The origins debate

This is the second 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. (The previous post can be found here). Allen’s insight has profound implications for reviving class solidarity at a time when the politics of identity increasingly obscures the roots of inequality.  A useful guide to Allen’s work can be found at the Jeffrey B. Perry website.

“The 1619 Project,” was published by the New York Times as a special 100-page edition of its Sunday magazine on August 19, 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the initial arrival of 20 African slaves at Point Comfort in Virginia. They were traded for food for the Dutch ship on which they had come and their employment status is indeterminate.

The Project, according to the Times, intends to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times staff-writer who conceived the project, received a Pulitzer Prize for her introductory essay in which she asserted that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”  A six-part documentary series based on the project and produced by Oprah Winfrey recently aired on the Walt Disney owned Hulu streaming service.

The World Socialist Web Site is among the numerous critics of the 1619 Project.

Despite the pretense of establishing the United States’ “true” foundation, the 1619 Project is a politically motivated falsification of history. Its aim is to create a historical narrative that legitimizes the effort of the Democratic Party to construct an electoral coalition based on the prioritizing of personal “identities”—i.e., gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and, above all, race.

The Site is also skeptical about Hannah-Jones’ success.

It should be obvious that more was involved in making a single reporter, who had managed to write only a handful of articles in the space of four years prior to the 1619 Project, the avatar of what may be the most expensive project ever launched by the Times. Hannah-Jones both embodies and speaks for a grasping upper-middle class layer that the Times recognizes as the base of the Democratic Party. She is not alone. A number of like-minded journalists and thinkers have been minted in recent years—Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram Kendi spring to mind. As the Queen could create Knights of the Realm, so American capitalism can bestow its own, drearier, distinctions. The new “race experts” have been made millionaires, showered with Pulitzer Prizes, corporate grants, institutes, endowed professorships, five-figure speaking fees and publishing deals from the very “white institutions” that they decry. These luminaries, along with many dimmer stars in the racialist galaxy, insist that society’s fundamental problem, from police violence to the distribution of Academy Awards, is not class, but race. Race yesterday, race today, race forever.

The WSWS excoriates the New York Times for spearheading a project “to dredge up and rehabilitate a reactionary race-based falsification of American and world history.”  However the resort to the assumption of innate or natural racism is not new. It was invoked by a cohort of defenders of the faith when Eric Williams – the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago – asserted “Slavery was not born of racism; rather racism was the consequence of slavery (Capitalism and Slavery, 1944).  In a piece on slavery in the Cape, South African History Online shows the notion of innate racism continues to obscure the capitalist roots of racism.

The most important social feature of slave societies is that they were polarized between people who were slaves and those who were not. Slaves were also defined by their race, and although the VOC did not institute a codified form of racial classification, the fact is that slaves were black and slave owners were white. There were a few slaves who had been freed, who were called “free blacks”. These “free blacks” had managed to acquire slaves of their own, but these slave owners were a tiny minority of the slave-owning population. Thus, colonial South Africa was from the very start a society structured along racial lines, in which black people occupied a subordinate position.

Allen notes (207-208) the Dutch were not intending to establish a plantation colony, merely a victualing  station for ships in the Far East trade. Until the the discovery of gold and diamonds in the second half of the 19th century, South Africa following the British takeover (1795-1806) was primarily involved in cattle-raising, an activity not typical of plantation economies and poorly suited for slavery particularly on continental territory.

Although there were African slaves in the colony as early as 1658, they as well as those recruited later were brought in from Angola, Madagascar and Mozambique, a large portion of whom were destined for transshipment to the Dutch colonies in the East Indies. European immigration was suspended in 1707 a ban that lasted till the British takeover.

Although a deliberate decision was made in 1717 to use African bond labourers instead of Europeans by 1795 there were only17 000 slaves and 16 000 free Europeans in the colony. By contrast the population of the English colonies on the mainland of North America – despite major set-backs- had grown to 50 000 less than 35 years after the founding of Jamestown in 1607.

The Dutch were able to defeat the native Khoisan, thousands of whom succumbed to European diseases, but not enslave them.

Some simply retreated before the Dutch advance, but others were incorporated, though not assimilated, into the colony, generally on a peon-like basis, as low wage herdsmen and labourers, and as militiamen. Thus the nature and the rate of growth of the colony were such that the decisive battles – with the Xhosa and the Zulu peoples – for territory were not fought until late in the 19th century, well after the legal abolition of slavery in all British colonies.

In a 2014 essay on the economics of slavery in the 18th century Cape colony Erik Green notes slaves were initially imported to serve the needs of a colonial company. Under Dutch law the enslavement of the local population was forbidden. They were only employed by settler farmers when the opportunity to expand production and profits arose.  He makes the following points:

  • Slavery did not emerge in response to demands from settler farmers.
    It was the Dutch East India Company, the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische
    Compagnie), which needed the slaves to develop Cape Town physically and administratively. In 1770 the VOC employed 1,000 slaves, ten times more than the number on settler farms.
  • Stratification within the indigenous Khoisan population compromised resistance.  Chiefs in Khoisan societies belonged to the economic elite who benefited from trading cattle with the Dutch. Scattered but significant Khoisan resistance never developed into full-scale war.
  • The use of slaves increased in the first half of the eighteenth century as wheat and wine production began to realize a surplus generally. The rise of the ‘Cape Gentry’, a relatively wealthier group of settler farmers operating on larger landholdings,  played a decisive role in these developments.
  • There is convincing evidence that the role of slaves might be exaggerated. Likewise the contribution of indigenous labour appears to have been systematically underestimated. The average number of slaves per farm was relatively low. By the mid-eighteenth century more than 50 per cent of farmers held fewer than five slaves, and in 1774, 24 per cent of settlers had no slaves at all.  By comparison between 1741 and 1745 the ‘‘median sugar estate’’ in Jamaica, held an average of 99 slaves. This rose to 204 from 1771 to 1775.
  • . Demand for various forms of labour, including indigenous labour, increased alongside slavery. The growth process also created individual labour contracts, as large slaveholders began to hire out slaves to other settler farmers. The use of slave labour ultimately can only be understood in relation to the use of a wide range of strategies to reduce labour costs.

Theodore Allen’s  rigorous review of the literature suggests the ‘psycho- cultural’ approach to explaining the origin of racism is a dead-end.

I approach racial slavery as a particular form of racial oppression, and racial oppression as a sociogenic – rather than a phylogenic – phenomenon, homologous with gender and class oppression. Second in considering the phenomenon of racial slavery I focus not on why the bourgeoisie in continental Anglo-America had recourse to that anachronistic form of labour, slavery, but rather on how they could establish and maintain for such a long historical period that degree of social control without which no motive of profit or prejudice could have had effect.

The answer lies in the invention of the ‘white race’ – the quintessential “Peculiar Institution” that is the euphemism for the socio-economic system based on the lifetime, hereditary, chattel bond-servitude of African-Americans, which existed in the continental Anglo- American colonies and in the United States until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution in 1865. Allen argues that an understanding of the origin and nature of  this ‘white race’ provides the root of a general theory of United States history, more consistent than others that have been advanced.

Only by understanding what was peculiar about the Peculiar Institution can one know what is exceptionable about American Exceptionalism: know how, in normal times, the ruling class has been able to operate without ‘laborite’ disguises; and know how, in critical times, democratic new departures have been frustrated by reinventions of the “white race”.

The core of Allen’s thesis is that there is scant historical evidence that African-Americans – including the 20 celebrated by the 1619 Project – were enlisted into the ‘Peculiar Institution’ upon arrival in Virginia. This was precluded by the failure to legalize slavery in England between 1547 and 1550.  Instead peasant rebellions secured rights that were acknowledged in the Statute of Artificers of 1563 – the basic English labour law for more than two and a half centuries.

The statute banned slavery and ordered that labourers be paid wages. Apprentices would be bound for seven years and other workers for one year at wages set by magistrates. Under the Poor Law of 1601 the “deserving poor” were provided with employment in parish workhouses at piecework wages. They were free to leave for better opportunities and to marry.

Against the force of these basic laws, English workers in colonial Virginia were reduced to chattel bondage and their African- American counterparts to racial hereditary slavery. The manner in which that happened was conditioned by historical circumstance, elite power and opportunity. Allen’s understanding of how and why the ‘white race’ was invented was illuminated by the British colonization of Ireland and the imposition of racial slavery upon the native Irish. Despite this bitter experience Irish immigrants to the US would be bewitched by racism’s siren call. Allen writes:

I…look at a unique historical phenomenon associated with the massive Irish immigration into the arena of the anti-bellum struggle between racial slavery and freedom in the United States. The image passes through the looking-glass to become American reality; but as if governed by the mirror metaphor, it reappears as the opposite of its original self. Subjects of a history of racial oppression as Irish Catholics are sea-changed into “white Americans,” into opponents both of the abolition of racial slavery and of equal rights of African-Americans in general.

How the “invention of the white race” in America was informed by the brutal imposition of racial slavery in Ireland is explored in the next post.