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‘White race’ studies

In response to: Faculty Bookshelf

Published on October13, 2010

Professor emerita Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People begins, “I might have entitled this book Constructions of White Americans from Antiquity to the Present.” When I read Anne Ruderman ’01’s article (Faculty Bookshelf, June 2) about Painter’s book, I thought immediately of the work of Theodore W. Allen, author of the seminal, two-volume The Invention of the White Race. Painter described Allen’s work as “a classic” in a 2003 Yale lecture, yet she never even mentions it in her History.

In The Invention of the White Race Allen explains, based on 20-plus years of primary research, that there were no “white” people in pattern-setting Virginia when the first Africans arrived in 1619 and that the word “white,” as a token of social status, wasn’t in use prior to 1691. His most important contribution is his thesis that the “white race” was invented as a ruling-class, social-control formation in response to labor unrest as manifested in the later (civil war) stages of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–77).

In support of his main thesis, Allen details how a system of racial privileges was deliberately instituted in order to define and establish the “white race” and how the consequences were not only ruinous to the interests of the African-American, but were also disastrous for the “white” worker. He makes clear that the invention of the “white race” was political and that it was not part of genetic evolution.

Since Allen’s Invention poses such a fundamental challenge to Painter’s History, I thought it appropriate to call Allen’s work to the attention of PAW readers interested in the struggle against white supremacy.

JEFFREY B. PERRY ’68
Westwood, N.J.

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