10 Things Everyone Should Know About White Supremacy
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The use of the phrase “white supremacy” is ubiquitous in American political discourse. This is a result of many factors. Primarily, the election of Barack Obama and the United States’ changing racial demographics have created a reactionary backlash from white conservatives.
White supremacy is referenced in relation to specific news events as well. For example, the murder rampage by the neo-Nazi Frazier Glenn Miller, the recent weeks-long debate between pundits Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait about “black pathology”; birtherism; stand-your-ground laws; and the open embrace of the symbols and rhetoric of the old slave-holding Confederacy by the Republican Party have been framed and discussed in terms of white supremacy.
Conservatives and progressive often use the phrase “white supremacy” in divergent ways. Conservatives use the phrase in the service of a dishonest “colorblind” agenda, evoking extreme images of KKK members and Nazis as the exclusive and only examples of white racism in American life and politics. Conservatives use extreme caricatures of white supremacy in order to deflect and protect themselves from charges that the contemporary Republican Party is a white identity organization fueled by white racial resentment.
Liberals, progressives and anti-racists use the phrase “white supremacy” to describe the overt and subtle racist practices of movement conservatism in the post-Civil Rights era, and how American society is still structured around maintaining and protecting white privilege.
This analysis is largely correct: however, it often conflates concepts such as racism, white privilege, and white supremacy with one another. Language does political work.
In the age of Obama, the phrase “white supremacy” is often used in political discussions like an imprecise shotgun blast or a blockbuster bomb. If the Common Good and American democracy are to be protected—countering how the right wing has used the politics of white racial resentment, racial manipulation, and hate to mobilize its voters in support of a plutocratic agenda—a more precise weapon is needed. A necessary first step in that direction requires the development of a more detailed and transparent exploration of the concept known as "white supremacy."
What is white supremacy?
1. White supremacy is a complex social phenomenon. It is also a relatively new invention that was created to make Europe’s efforts to colonize and conquer the world seem like a “natural” process wherein “superior” white races would dominate “inferior” non-whites.
The Transatlantic slave trade was pivotal for the invention of race by creating a sense of group stigma and a belief in the concrete biological differences between white Europeans and Africans.
In the United States, a white supremacist racial order was birthed by a revolt in 17th-century Virginia, when black and white indentured servants allied together to fight for their freedom and rights. White elites defeated their rebellion and instituted a system of racial classification in which white indentured servants would be given land and guns after their service was complete while blacks would be made into a permanent class of slaves.
2. White supremacy is comprised of habits, actions and beliefs. It is not necessarily reliant on the specific intentions of its actors, practitioners or beneficiaries. Of course, there are “active” racists whose intentions, words, and deeds are meant to advance a racist agenda. However, implicit and subconscious bias, as well as taken for granted stereotypes and “common sense,” can also serve a white supremacist order. Ultimately, intent is secondary to the unequal outcomes across the colorline that individuals benefit from and perpetuate.
White supremacy also has the power to reorient and reimagine empirical reality for those who have consciously and/or subconsciously internalized and learned its principals and assumptions. White privilege is central here: those people considered “white” are also judged to be “normal”; the experiences of white people are taken to be universal and a baseline for how others are to be evaluated; African-Americans are judged en masse as having “bad culture” while whites are de facto viewed as having “good culture.”