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 sixty years. In this seminal two-volume work, The Invention of the White Race, Theodore W. Allen tells the story of how America’s ruling classes created the category of the “white race” as a means of social control. Since that early invention, white privileges have enforced the myth of racial superiority, and that fact has been central to maintaining ruling-class domination over ordinary working people of all colors throughout American history.
Volume I draws lessons from Irish history, comparing British rule in Ireland with the “white” oppression of Native Americans and African Americans. Allen details how Irish immigrants fleeing persecution learned to spread racial oppression in their adoptive country as part of white America.
Since publication in the mid-nineties, The Invention of the White Race has become indispensable in debates on the origins of racial oppression in America. In this updated edition, scholar Jeffrey B. Perry provides a new introduction, a short biography of the author and a study guide.
Published as part of Verso's Haymarket Series in 1996, Alex Lichtenstein's Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South was the first book-length history of the convict-lease and chain gang systems of penal servitude in the Southern United States. Focusing on Georgia in the years between Reconstruction and the Great Depression, Lichtenstein traces the interwoven development of the region's notoriously brutal carceral forms and it's industrial and commercial expansion. "The postbellum history of Georgia's penal system," Lichenstein writes, "offers a clear illustration of how convict labor helped forge the peculiar New South 'Bourbon' political alliance, by accommodating the labor needs of an emerging class of industrialists without eroding the racial domination essential to planters."
In the text below, the book's epilogue, Lichtenstein expands on his findings in a broader historical consideration of the relation between coerced labor and economic development.
A Georgia road gang in Rockdale County in 1909, shortly after the state abolished convict leasing. (Vanishing Georgia Collection, Georgia Department of Archives and History).
“There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” –Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History”1
Diverse forms of forced labor have been found in many societies, under many conditions. Slavery and penal labor both existed in the ancient world. Serfdom shaped much of the character of premodern European social relations, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe and Russia. As European societies shook off the last vestiges of feudalism, forced labor was carried to the New World, in a vast arc encompassing both the highlands and plantations of the Americas. In colonial Africa as well, European domination brought with it forms of coercive labor new to a continent that had long known indigenous slavery; and labor relations in industrialized South Africa under apartheid were clearly shaped by colonial strategies of labor extraction up until yesterday. Finally, Stalin's Gulag, and the Nazi labor and extermination camps, stand as horrific examples of forced labor in the modern world.
This post by Tithi Bhattacharya is adapted from a longer essay forthcoming in Cultural Dynamics.
Trump and basketball coach Bobby Knight at an Indiana campaign appearance.
The morning after Trump won, the Washington Post led with the story that the president elect had won 58 per cent of the White vote, outperforming “in majority-white areas." Similarly, the Guardian embellished on this bete noir of the “white working class”: Apparently it was the “angry” white working class that helped Trump to a “stunning win”.
Undoubtedly sections of the white working class voted for Trump. The day after the election results, in an effort to document the moment, I spoke with a range of working class women in Indiana. Some of their comments on Trump capture the deep veins of contradiction that ran through sections of the US working class who voted for Trump.
This piece first appeared in Truthout.
The US intellectual class has failed to understand the racism at the core of Trump's political project. The discussion is focused on two questions: Are Trump voters decent, salt-of-the-earth workers protesting their economic insecurity, or hate-filled Archie Bunkers? Are his transition appointments hateful bigots or mainstream conservatives?
What both questions obscure is that white supremacy is a social and political system, not simply a matter of individual attitudes. It is sustained not by barroom bigots but by millions of daily acts of complicity on the part of ordinary people — in New York City and San Francisco as much as in Alabama, and among wealthy elites as much as the rural poor. As Frantz Fanon wrote: "A given society is racist, or it is not." Questioning whether one region or class is more racist than another is the product of people "incapable of straight thinking."