Book Reviews -- the Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control (Volume 1) by Theodore W. Allen

Article excerpt

The Invention of the White Race. Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control. By THEODORE W. ALLEN. The Haymarket Series. MIKE DAVIS and MICHAEL SPRINKLER, Series Editors. London and New York: Verso, 1994. ix, 310 pp. $59.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.

SCHOLARS of American and European history have long debated the origins of racial oppression, as well as the reasons for the widespread persistence of racism more than a century after the collapse of slavery. In this first of a two-volume study, independent scholar Theodore W. Allen joins those debates. He criticizes historians Winthrop D. Jordan and Carl N. Degler, who, he says, have viewed racism as an old and enduring product of natural human prejudice. Such a view, he charges, permits racism to continue while letting the perpetrators of oppression off the hook.

Allen sees racism as a system of oppression deliberately created to benefit one social class at the expense of others. He argues that racial oppression was and is a strategy by societies' ruling elites to promote their own economic gain and, more importantly, to impose and maintain social control. Allen asserts that ruling elites in the western world have secured the allegiance of their own working classes by defining other groups as subordinate races and encouraging their oppression. The ruling classes have thus used racial oppression to preserve their own hegemony.

Allen's thesis is not entirely new, as he readily concedes. He acknowledges the work of historians Eric Williams, Oscar and Mary Handlin, and Edmund Morgan, all of whom he credits with developing a socioeconomic explanation for racial oppression. But Allen attempts to provide a more sophisticated account than his predecessors of how ruling elites in various settings have imposed racism to maintain social control.

An intriguing aspect of Allen's argument is his assertion that an oppressed race need not be distinguished by skin color or by any physical characteristic. To illustrate this point, and to show how ruling elites apply racism, the author presents an analysis of what he calls the British ruling class's racial oppression of the Irish. He observes that, while few people today would label the Irish a race, the oppression that they endured had many features in common with the oppression of other groups now perceived as racial minorities. …