Friday, May 11, 2012

The Invention of the White Race


From The Journal of Social History, "The Invention of the White Race, vol. 1, Racial Oppression and Social Control," by Noel Ignatiev (Fall 1995) --- "When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619," says the jacket blurb, "there were no `white' people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years." How the English, Scots, and other European servants, tenants, merchants, and planters in the American colonies were assigned a common racial status is the subject of this study. While The Invention of the White Race will be linked with recent work by Saxton, Roediger and others, it is a path-breaking work that marks out distinctive ground.
By Theodore W. Allen (New York: Verso, 1994. 

Racial slavery meant that, where some Europeans were propertied and some not, no Europeans were slaves, and moreover that all Europeans, including those of the proletarian class, were by definition enforcers of the slavery of Africans. By focusing on what is peculiar in the "peculiar institution," the author, Theodore W. Allen, seeks to identify what is exceptional in "American exceptionalism."


In the discussion over which came first, slavery or "racism," historians can be grouped into two broad camps: the "psycho-cultural" school, including Carl Degler and Winthrop Jordan, which attributes the rise of racial slavery to previously existing prejudices of Europeans, especially Anglo-Saxons, toward darker peoples; and the "socio-economic" school, which views white supremacist ideology as a reflection of the oppression of Africans by Europeans. In these debates, Allen locates himself in the "social" camp. He launches a four-barreled attack on the "psycho-culturalists," considering their view not merely mistaken but dangerous--for if white "racism" was natural in the seventeenth century, then the chances of eliminating it in the twentieth (or twenty-first) are reduced. At the same time, he criticizes the inconsistencies of Eric Williams, Oscar and Mary Handlin, Edmund Morgan, and T.H. Breen, leading representatives of the "social" school, inconsistencies that landed them ultimately on "psycho-cultural" ground. Among scholars on the "social" side, Allen argues, only Lerone Bennett Jr. placed the argument on "the three essential bearing points from which it cannot be toppled": first, that racial slavery was a response to a problem of labor solidarity; second, that the system of racial privileges for propertyless whites was the result of deliberate and conscious ruling-class choice; and third, that it was ruinous to "white" as well as to African-American laborers. Although readers uninterested in the historiography may wish to read it last, the Introduction alone will make a place for this book in the debates over the origins of American slavery and race prejudice.


Allen distinguishes racial from national oppression by the composition of the enforcing group: under a system of national oppression, "the ruling power is able to maintain its dominance only by coopting a stratum of the subject population into the system of social control"; national oppression, therefore, requires the recognition and fostering of social divisions among the subject population. Racial oppression, by contrast, relies on the support of subjugated classes within the dominant group, a support that depends on the conferring of a favored racial status on its most degraded member. It also entails the non-recognition and extirpation of social divisions among the subject population. In Ireland, racial oppression made tribal chiefs, some of whom would have been happy to serve as instruments of British rule, no greater than cattle herders. In America, it made all indigenous people, from chief to farmer, into "Indians," and all those of African descent, from king to peasant, into "Negroes."


Using Ireland as a mirror of America, Allen traces the development of Protestant supremacy through the ups and downs of seven centuries. The meanest "Protestant" was granted a status above the most exalted "Catholic." This was the essence of racial oppression, and the pattern established in Ireland came to exist also in America.

Allen stresses the parallels between the two places: the oppressors' refusal to acknowledge the family structure of the oppressed, the persecution of their religions, the prohibition of literacy, the massive and forcible removal of populations -- even to the statement by an eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish jurist that "The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic." Will any reader not be struck by the parallel with Judge Taney's famous dictum in the Dred Scott case?


Insisting that racial oppression does not depend on a difference in "phenotype," Allen addresses the two most difficult arguments against his thesis: why no chattel slavery in Ireland; and what prevented Irish Catholics from escaping their oppression by converting to Protestantism? His answers: slavery was not established in Ireland because under the conditions that prevailed in agriculture there it was cheaper to maintain a force of seasonal laborers than year-round slaves; and Catholics remained Catholic not out of theological or institutional loyalty to the Church but because the Protestant Ascendancy made it virtually impossible for them to convert. In fact, the number of American slaves who gained manumission was greater than the number of Irish Catholics whose conversions to the (Protestant) Church of Ireland were officially recognized. In these details Allen reveals the essential identity of the Irish and American cases, and thus refutes those who attach supra-historical importance to "natural" affinities and aversions. As Barbara J. Fields has said, "race" explains nothing; it is something that must be explained.

After having spent centuries perfecting a system of racial oppression, Britain was compelled in the nineteenth century to abandon it -- everywhere except in Ulster -- and allow the task of administering Ireland to pass from the Ascendancy to a developing Catholic bourgeoisie. But Anglo-America, writes Allen, is "Ulster Writ Large."

In the last two chapters Allen examines the change that Catholic Irish underwent on emigration to the United States, from being victims and opponents of racial oppression to upholders of slavery. Like others who have written on this subject, he begins with the appeal by Daniel O'Connell, the "Liberator," to join in the anti-slavery struggle, and its rejection by Irish-Americans. The critical factor was the efforts of the slaveocracy, then dominant in the national government, to incorporate "white" labor into the "pro-slavery phalanx," on the basis of racial privilege. Rejecting facile economic explanations, Allen shows that what was distinctive to the free labor market was not labor competition but the racial form it took. To the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church he attributes the greatest part in pushing Irish-Americans toward the side of the slaveocracy. It is possible to take issue with Allen's appreciation of the role of individuals, particularly O'Connell and New York's Bishop Hughes, but on the whole his account is a welcome departure from sentimental histories that gloss over an ugly reality.
This book will be required leading for students of Irish history, race theory, and white supremacy. While it meets the highest standards of scholarship, it is not in the slightest degree scholastic -- that is, its truthfulness will ultimately be determined by practice. Its author is not a professional scholar but a proletarian intellectual, who clearly intended a political intervention as well as a scholarly study. The result is a work of bitterness, humor, and passion that will delight some and annoy others.


The system of racial oppression permitted British capital to rule for centuries over Protestant as well as Catholic members of the laboring classes. In America, white supremacy has been the main pillar of capitalist rule ever since its "invention" in the seventeenth century. Whoever "invented" it performed a service for capital greater than the inventor of the steam engine, the police force, and the two-party system -- yet his (or her) name remains unknown. Does an invention imply an inventor? Or, to put it another way, is it possible to reject the a priori theories of Jordan and Degler without thereby concluding that the system of white-skin privileges was the product of conscious ruling-class policy? The social control function of facial oppression has been demonstrated by other scholars, most notably W.E.B. Du Bois (whom Allen credits for having planted the seed of his own research). Allen has assembled formidable evidence that in Ireland racial oppression was the result of conscious and deliberate ruling-class policy, but he has not yet done the same for the North American mainland in the seventeenth century. Of course, this is volume one of a two-volume study; its aim is to advance a theory of racial oppression and show how it has operated similarly in two different places. These tasks Allen has accomplished with power and grace. He promises that in Volume Two he will examine the experience of colonial America. (source: The Journal of Social History, Fall 1995)



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