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Critical Race Theory,
A Review of Theodore Allen’s
The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control
The British emigrated thousands of Scottish Protestants to Ireland in the 1600s to disrupt the Protestant/Catholic ratio (p. 64). The conditions for this wholesale forced migration of land-bound serfs had actually already begun in Scotland in the 1500s. During this time, bond-slavery was the punishment for vagrancy and thievery rather than jail. The English exported so many Scottish bond-laborers that by the 17th century, this proscription had been expanded to include free coal miners and salt-pan workers in an attempt to restrict those laborers from selling their labor to other employers in an open market. It was an easy and logical step, then, to take the descendants of these disfranchised classes and insert them as a middle-level stratum between the ruling English elites and the Catholic Irish. The newly Protestant Scots, (Ulster Scots, as they were called) were now moved up from being on the bottom rung of the totem pole to the middle rung. They showed their appreciation by continuing to socially oppress and discriminate against Catholics, relieving some of the burden of discrimination for the English. By the 17th Century, Scottish bond laborers had become “the leading export of the country,” according to the Edinburgh Review (p. 73).
It was through abject economic terrorism that the English were able to dominate the Irish people so thoroughly. For instance, using the time-honored tactic of famine as a political tool of oppression, the British charged such high rent that it negated the shepherding skills of the Irish and forced them to sell the products of their livestock. According to a contemporary account, 18th-Century Irish peasants lived “on potatoes and buttermilk” (p. 75). These were the circumstances that set the stage for the Irish Potato Famine in the next century. British officials shifted the attitude from herding to agricultural land practices in Ireland by passing Penal Laws, which intentionally favored Protestants over Catholics. This encouraged both Catholic people to convert to Protestantism as well as for Protestant people to move to Ireland.
But the praxis of institutionalized racism was instituted in Ireland not by trying to get all the Irish to convert to Protestantism, but by discouraging all Catholics from converting. According to Allen, the English actually needed a majority of Irish to remain Catholic in the 1600s, because “Ireland . . . was founded on the original expropriation of Catholic-owned lands and the continuing exclusion of Catholics from acquiring new land titles or even long-term leases” (p. 78). Essentially, the Penal Laws made it legal for the Protestants to take land away from Irish people. If all the Irish converted, this would make the laws ineffective. And so the new class of English soldiers, traders, Ulster-Scots immigrants, and English nobles who owned land in Ireland (given the nickname "the Protestant Ascendancy" by British historians) were set up in that middle-stratum class between ruling British elites and the Irish working class. And members of the ruling class institutionalized religious prejudice solely to oppress the working class. Indeed, one British general remarked that he had “arranged to increase the animosity between the [anti-Catholic] Orange men and the [pro-Catholic] United Irish. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the center counties of the North" (p. 127)
This is exactly the tack that elite Americans took regarding the lower class during the next century. During that time, racism was instituted and encouraged among lower-class colonial Americans—who were now given the label “white” people, same as their better-heeled compatriots—rather than allow the free black population to move into the upper stratum of America’s ruling class. The fostering of national identity was important because it gave rich and poor whites a common cause to rally around and against: “black” people. This was also the case in Ireland, where Protestantism among Irish was also frustrated because the Protestant Irish minority was intensely nationalistic and mass conversion would result in too many Irish Protestants who wanted an independent Ireland. Put simply by Historian Marueen Wall, “The religious bar operated to exclude the Catholic majority from all positions of importance . . . in the same way as the colour bar has operated to ensure white ascendancy in African countries" (p. 79).
It seems that by the middle of the 17th Century, the English were both experimenting and refining policies of cultural exclusion—religious and racial—simultaneously in different contexts and sites of contest. After the 1641 - 1652 Tyrone War, the English began systematically depopulating Ireland, moving some 35,000 or 40,000 defeated Irish soldiers to foreign states, with some shipped to the East Indies as plantation laborers. According to Allen, “at the end of eleven years of war, the land of Ireland was void as a wilderness" (p. 73 - 75). For the people who remained, Irish chieftains might be put to death for practicing Catholicism. Britons were forbidden from acquiring land from other Britons. According to Allen, “they were to get it from the Irish" (p. 117). Eighteen years after Ireland’s Tyrone War, a law enacted in Virginia forbade residents to acquire any bond-laborer except those of African ancestry. Seventeen years after that, the English passed a law forbidding Catholic Irish from marrying Protestants (p. 83).
The English were highly incentivized to institute some sort of system that would take advantage of the massive potential profits the slave trade promised. As was the case with the Roman Empire, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of slave labor frustrated the innovation of technologies that might have replaced it. Historians like Thomas Africa speculate that the Romans had the materials, market dominance, and ingenuity to have started an Industrial Revolution in the first or second century if they had not become so addicted to conquering subject peoples and enslaving them. Despite their presumption to be a newer better Roman Empire, though, American Southerners were alarmingly derivative of Rome’s technological stagnation. Even though large-scale Southern plantations were more productive per capita than small-scale plantations, the only way Southerners typically increased this productivity was by intensifying that labor, rather than coming up with systems that would save it (p. 52). However, due to the modern insertion of the capitalist incentive, when a technological innovation like the cotton gin could have reduced the South’s dependency on slave labor, the lowered production costs actually resulted in an increased demand for slaves.
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I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from UCLA, a Master of Arts in History from Cal State University--Los Angeles, and a Doctor of Philosophy in African Diaspora History from Indiana University. I spent nine years as a public school teacher first in East New York, Brooklyn, and then in South and East Los Angeles.
My dissertation topic was on slave resistance, as well as the construction of race. Although I am considered a resistance scholar, I am primarily interested in creating community dedicated to effecting global change through the promotion of justice and freedom for all living things. So I consider myself a "freedom scholar."
I am originally from Queens, New York, but I currently reside in Jacksonville, Florida, where I am the Assistant Professor of History at Edward Waters College, Florida's first HBCU.
Profile Pic: Kate Hallock
All other photos by: Ronnda Cargile Jamison
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