How the ‘White’ Race Was Invented to Divide the American Working Class

There was another, very interesting piece in Counterpunch last week by Richard Moser, ‘Pawns No More: Ted Allen and the Invention of the White Race’. This discussed the work of Theodore W. Allen’s classic analysis of the origins of racism and racial oppression in America, The Invention the White Race: Volume I Racial Oppression and Social Control and Volume II: The Origins of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. Allen was a White working class writer and political activist, who spent 20 years working in the Virginia state archives to amass an impressive amount of evidence to support his view: that the ‘White’ race was invented by the colonial authorities to divide the bonded poor, both Black and White, and stop the formation of a united working class opposition to slavery.

Allen noted that when the first Africans arrived at Jamestown in 1619, there was no special status attached either to them or to people of European origin. Indeed, Whites, as a special demographic category, did not exist, and would not exist until after Bacon’s Rebellion 60 years later. Moser writes

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.” 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.

Conditions for working class Whites continued to be appalling throughout the US, both in the North as well as in the South, but there was a major difference between White and Black. The law presumed Whites were free, and so they had the ability to improve their conditions, and even such basic rights as the right to basic literacy – which were denied enslaved Africans.

Moser’s article is written not just as a piece of interesting historical analysis, but as a piece of factual ammunition for the campaign against the neoliberal rule of the rich elite in Trump’s America. He concludes

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.

The article’s at: http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/04/06/pawns-no-more/

This is important. American progressives have repeatedly pointed out the way the corporate elite are using working class White racism to bolster their own dominance, while at the same time doing everything they can to deny working and middle class Americans of their rights and ability to make a decent living, regardless of race. Bernie Sanders recounts in his book, Our Revolution, how he asked a local union leader in Mississippi how the Republicans got so many poor Whites to vote against their own interests. The union leader told him: racism.

Trump, Bush senior and junior, and Reagan all used White working class fears of Blacks and Black empowerment to get Whites to vote for them and policies that favoured only the rich in a policy that goes all the way back to Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’.

And the corporate elites over this side of the Atlantic have also used the same approach. It isn’t as blatant as it is in America, because British laws banning the promotion of racial hatred makes some of the overtly racist rhetoric of some American politicians illegal. But it’s there, nonetheless. You think about the way the Tories have constantly harped on the dangers of immigration, and the way that shaded quite quickly into racism with the vans Cameron sent round into mostly Black and Asian areas, which encouraged illegal immigrants to hand themselves in. Or asked the public to snitch on illegal immigrants. And then there’s UKIP, which again tried to attract White working class support through opposition to immigration, which at several times crossed over into real racism and Islamophobia, attracting members, who were very definitely part of the Fascist right. All the while also promoting policies that would hurt the very working class White voters they pretended to want to protect, such as privatising the health service, destroying the welfare state, as well as employment rights and rights for women.

Moser’s right in that this strategy, and the people behind it, need to be shown for what they are: a wealthy, corporate elite, who don’t care about the White working class, only about their own rule and power. A wealthy elite, who are using them to divide and rule working people. An elite that fears Whites and Blacks coming together to break their power and improve conditions for all working and middle class people, regardless of race. Theodore Allen’s analysis of the origins of the ‘White’ race is an important part of that ideological struggle.

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