The invention of the white race

This is the first of a series of posts exploring the thesis advanced by Theodore Allen that the “white race” was invented by a capitalist plantation elite in colonial Virginia in the early 18th century. Allen’s insight has profound implications for reviving class solidarity at a time when the politics of identity increasingly obscures the roots of inequality. Does the concept of the “white race” as an invention advance an understanding of racism, particularly in South Africa?  A useful guide to Allen’s work can be found at the Jeffrey B. Perry website.

Some  50 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.

Half a century on racism continues to undermine unified resistance to the system even as inequality and desperation become the established facts of survival for most South Africans. There are lessons to be learned from the movement that emerged in Durban and from its trade union and black consciousness components.

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 is now available in a single volume published by Verso.

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.

Allen is precise:  “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.” They only began to appear 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.

He 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 investigates how this monstrous social mutation began, evolved, survived and finally prevailed in continental Anglo-America. His hypothesis that racial oppression originated in class struggle is based on the meticulous analysis of historical detail – in particular the colonial records of Virginia. They show that chattel racial slavery was only established in the colony  a century after the founding of Jamestown in 1607. It required the invention of the white race by the capitalist plantation elite to distinguish African-Americans from the rest of Virginia’s European (largely English) labourers – and facilitate the formation of an all-white alliance across class lines.

The hallmark of racial oppression in its colonial origins and as it  has persisted in subsequent historical contexts is the reduction of all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any social class within the oppressor group.  It is a system of rule designed to deny, disregard and delegitimate previous or potential social distinctions that may have existed or that might tend to emerge in the normal course of development of a class society.

The original forms of social identity of African- Americans was annihilated by stripping away civil and property rights, destroying family life and extinguishing literacy. They became outcasts excluded from admittance into the forms of social identity normal to the colonizing power.

Racial oppression justifies exploitation without constraint or conscience. It allows labourers to be worked to death if profitable. But the brutality of the process produces an extreme degree of alienation. Unless the oppressor group is in the majority, an effective strategy of social  control can only be maintained by a costly military establishment. In Virginia the resort to this option required workers to be recruited into an oppressor class.

In contrast with the British West Indies, the social control problem in the continental plantation colonies was not that there were too-few European-American labourers, but that there were too many. It was this circumstance  that accounted for the decisive role of “race” which came to characterize the system of social control in the continental colonies. Primary emphasis upon “race” became the pattern only where the bourgeoisie could not form its social control apparatus without the inclusion of propertyless European Americans. (p19)

This racial solution to the problem of social control was made possible by ” a portentous and distinctive factor of English colonialism”.

Of all the European colonizing powers in the Americas, only England used European workers as basic plantation workers….Except for this peculiarity, racial slavery as it was finally and fully established in continental America, with all its tragic historical consequences, would never have been brought into being. (p12)

Allen’s hypothesis suggests the possibility of a more penetrative analysis of racism that would strengthen the solidarity of an impoverished working-class. It challenges a corporate sponsored ‘anti-racism’ movement that opportunistically obsesses about identity.  His argument is worth considering, especially by South Africans.

South African apartheid segregated ‘citizens’ on the basis of both race and ethnicity. Whites topped a racial hierarchy followed by marginally privileged ‘coloureds’ and Indians. Africans – some 80 percent of the population – bore the brunt of apartheid exploitation. These race categories, devised to enhance the potency of social control, remain useful to a new black elite seeking to advance and entrench its economic interests.

The 1972 ‘black consciousness’ strike that began in Durban was  primed by frustration over segregated and inferior tertiary education for blacks. Legislation enacted in 1959 barred black students from white universities and consigned them according to ethnicity to specific tribal colleges.

A former navy barracks on Salisbury Island in Durban’s bay became the University College for Indians compressing into its space students from all over the country. The bay area was also home to the Allen Taylor residence that provided segregated accommodation for black medical students like Steve Biko. They were only allowed to train at Natal University – under special permit – because there was no black medical school.

Indian students attended the Island under ‘sufferance’- a tactic of non-cooperation aimed at undermining any pretense of academic normality. At the University of Natal the black flirtation with white liberalism would end in bitterness. Both strategies would be subsumed by the rise of black consciousness in the harbour.

The 1972 boycott began four months after students transferred to the mainland and the newly constructed University of Durban-Westville. Clearly the spend on a better class of campus had not softened resistance to apartheid education. This militant expression of black solidarity emerged just 23 years after the January 1949 Durban Riots in which 142 people died. They included 87 Africans, 50 Indians and one white person.

The government claimed the “unforeseen” violence arose from the “primordial  antagonism” between Africans and Indians. It promoted the notion of an anti-Indian pogrom to justify the creation of racially segregated residential enclaves under 1950 Group Areas Act.

The assumption that the 1949 Riots were spawned by innate racism explains nothing. The impact of social and economic policies that forced the majority of Durban’s black population to compete for survival under the most precarious of circumstances requires far more penetrating consideration.

Allen begins his thesis by revisiting the resurgence of the ‘The Origins Debate’, the renewed search for an explanation for racism in the wake of World War 11 and the US Civil Rights movement. These historical events led to the acknowledgment for the first time in American history that racism was an evil in itself. The Civil Rights movement was increasingly seen as an effort to make emancipation a reality following the collapse of post Civil War Reconstruction into a new era of black repression.

It was in this context that racial slavery became the central preoccupation not only of African-American historians, but of American historians in general. It had long been a truism of our social sciences that the historical roots of racism were traceable to the slave system. But this was a proposition that quickly deteriorated into a pointless tautology: European-Americans deny equal place to African- Americans today because European-Americans denied equal place to African-Americans in slavery times. This tautology could no longer be reconciled with a national consciousness in what some have ventured to call the Second Reconstruction.

Allen argues that despite all the academic and intellectual attention, ‘The Origins Debate’ has provided only limited insights. Instead it has served to obscure the historically verifiable truth that racism is a product of capitalism, the result of the invention of a mythical white race to protect the profits and persons of a British colonial plantation elite.

Allen’s overview of ‘The Origins Debate’ provides vital context for his hypothesis and is the subject of the next post.


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