dismiss all discussion of racial privilege as falling into "identity politics" and therefore "divisive."

Yet for increasing numbers of ordinary white people, the newspaper headlines and the Black and Latino community organizing against racial profiling have made certain realities more obvious. Some aspects of life (e.g. where you can live, how police and store security treat you) are very different based on your skin color, even for people who earn the same income and have attained the same educational level.

There are probably three main aspects to the concept of white privilege, and readers of this magazine are likely familiar with them. (1) White privilege exists, still today, as an observable, documentable material reality. (2) To say it exists is not to guilt trip white people but to call for taking action against inequality. (3) White privilege and the concept of "whiteness" itself only came into being in the late 1600s when the ruling class of the British North American colonies deliberately granted differential treatment and legal status to European-born bond laborers as a social control strategy—to prevent them from uniting with their African peers in rebellion. Before this happened, people didn't go around thinking of themselves as "white" or "Black."

The last point about the historical origin of whiteness and white privilege is contested by some scholars and is of much more than academic interest. The idea that there are separate races (rather than a continuity of variation of human skin color) and the inextricably linked idea that the white race is superior to others have been the source of and justification for brutal oppression. But if these ideas were historically created by deliberate human action, then they can be historically ended by conscious human action. This thesis, therefore, gives the lie to the lament and cop-out that’s accompanied almost every article I’ve seen in the mainstream press about the Durban conference on racism: “Racism has been with us since time immemorial, it’s part of human nature, how foolish and utopian it is to think we can end racism.”

Ted Allen’s two volumes on The Invention of the White Race offer the most comprehensive and meticulously documented presentation of the historical or, as he calls it, “sociogenic” theory of racial oppression. Following W.E.B. DuBois, Allen believes that this thesis also contains the roots of a general theory of U.S. history. That is, it can explain how the U.S. bourgeoisie has been able to been able to contain rebellion by using “white race solidarity” as “the country’s most general form of class-collaboration.”

Throughout the two volumes, Allen stands on the shoulders of and gives the props to Black Marxist scholars like DuBois and Trinidad’s Eric Williams, author of the pathbreaking Capitalism and Slavery. Williams wrote in 1944, “Slavery was not born of racism; rather racism was the consequence of slavery.” Allen himself has been working on this theory since co-authoring the late ’60s pamphlet that was an eye opener for many of the New Left generation: “White Blindspot/Can White Workers Radicals Be Radicalized?”

What Is Racism?

One of Allen’s most useful theoretical contributions and mind-benders is a definition of racism as being a social practice specific to modern colonialism but not necessarily dependent on either skin color difference or chattel slavery. His thesis is that the Irish (who were no darker-skinned than the English) and the American Indians (who were mostly not enslaved)—as well enslaved Africans—were all racially oppressed by English/British and Anglo-American colonialism.


The particular character of racism, Allen says, flows from a colonial situation in which a society with private property in land and resources subdued a society with collective, tribal tenure of land and resources. The colonizer destroyed the original forms of social identity of the oppressed groups (tribal and kinship associations), and then excluded the oppressed groups from admittance into the forms of social identity normal to the colonizing power. All members of the oppressed group were reduced to one undifferentiated social status. This was enforced by four elements of discrimination: “(1) declassing legislation, directed at property-holding members of the oppressed group; (2) deprivation of civil rights; (3) illegalization of literacy; and (4) displacement of family rights and authorities.” (Volume I, p. 81)

Although not all are to be made slaves of the colonizing power, the object is social death for the subjugated group as a whole, whether individually and in groups they are forcibly torn from their home country to serve abroad among strangers, or they are made strangers in their own native land. They are “desocialized” by the brutal rupture of the relations which characterize the social person. (p. 35)

The British shifted their Irish policy beginning in the 1770s, by allowing class differentiation and fostering an Irish bourgeoisie as a buffer social control stratum. But before that, British laws regarding Irish people prefigured the white-supremacist slave codes in continental Anglo-America:

If under Anglo-American slavery “the rape of a female slave was not a crime, but a mere trespass on the master’s property,” so in 1278 two Anglo-Normans brought into court and charged with raping Margaret O’Rourke were found not guilty because “the said Margaret is an Irishwoman.” If a law enacted in Virginia in 1723 provided that “manslaughter of a slave is not punishable,” so under Anglo-Norman law it sufficed for acquittal to show that the victim in a killing was Irish. Anglo-Norman priests granted absolution on the grounds that it was “no more sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any other brute.” (p. 46-7)

From Temporary Bond Laborers to Slaves

Volume II is dedicated to showing that the white race, and thus a system of racial oppression, did not yet exist in the 17th century tobacco colonies, with a main focus on Virginia. Rather, the relative social status of African Americans and European Americans was indeterminate and was being fought out. Allen cites diverse forms of evidence from the historical record. African Americans owned significant amounts of land in the 17th century. In some cases, African Americans became owners, buyers and sellers of European-American bond laborers. Inter-marriage among Africans and Europeans was not uncommon. But most telling, for Allen, was Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, which showed that the white race did not yet really exist:

In their solidarity with the African-American bond laborers in Bacon’s Rebellion, the laboring class European-American bond-laborers had demonstrated their understanding of their interests, and bond-laborers had had the sympathy of the laboring poor and propertyless free population. (p. 248)

    Theodore W. Allen: The Invention of the White Race

  • Volume One: Racial Oppression and Social Control (1994)
  • Volume Two: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (1997)

London & New York, Verso Books

Allen does not deny that some steps towards the denial of rights to African Americans had been taken before the rebellion. For example, a 1660 law limited to five years the length of bond servitude—but the limitation only applied for those “of what Christian nation soever.” Yet, for Allen, it was the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion (in 1677) that was the turning point, clearing the way for the establishment of the system of lifetime hereditary bond servitude. Then the subordinate status of African Americans, even those who managed to free themselves from slavery, became embedded in numerous social practices and encoded in law.

In 1723, the Virginia Assembly voted that “no free negro, mulatto or indian whatsoever shall have any vote at the election of burgesses or any other election whatsoever.” (p. 241) Allen describes this as “a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie; it proceeded from a conscious decision in the process of establishing a system of racial oppression, even though it meant repealing an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.”

This insistence on the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group, is the hallmark of racial oppression. (p. 243)

Allen’s analysis emphasizes both how deeply ingrained racism and white privilege have been in the development of Anglo-American and then U.S. capitalism, and how these categories are also historically created and fluid. This is a point worth keeping in mind for the twenty-first century as we see people of color becoming a majority of the population in California already, and eventually across the U.S. Just like Irish, Jews and Italians over the past century and a half, some groups now defined as people of color may be redefined into white by a ruling class seeking to perpetuate their oppressive and exploitative system. White supremacist bourgeois rule is a pretty flexible and creative system, and we need sharp and nuanced analysis, strategy and tactics to fight it.

Juliet Ucelli is a public education activist and a member of the National Executive Committee of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.
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