The back cover of historian and scholar Theodore W. Allen's The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control quotes the late Mr. Allen

When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no 'white' people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.

The primary source in an interview "The Invention of the White Race" by Theodore W. Allen Part 1.mov (see also "The Invention of the White Race" by Theodore W. Allen Part 2.mov for part 2 of the interview) clarifies precisely what they mean by the non-existence of "white" people in 1619 continuing for the following 60 years up to Bacon's Rebellion in 1676-1677

I wanted to stress that … regarding the white race is not a anthropological phenomenon but it is a social phenomenon, a historical phenomenon.

And I wanted to indicate further that it did not just happen, but it was deliberately formed.

And that's why I use the term invention…

In Volume I is Invention of the White Race: Racial oppression and Social Control in which I give a definition of racial oppression independent of phenotype and took the case of the Irish under the English occupation in the 13th century and then later in the 17th and 18th century, particularly the 18th century, under the penal laws to illustrate a case of racial oppression which was not connected with phenotype because between the Irish and the English there was no phenotypic differences or appearances…

Bacon's Rebellion started out as an anti-Indian war … became a revolt by of bond-laborers European-American and and African-American and poor farmers who had no land, had been formerly bond-laborers, they have but still didn't have any good land, and they joined together in this rebellion against the colony elites demanding land distribution and so on… and the thing that makes it historically significant is that African Americans and European American bond-laborers joined together in this rebellion en masse, large number, together, and fighting against oppression and for freedom, and for distributing of land. And that is historically significant because not only has it not been done again in 400 years, nearly 400 years, but it is significant because it shows that there was no white race at that time the white race has to be monolithic or it is nothing. If the white race, if the European Americans, who are the the ones who became white split on this issue of equal rights or joining together with African Americans, then that's the end of the white race. And so I say this indicates, that's one indication, the most dramatic indication that the white race did not then exist.

Is the notable quote by Theodore W. Allen correct?

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    Removed a ton of personal research and generally tried to salvage the question. Please do not answer in comments.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 7:58
  • 7
    This question needs more context. Since the word "white" is in quotes, it appears there is a discussion about what being "white" actually means. We need more material in order to answer the question. But I suspect that such material in will answer the question on its own.
    – user32299
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 9:48
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    @MichaelK yep, I think in this case it's best if answers provide the context
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 10:03
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    After a lot of arguing over minor points arising from one answer, I come back to the question, and fail to see the specific claim to be skeptical about. If we take the question to be "what did the author mean by the quote", the current edit answers itself; if there is some more specific question, it's never spelled out. The self-answer suggests the question is something like "was the term 'white' used legally before 1679", or maybe the impossibly broad "is the term 'white' a deliberate social construct".
    – IMSoP
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 8:18
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    This question is still off-topic. The main goal of the OP here is not to verify a claim about race, but to provoke a discussion on the very definition of "race" (which is off-topic) and to promote his personal opinion. This makes the claim rather irrelevant, one might as well ask "Are there no white people in Virginia now?". I suggest closing this question as it doesn't challenge the claim. Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 10:50

2 Answers 2


Notice: This answer addresses revision 3 of the question.

It seems quite nonsensical, as there were 'white' people in Virginia at the time. The European settlers from England would count as 'white' today? That is 'white' in the racist sense of people of light skin tone (which arguably is not white (rgb(255, 255, 255)) but rosy/pinky/pale, whatever you'd like to name the actual colours ((255,224,189), (255,205,148), (234,192,134), (255,173,96)).

So the account Allen gives is not about people's skin colour, but about the construction of "whiteness" as a racial and political category, and ultimately self-identification and attribution.

The basis for the claim in the quote on the back cover of the book by Allen is:

The parallels to be noted here are the more forceful, perhaps, because they originate in contemporary aspects of British colonialism.76 At the threshold of the eighteenth century, it was Virginia that led the way among Anglo-American continental colonies in codifying the concept that, “race, not class … [is] the great distinction in society.”77

Footnote: 76: The first use in a Virginia statute of the term “white” to designate European-Americans as a social category occurred in 1691 (see 3 Hening 87). The Irish Penal Laws were inaugurated with two acts passed by the Irish Parliament in 1695 (7 Will III c. 4 and c. 5).
Footnote 77: Lyon G. Tyler, reviewing Philip Alexander Bruce, Social Life of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century, in William and Mary Quarterly, series 1, 16(1907–8): 145–7. Other book reviews, earlier and later, made the same point almost verbatim (William and Mary Quarterly, series 1, 6[1897–98:202–3]; 25[1916–17]:145–6).

The whole claim is explained later as:

Readers of the first edition of The Invention of the White Race were startled by Allen’s bold assertion on the back cover: “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.” That statement, based on twenty-plus years of research in Virginia’s colonial records, reflected the fact that Allen found “no instance of the official use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status” prior to its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691.

As he later explained, “Others living in the colony at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally they and their Virginia-born children were English, they were not ‘white.’ White identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be only after the passage of some six crucial decades” that the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.” Allen was not merely speaking of word usage, however. His probing research led him to conclude – based on the commonality of experience and demonstrated solidarity between African-American and European-American laboring people; the lack of a substantial intermediate buffer social-control stratum; and the indeterminate status of African-Americans – that the “white race” was not, and could not have been, functioning in early Virginia.

It is in the context of such findings that he offers his major thesis – 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 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.

In developing these theses Allen challenges the two main ideological props of white supremacy – the notion that “racism” is innate, and it is therefore useless to struggle against it, and 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.

His challenge to these convictions is both historical and theoretical. Allen offers the meticulous use of sources, a probing analysis of “ ’Racial Oppression and Social Control” (the subtitle of this volume), and an important comparative study that includes analogies, parallels, and contrasts between the Anglo-American plantation colonies, Ireland, and the Anglo-Caribbean colonies. He chooses these examples, all subjected to domination by ruling Anglo elites, in order to show that racial oppression is “not dependent upon differences of ‘phenotype’ ” (skin color, etc.) and that social-control factors impact how racial oppression begins, is maintained, and can be transformed. The Invention of the White Race is Allen’s magnum opus – he worked on it for over twenty years. Its second volume, subtitled The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, rigorously details the invention of the “white race” and the development of racial slavery, a particular form of racial oppression, in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Virginia. He claimed, with justification, that the second volume “contains the best of me.”

Jeffrey B. Perry (2012): "Introduction to the Second Edition" of
Theodore W. Allen: "The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control", Verso: London, New York, 22012.

A review of the first edition of this book has not the slightest issue with the provocative construction of "no whites in Virginia":

Allen states his thesis plainly: "racial oppression" is "sociogenic" rather than "phylogenie" (p. 1). It is not rooted in physical dissimilarity but is a concocted method of social control. Most students of racism will certainly agree that "race" is as much social as morphological. But for Allen this conclusion "contains the root of a general theory of United States history, more consistent than others that have been advanced" (p. I). In short, this is an exercise in metahistory, with race relations only an example. One's assessment of Allen's work, accordingly, depends on one's view of metahistory.

My own experience with metahistories is that they are prone to defensiveness, false dichotomies, and the tendency to overlook contradictions in evidence. Perhaps they do so because, as "grand theory," so much rides on them. Allen certainly oversimplifies the historiographical debate on the origins of racial slavery in English North America, turning it into a dialectic. On the one hand, there is the "Jordan-Degler psycho- cultural analysis" (p. 15)-never mind that Winthrop Jordan and Carl Degler are not exactly peas in a pod-and on the other hand the "opposition" (among whom Allen numbers himself). Allegedly, historical scholarship offers a clear-cut debate with historians seated on opposing "sides of the aisle" (p. 20). Because everyone apparently must be on one side or the other, Allen forces Edmund Morgan (who offers a decidedly different interpretation of the origin of Anglo-American racial slavery from either Jordan or Degler) into the "Jordan-Degler" camp, evidently because Morgan had the temerity to propose that nonslaveholding, proletarian white colonists could have derived ego satisfactions from the oppression of the black race. Allen's decision to jump back and forth across the Atlantic seems based on the assumption that if there is evidence of "race" being employed in a "system of oppression" (p. 28) that victimized both white Irish and black Africans, then it proves that racism was not connected with phenotype but was an artificial social control mechanism. I am not sure that this needs to be proved and am even less sure that the case of Ireland proves it. Doubtless the English used Ireland to hone their skills for subjugating and administering foreign peoples and they used "race" very loosely in their description of the "wild Irish." But I do not think that Allen will satisfy many by claiming that it makes no difference that the Irish were phenotypically like the English and that Africans or African Americans were not or that the English system of social control took advantage of the religious and cultural attributes of the Irish whereas it took advantage of race in North America. The evidence just will not stand up to close scrutiny. Allen himself reports on the liberating consequences of "becoming" Protestant in subjugated Ireland and even on the incentives created for Catholics to do so. Few African Americans could "become" white, and they certainly were not encouraged to "pass." Likewise, Allen treats the English rapprochement with the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie in the early nineteenth century as a refinement of social control. Can one imagine a similar white alignment with a black "middle class" many places in the antebellum South? In the end, Allen waffles, resorting to calling English domination in Ireland "religio-racial oppression" (p. 97).

Allen proposes that there was an "Irish mirror" (p. 159) that offers a clearer view of American race relations. But when Allen turns from Ireland to the antebellum United States, his treatment is so superficial that it is difficult to make out an image at all. To attribute the attraction of the immigrant Irish to the Democratic Party wholly to Jacksonian readiness to coopt them by awarding the privileges of the white race is to overlook both the travails of Whiggery and the role of nativism. Returning, in the end, to the same dichotomous treatment of historians with which he began, Allen requires all scholars to agree either that the northern white working class had no rational economic reason to feel anxious about slavery's end (hence their racism was manipulated) or that white workers legitimately feared "negro strikebreakers" (p. 192), an interpretation that no one has seriously advanced in forty years (see Allen's own footnotes). Metahistory is always problematic. Perhaps the jury can remain out on this exercise in metahistory until the second volume is in.

Review of Theodore W. Allen: 'The Invention of the White Race. Volume 1, Racial Oppression and Social Control.' – by Dale T. Knobel in The American Historical Review, Volume 101, Issue 1, 1 February 1996, Pages 150–151, DOI

This view of invented racial categories, including the surprisingly late introduction of the term "white", seems to be a view of history that gained a wide acceptance:

Slavery and the Law in Virginia
Vanessa Williamson: "When white supremacy came to Virginia", August 15, 2017

By the 1700s, the laws and customs of Virginia had begun to distinguish black people from white people, making it impossible for most Virginians of African descent to do what Johnson and Key had done. FacingHistory: Inventing Black and White

Prof. French: "Race, Gender, and Citizenship:
 The Making of a 
'White Man’s Country'", Virginia.edu (PPT)

On Law Library of Congress: "Slavery and Indentured Servants"

Miscegenation laws, forbidding marriage between races, were prevalent in the South and the West. Because English masters had had little regard for indentured servants of non-Anglo ethnic groups, they allowed and sometimes encouraged commingling of their servants. Being seen in public or bringing legitimacy to these relations, however, was not lawful. This is evinced by a court decision from 1630, the first court decision in which a Negro woman and a white man figured prominently. Re Davis (1630) concerned sexual relations between them, the decision stating, “Hugh Davis to be soundly whipt … for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christianity by defiling his body in lying with a Negro, which fault he is to actk. next sabbath day.”footnote40

Virginia passed its first miscegenation law in 1691 as part of “An act for suppressing outlying Slaves.

And for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may encrease in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawfull accompanying with one another, Be it enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, that for the time to come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever. . . .
(* Act XVI, Laws of Virginia, April 1691 (Hening's Statutes at Large, 3: 87). This section of the law with its amendments remained in force until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967))

If the goal is just looking at the laws, then "The statutes at large; being a collection of all the laws of Virginia, from the first session of the legislature, in the year 1619. Published pursuant to an act of the General assembly of Virginia, passed on the fifth day of February one thousand eight hundred and eight" mentions the term white as early as "The Articles of Confederation" (1778, p43: "white inhabitants").

1640 to 1699
1640 The Virginia government at Jamestown passes statutes and codes that differentiate between white indentured servants and blacks in permanent servitude. By the 1680s, permanent servitude has become even more identified with race.

The first Virginia colonists did not even think of themselves as "white" or use that word to describe themselves. They saw themselves as Christians or Englishmen, or in terms of their social class. They were nobility, gentry, artisans, or servants. (PBS: From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery)

Compare this with the index to Hening Vol 1 "The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619"

The index lists "Lifting a hand against a white man" to be on page 481. But on that page we actually read:

"An Act for preventing Negro Insurrections"

And it is further enacted by the authority aforesaid that if any negroe or other slave shall presume to lift up his hand in opposition against any christian, shall for every such offence, upon due proofe made thereof by the oath of the party before a magistrate, have and receive thirty lashes on his bare back well laid on.
(Also here, but without the 'translation-service offered by the index: Act X, June 1680, 2 Hening 481.)

This anachronistic re-translation is illustrated nicely in this compilation: Virtual Jamestown – The Practise of Slavery – Selected Virginia Records relating to Slavery. From 1640 onwards we see a host of legislative acts inventing a distinction between 'blacks' and 'whites', yet in that collection the term is first used in actual documents from 1705.

Response to comments:

I am uncomfortable to give a precise date for "first usage of the term 'white' for group identification in official Virginia documents" plus with 'white' being used in the present sense of meaning that differs from Allen. Seems to me that for 1619 Allen is completely right within his definitions, and if Hening is indeed 'complete' than also for the later date. Take note that this quote appears on the jacket of the book. To increase sales this is a pointy polemic, likely coined by an editor and not by Allen himself (although the later editor Berry attributes the polemic to Allen himself!). The provocative exact quote from the jacket does not appear in the book itself.

From two deleted comments of mine, a little historical context as to whether 'white people' were in Virginia in 1619:
The content of meaning for 'white people' had shifted quite strongly. But it is a term derived not only from skin tones (or wholly different attributes like religion) since at least antiquity. James H. Dee: "Black Odysseus, White Caesar: When Did 'White People' Become 'White'?" (2003) which sums it up nicely: eg Pliny describing Germans as candida atque glaciali cute (N.H. 2.189). Of course such a colour attribution is completely different from now or when and how it came into use in Virginia. Compare eg the Middle English epic 'The King of Tars' (ed. Judith Perryman (Heidelberg: Winter 1980), 98): A 'black' Muslim Sultan becomes 'white' (skinned!) upon conversion to Christianity.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 17:25
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    Please stop debating the definition of "white" in comments, thanks.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 22:25

According to 1670-Enquiries to the Governor of Virginia from the Lords Commissioners of Foreign Plantations. Answered by Sir William Berkeley in 1671 (alternative source, see page 515)

  1. What number of planters, servants and slaves; and how many parishes are there in your plantation?

Answer. We suppose, and I am very sure we do not much miscount, that there is in Virginia above forty thousand persons, men, women, and children, and of which there are two thousand black slaves, six thousand christian servants, for a short time, the rest are born in the country or have come in to settle and seat, in bettering their condition in a growing country.

  1. What number of English, Scots, or Irish have for these seven yeares last past come yearly to plant and inhabite within your government; as also what blacks or slaves have been brought in within the said time?

Answer. Yearly, we suppose there comes in, of servants, about fifteen hundred, of which, most are English, few Scotch, and fewer Irish, and not above two or three ships of negroes in seven years.

  1. What number of people have yearly died, within your plantation and government for these seven years last past, both whites and blacks?

Answer. All new plantations are, for an age or two, unhealthy, 'till they are thoroughly cleared of wood; but unless we have a particular register office, for the denoting of all that died, I cannot give a particular answer to this query, only this I can say, that there is not often unseasoned hands (as we term them) that die now, whereas heretofore not one of five escaped the first year.

So at least by 1670 the term "whites" was used with respect to Virginia.

Also the 1632 The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles by John Smith says at page 6:

This king [Menatonon] was at Chawonock two yeares agoe to trade with blacke pearle, his worst sort whereof I had a rope, but they were naught; but that King he sayth hath store of white, and had trafficke with white men

The 1624 first edition of the book has the same passage.

John Smith was "president of the council for the [Virginia] colony"


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