By Richard Moser
June 12, 2020 “Information Clearing House” – First in the series: Organize the White Working Class!
“ . . . their (the poor “whites”) own position, vis-a-vis the rich and powerful . . . was not improved, but weakened, by the white-skin privilege system.”– Theodore W. Allen, Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race, 1975*
“The ‘white race’ is the historically most general form of ‘class collaboration.”– Theodore W. Allen, Taped Interview with Chad Pearson, SUNY-Albany, May 13, 2004,*
The time is ripe.
At no time since the ’60s has social movement activism created such rich opportunities to oppose racism and engage white people in a struggle over what it means to be white and a worker in America. And that engagement will be most successful in the world’s best classroom: movement building, organizing, and activism.
Like many times in our past, Americans of African descent have led the way. The new civil rights movement, the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, the BlackLivesMatter movement, and the resistance to Trump’s reemergent racism, has given birth to an array of new organizations and political projects. Like no other single scholarly work, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in The Age of Colorblindness has rallied the troops and identified the enemy.
Over the past few decades, the American people have created a vast militarized penal system that is now the most powerful institutionalized racism in the US. And like the forms of institutionalized racism that preceded it, the penal system functions as an effective form of social control. Discriminatory and militarized policing, on-the-spot executions, slave-like prison labor, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, restriction of trial by jury, lengthy and mandatory sentencing, predatory fine, fee and debt traps, and its gigantic sweep and size constitutes nothing short of a preemptive war against the most potentially rebellious parts of the population: the young, people of color, the poor. If you favor social change then the vast militarized penal system must be confronted. It controls us all black and brown and white.
The new civil rights movement has challenged white activists to confront white racism at a time of economic and workplace conflict. The never-ending recession of 2008 has intensified wealth inequality across the board with the upward redistribution of wealth falling hardest on Americans of color.1 Good full-time jobs are going and in all likelihood, they are not coming back.
There is a widespread understanding that the economy and political system are rigged. One of the main rigs is the class line: corporate power now controls the economy and government wielding both great wealth and global political power. Once the insatiable demand for power and profit drive government, representative democracy fails and can no longer deliver significant economic benefits to everyday people. Yet, Occupy and the Sanders campaign, the resistance to Trump and other social movements have revealed the discontent of millions of white people who have the capacity to create progressive social movements and even make history.
But the working class has deep flaws that have until now proven fatal: it is divided. Race, gender, sexuality, age cut us up in many ways. If history is a guide to action we can retell a crucial part of the tale by making a challenge to white supremacy central to our organizing efforts. To do that, white people must combat the system of white privilege that has long been the primary means by which racism has been nurtured and sustained.
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Those white privileges are institutionalized in a complex web of arrangements in housing, education, health care, law enforcement, election procedures, and voting that further rig the system against people of color. But because white or male privileges have been so deeply entrenched for so long they often appear as seemingly neutral measures of merit, at least to white people. How do we shine a light on this blindspot?
Resistance and action are the best paths to revelation. Institutionalized racism is historic and collective and cannot be addressed through individual repudiation alone. You can’t just give it up, even if you want to, except through joining the social moments for change and organizing at the point of privilege. The purpose of these privileges is to keep us all in line. White organizers and activists who challenge the system have taken the first crucial step in repudiating privilege. Many organizing projects await and all of them are difficult and challenging. We can expect no easy victories.
Organize Our Own?
As the ’60s revolution came up against the wall of institutionalized and interlocking obstacles, civil rights organizers experimented with Black Power and Women’s liberation. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Jo Freedman, Shulamith Firestone, and other authors of “To the Women of the New Left” offered up some hard-won knowledge.2 They told a sometimes bitter but compelling truth: organizers were most effective working within their own communities.
Speaking to the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X put it this way.
Now if white people want to help, they can help. But, they can’t join. They can help in the white community, but they can’t join. We accept their help….They can…work in the white community on white people and change their attitude toward us.3
“Organizing your own” was not a call to white separatism, but a way to lay the basis for coalition movements in which working-class whites saw their own destiny bound up with that of black folks. In Black Power and White Organizing, Anne Braden, a legendary southern white civil rights organizer, wrote:
Certainly the inherent needs of poor white people are reason enough to organize—they, like poor black people, are ill-fed, ill-housed and lacking in opportunities for education, medical care, political expression, and dignity. But I think what we are recognizing is that these white people will never be able to solve these problems unless they find ways to unite with the black movement seeking the same things.
My purpose is not to present false either/or choices. The organizational forms we create are up to the local situation and local actors. White organizers can make contributions in multi-racial groups, coalitions, unions, as well as in community groups among the white working class. But one way or another, we white organizers must reconsider ways of talking and organizing around white supremacy and white privilege.
Luckily for us, we can follow the work of the great white working-class intellectual, Ted Allen, as our north star. Next we will look at the strategic implications of his classic work: The Invention of the White Race.
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*Both quotes cited in Jeffrey B. Perry, The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy p. 2 and p. 5
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter To Black Liberation, 27 and 28.
- See Chapter 8, Sara Evans, Personal Politics. “Women of the New Left” cited by Evans p. 200.
- Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, 58.
Ted Allen and the Invention of the White Race
Second in the series: Organize the White Working Class!
There is no better place to start organizing than with political strategy inspired by Theodore W. Allen’s classic book: The Invention the White Race: Volume I Racial Oppression and Social Control and Volume II: The Origins of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America.
Before we continue, a word or two about Ted Allen.
Ted Allen was a working-class white man without college training but with a long history of activism and a deep determination to uncover the truth about how racism came to be in America. Allen was a Marxist and used a class-based analysis to guide his study. Jeffrey B. Perry continues Allen’s work today, and you should view his presentations on Allen’s legacy.
The power of Allen’s ideas comes from his unmatched devotion to research. He spent more than 20 years digging deep into the colonial archives of Virginia and mastered what is, arguably, the most extensive body of evidence ever produced on race in early colonial America. Allen contested and bested some of the most acclaimed historians in the field. The working-class reader cannot help but revel in the fact that a worker without a degree kicked Ivy League butt.
But getting class identity jollies aside, Allen’s work is such a useful guide to action because he did what no other historian did. Allen created an argument that might help us discover a truly political strategy to fight racism among whites based on empowerment, class solidarity, community interest, and self-interest, rather than relying on morality, guilt, and shame. In other words, Allen innovated a revolutionary approach to fighting white racism and white privilege.
The Invention of the White Race
What Allen discovered transformed our understanding of race in America and can transform our organizing practice and activism. He shocked readers with a startling finding:
“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.”1
Oh, yes, there were English and Irish, but nowhere in the colonial record is there evidence that law or society granted special privileges to people based on European origin.
The white race and white identity were “invented,” Allen argued, by the ruling elite of Virginia, in order to divide laboring people in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. The white race was constructed and used as a political instrument to divide and conquer.
How did this come to be?
By 1620 or so, a system of unfree labor became the dominant labor system in Virginia. The system was essentially slavery, some “bond-laborers” had time-limited contracts, but most servitude was open to interpretation by custom. A majority of these bond-laborers were Europeans.
The archival evidence is clear, as well, that the role of African and African Americans was “indeterminate.”2 From 1619 to the years following Bacon’s Rebellion, the status of black people was contested in the courts and in the fields. Africans held a variety of social and economic positions: some were limited term slaves, some free, some endured lifetime bondage, while others were property holders, even including a few slave owners.
It was not until after Bacon’s Rebellion, or the second phase of Bacon’s Rebellion to be precise, that law and society created a new custom of racism, and for that to happen, the white race had to be invented. What was the trigger?
“[I]n Virginia, 128 years before William Lloyd Garrison was born, laboring class African-Americans and European-Americans fought side by side for the abolition of slavery. In so doing, they provided the supreme proof that the white race did not then exist.”3
The Rebellion occupied the capital of Jamestown and pointed the way toward freedom for everyone, by contesting the rule of the oligarchs who had grown rich on slave labor and land stolen from the natives.
“[I]t was the striving of the bond-laborers for freedom from chattel servitude that held the key to liberation of the colony from the misery that proceeded from oligarchic rule…4
After the rebellion was suppressed, law and custom began to shift. Europeans were increasingly designated as “white” in the historical record, and given privileges that conferred a “presumption of liberty” while blacks were increasingly subjected to legal and cultural limits to their freedoms. Whites were encouraged to view blacks with contempt and see their inferior social positions as proof of innate inferiority.
Allen summarized the early system of white privilege as “simply the right to be free.”
All authorities agree…that the conditions of the masses of white industrial and agricultural workers, North and South, were abominable in the decades before the Civil War. Still they had their white-skin privileges: The white worker was an actual or potential citizen, with citizen’s rights; the black had no rights. The white, as possessor–if not immediately, then within a definite time–of his own person, had legal freedom of movement; the black did not own himself. The white, if bound by indenture, debtor apprenticeship, or in some other manner, might still succeed in escaping into the free-moving white world much more easily than the black worker. As possessor of himself, the white workers could–even though not always immediately– take a better job, if he could find one; the black had no such chance. The white worker, if opportunity afforded, could learn to read and then study as a means of improving his lot; the black worker was forbidden by law even to learn to read. The white worker could aspire to become a farmer, a merchant or an industrialist; the black had only flight, revolt, revenge to dream of. At this point, the white skin privilege of the white worker was simply the right to be free…5
The white race, white supremacy, and black subordination were all products of the same historical period in which the slave system was recreated as a racist system to prevent the threat of united action by the people. Today the new oligarchy still relies on their ability to divide and conquer.
Here is Allen’s legacy and challenge to us: racism is historical, it is the product of human activity. If it was then, it is now. Racism was founded on a system of privileges designed to win working-class white people’s support for slavery. And so it is to white privilege that we must look if we want to free ourselves from being the tools and fools of the rich and powerful.
We must be pawns no more.
- Allen, Invention of the White Race Vol. II p X
- Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 178
- Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 214-21
- Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 212
- Can White s Radicals be Radicalized? p176 in Revolutionary Youth & The New Working Class/Lost writing of the SDS.
Continue reading this series of articles at https://befreedom.co/organize-the-white-working-class/