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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 234-237

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The Invention of the White Race. Vol. 2, The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. By Theodore Allen. New York: Verso, 1997. Pp. ix + 372. $22 (paper).

A paradigm shift is occurring in Western intellectual circles that may transform the way we look at other human beings. This shift has [End Page 234] been propelled by new knowledge in the biological sciences and new data and interpretations of history. It is forcing us to rethink one of the most cherished beliefs embedded in our culture—that is, that the human species can be divided into discrete and exclusive units called "races." Scholars in a widening range of disciplines have revisited the phenomenon of "race" and the processes by which "race" and "racism" became part of our collective consciousness. Experts in human biology have argued that "race" has no validity in the sciences. Scholars in history and the social sciences have looked at some historical truths and concluded that "race" was a culturally constructed ideology about human groups that emerged in the eighteenth century. It functioned to validate the structuring of an inegalitarian society, and specifically to justify the continuation of chattel slavery in the English colonies.

Theodore Allen's two-volume study, The Invention of the White Race, advances this paradigm shift and offers powerful evidence to support the contention that "race" was and is a cultural invention. Volume 2, The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, reviewed here, represents decades of research into primary sources that reveal the attitudes, beliefs, customs, and practices, particularly in early colonial Virginia, that led to the structuring of American society in terms of "race." Thirteen chapters examine meticulous details of early colonial life, illustrated with numerous personal stories.

In the first chapter Allen identifies the central problems of colonial Virginia as those of social control and the provision of labor. He demonstrates that those who held power in the Virginia Assembly were the large landowners whose ambition and greed were responsible for the policies and practices involved in the exploitation of labor. Profit from tobacco was their motivation, and as the price of tobacco fell, or waxed and waned, they turned to new forms of labor practice not sanctioned in their English homeland. In the 1620s planters transformed traditional wage-labor customs into a system of unpaid bond labor under which they sought to gain better control of the laboring classes and keep costs to a minimum. It was a brutal system of bond servitude imposed on poor Europeans that set the stage for later permanent slavery for Africans.

In the early decades of the colony few distinctions were made between European indentured servants and African imported servants. Africans who achieved freedom had the same status as any other free persons; they owned lands and houses, married, had children, and exercised the same civic rights as others, including the right to vote and own other servants. Most servants suffered under harsh and inhumane conditions, and often did not outlive the four to seven years of their contracted labor. Toward the middle of the seventeenth century more [End Page 235] bonded laborers were living longer and acquiring the status of freed men, but they found it increasingly difficult to obtain land and other resources. In 1670 freedmen who did not own property were even denied the right to vote. The dissatisfaction of the poor servants and freedmen eventually led to numerous escapes, confrontations with the bourgeois elite, defiance of authority, and the threat of insurrection. Labor was in short supply, and freedmen refused to work for literally nothing. Women especially were oppressed by the labor conditions imposed by the elite.

When a major rebellion (Bacon's Rebellion, 1676) finally came, it tore the fragile social fabric and caused such chaos that the bourgeois leaders felt compelled to seek more effective means of social control while assuring a continuing and permanent labor supply. Though defeated, the rebellion had unified poor laborers of all backgrounds, both...