Racialized Whiteness:
its History, Politics, and Meaning

by Steve Martinot

This paper is an account of the process whereby race, whiteness, and white supremacy were invented in colonial Virginia. It was first delivered at the Radical Philosophy Conference in November, 1996, and subsequently published in Race, Class, and Community Identity (eds. Andrew LIght and Mechthild Nagel) by Humanity Books.

In a paper on Martin Luther King, Gerald Early made the statement that King was "a black leader in a society in which there are no white leaders."[1] It was a somewhat surreal way of reflecting the American blindspot, and points to a central incommensurability in U.S. politics. White recognition of King as a black leader grants him cultural legitimacy, and at the same time withholds it by bestowing it through the assumed hegemonic power to grant cultural legitimacy in the first place. It confirms a hegemonics in the very act of presuming a non- hegemonic situation.

A similar situation obtains for other political issues. Affirmative action programs, for instance, were instituted to rectify (in small part) the effects of centuries of exclusion and discrimination against large groups of people (called minorities and women). They attempt to open a space of economic and political inclusion on the theory that social parity is a necessary condition for democratic participation. These programs have been attacked by conservatives for being forms of exclusion and "reverse" discrimination against white people. In thus forgetting the history to be rectified, such attacks render those prior forms of discrimination by whites as non-existent as "white leaders."

Sara Diamond points out that a more general attack on black and Chicano communities has been in progress since the 80s. It is part of a renewed racialization of the US, whose aim is to rebuild what the civil rights movement had begun to dismantle or transform. No longer lurking in such things as redlining or a war on drugs, the disappearance of jobs or the abandonment of social programs, it is now located in a prison industry (a version of the mid-European ghettoes), the deployment of drugs (a version of the Opium Wars), and institutionalized violence (the Mark Fuhrmans are not anomalies or rogue exceptions).[2] Her concern is the ability of the new racist Right to harness grassroots energy, and promote itself as populist.

By fostering a "populist" repeal of affirmative action, the Right actually calls the democratic process into question. It transforms the necessary conditions for that process, namely, parity and participation, into ideologically contested issues to be decided within it. The real social problems of inequities or exclusions become unintelligible when transformed into ideological concepts, or (one could say) "ideologized" as issues. It is the political existence of people that is at stake in those inequities. To ideologize them is to turn people themselves into issues, to transform the subject of the democratic process into its object. This only reifies the exclusions, conceptually barring those people from real participation. Minority status itself is an example; it is brought into existence by a continuing act of exclusion whereby the excluding group creates itself as a majority. Or in the arena of civil rights, what white society takes for granted as part of its socio-cultural (Constitutional) environment, must be continually approached as a political task and political struggle by African-Americans, as a source of continual daily concern. When civil rights, as the foundation for dealing with all political issues, becomes itself the issue, then political participation is set out of reach in the distance. Again, a hegemonics is reconfirmed through the very channels presented as non-hegemonic.

A similar incommensurability appears in the politics of abortion, for instance. Abortion was legalized to give women greater control over themselves as women, against politico- religious power that historically withheld that control. But to legalize it as a personal right, rather than as a medical procedure, is to disguise personhood and personal self-control behind an ideology of constitutionality, through which similar "rights of the unborn" could be defined. The abortion "issue" has become the contestation of an ideological fetus against the ideologized personhood of women. The integrity of a woman as an organism gets fragmented into "Constitutional" functions over which the granting of privacy rights can be decided by others. In the name of non-hierarchical (ideologized) rights, the hierarchical control of both women and sexuality is both forgotten and confirmed.

The Right's rhetoric turns issues like abortion and affirmative action into icons that can be used against the very people who need them, silencing people by ideologizing their social being. And its grassroots success indicates the extent to which the mainstream finds this to be acceptable, to make sense. This raises the question, what makes an incommensurability that contradicts the foundations of democratic process appear democratic to the mainstream? Diamond describes at length the Right's obstructions and disruptions of the social movements for equality, justice, and social liberation, deflecting them from those goals to defense of past democratic gains. And she bemoans the left's apparent loss of initiative at the grassroots level. [3] The implication is that the Right relies on something more than simply rhetoric, and that the real foundation for the political process in the U.S. lies elsewhere. In noting that the Right equates traditional social norms and values with the sanctity of white society and the "white nation," she returns us to Gerald Early's terse marking of the white blindspot.

A critique of whiteness and its role in U.S. politics and class consciousness has begun to emerge on the left.[4] But, for the most part, it focuses on class-oriented notions rather than on the process of racialization itself. The white left tends to explain racism through concepts of "divide and rule" and "white skin privilege," for instance, immersing race and racial hegemony in questions of class. This begs the question by acceding to the nature of racial difference as given by whiteness and white supremacy; that is, as something with which to politically strategize; and it obviates seeing how racialization may have conditioned the development of class itself in the U.S.. Theodore Allen argues that racism and white supremacy were invented to establish social control over both rebellious poor whites and a racialized "other" (e.g. Native Americans, or African-Americans, or the Irish). This may be true, but it remains in the realm of political instrumentality, even while Allen is arguing that English colonial racialization of the Irish conditioned the development of class relations in England. Neither "divide and rule" explanations nor the economism of "white skin privilege," explain the many instances where the impoverishment of white workers in white solidarity had greater allure than the power or benefit of class solidarity. The question of racism's tenacity, the power of race discourses to withstand class struggle ideologies, goes deeper than the instrumentality of power. What the white left has perhaps not grasped about itself or the mainstream is not that it is white, but what that whiteness means.

To plumb the depths of this relationship will require a critique of whiteness and the dynamics of racialization which go beyond class-centered explanations of racism. I will argue that the source of the incommensurabilities so familiar in mainstream thinking lie in the very structures of racialization and whiteness. This can be shown both by examination of their structures of meaning as identity and identification, and by tracing their development and production in a concrete historical process, namely the Virginia colony in the 17th century.

The Structure of Whiteness

Let us first recognize that race is a social construct, and not a biological reality. In the U.S., a person is black if s/he has one black foreparent, but is not white if s/he has one white foreparent.[5] That is, race is marked with an arbitrary purity condition for whiteness that is ideological and hierarchical. To say this another way, a white woman can give birth to a black child, but a black woman cannot give birth to a white child, not because of appearance but because of the way racial descent is defined. As Ashley Montagu has argued, the human characteristics by which so-called "races" are differentiated belong to continuous spectra of variation, with no inherent determinable dividing lines, and no two of which are in necessary association.[6] There is no natural criteriological basis for defining any particular racial distinction. Biology, then, is deployed to "naturalize" socially constituted differences, and rationalize their hierarchy. Behind the biological mask, race resides as a social relation. This does not mean that "race" doesn't "exist"; it does exist, but as a social structure, and not as a biological fact. Rather than a biological fact, race is a system of social designations and meanings invented by Europeans and inscribed upon non-European bodies using color as its icon. In a word, racism itself is the source of race and racialization.

The first question, then, is, if race and white supremacy are social constructs, what is the inner structure of those constructs? Beyond their socio-political effects, how can they be understood as structures. Albert Memmi provides four criteria for racism: 1) "the insistence on a difference, real or imaginary" (which can be somatic, cultural, religious, etc.); 2) the imposition of a negative valuation on the other through that difference, accompanied by a positive valuation for the one imposing it; 3) the generalization of that valuation to a group, and 4) the legitimization of aggression or privilege through that difference.[7] For Memmi, the statement of a difference does not constitute racism; that difference has to be used against the other. (R,45) He adds that racism is "a discourse formulated by a group, which addresses itself to a group." (R,111)

Three discursive levels can be distinguished in Memmi's paradigm. The first, is that of generalization. Race discourse defines in generality what is to be noticed about a person as racial, both physically and personally (who the person is). Physical difference exists, but it has significance only if pointed out and given a social importance. This act of pointing out already subordinates the individual to what is named to be noticed about him/her; it is already a generalization. Allen refers to this process as the de-differentiation of the "other," rendering the person a group instance rather than a proper individual. Yet because people present themselves only as individuals, such generalizations always remain underivable from experience. They must be imposed as prior concepts if they are to be noticed conceptually. But if a prior concept superimposes itself on the way a person is encountered, it will have already substituted itself for experience of that person. In other words, the act of generalization, as always non-empirical, effaces a person's self-presentation and, to that extent, obviates experience of that individual. Generalization renders other people wholly or in part unknowable. And as an alibi for that unknowability, racism resorts to the ostensible "objectivity" (i.e. determinism) of biology. Though Memmi couches his criteria in terms of individuals, the ability to notice a difference as something to which valuation can be given implies a prior discourse has already defined that difference. In its immanent self-referentiality, the act of generalization brings into existence what it is about. And a certain supremacy is already inherent in the self-arrogated power to define and give import to a difference in the first place.

But if the white supremacist is to be in some social relation (however hierarchical) with the unknowable other, then an alternate knowability must be constructed. The "other" must be endowed with a "racialized" subjectivity, an intentionality, a temperament and capability by which to be encountered. To this purpose, racism produces a vast system of narratives that reinvent personhood and subjectivity for the one generalized. This is its second discursive level. These narratives are what link concepts of culture and character to an alleged biology. Because what is not re-narrativized remains unseen or unheard, such narratives present themselves as originary. They emerge and impose themselves in spite of the individual they are about, while their "aboutness" is used to prove the involvement or participation of that individual in their content. From its very inception, for instance, the Virginia colony re-narrativizing the indigenous as always war-hungry and treacherous, especially in their friendly overtures and fair dealings, on which basis it rationalized its exclusionism. The nature of the narratives may shift over time, or in different circumstance, but their imposition will always be derogatory and self-referential, reflecting the presumption to define. As Toni Morrison puts it, "the fabrication of an Africanist persona [for and by whites] is reflexive, an extraordinary meditation on the self." And Simone de Beauvoir points out analogously that patriarchy says to women, we will paint your portrait so you can get started imitating it. [8]

Thirdly, because these narratives function as signs of racializing reference about the invented Other, they constitute the language of white discourse as white. Because the signifier "white" has meaning only in differential relation to other signifiers for color, a system of meanings for those other color signifiers must be generated before the signifier "white" can be apprehended as a social signification. Though this narrative sign system ostensibly refers to the generalized "other," its real meaning is to function as white discourse as such, the speech by which whites proclaim themselves to be white. All discourse between whites as whites assumes and includes them through cliche, tone of voice, innuendo, and derogatory terms. It is by unendingly retelling the stories, and alluding to them, that whiteness reaffirms itself. Even when a white speaker is addressing a designated "non-white" person in this language, s/he is essentially speaking to other whites. This only reflects the fact that such a language is already hegemonic, since the social structures of exclusion will not work if the excluded are able to include their own story in the social discourse (hence, the tradition of an exclusionary literary canon). De Beauvoir points out that marriage is a relation between men for which women are the means; similarly, racism is a relation between whites for which non-white people are the language.

The psychic violence experienced by those subjected to such conscription as a language, to being rendered the means whereby whites institutionalize their relations to each other, remains practically indescribable. W.E.B. DuBois speaks of the double consciousness it produces, of "always looking at oneself through the eyes of others." It is to live a world that is at all times appropriated as a source of meaning for others (whites) who are always elsewhere and "here."

In sum, the racialization of whites comes about through the racialization of others. For white people to be white, they must have defined others as non-white. That is, others are defined as non-white in order for whites to define themselves as white. Or, as Ian Lopez puts it, whiteness is a double negative; it is what is not non-white.[9] Though such racialization is always associated with forms of domination and exploitation, it is the deployment of the dominated as a language that racializes, and which gives the exclusions, derogations, and oppressions to which they are subjected their special meanings. It is in this way that racism becomes the source of race, while the concept of race it generates then becomes the content of that racism.

As Michelle Fine has argued, "whiteness is actually co- produced with other colors," as fundamentally relational, and not merely in parallel.[10] A hegemonic white population can apprehend its own identity only in a situation that is racial. It needs to continually re-define a "non-white" other for itself through an ever-changing system of narrativizations, in order to be privileged and to construct its boundary, which becomes its "fix," as she says, its sense of identity and belonging.

Conversely, if the definition of another as "non-white" is at the core of white self-definition, then to be white is to find the core of one's identity elsewhere, in the other. The other becomes the substance of that identity. This is the source of white obsession with the one excluded, the racialized other. The other is given to be noticed, yet thrust elsewhere; differential and exterior, yet interiorized. For whites, the "non-white" becomes at once nemesis, fascination, and self. Herein lies the stupefying nature of racism for the "white mind." At the same time, it is the source of its self-universalization. If the other must be both excluded as other and absorbed as self, the white identity which thus constructs itself of two elsewheres intuits itself as the universal human (that is, as unmarked) through that absorption. Or, as Fine puts it, social institutions are be designed "as if" hierarchy, stratification, and scarcity were inevitable. (OW,58)

Real violence is inherent in such a system. The other is both placed at the center of white identity and continually evicted from it. But because the operations are performed without the involvement or provocation of those they are about (however they ultimately respond), the violence and harassment are always gratuitous.

What is critical, however, is that the signifier "white" and the white identity it generates also remain wholly contingent on their affirmation by other whites. White people become white by coalescing around the language of whiteness as a symbol system, which prescribes the identity of the group. In effect, group identification becomes the real meaning of the "white" sign system; and whiteness, identification of oneself as white, constitutes the means of belonging to it. White identity becomes a membership card to that community. Yet it is a membership that must be continually renewed. It is to reaffirm membership in the white group that whites deploy gratuitous derogatory terms and racist violence, or tolerate it in others. Speaking the symbols, and the generalizing terms (as group icons), retelling the narratives (that already contain and describe the violence of racial hierarchy), and ultimately enacting that violence, become the various modes of "performance" of whiteness, or of membership. (Today, the police are increasingly becoming the designated actors for these performances of white identity.)

White identified people cannot escape the effect of this structure. Identification of oneself as "white" brings with it the entire structure of racializing definitions, objectifications, and derogations (and now, of the many re- stratifications maintained or produced by police violence). It is the place where white liberalism and white supremacy are in conjunction. While the white supremacist accentuates exclusion, as a form of appropriation, white liberalism accentuates inclusion or absorption as a form of reified alterity. To the extent that both identify themselves as white, they both reduce a designated "other" to a meaning for themselves, and thus to a non-personhood. Furthermore, liberalism's attempt to deal with the effects of racial oppression continues the designated "other's" objectification while leaving the structure of whiteness that objectifies intact. The often attempted separation of whiteness from white supremacy is a false one. To the extent one has not contested the language, narrativity, and identification of whiteness, one will have inscribed one's own identity in what has already formed the core and mortar of white supremacy.[11] One might include labor union solidarity in this; though it may momentarily overcome racial antagonism, by remaining unaware of how white hegemony has conditioned class structures, it inscribes white solidarity into its every economic and cultural act, rendering its class solidarity more rhetorical than real.

Ironically, it is precisely because whiteness is a language that racism, though its existence silences whole groups of people, has been able to coexist with the Bill of Rights, with the right of free speech -- and even seek protection for itself within that right. For the racist, free speech extends only to the users of language; it does not extend to those who are a language. This may be the starkest form of the incommensurability noted at the beginning of this essay.

It might be added that the notion of abandoning "white skin privilege" is unintelligible. The privilege granted to whiteness must have already been constructed as whiteness. The notion of abandoning privilege reduces privilege to a thing one can pick up or put down, add or subtract from whiteness, rather than as inherent in a structure of social relations. A complex cultural structure is not dispensed with so easily. With racism, one confronts a circle. The meaning of whiteness is already supremacy, the meaning of supremacy is already privilege, and the meaning of privilege is already whiteness. The insularity of this circularity expresses its extreme resistence to argument or experience. At whichever point one addresses racism, there is a preceding point for it to fall back upon.

One implication of this discussion might be that one cannot identify oneself as white and be anti-racist at the same time. Yet a white identity cannot simply be discarded. First of all, it will be continually re-imposed by the social institutions that preserve and reconstitute it. And second, a white-identified person could not re-identify with some other "group" or "ethnos" without being cooptive, or opportunist. The primary political question for undoing white hegemonics and supremacism is how to transform society and culture insofar as it is white. The problematic of anti-racism for whites becomes how to invent a de- racializing identity for themselves for which "whiteness" would in turn be an otherness, without opportuning on others for whom whiteness is already other, and without leaving the institutions and discourses of whiteness intact or uncontested. However it is done, a structure of opposition to white supremacy that de- hegemonizes one's thinking altogether must be found.

The Colonial History of Whiteness

If whiteness and race are social constructs, how did they happen? What complex operation of economic, juridical, and social processes brought them into existence? And if there was a time, not so long ago, before the existence of whiteness, of race or white supremacy, is that process discernible?

History is a problem with respect to the politics of race, even after it is recognized that Europeans, in their guise as whites, constructed race, racial relations, and racism. If whites constructed race as hierarchical, then a racism had to already exist to stratify it. If white racism constructed race, on what racial ground did it construct whiteness? If the "white" is one of the races produced by a general process of racialization, how was it produced as unmarked? Even in the context of colonialism, if the process of racialization was driven by the construction of dominance, from whence arose the notion of race that drove dominance to construct itself as white? One of racism's mystifications is that mere chromatic difference was sufficient, through rejection of the strange, and fear of the different. But it is racism that makes chromatic difference strange and fearful, as one of its central meanings.

If these ambiguities are usually decided ideologically, it implies that they make a difference. In the Marxist view, the necessities of class domination impel the racialization of labor (as slave vs. free, marginal vs. central) to divide and control. But to see racism as contingent upon class relations and dynamics reduces it to a political strategy without accounting for race as a structure of social relations with its own development and dynamic. Winthrop Jordan, on the other hand, in his still influential historical studies, assumes that racism, and therefore the concept of race, accompanied the colonists to the Americas, as a social valuation if not political institution, and built slavery as its expression, in effect, accepting a chromatic notion of race.[12] Theodore Allen, in response to both, argues that racialization conditioned the structure of class itself in early capitalist development. But even a cursory look at the Virginia colony reveals that the process was much more complex than any of that.

The story begins before the first Africans were imported as plantation labor in 1619. The Virginia colony was at first unable to cope with the land and its unfamiliar ecology, which it proclaimed for itself to be wilderness, and faced rampant starvation. Many English sought to escape to live with the surrounding indigenous society (a number of different Algonquin peoples) who understood the land and suffered no hardships there. [13] For the Virginia colony's elite, however, escape threatened the social fabric. Under the first governor (Thomas Smith), it was considered desertion, and punished severely. Recaptured escapees were publicly tortured, often to death. (PH,24) This imposition of an absolute allegiance to English origins, to Christian membership against the so-called "heathen," was the primary response to internal crisis. It rationalized itself through a demonization of the Algonquin, whose nature, personality and intention were re-narrativized as hypocritical and war-like, even in their most banal acts of friendship.[14] Accompanying this demonization were prohibitions of intermarriage with the indigenous. That is, the demand for allegiance was structured through both a pre-narrativization of the "other's" personality or character and an enforced social separation.

The cultivation of tobacco rapidly became the main export commodity for the colony. Tobacco was a drug whose English market was assured, making it a ready and profitable cash crop. As a mass-produced commodity, tobacco not only became the colony's chief source of wealth, but it also served as currency for commodity exchange, wages, and the calculation of human value. Like the Spanish, the English colonized North America for profit. The colonial function was not alternative social community, but the development of productive processes. The English did so along a different axis of brutality, however. Rather than military conquest and occupation, the colony was established as a corporate entity (the Virginia Company), for which the English were employees. Even after the Virginia Company dissolved in 1624, its style of rule was sustained by the Colonial Council, which exercised controls on production, land use, and disposition of labor.

From the beginning, the Company and the colony brought together the paradigms of membership, re-narrativization, exclusion of the indigenous through restrictions on interaction, and an institutionalization of human activity. It was a structure into which the content of racialization could later be fit. As Pierre Bourdieu says, "the function of the act of institution ("which signifies to someone what his identity is") [is] to discourage permanently any attempt to cross the line, to transgress, desert, or quit."[15]

The problem of tobacco cultivation was labor. The Algonquin mostly refused servitude and escaped. At first, English labor was used; white indentured servants accounted for half the arrivals to the colony in 1619,[16] and constituted the main mode of plantation labor until 1650. English indenturees, however, whether volunteer, prison labor, or kidnap victims from the streets of English cities, came with written contracts establishing length of service, a release date, and sometimes a grant of land upon release. But the term of servitude was long, and many English indenturees escaped, blending into the colonial society developing broadly around them.

Escape was more difficult for imported Africans, who did not blend in. However, few were imported before 1650, at which time there were 300. Though originally no legal distinction was made between African and English servants, (IS,38) the Africans were not put under written contract. Without a contract, an African's time of servitude was left to the whim of the landowner. Though some were released after serving a period comparable to European laborers, more and more had their time extended, some indefinitely. This practice reflected the gradual consolidation of local markets in Africans. As extensions of their arrival as cargo, these markets further commodified the Africans, transforming them gradually from laborers into wealth, that is, as livestock. This process first reflected itself juridically in the 1640s in the form of differential punishments for runaways; Africans were sentenced to servitude for life, while runaway English were only given extended time.

Politically, the question of African status (as slave or indentured, wealth or labor) remained a contested notion until 1662, when perpetual servitude was legislated. Before then, different landowners adopted different stances. The Virginia government groped toward codification of landholder practice, and control of plantation labor, to regulate and protect landed wealth. No steps were taken to provide Africans with the right to a contract; but until 1662, those Africans that were freed were given recognition equal to the English. No steps were taken to provide education for African children, though it was guaranteed to English children. But education was not prohibited to Africans, and those that did go to school attended integrated schools. (IS,24) In many cases, English indenturees made common cause with Africans in escaping. To the extent that distinctions were made on either a social or juridical level, they were not yet racialized. And slavery was not yet the general rule. What came to be known as slavery was only in partial practice by 1640, generally recognized as a social practice throughout the colony by 1660, and finally codified into law in 1682 and 1705.[17]

1662 marks a turning point with the passage of the first anti-miscegenation law ("miscegenation" is a problematic term here because it generally refers to mixed-race marriage, but is being used to refer to a time before the English, indigenous, or Africans had been racialized). Mixed marriage had been previously punished on religious grounds. Around 1640, the ability of servant labor to marry was codified as part of a more general attempt to control the work force. Marriages between English and African servant labor were given special legislated conditions, with prohibitions and punishments, whose tenor was to reduce both partners to greater servitude. But in 1662, various statutes dealt with miscegenation as such. Strict fines were levied simply for sexual relations between "Negroes" and "Christians", and mixed marriage was prohibited. The fact of such enactment suggests that mixed marriage had become too prevalent for the colonial elite, and that anti-African feeling was far from the rule among the laboring population.[18]

At the same time, in a bizarre statute, children were given the servitude status of the mother rather than the father. Again, the Colonial Council was juridically protecting the planter's economic interests. Through this unusual reversal of patriarchal tradition, a social distinction was created between English women and African women with respect to personal relations, marriages, and motherhood (regardless of the father). African mothers were placed in the position of breeding stock, while English women were placed in a situation in which the elite could more widely reserve the patriarchal right to control their sexuality, in light of the concomitant provision of perpetual servitude for Africans and their descendants. Women and womanly being were thus deployed to conceptualize a new level of English-African distinction in general. It was the first step in a process that would eventually transform a juridical distinction into a biological one.

But the fact that the elite adopted these juridical tactics at that time confirm that plantation slavery was not established full-blown at one stroke in Virginia. Rather, it underwent gradual construction and definition at the hands of the economic pragmatics of a corporate profit-oriented plantation society which did not begin with "race" as its foundation. "Negro slavery" as a term first appeared in the statutes in the 1660s; it marked a moment in a journey toward "racial" hierarchy, rather than being grounded on it.

The stages of racialization can be traced in the successive binaries by which the English distinguished themselves from Africans. The first distinction (as read in the Council proceedings) was a religious one, between "heathens" and "Christians," conjoined to the English distantiation of the indigenous. However, to characterize Africans in such religious terms implied that, for African labor, baptism would be a step toward eventual freedom. When this possibility threatened the planters' wealth, that avenue was closed by statute (in 1644 and 1667). (IS,45) After 1650, as the African population grew, and more converted to Christianity, the predominant binary shifted to that between "Negro" and "English," or alternately, "Negro" and "Christian." Both signified a more reified separation and denial of membership in the colony for Africans. After 1667, the term "Christian", when used in distinction to "Negro," increasingly connoted "non-Negro." That is, it occurs in those rhetorical roles that later would be filled by the word "white."

But the English were not generally referred to as whites, and biological characteristics did not yet enter the discussion. Color was used descriptively. In letters and literary texts of the preceding 100 years, there were individual Europeans who sometimes referred to themselves or others as white. But the use of the term "white" only became institutional, perhaps conceptually based on such literary sources, but marking a social designation, at the end of the 17th century. In the sense that race must be understood relationally, the term "black" or "Negro" (as the anglicized Spanish word for black) would itself become a racializing term only when it was used to racialize the English as white. The first juridical reference to "white" people only occurs in 1691, in an anti-miscegenation statute, 85 years after the founding of the colony. (SL,III:86) In other words, only gradually, over the course of a century, did the English coalesce around the notion of being "white." The legislation of gender was the machinery of that social coalescence for which the African was the marker, labor the terrain, and biologization the effect.

Some historians (e.g. Ballagh) argue that racialization directly substituted itself for the religious differential; but that view ignores, first, the conceptual evolution racialization required; second, the role of commodification and its juridical regulation; and third, the legislation of sexuality. That is, it is only out of the complex evolution and political regulation of labor, ownership, colony membership, markets, and sexuality within a profit-oriented corporate structure, which imposed on Africans what successively became commodity status, non- citizenship, and slavery, that the concept of race evolved. On the one hand, slavery evolved as socially racialized through the juridical regulation of property relations, which gradually codified contested attitudes within the landowning elite. And on the other, color and sexuality became socially re-narrativized through legislation that color coded labor and regulated sexuality. Both occurred within the commercial and social relations between English men, as extensions of a market structure in which Africans were re-narrativized as commodities or wealth.

If the deployment of women in this process was grounded in the general commodification of Africans, its effects went beyond that. To the female role of producing succeeding generations was added the female potential for producing further wealth. Under the partial abandonment of patriarchal tradition, all women found themselves juridically and socially placed somewhere on a spectrum between being the machinery of descendant heirs and breeding stock. English women were given the ability to aspire to a certain purity of being through a purity of social and sexual comportment. It was a purity originally determined and conceptualized by juridical enactments. And through the economization of women, it constituted part of the way women, as juridical objects, marked the interweaving of the biological into the socio-economic separation between English and Africans. The modern concept of race, on this account, marks the culmination of this complex historical process which slowly transformed the socio-economic differential between English and Negro into the racialized differential between white and black.

Bacon's rebellion in 1676 marked a critical moment in this process.[19] The rebellion erupted from a geopolitical class contradiction in the agricultural structure of the colony. The main avenue to wealth, the acquisition of more land, was curtailed by Crown restrictions on land-claims beyond the colony's boundary. Newly arrived farmers or newly freed English indenturees were granted westerly or peripheral land by the colony's governing elite to serve as a buffer between the colony's center and the Algonquin. That is, they were marginalized both politically, agriculturally, and territorially. Nathaniel Bacon, himself a large landholder, organized the outlying farmers to war against the Algonquin (that is, open new lands through military adventure), and at the same time turned them against the colonial elite for insufficiently defending the farmers against Algonquin counter-attacks. His campaign had three components: 1) a struggle of (outlying) county farmers against the central elite for greater county representation; 2) a struggle of small county farmers against the county elites for greater representation; and 3) a chauvinist campaign against the indigenous as the real enemy. Bacon's rebellion reveals all the characteristics of subsequent populisms, such as Tom Watson's People's Party of the 1890s, or the anti-Chinese movement on the Pacific coast in the 19th century; that is, a conjunction of democratic pretensions (a rhetorical class struggle against the rich) with an extremely chauvinist but opportunistically machinated campaign against a non-white group (the Algonquin, in Bacon's case).

When Bacon's movement was defeated, many Africans were found in his ranks. Not only was such common cause significant, but these Africans were under arms, and welcomed as such by the English rebels, despite long-standing colonial prohibitions against this (since 1648). (SI,39) It testified to the contested nature of social attitudes toward African status, and suggests that animosity toward the Africans was partially class-based, and top down, having social importance mainly for the elite (i.e. it did not pre-date the colony, as in Winthrop Jordan's account).

According to Zinn, the rebellion convinced the colonial elite to take measures foreclosing concerted action against itself. Laws against the special danger of "Negro insurrection" appear in the slave codes of 1682, (SL,II:492) in language that echoes John Smith's diatribes against the Algonquin. Further acts were passed strengthening policies of anti-miscegenation and differential punishments. Still, the construction of social hostilities was not an easy task. The process of general social division took until 1705 to consolidate. Even the House of Burgesses, in 1680, referring to remnants of Bacon's army that still roamed at large in the woods, and to whom the pardon offered rebels who would return and surrender was to be extended, speaks of the holdouts only as "people," without differentiating between "English" and "Negro," though there must have been both since slaves were the most hesitant to return.

Ultimately, the juridical by itself was insufficient for the process of racialization. Two other factors bear mention in this respect. The first is that certain economic changes occurred in the 1680s. During that decade, the supply of African slaves increased, due to greater traffic and an easing of competition from Caribbean sugar plantations. In addition, the price of tobacco rose on the English market, rendering small Virginia farmers more viable. Overall, after 1650, the importation of European indentured servants diminished, and the weight of the labor force shifted from white to black. While white labor moved into farming, the center of gravity of labor rebellion shifted from labor in general to slave labor in particular. The effect was a general reconstruction of the labor system of the colony as a whole. The elite ideological warning, in 1682, against "Negro rebellion" not only re-conceptualized the labor situation, but constituted a call to social solidarity against this internal "outside" danger. In general, it marked a shift in English self- conception through a transformed economic stratification from a corporate structure to a culture of solidarity, from allegiance to England to cohesion against a threat of slave rebellion, albeit a threat produced by the slave system itself.

The second factor was a social reflection of the juridical. When indentured servants were said to be sold, it was because their contracts were sold, and they accompanied the purchased contracts. But Africans were not held under written contract. [20] The body itself marked the African's servitude, and substituted itself for the juridical instrument, signifying both the labor contract and its absence. The bodily sign for the contract's absence was codified to mean permanent servitude; as such, it then marked the African slave, without title or "papers," as essentially outside or beyond the law. Beyond legislative enactment, the absence of juridical standing rendered the African's color iconic for social otherness and exclusion. That is, a mode of de facto and de jure criminalization resided at the very core and origin of racialization.

The capstone to these transformations was conscription of poor white farmers and laboreres to the task of enforcing the slave codes. Their job was to be shock troops, patrols and commandos under elite direction, guarding against runaways and suppressing any appearance of personal autonomy by slaves. Negligence in this duty was punishable. In the context of their disfranchisement, this limited citizen franchise was given to represent the poor white's share in colonial socio-politics -- policing rather than making policy. Elite control was exercised through granting the power to control within the newly consolidated slave relation (like a comprador bourgeoisie in 20th century Latin America). And planter solidarity took the form of white solidarity. In this way, economic competition between white agricultural strata was prevented from becoming a class distinction by engendering a system in which the fundamental class antagonism was between planters and slaves. In effect, the power of paranoia, first constituted at the beginning through the re-narrativization of the Algonquin, kept powerless whites from running away and hard at work by giving them a role, if not rule. And in the confluence of all these processes, the concept of race emerged and produced a white nationality out of an English colony.

In sum, the development of whiteness has never been divorced from the operations of the state. Under its influence, the settler mentality went through two shifts, in the first of which the Africans were transformed from enslaved persons to marketable goods (from commodified labor to reified commodity), and in the second, transformed from real estate to social nemesis. These would be the terms in which white supremacy, the concept of race, and the southern class structure were brought into existence together. In other words, white supremacy was not invented to simply "divide and rule", but to reorganize the structure of labor, to be the production of a class structure itself. Whiteness evolved not as part of a structuring of race relations, but a social relation that created racialized identities and races. The relation of whiteness and domination is not one of historical precedence, but of form and content. In Bourdieu's sense, whiteness is an institution, and an institutionalization of comportment, rather than an ideology or identity consciousness, and it is in this institutional sense that we must understand white identity -- differentiating it from other racialized identities that emerge in response and resistence to white domination itself.

To recapitulate, the process of racialization was constructed through corporate allegiance, a pursuit of wealth through a conscription of labor, and a juridical re- narrativization of Africans. In its need for labor, the colony produced color as an icon first for labor identity, then for social identity, and finally as white solidarity, allegiance, and a language of whiteness. As racializing, whiteness is a social relation, but not in itself a race; as a social dependency relation on others, it racializes itself, and becomes a race. As a race, whiteness is a gender relation that depends upon the purity and impurity of women. As a gender relation, it must wholly over-narrativize itself and sexualize the other in order to forget the history of racialization that has produced it as such.

The identity relation of whiteness highlights a motif characteristic of all populism, from Bacon's rebellion, through Tom Watson's People's Party, to Gingrich and the populism of right-wing movements today, namely, the necessity for two enemies: a class enemy ("the rich", or big government), and a racial enemy. For Bacon, the "other" was the Algonquin; for Watson, it was first the North, then African-Americans;[21] for Gingrich, it is the racialized welfare paradigm, a signifier again for African-Americans. In each case, the other is dehumanized, rendered faceless, alien, and treacherous, to which the proclaimed "class enemy" (government) is accused of surrendering, or of "betraying the nation." That is, "class" struggle in the US is informed by the perception that the "class enemy" is an enemy through betrayal.[22] And the innermost goal of populism is to end the betrayal and re-establish white solidarity. It is not that a rabid chauvinist campaign is the essential condition for whites to confront the elite, or make common cause. Rather, it is that populist whites fight their class enemy with a mode of class collaboration as their goal. [23] Populism has always been a confluence of citizenship and mastery, that has substituted white solidarity and a strengthening of the racialized white bond for class solidarity. That is, the populist movements manifest a relation of racialized class and classicized race for which neither class nor race discourses can give a complete description.

Some Implications

In the colonies, if whiteness emerged from enforced membership to a plantation socius focused on wealth but which pretended marginalized whites were not non-participants, it was a pretense clothed in violence. All wealth implies violence toward those from whom it is extracted; whiteness was the way elite violence in the U.S. was transferred to those it dominated. Expressed in actual or verbal violence, whiteness constitutes an estheticization of politics for poor whites in the sense that Walter Benjamin associated the term with fascism: that is, as a means of political expression for people that both continues and hides their socio-political powerlessness.[24] This is not an idle analogy. Throughout U.S. history, one encounters state operations whose ideology is racialist, whose "ruling party" is whiteness itself, and which "party" has governed through a social acceptance of generalized local violence. And the "policing" power given poor whites renders them analogous, as a group, to the SA, the private army of Nazi party storm troopers that facilitated Hitler's rise to power in Germany.

Fascism is not only capitalist tyranny, but a gratuitous terror used to constitute control for its own sake, sometimes even over capital.[25] What it always requires is the establishment of a boundary between a coherent inside group (nation or race), and an outside held in subjection through organized excessiveness, violence and dehumanization. If, inside that boundary, a modicum of democratic structure is possible, it only continues the facade covering the raw power by which the "other" is dominated. For the boundary marking the estheticization of U.S. politics, color has been the mark, and white identity has been the language. What constituted itself quickly in Germany, however, was built gradually in the North American colonies. If its political dynamic has been blurred, it is perhaps because over time its "storm troopers" have had less to do on a daily basis. The rise of white militias and Aryan Nation groups suggests that this situation may be changing.

Returning to the present, the ability of the Right to mobilize populist grassroots energy for programs of inequality and injustice springs not from its speaking to what white people want, but to who they are. Tapping the wellsprings of whiteness, it has gained the initiative over the left not only through a resurgence of fears of rebellion, or betrayal of the "white nation," but also through the left thinking that one can be non- racist and still identify oneself as white. Sara Diamond, in calling for a renewed grassroots effort by the left on the issues the right has been dominating, ignores the idea that what gives the Right its hegemony is precisely what hamstrings the white left. In making too strict a conceptual distinction between the right and the so-called mainstream, she blinds herself to the structure that allows the hegemonic to appear non-hegemonic. To contest the Right within this structure is to accept its language, and to lose oneself in it.

The left's entanglement in this morass is evident. Though the left opposes the state (to varying degrees) as the enemy of equality and justice, it has traditionally gone to the state to rectify racial abuse and discrimination. In thus recognizing the state as guarantor of democracy, it participates in reducing the condition of the dispossessed to one of ideological contestation. To oppose racism from within the racializing function of the state is to accede to that racializing function, to betray oneself to it.

One implication of all this is that the left cannot return unquestioningly to traditional modes of movement organizing. If the right can appropriate these modes, then their coherence for the right, the mark of the white, must open those modes to question. Though the right presents a threat to all the left upholds and understands as the political, it is also a signifier for what the political is in the U.S., requiring greater circumspection concerning its organizational means (the media, etc.). What the left requires, if it wishes to develop movements of opposition to oppression and capitalist domination, is a strategy to unravel the cultural framework, to invent a corrosive alternative to the white identity that is woven into it, not only at the level of social structure, but at that of cultural meaning.


1. The paper, delivered March 13, 1996, in UC-Berkeley, was entitled "Martin Luther King and the Reinvention of Christian Leadership in the U.S."

2. Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion (New York: Guilford Press, 1995), pp. 261-270.

3. I give the "left" a lower case designation, while capitalizing reference to the Right, to suggest that it is more involved in process, less institutional than the Right, which seeks to reaffirm, reconstruct, and return to former institutionalized structures and practices. Part of the point of this paper is that the Right does not question the fundamental institutions of the U.S., while the left does in seeking to transcend and transgress the dehumanized and anti-democratic institutions that have been bequeathed by U.S. history.

4. See, for example, the following. Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race (New York: Verso, 1994). David Roediger, Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (New York: Verso, 1994). Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: the Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1994). Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1996).

5. Naomi Zack, Race and Mixed Race (Phildelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).

6. Ashley Montagu, The Concept of Race (New York: Collier Books, 1969).

7. Albert Memmi, Le Racisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), p. 159. Hereafter cited in the text as R. See also, Tuen Van Dijk, Communicating Racism (Newbury Park: Sage Pub., 1987).

8. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), p. 17. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Bantam, 1970).

9. Ian Lopez, "White by Law"; in Critical Race Theory, ed. Richard Delgado (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1995), p. 547. Ironically, Lopez advances this notion of the double negative in a critique of the apparent on-going need for a juridical definition of race, even in the 20th century.

10. Michelle Fine, "Witnessing Whiteness"; in Off White: Readings on Race, Power, and Society; eds. Michelle Fine, Linda Powell, Lois Weis, and L. Mun Wong (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 58. Hereafter cited in the text as OW.

11. It is precisely "good standing" that European immigrants bought by embracing racism and "melting in." For a critique of the melting pot idea, see Nathan Glazer, Beyond the Melting Pot (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1963). Also Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race.

12. Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (New York: Norton, 1977).

13. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), p. 24. Hereafter PH.

14. It is worth noting that John Smith was one of the prime inventors of these narratives of demonization and allegiance. Throughout the colonial period, a succession of charters with different kings all contained clauses demanding allegiance, and defining the conditions of its administration. Cf. William W. Hening, ed., Statutes at Large: a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia (Richmond, Va. 1809), p. I:105, II:94, 485. Hereafter cited in the text as SL.

15. Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Sumbolic Power (Cambridge: Howard Press, 1991), p. 336. Quoted in Fine (Off White,58).

16. Joseph Boskin, Into Slavery: Racial decision in the Virginia Colony (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979), p. 14. Hereafter cited in the text as IS.

17. James Curtis Ballagh, A History of Slavery in Virginia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1902), chap 2. Hereafter cited in the text as HS.

18. Many commentators on the colonial period interpret the anti-miscegenation laws as symptomatic of early "antipathy" toward Africans, and argue that racism produced enslavement of Africans (cf. Boskin, and Vaughan (note 17)). But they tend to ignore a small detail in the record. In 1630, a white man named Hugh Davis was reported in Virginia Council proceedings to have been whipped for having sexual relations with a "negro." (SL,I:146) However, no prohibitory laws were passed at the time, suggesting an absence of pressure to do so, or an absence of widespread "antipathy". But the Virginia council records state that Davis was whipped "before an assembly of Negroes and others" for the offense of "lying with a negro." Why prioritize the "Negro" contingent of the audience? Would this satisfy a widespread antipathy toward Negroes by white colonists, given that Davis was white? Or was the punishment administered to Davis to make a point to the African population of the colony? And what might that be?

A second historical detail raises similar questions. Africans were not brought into the colony in large numbers until after 1650. The first rebellion in the colony against the governing Council occurred in 1663, a year after the anti- miscegenation law, as well as other slave codes were passed. Could the passage of the slave codes, which accorded with the interests of the plantation owners, have participated in instigating the rebellion by the poorer colonists and servants? In other words, was there a class dimension to the antipathy that certain historians have assumed was universal?

19. The nature of Bacon's rebellion has been widely debated among historians. Much has been written about it, including novels, diatribes, as well as careful researches. The account I give is a rough composite of interpretations from Washburn and Zinn. Cf. Wilcomb Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1957). Two accounts from the period by Ann Cotton and Thomas Burwell (pro and contra) are printed in Peter Force, ed. Tracts and Other Papers (Washington, 1836).

20. Alden T. Vaughan, "Blacks in Virginia, the first Decade;" in Roots of American Racism (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995).

21. See C. Vann Woodward's fascinating account of Watson in Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970).

22. Even Jack London falls prey to this. In his novel, The Iron Heel, the main charge his ideologue levies against capitalism is that it has "mismanaged;" that is, it has betrayed a trust.

23. Cf. Alexander Saxton; The Indispensible Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1995).

24. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction;" in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schoken Books, 1969).

25. Alfred Sohn-Rachel, The Economy and Class Structures of German Fascism, trans. Martin Rethel (London: Free Association, 1987).