The Invention of the White Race:

The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America

By Theodore Allen


Review By Greg Queen




Allen, Theodore.  The Invention of the White Race:  The Origin of Racial Oppression in

Anglo-America.  Verso.  New York: 1997.



            Karl Marx says that the goal of any capitalist is to produce a commodity that not only has a use and exchange value but a commodity that has the potential to create surplus value.  The creation of surplus values happens in the following manner. Marx says that the value of a commodity is nothing more than a way to measure the amount of labor consumed in its creation.  Like a commodity, labor also has a value and that value is the amount of material it takes to provide for the basic needs of the laborer (material to sustain the life of the laborer).  The value of commodities, including labor, is its exchange value. However, surplus value is “created” by the use-value of labor.  According to Marx’s assertion, when a person sells his labor, he is not only exchanging value but handing over to the capitalist the use-value of the commodity, labor.  This, according to Marx, is the eternal law of the exchange of commodities.  That is, like the seller of any other commodity, the seller of labor-power realizes its exchange-value by selling it and parts with its use-value.  Hence, although it may only cost the capitalist a half-day’s labor to pay for the labor, the capitalist can use that labor for a whole day.   The fact that a person labors beyond his exchange value and is not paid for that special service is what causes the creation of surplus-value, or capital.  The labor used beyond the exchange value is surplus labor.

            Since the nature of exchange-values states that the purchaser has the right to use the commodity he has bought in any way he sees fit, he can, therefore, use the labor for as long as the laborer can work and still maintain existence.   Thus, he is not violating the law of exchange values.  However, the nature of the commodity (labor) which the purchaser is buying has special limits to its consumption.  Therefore, the seller (laborer) maintains his right as seller to “reduce the working day to one of definite normal duration.”  This is a contradiction. Stated more simply, the struggle is between the capitalist desire to create conditions of surplus labor  (thus creating capital) and the laborer’s desire to consume his own surplus labor (higher wages or less time working).  As Marx says, “between equal rights force decides (Tucker).”  In seventeenth century colonial America, this contradiction inherent in capitalism was being worked out.

            Capitalism creates a non-productive elite who own the means of production.  The goal of this numerically small group is to create a social system that reproduces and maintains its elite position.  Politically and economically, the social system is created through the legislature and the formation of an intermediate buffer social control stratum respectively.  The goal of this intermediate social control stratum is to subordinate but align themselves to the elite and come into daily contact with the majority of the population, whose position in society is dependency and insecurity.  In other words, the goal of the capitalist is to hoard as much capital as possible through the creation of surplus labor while facilitating enough room in society for a social group (artisans and small landowners during early colonial America) who have some hope of not being on the “bottom of the heap.”  This social group, although they perceive themselves as independent, they are dependent upon the ruling class and generally support and enforce its values.   During seventeenth century colonial America, this intermediate buffer social control stratum did not immediately exist but was being created.   Theodore W. Allen argues that the desire for surplus value and the need to suck labor dry caused the ruling class to create an intermediate buffer social control stratum in early colonial America that emphasized racial over class oppression.  This would become known as the peculiar institution

The peculiarity of the “peculiar institution” was the fact that it was a social control system that was based upon the exclusion of any non-European from the intermediate buffer social control stratum and that a “major, indispensable, and decisive factor of the buffer social control stratum maintained against the unfree proletarians was that it was itself made up of free proletarians and semi-proletarians (Allen 12-13).”  In other words, the ruling class capitalist constructed racial oppression to divide the proletariat class; one portion (European-Americans) was denied fewer freedoms than the other portion (African-Americans) creating for the most part an appearance of privilege.  Our starting point is the early decades of the seventeenth century.

Social and Historical Context

            In early seventeenth century colonial America, the capitalist were competing for survival.  The survival of the capitalist depended upon his ability to produce a commodity (tobacco) that “creates” surplus value.  His ability to create surplus value depended upon his ability to “force” his workers to labor beyond the amount of time it would take to keep him alive and provide his basic amenities.  Because of the degree of competition, this dynamic became particularly exploitative.  One of the critical shifts happened in the second quarter of the seventeenth century.

            During the early 1620’s, the price of tobacco dropped precipitously.   The drop in tobacco prices acted upon the capitalist in two ways.  First, even though there was not a rise in the absolute or relative cost of labor, the drop in tobacco prices caused his overall profit rate from tobacco production to decline.   Secondly, in order to get a higher rate of return on his investments, the capitalist overall needed to reduce the cost of production.  Since the primary cost of production was labor power, the goal was to reduce its cost.  Thus, the capitalist class acted collectively in shifting from using tenant farmers (who got more “entitlements”) to using indentured servants (who got fewer “entitlements”) as the primary source of labor. (Allen 63-64). This was possible, in part, because an attack upon colonist by Indians in 1622 severely disrupted life in Virginia.

            The Indian attack and laboring class debt completely disrupted property relations.  The laboring class (tenant farmers) was in a precarious position and the “plantations bourgeoisie [had] opportunities for direct capitalist expropriation of land and labor power in the furtherance of the alteration of labor relations to that of chattel-servitude (92).”  The elite used their position of power and forced the tenants into debt by restricting the amount of tobacco they could grow, applying a fixed rate for their rent and forbidding them to plant corn causing them to pay extortionate prices to the corn elite.  This undermined any economic power the tenant farmer may have had.  Because of these changes, there was an increased concentration of the means of production and laborers.  Although it may appear that this shift in power between the laboring and capitalist class was temporary and primarily caused by the Indian attack, the planter class was able to maintain this superior position of power in labor relations.

Altering Labor’s Relationship to Capital

            Although one of capitalism’s underlying assumption is that both the worker and the capitalist have the “right” to end the relationship with one another, in colonial Virginia, because of the planter class’ superior position, they were able to alter labor’s relationship to capital by converting the laboring class from tenants to indentured servants.  They first started by being able to use “tenant” workers as property/wealth.  In other words, tenant workers could be used to pay debt, avoid bankruptcy, as hereditary property and as liquidation of an estate.  In addition to being able to “buy and sell” tenants, the London Company said that “[T]he shedding of this blood [in reference to the Indian attack] wilbe the Seed of the Plantation, for the future…instead of Tentants[,] sending you servants.”  By the undermining of tenants and the London Company’s desire to trade in indentured servants would indicate the beginning of the end of tenants and the start of indentured servants as the primary source of labor.  However, by choosing the indentured servant route, the elite were choosing a potentially disastrous set of circumstances for their interests.  Because they did not create an intermediate buffer social control stratum but destroyed the only potential for one (the tenants), their disregard for history would lead them into trouble as will be seen later. 

            The planter class used many methods to squeeze surplus value from the indentured servants.  Again, this was possible because of the submissive relationship of labor to capital.  This was accomplished primarily by increasing the length of the workday and intensifying the effort of each worker.  Some servants came to the plantation colony with a contract that stated their length of service in return for transportation, but most did not.  For indentured servants lacking a specific contract, the duration of bondage of was specified in law.  In 1666, the Virginia Assembly changed the law so that the normal duration of bondage increased from four to five years.  In addition, prior to legislative change, if an individual was less than sixteen when originally sold into bond-labor, you were bound to the master until the age of twenty-four.  In 1666, the legislature changed the law so that it said bond laborers under age nineteen would have to serve the master until age twenty-four effectively increasing the length of free labor for the planter.  In addition, as punishment the courts frequently lengthened the time a servant was in bondage.  For example, a 1643 Virginia law made it illegal for indentured servants to marry, fornicate and/or have children.  When they did and were caught, the consequence was an increase in their length of the servitude.   Of particular interest in terms of the reproduction of the laboring class is the relationship of children in this exploitative system. 

            During seventeenth century colonial Virginia, the scarce labor supply led the planter class to find ways to create a permanent laboring class.   The problem that indentured servants posed for the elite was that they were eventually freed which required the capitalist class to find replacements.  This can be difficult when the main supplier was thousands of mile away in England and the native inhabitants refused to partake in such an absurd system (this is not entirely accurate statement but good enough for this paper).  The planter class looked to children born to mothers who were servants as the continuous supply of labor.  Prior to 1662, bastard children could eventually receive their freedom either by just doing their time or by their fathers purchasing them out of servitude.  In 1662, the planter class created a law that changed English common law tradition in that they imposed lifetime hereditary bondage on African-Americans by instituting the principle that a child would be “bond or free according to the condition of the mother.”  In 1681, a child born to a European mother and African father would be in bondage until the age of thirty (Allen 133-134).  In addition to these changes in law, there were other oppressive measures taken by the elite to ensure a certain amount of capital accumulation. 

            The laws protecting bond-laborers were weak.  There was no minimum level of food, clothing, housing, etc.  Thus if the planter wanted to reduce his cost of production, he would reduce the cost of maintaining the existence the workers.  In terms of food, the planter class primarily forced the workers to survive on corn.  The other advantage of indentured servants was you did not have to “pay” them.  In other words, they did not get a paycheck until the day of their release from bondage usually about five years later.  “Spurred on by the all-or-nothing nature of monocultural economy, and subject to the vagaries of a generally glutted market, Virginia employers pushed matters to the limit to secure the highest possible return on their investment in laborers.”  These laws and actions especially those governing women, children, marriage and family were an “indispensable condition for the preservation of that particular form of capitalist production and accumulation.”  However, it denied the planter class “the benefits of the patriarchy as a system of social control over the laboring people (137-147).”  The increased oppression lead to resistance.

Racial Oppression Did Not Exist, Yet

Allen says:

Where there is oppression, there is resistance, insufficient though it may be.  When resistance is enough it becomes rebellion.  Where the intermediate buffer social control stratum becomes dysfunctional, rebellion breaks through…Attenuate the intermediate social control stratum;  and at an opportune moment, they would join en masse in armed rebellion (149).


Allen argues that a significant number of the acts of resistance and plots against the planter class were interracial and that the few decades prior to Bacon’s Rebellion, the relative status of African-Americans to that of European-Americans can be determined to have been indeterminate.  The “reduction of all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any social class within the oppressor group” did not exist.  Thus, “a system of rule, designed to deny, disregard, delegitimate previous or potential social distinctions that may have existed or that might tend to emerge in the normal course of development of a class society,” in other words, racial oppression did not yet exist.  Although Allen provides many cases to demonstrate his point, I will explain two.

Elizabeth Key

In 1660, the Virginia legislature implemented a law that restricted the length of indentured servitude to a maximum of five years if you came from a Christian country.  Although this does not explicitly state that African-Americans would not be “protected” by this law, it was aimed towards them.  However, this law was “only” aimed at bond-laborers which is class oppression and not racial oppression.  In contrast, there existed African-Americans like Anthony Johnson who were not denied the elite privilege of owning large tracts of land and/or servants.  In the case of Anthony Johnson, he purchased an African-American bond-laborer.  In fact, Allen interprets the fact that the elite passed a law in 1670 denying African-Americans the privilege of importing bond-laborers as evidence that it was an accepted practice (177-183).  However, as we have already seen, there was increased pressure from planters to increase unpaid labor time by trying to change the status of African-Americans bond-laborers into lifetime servants (187).  Although this is the case, there are elements within the ruling class that did not operate with the assumption that African-American bond-servants should serve for life but rather made sure the freedom was “guaranteed” like European-American bond servants (193-194).  The case of a women named Elizabeth Key is critical to this argument of Allen.

Elizabeth Key was the child of an African-American bond-servant and European-American father.  Her father made arrangements before moving back to England that Elizabeth’s godfather would have possession of Key for nine years.  Messing up this arrangement was the fact that both the father and godfather died before the nine years passed.  The executioners of the godfather’s estate (who died second) did not grant Elizabeth her freedom on the grounds that because her mother was a lifetime bond-servant, Elizabeth was the same.  However, a jury of twelve did not agree and granted Elizabeth her freedom.  The case was appealed to the Virginia General Assembly who appointed a committee.  The committee agreed with the twelve men basing their decision upon two ancient common law principles.  First, English common law says that you trace your status through the condition of the father who in regards to Key was a free European-American.  Secondly, because key was a Christian, she could not be held for life for that would be slavery and illegal.  There was an appeal to the governor but because there are no records it is assumed that the matter was resolved.  Other evidence to support this assumption is the fact that Key later married her lawyer and if you are a bond-laborer and get married you must have the support of your master.  Thus the estate executioners felt they had no legal ground to prevent the marriage (194-196).  Allen believes that their is more to this story than what appears on the surface.   He says that the Elizabeth Key case was a confrontation between factions within the elite over whether “owners can impose lifetime servitude on African-Americans” or whether African-Americans right to freedom on the basis of Christian principles and English common law is more important then profit rates. 

In 1656, when the case was being heard, the traditional English common law of patriarchy and Christianity applied.  Allen states that if the principles applied to this case had prevailed, than racial slavery would have been prevented.  The reality was that within six years of the Key case, the General Assembly enacted a law stating that the status of a child would be determined by the status of the mother not the father.  Five years late, in 1667, the General Assembly stated that whether a person was a Christian or not did not alter the person’s condition as it related to bondage.  Coincidentally and concurrently, the English government re-chartered the Company of Royal Adventurers to Africa and the British Navy fought with the Dutch to open up trade in Africa.  Although the planters generally wanted a continuous low cost labor force, the problem was managing this low cost labor force, or creating social control mechanisms that would enforce the increasingly racially oppressive laws.  The problem of control was exemplified through Bacon’s Rebellion.

Bacon’s Rebellion

Allen breaks Bacon’s Rebellion into two parts, one “controlled” by the elite and the other controlled by the interracial proletariat.  The Virginia ruling elite divided over frontier Indian policy and Nathaniel Bacon, cousin of Governor Berkeley, wanted to push the Indians further west whereas the more traditional elite did not see the necessity in doing this so immediately.  This faction within the elite were the more established elite who had more land than they could currently use whereas Bacon represented the less established faction seeking more land.  At any rate, Bacon gathered up a group and attacked the Indians and then turned towards Jamestown.  The rebels had gathered around the Assembly in Jamestown and forced the group to raise an anti-Indian army of 1,000 men and forced Berkeley to sign.  At this point, the reality was that rebels were in “control” of the colony.  In fact, one of the initial rebel leaders from the elite class would become critical is reestablishing ruling class control.  Until then, there was not much support for the elite.  The rebels were demanding a redistribution in land and that the colony be broken down into smaller more diversified farms.  Meanwhile, in England, Virginia’s representatives said that the best hope of ending the insurrection was in “a speedy separation of the sound parts from the rabble.”  The elite were extremely frightened that this rebellion was going to destroy the oligarchic rule and monocultural economy that they had created for themselves at the expense of the chattel bond-laborers.  Retrospectively, the Virginia Assembly declared that “many evill disposed servants in these late tymes of horrid rebellion taking advantage of the loosenes of the tymes did depart from their servince and followed the rebells in rebellion.”  The significance of this rebellion to Allen’s argument is that African-American 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.  In addition, Allen argues that at this historic point, there still did not exist an intermediate buffer social control stratum as evidenced by the lack of enthusiasm to support the colonial elite in suppressing the rebellion.  In the end, During and immediately following Bacon’s Rebellion, the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland said that what the leaders need in Virginia is a “new” way of governing that preserves the ruling elite but would accommodate enough people so that it could rule.  In other words, the elite needed to divide the proletariat so that some would support the elite rather than having most of the proletariat not supporting the elite as shown in Bacon’s Rebellion.   The answer was the invention of the white race (203-222).

The Invention of the White Race

The ruling elite did not want to alter the underlying labor relations that caused Bacon’s Rebellion.  In other words, they were not interested in paying out more surplus value to create a intermediate buffer social control stratum.  Rather, to “maintain the degree of social control necessary for proceeding with capital accumulation on the basis of chattel bond-labor,” the elite decided to use race consciousness in order to supersede class consciousness.   This racial oppression was used to create a social distinction between the poorest of the oppressor group from any member of the oppressed group.  According to Allen, because of the number of laboring class European-Americans, the creation of a categorical exclusion of African-Americans from the intermediate buffer social control stratum was necessary.  In other words, unlike the West Indies, there were too many European-Americans to become “petty Bourgeoisie.”  Thus, the elite substituted racial oppression for class oppression to create the intermediate stratum.  The conclusion that once the gentry class created a ‘yeoman’ class, they could ignore the rest of society is wrong because although the poor European-Americans were not in lifetime bond servitude, their inability to compete with the gentry class would naturally cause them to align themselves with the lifetime bond servants despite race was evident in Bacon’s Rebellion.  Thus, instead of social mobility and altering labor’s relation to capital, the ruling class by denying all African-Americans of their liberties was able to say to the poorest European-American in Virginia that although they did not own bond-laborers, they were still part of the elite in that they “enjoyed” privileges that were denied to African-Americans, free or slave.  As Allen says “the solution was to establish a new birthright not only for Anglos but for every Euro-American, the white identity that ‘set them apart at a distance….’”  The announcement of the new legislative birthrights, passed during the generation following Bacon’s Rebellion, were required at the end of church twice a year and twice in the summer at the county courts.  In other words, people heard that no free African-American dare raise his hand to a white Christian; that English and Negroes should not mate; and that any white person who is illegally congregated African-Americans would be fined;    So, in the end, the laboring whites had in their heads the socially constructed concept that they were privileged and that to maintain their privilege, they need to deny African Americans their freedoms and not fight against the elite (247-251).  So there we have it.  The elite’s desire to create a very inexpensive permanent laboring class, one portion enslaved to the planter class and the other enslaved to white superiority, was achieved.  The capitalist ruling elite entrenched their power and created an institutional superstructure to enforce their “right to rule.”


[Author’ Note: Although I would recommend reading the two volumes, Theodore Allen has written a summary of The Invention of the White Race and made it available on the World Wide Web at]

Allen, Theodore.  The Invention of the White Race:  The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America.  Verso.  New York: 1997.



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