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Critical Race Theory,
The Final Part of an Extended Review of Theodore Allen’s
The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control
At the same time that Southern slavery in America was being intensified, measures were taken in Ireland to encourage the middle stratum of Ulster Protestant workers to continue to oppress the majority Catholic population. One way this was accomplished was by protecting the working rights of those Ulster Protestants at the expense of Catholic workers. This was analogous to how in America the rights of white workers were safeguarded in the years leading up the Civil War by whites-only political parties like the Know-Nothings and the Free-Soilers. These were both political machines that were designed not only to protect the rights of lower-class whites, but that also functioned as echo chambers for racist rhetoric and ethnic nationalism. This was an insidious con, as the number of foreign-born workers that native-born whites had to compete with in America was always higher than the number of black laborers they had to compete with. Still, it gave poor whites another reason to oppress America’s lowest socioeconomic stratum.
To their credit, there were some Catholics who saw the con early on. Daniel O’Connell was an Irish nationalist who found common cause with the American slave. O’Connell believed that the English had enslaved Irish the same way that they had enslaved Africans and that it was only natural for Irish Americans to be abolitionists, and forge political alliances with the enslaved populace of America. Eventually O’Connell’s appeal was rejected by most Irish-American leaders. They were more interested in allying with elite American whites, who had far more to offer in the short term. For their part, the Irish peasantry inculcated a formidable resistance tradition, just as sophisticated methods of resistance blossomed in America as well. In an attempt to fight back against economic terrorism, 1760s Irishmen conducted direct-action resistance campaigns like “exclusive dealing,” an early-modern version of boycotting. But it was in fact another European ethnic group, its Jewish population, who went on to forge political alliances with the American black community to fight both racism and anti-Semitism in the 1960s, Jewish activist even participating in and strategizing with civil-rights leaders.
In Ireland, once the Protestant Ascendancy had effectively handicapped the Irish ruling elite, it became necessary for English politicians to extend the Irish some concessions due to growing sympathy for them. In the 1840s, the English adopted a policy of allowing some numbers of Irish Catholics into position of real civil and judicial power. But due to the fact that there had been so many years of Irish disfranchisement, few Irish had the skills or education to fill these posts. Here, a policy very much like America’s affirmative action was enacted, in which English officials tamped down Irish “agitation” by giving hiring preferences to Catholics. Allen argues that similarly, in the New World, the British began to extend privileges to assimilated blacks in the West Indies, but not in America. He claims that “while the history of the United States presents no parallel of this phenomenon, parallels were seen in the history of the British West Indies.” In this respect, I would have to disagree with Allen, however. Although it could be competently argued that Southerners intentionally maintained a policy of racial second-class citizenship, many Northern states had long since fostered communities of well-to-do free blacks. This was the stratum that birthed the New Negro Movement. They had been educated and had been brought into the corridors of power by sympathetic whites ever since the end of the Civil War. Still, about this black intermediate stratum in the Americas, Allen says, “the ruling power, faced with the combination of insurrectionary pressures and external threats, over a period of time resolved the situation by the decision to recruit elements of the oppressed group—Catholics in one case and persons of African descent in the other—into the intermediate buffer social control stratum.
England’s Protestant leaders were very purposeful in regard to how much power they gave up, and when. Although some Catholics were now being welcomed into the Irish ruling class, English elites instituted roadblocks to full equity by barring English investment in Irish industrialization. According to Allen, this policy had the same effect as “red-lining” in the United States, in which generational wealth was kept from black families by policies that made housing and bank lending predatory and discriminatory. Catholics were eager to be reabsorbed into Ireland’s economy by the 1860s, but “networks of family and friends reinforced the hold which the Protestant community had obtained over the engineering trades.” Just as country-club circuits, neighborhood associations, and sports lodges have been spaces in which the white community could socialize and establish professional networks free of the black gaze, Protestants used social networks like these to keep Catholics in a second-class citizenship. As a result, just like with American whites, “The Ulster Custom, a Protestant privilege, made possible the accumulation of capital in the hands of successful tenants.” Policies like these kept money in the hands of emigrated Ulster Protestants the same way lower-class whites were allowed to lynch people, destroy communities, and appropriate property through organized actions of mass antiblack violence in the early 20th Century.
The issue of the destruction of the black family in America also had parallels with those same issues in Irish families. As Allen contends, Catholic women were often hired over Catholic men, leading to a disruption in domestic breadwinner roles. This led to a rise in single-mother led households, just as it did among American blacks. For years, sociologists like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, E. Frankin Frazier, and Gunnar Myrdal produced voluminous studies to try to explain why the black community seemed to be stuck in cycles of blighted poverty. Despite the efforts of liberals since before the end of the Civil War, black families continued to struggle with stability and a lifestyle above the poverty line. In America, racist ideologues argued that this was due to natural black inferiority, but Allen’s book proves time and again that any subgroup who was targeted like this would have had the same amount of social problems as a result. And Allen argues that with the Irish, the English were only practicing. The transatlantic slave trade would be their coup de grace of institutionalized social control.
To her credit, Kimberle Crenshaw Williams does discuss the central role that the intermediate stratum of poor whites has had in keeping aloft the narrative of white supremacy. But most CRT scholars come onto the scene at the end of Jim Crow, trying to explain why the Civil Rights Movement’s legal victories did not result in real change in America. Williams does not explore the historical connections and precedents behind this narrative and how it was applied from a globally macroscopic perspective, as Allen does. CRT argues that if whites really want to eradicate racial supremacy, they have to eradicate white race consciousness. Theodore Allen argues that race consciousness was used first by the English and then by Americans to perpetuate the slave industry as a form of social control. I argue that the key lies in the complete erasure of the terms “black” and “white” as personal identifiers. Only when whites are willing to give up the control that comes with calling themselves “white” will America ever not be a “racist” society. How’s that for Critical Race Theory?
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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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