The reinvention of the white race

Fifty years ago, Indian students from the smallest ethnic minority in South Africa became the vanguard of a ‘black consciousness’ boycott of racially segregated universities. A new wave of public protest emerged breaking a decade of silence that followed the banning of black political organizations after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre.

The student boycott began in May 1972 at the University of Durban-Westville and rapidly spread to other ‘Indian’ educational institutions.  It was part of a national protest by black students planned to begin on June 16. To counter the intimidation of the security police the UDW students entered the fray a month earlier.

Apartheid educational policy barred black students from premier white universities and forced them to attend cheaply funded colleges segregated according to tribe and race. It also imposed draconian social, political and academic control on these campuses that spurred a litany of specific grievances. More importantly the broader objective of the boycott was to encourage ‘psychological emancipation’ and collective black resistance in the face of white superiority and enforced black segregation.

Tom Lodge (Black Politics since 1945) says:

Of course, it could be contended that the problems of self-identity and cultural emasculation were of relevance only to those who were most affected by ‘white’ cultural hegemony, that the concerns of Black Consciousness were rather precious in the light of the daily struggle for existence of working-class men and women. This may have been the case, but it scarcely diminishes the movement’s importance. If its influence was limited to the urban intelligentsia this would have guaranteed its imprint on almost any African political assertion of the time. Distilled to a basic set of catchphrases Black Consciousness percolated down to a much broader and socially amorphous group than African intellectuals.

The student boycott was followed by a dockworkers’ strike and a resurgence of industrial action. Tom Lodge again:

While there is little difficulty in identifying the major cause of the strikes – a sharp upswing in the inflation rate after a decade of slowly increasing African real wages – more problematical is the question of why the strike wave originated in Durban. The question has a significance which extends to any analysis of the events in Soweto three years later…Because of the
absence of any significant features which distinguish Durban’s workers from
those in other places – even their cultural and linguistic uniformity was not unique- a number of incidental factors assume an additional importance, for in combination they functioned as very powerful catalysts.

These included the growing awareness of and resistance to poverty wages, and the leading role in the strikes played by workers from the notoriously exploitative Frame Textile Group. None of this, or indeed South Africa’s ambitious program to racially classify the entire population, could have occurred without the invention of the white race.

In 1994, the year in which Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa, Theodore Allen published the first of two volumes on the origin of racism. Allen’s painstaking investigation, The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Racial Oppression was republished in a single volume by Verso last year. It is a convincing explanation of how racism was birthed by British  colonial capitalism in America early in the 18 century and became the incubus that crippled working-class resistance to a brutal system of exploitation that now threatens to destroy the species.

Allen is precise:  “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no white people there.” They only began to appear some seven decades later when the plantation elite found it necessary to invent the white race to divide the united opposition of African-Americans and Europeans that produced the 1676 uprising recorded as Bacon’s Rebellion.

Allen demonstrates how the invention of the white race enlisted Europeans in an ‘all class’ social control stratum that would defend the plantation elite and pave the way for ruthless racial slavery. Essential to the deception was the conjuring of rights won by English peasants over two centuries of resistance to feudalism into privileges in America. The poor would henceforth police the poorest to the disadvantage of their entire class.

The peculiarity of the system of social control which came to be established in continental Anglo-America lay in the following two characteristics: (1) All persons of any degree of non-European ancestry were excluded from the buffer social control stratum; and (2) a major, indispensable, and decisive factor of the buffer social control stratum maintained against the unfree proletarians was that it was itself made up of free proletarians and semi-proletarians.

Allen goes on to examine how this monstrous social mutation began, evolved, survived and finally prevailed in continental Anglo-America. Some three centuries later it is quite clear that the white race has outlived its usefulness and is being poisonously reinvented. What follows is an essay of sorts drawing on Allen’s insight that racial oppression originates in class struggle. 

His conclusion is based on the meticulous analysis of historical detail – in particular the colonial records of Virginia that reveal the incremental advance to chattel racial slavery over the century that followed the founding of Jamestown in 1607. This is the smoking gun that demands the most rigorous interrogation of the racial explanations of the origin of plantation slavery that have strangled class consciousness.

In a era of lockdown, censorship and civil rights repression, woke and corporate sponsored anti-racism are not expressions of enlightenment but an effort to market capitalism’s most ruthless onslaught on humanity.

A valuable guide to Allen’s work is available on Jeffrey B Perry’s website.



One thought on “The reinvention of the white race

  1. Thank you Devan. As ever, your inciteful analysis of events which have shaped our world, continue to inform those with the humility to realise they are not in full possession of the complete picture.


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