Roots of the white skin privilege analysis

November 11, 2013

Jeffrey B. Perry, Bill Mullen and David Camfield add further contributions to a debate about the theory and analysis of a "white skin privilege."

Theodore Allen's work on privilege

IN "IS there a white skin privilege?" Bill Mullen mischaracterizes the work of the anti-white supremacist, working class intellectual Theodore W. Allen (1919-2005) on "white skin privilege." This is particularly unfortunate since Allen's extraordinary body of work is extremely important to those struggling today, and since there is much to learn from his seminal writings.

In his article, Mullen asserts, without elaboration, that Theodore W. Allen became a critic of "'white skin privilege' analysis."

In fact, Allen pioneered his "white skin privilege" analysis in 1965 and continued to develop it for the remaining 40 years of his life. I base my statement on the writings, audios and videos of Theodore W. Allen; on my intimate familiarity with Allen and his work for over 30 years; and on the fact that I am currently preserving, indexing and inventorying his papers.

Mullen cites as a reference for his statement that Allen became a critic of "'white skin privilege' analysis" Allen's review, "On Roediger's Wages of Whiteness." In the review cited by Mullen, however, Allen says nothing to substantiate Mullen's claim. Instead, Allen emphasizes important points he had made earlier: that "the problem of white supremacy and the white-skin privilege...have historically frustrated the struggle for democracy, progress and socialism in the U.S." and that "the white-skin privilege is the Achilles Heel of the American working class."

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers debated the analysis of white skin privilege and how to organize the anti-racist struggle in a series of contributions. The article that sparked the discussion is:

Bill Mullen
Is there a white skin privilege?

Further contributions include:

Haley Swenson and John Green
What we get from privilege theory?

Aaron Petcoff and David Camfield
Privilege and anti-racist solidarity

Alan Maass, Alan Peck and Alex Schmaus
Examining the idea of privilege

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Making sense of society in order to change it

Jeffrey B. Perry, Bill Mullen and David Camfield
Roots of the white skin privilege analysis

Héctor Agredano Rivera and Ethan Young
The contribution of the concept of privilege

Jesse Phillippe
A dialectical approach to privilege theory

Dennis K.
What privilege theory doesn't provide

Gary Lapon
Racism, capitalism and contradictions

Sofia Arias
Contributing to a constructive debate

Tad Tietze
What privilege theory doesn't explain

In discussing what he calls "'the white skin privilege' argument," Mullen writes, "Fundamentally, the idea is that racism is inevitable under capitalism because all whites, no matter their class, benefit from the unequal distribution of social resources along racial lines."

Allen's position, however, is quite different from this. Allen argues that racial oppression is not inevitable under capitalism, and he describes how racial oppression begins, how it is maintained and how it can be transformed.

Allen also consistently challenges the "white" assumption and describes how the "white race" was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor solidarity.

Finally, and very importantly, Allen emphasizes that European-American workers do not "benefit" from "white skin privileges"--that these "white skin privileges" are a "poison bait," a "baited hook," and are not in the interest of working class people.

These points are made clearly in The Invention of the White Race where Allen develops his major thesis that the "white race" was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the later, civil war stages of Bacon's Rebellion (1676-77). To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the ruling elite, in its own class interest, deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to define and maintain the "white race" and establish a system of racial oppression; 2) the consequences were not only ruinous to the interests of African Americans, they were also "disastrous" for European-American workers, whose class interests differed fundamentally from those of the ruling elite.

Readers’ Views welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

In developing these theses, Allen challenges two main arguments that undermine and disarm the struggle against white supremacy in the working class: 1) the argument that white supremacism is innate, and 2) the argument that European-American workers "benefit" from "white race" privileges, and that it is in their interest not to oppose them and not to oppose white supremacy.

These two arguments, opposed by Allen, are related to two master historical narratives rooted in writings on the colonial period. The first argument is associated with the "unthinking decision" explanation for the development of racial slavery offered by historian Winthrop D. Jordan in his influential White Over Black. The second argument is associated with historian Edmund S. Morgan's similarly influential American Slavery, American Freedom, which maintains that, as racial slavery developed, "there were too few free poor [European-Americans] on hand to matter." Allen's work directly challenges both the "unthinking decision" contention of Jordan and the "too few free poor" contention of Morgan.

Allen was a historical materialist who believed that class struggle was the driving force of history and the key to understanding the origin of racial oppression in the Anglo-American plantation colonies.

Readers interested in learning more about Allen's work are encouraged to look at the in-depth treatment in "The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy" (Cultural Logic, 2010) available at

For those interested in Allen's two-volume "classic" The Invention of the White Race (Verso Books, 1994, 1997; 2012) see Vol. 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control and Vol. 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America, and see Allen's online "Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race" (in two parts).
Jeffrey B. Perry, from the Internet

A note on Theodore Allen

THEODORE ALLEN did argue that "white skin privilege" was the "Achilles heel" of the U.S. working class. But my contention in "Is there a white skin privilege?" was that Allen was critical of a "white privilege" analysis which holds that racism benefits all white workers. I characterized this kind of analysis in my essay as follows: "Fundamentally, the idea is that racism is inevitable under capitalism because all whites, no matter their class, benefit from the unequal distribution of social resources along racial lines." I referred readers to Allen's review of Roediger because it is there that Allen argues otherwise--for example, in this passage:

The "white" identity did not preserve the artisans nor save others from reduction to life as merely another kind of Whitneyian replaceable parts in capitalist enterprises. Just the opposite, they lost the ten-hour day struggle, and efforts at establishing an independent labor party dissolved in defeat. Worse for them, by far--because of the inescapable national necessity to abolish slavery--the country was drawn into a war that not only brought death and severe injury for hundreds of thousands of laboring-class European-Americans, but also sharply eroded the buying power of their already insufficient wages.

Bill Mullen, West Lafayette, Ind.

Marxism and the understanding of privilege

IT'S BEEN good to read the discussion sparked by Bill Mullen's article, and I thank for publishing my response to Bill's piece ("Dodging an important question").

Since Alan Maass has accused me of calling Bill's article "reductionist" ("An injury to one is an injury to all"), I should point out that I didn't actually label it that way. I tried to be nuanced by referring to Sharon Smith's description of the belief that working-class men don't benefit in any way from women's oppression as "an adaptation in the direction of reductionism," and suggesting that "denying that white working-class people experience any privilege from racism is similar."

I think that all the socialist contributors to the discussion agree on the need for, as Alan put it, "challenging oppression and exploitation, with the aim of building a united working class struggle" and that "white workers do have a material interest, which runs contrary to their experience of relative advantage, in challenging" racism.

But in making this case, we should also be equally clear that, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's contribution puts it, "white workers derive benefits, privileges or advantages--however one wishes to describe it--from being white in a racist society" and that this "necessarily complicates the fight against racism" ("Making sense of society in order to change it").

What this means for socialist strategy and tactics deserves in-depth discussion informed by the experiences of radicals organizing in workplaces and communities today and in the last several decades.
David Camfield, Winnipeg, Canada

Further Reading

From the archives