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The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control

Groundbreaking analysis of the birth of racism in America.

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.

Reviews

  • “A monumental study of the birth of racism in the American South which makes truly new and convincing points about one of the most critical problems in US history … a highly original and seminal work.”
  • “A powerful and polemical study.”
  • “In a masterful two-volume work, Theodore Allen transforms the reader’s understanding of race and racial oppression from what mainstream history often portrays as an unfortunate sideshow in U.S. history to a central feature in the construction of U.S. (and indeed global) capitalism ... more than a look at history; it is a foundation for a path toward social justice.”
  • “A must read for all social justice activists, teachers, and scholars.”
  • “Decades before people made careers ‘undoing racism,’ Ted Allen was working on this trailblazing study, which has become required reading.”
  • “A real tour de force, a welcome return to empiricism in the subfield of race studies, and a timely reintroduction of class into the discourse on American exceptionalism.”
  • “As magisterial and comprehensive as the day it was first published, Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race continues to set the intellectual, analytical and rhetorical standard when it comes to understanding the real roots of white supremacy, its intrinsic connection to the class system, and the way in which persons committed to justice and equity might move society to a different reality.”
  • “One of the most important books of U.S. history ever written. It illuminates the origins of the largest single obstacle to progressive change and working-class power in the U.S.: racism and white supremacy.”
  • “As organizers of workers, we cannot effectively counter the depth of white racism in the U.S. if we don’t understand its origin and mechanisms. Ted has figured something out that can guide our work – it’s groundbreaking and it’s eye-opening.”
  • “An intriguing book that will be cited in all future discussions about the origins of racism and slavery in America.”
  • “A must read for educators, scholars and social change activists – now more than ever! Ted Allen’s writings illuminate the centrality of how white supremacy continues to work in maintaining a powerless American working class.”
  • “Few books are capable of carrying the profound weight of being deemed to be a classic – this is surely one. Indeed, if one has to read one book to provide a foundation for understanding the contemporary U.S. – read this one.”
  • “A richly researched and highly suggestive analysis … Indispensable for readers interested in the disposition of power in Ireland, in the genesis of racial oppression in the U.S., or in the fluidity of ‘race’ and the historic vicissitudes of ‘whiteness.’”
  • The Invention of the White Race’s contributions to the debates on notions of a ‘white race’ are unquestionable and its relevance not simply for scholars of American history but for those interested in notions of race and class in any historical and geographical setting is beyond doubt.”
  • “Theodore W. Allen has enlisted me as a devoted reader.”
  • “The most important book on the origin of racism in what was to become the United States – and more important now perhaps than when it was first released in the mid nineties.”
  • “This ‘modern classic’ presents an essential reconstruction of concepts necessary to any understanding of the Western heritage in the context of World history.”
  • “Truly original, and worthy of renewed engagement.”
  • The Invention of the White Race is an important work for its meticulously researched materials and its insights into colonial history. Its themes and perspectives should be made available to all scholars … A classic without which no future American history will be written.”
  • “The most comprehensive and meticulously documented presentation of the historical, or as he calls it, ‘sociogenic’ theory of racial oppression.”
  • “In Volume One of The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control, Theodore W. Allen painstakingly sets out the historical precedents, the comparative case studies, the means to dissect threadbare explanations of contemporary racism, and then provides us with nimble heuristic devices to disentangle the snarled derivatives of the white supremacy ideology we face today.”
  • “[The Invention of the White Race] will change your life and outlook forever. You simply can't understand America and who we are without this book”
  • “If one wants to understand the current, often contradictory, system of racial oppression in the United States --- and its historical origins --- there is only one place to start: Theodore Allen's brilliant, illuminating, The Invention of the White Race.”
  • “Immigration historians should be particularly interested in Allen’s analysis of how the Irish, victims of racial oppression at home, learned that they were ‘white’ once they crossed the Atlantic and became . . . supporters of a system of racial oppression in the United States.”
  • “Allen has produced a two-volume tour de force that situates the development of racism, white supremacy, and racial identities in context of the sixteenth and seventeenth century British conquest of Ireland, the Atlantic slave trade, the rise of chattel bond-servitude in the Caribbean and English-speaking North America, and the destruction of Native American societies.”
  • “Anyone who wants to understand the peculiar state of working class organizing in the USA . . . needs to study and learn from the insights provided by the work of . . . Allen.”
  • “This outstanding, insightful original work with profound implications for the fractured working class protest tradition of the United States could not be more timely as working people throughout the world are shamelessly robbed and dispossessed by the financial manipulations of our Wall Street titans still wielding their poison bait of white skin privilege.”
  • “. . . Essential reading for all students of race and power in America. This path-breaking research reframes and cuts across the disciplines of history, sociology and politics, shedding a dynamic new light on the important and often hidden phenomenon of race in America's cultural evolution”
  • “One of the great contributions of Allen's study is a complete debunking of the myth that race and skin color are the same thing . . .”
  • “The transition from being poor, dispossessed, Catholic and oppressed when in Ireland, to fully ordained members of the ‘white race’ when in America, with all the privileges, rights and immunities appertaining thereto, illustrates the sociological relativity of notions of race . . . [and] confirms Allen’s preference for a ‘sociogenic’ understanding of racial oppression rooted in sociological processes, rather than ‘phylogenic’ or genetic interpretations.”
  • “Allen, . . . an independent scholar . . . has pursued an idea across the frontier of conventional specializations, supported in his labours by a belief that to determine the origin of white racism will contribute to its eradication. It is difficult to envisage such a work being produced in the wasteland of contemporary academic life, . . .”
  • “Allen’s use of the Irish example lends support to the argument that race is a social construction. A strength of Allen’s book is his effort to view race apart from biology, to see racial categories as ever-changing social conventions and not as immutable classifications fixed in nature or the human psyche.”
  • “Allen is concerned here with . . . a comparative analysis of racial oppression in Ireland and in the United States . . . and the shift in identity among Irish immigrant Catholics, who moved from a group oppressed on racial grounds in Ireland to one defined as ‘white’ in the United States . . . What pulls the entire discussion together is the notion of ‘Social Control.’ Allen argues that racial oppression (racial social control) is one of various mechanisms a ruling elite can utilize to protect its position in society.”
  • “Allen champions the superiority of socioeconomic over psychocultural approaches to the study of race and slavery . . . [and] notes, “only by ‘understanding what was peculiar about the Peculiar Institution can one know what is exceptionable about ‘American Exceptionalism.”
  • “Allen sees race as an invention – and he knows who invented it. Racial slavery was the creation of colonial power (or a ruling class, or the bourgeoisie), and what was done in North America was analogous to what was done in Ireland. So the struggle against capitalism and the struggle against race are part of the same campaign.”
  • “Allen's two volume masterpiece -- The Invention of the White Race -- is vital ammunition for those of us engaged in Revolutionary Change because his work helps to expose the current myth of a post-racial US society/world and reveal the underbelly of a dying capitalism's hyper-racial world of violence, terror and human and natural exploitation.”
  • “If you hope to understand the tangled history of race and class, The Invention of the White Race has to be on your reading list.”
  • “The notion of 'privilege' is ubiquitous amongst radicals today. But few of them understand its origins in Ted Allen's conception of ‘white privilege,’ and fewer still have read and wrestled with his masterwork The Invention of the White Race. Allen's provocative thesis - that the ‘white race’ was a category constructed to suppress class conflict - asks deep and troubling questions about the foundation of the United States and the intersection of race and class, while openly challenging the Left's fundamental assumptions about social change in this country.”

Blog

  • A Special Intensity of Exploitation: On the History of Economic Migration

    Drawing from examples from the history of British post-War immigration policy, Wail Qasim considers the relationship between racism, economic migration and state policy. Wail Qasim is a writer and campaigner. They tweet @WailQ.


    In the absolute furore that has followed Britain’s decision to leave the EU, there is one clear issue that has emerged as the central concern: immigration. Those from across Europe, who chose to build lives and lay down roots here in the UK, have now been sent a clear message of hostility from this country. Indeed, anyone who appears foreign to Britons is now a possible target for racial abuse and assault in public, whilst property owned by supposed foreigners, such as the Polish Social and Cultural Association and Kashmir Meat and Poultry, a halal butcher in Walsall, have also come under attack.

    All the while, the referendum has triggered multiple stages of official discussion over the lives of immigrants. Throughout the campaign, people were used as political bargaining chips, and now, whilst also suffering from an increase in racist harassment, continue to be fodder for negotiations between both parties at home and state leaders across Europe. It is difficult not to think that this will be used as an opportunity to tighten the nets of our immigration system more widely, affecting all those who rely on a precarious right to be in the country.

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  • “Can this really be us?”—Who We Are and How We Got Here

    Lara Pawson, author of In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre, examines complacency and complicity in the xenophobic and racist underpinnings of the EU referendum's Leave campaign.

    A few hours before polling stations closed last Thursday, I travelled to west London to watch an extraordinary film about Syria. Silvered Water: Syria Self-Portrait (2014) is composed almost entirely of footage shot on mobile phones and uploaded, anonymously, onto YouTube. Some of it is also the remarkable work of Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a Kurdish woman surviving and filming tenaciously in the city of Homs. The film moves back and forth between Syria and France, to Paris where its Syrian director, Ossama Mohammedlives in exile. The violence feels relentless: we see a young man being tortured, a truncheon thrust up his arse; another sitting upright in a plastic chair, his face blown off in shreds; we see the carefully wrapped bodies of dead children; the grief of weeping women; we see a kitten chewing the insides of a dog; and a pair of dead horses, starch stiff on a Homs street. It goes on and on and on. 

    Early in the film, however, I was confused, briefly, by some of the footage. Was I watching a scene in a Syrian city or in Paris? The narrow streets looked so familiar – the almost quaint blocks of flats complete with tiny balconies, blinds and plants in pots. But as the film rolled out, the physical destruction of Syria expanding, so the distinction between here and there and there and here became clear. On screen, at least. In my head, it was a different matter. A series of thoughts were scrambling. Here we were watching a film about the indescribable suffering of so many Syrians on the very day that millions of British voters were marking a cross to keep foreigners out. How many of us have even the vaguest clue of what it is to live with war? How many of us desire to truly understand? Mixing in with my anger and shame was another frightening thought, one that has gone round and round my head for months now: that our meanness, our arrogant notions of British exceptionalism, our racism, parochialism and narcissism are leading us ever closer to violent conflict here.
     

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  • On the Hideous Whiteness Of Brexit: “Let us be honest about our past and our present if we truly seek to dismantle white supremacy”

    Akwugo Emejulu, Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, examines how white supremacy has operated before and after the UK’s EU referendum and argues that the visibility of racism following the Brexit vote must not obscure the conditions for its possibility. Her co-authored book, The Politics of Survival: Minority Women, Activism and Austerity in France and Britain is forthcoming with Policy Press. 

    Despite vociferous claims to the contrary, Brexit really is about race—but not in ways we might expect. In this seemingly ‘post-race’ era, Brexit shows us how whiteness, as a power relation, operates in ways to cast itself as both a ‘victim’ and an ‘innocent’ simultaneously.  


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Other books by Theodore W. Allen Introduction and notes by Jeffrey B. Perry