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Jonathan Chait's Teachable Moment: 10 Lessons About White Supremacy in the Age of Obama

The Yellow King still has me. Jonathan Chait's new essay on race in the Age of Obama is even more poorly reasoned and problematic than its predecessor.

Obama, Racism, and the Presumption of Innocence is a rebuttal to his critics that finds its momentum in a "reasonable" claim that "evidence" must be provided for the"terrifying" accusation that (white) conservatives are racist. Moreover, Chait would like "liberals" to be fair to conservatives by giving them the benefit of the doubt that while the latter's policies may support white supremacy said actors are not in fact racists.

The second claim is easily dismissed. Why presume fairness in the treatment of movement conservatives on matters of race when their political outreach and strategy has, for at least four decades, been predicated on the unfair treatment of people of color, and the use of white racism to mobilize white voters? While they/we may be too generous and forgiving--this is a flaw of ours--black and brown Americans are not that stupid or gullible.

The Republican Party is a white racist organization.

As I alluded to in an earlier essay, by way of metaphor, the post-civil rights era Republican Party is comprised of political arsonists on matters of race and social equality. Because of a fundamental concern for personal and public safety, when I see a white conservative with a can of gasoline, matches, and standing in front of a burning building, I will not for purposes of "fairness" assume that this is just a coincidence.

Chait's first demand that "evidence" must be presented as a means of "proving" white racism (or racist outcomes or intent) is worthy of more attention. There, like many others who excuse-make for White Supremacy as a social fact and quotidian reality, Chait is asserting the opposite of reality in order to force a conversation based on an incorrect assumption which then leads to an erroneous conclusion.

Chait shows this intellectual sleight of hand in the following passage:

A few years ago, Melissa Harris-Perry — in a column ironically accusing Joan Walsh herself of racism — argued that those accused of racism should be considered guilty until proven innocent. “I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt,” she wrote. “If anything, racial bias, not racial innocence is the better presumption when approaching American political decision-making.” Just how a person so accused could overcome the presumption of racism, Harris-Perry did not explain.

A huge proportion of these intra-left debates concern establishing the boundaries of precisely when and how one liberal can fairly accuse another of racism. When it comes to making such accusations against conservatives, do liberals have any evidentiary standards at all? Reading the liberal objections to my piece, I fail to detect any.

In his defense of the White Right and their racial innocence, Chait is demanding a type of racial habeas corpus as a guarantee that white conservatives will not be victims of the "terrifying" power of racist accusations by liberals and progressives.

On the surface, this is a sensible claim; however, many apparently sensible claims are actually masks and smokescreens for the absurd and ridiculous.

The bodies and lives destroyed by white racism and White Supremacy litter the American past and present, the imaginations and futures that will or would not be, as well as the long-past and of today's moment. Jonathan Chait only has to open his eyes to see them. His racial privilege allows him to ignore them. Others are not so deaf or tin-eared to their cries and yearning.

White Supremacy and white racial animus are dominant social forces in American and world history. White supremacy and white racial animus are not opinions.

Chait's desire for some type of extraordinary proof regarding claims that conservatives (or others) are racist is the white racial frame working through a position of white privilege to create a set of conditions that excuse-make for, and sustain, White Supremacy.

Chait defaults to a position in which claims of racism are somehow exaggerated, made up, or simply not true as applied to white conservatives, is problematic in a subtle way as well: contrary to Chait's suggestion, people of color and others who dare to tell the truth about white racism are not crazy, delusional, hysterical, hyper-emotional, or confused.

Moreover, when a person of color dares to speak about white racism they do so at great personal and professional risk. Contrary to the imagined reality dreamed up by white conservatives and their allies in which white people are "victims" of "anti-white" or "reverse racism", truth-telling about white racism comes with no small amount of risk and cost.

Melissa Harris-Perry was correct. The reasonable working assumption, given the historical power of the colorline in American society, should be that racism and White Supremacy are default variables in the inter-personal and inter-group dynamics between whites and people of color until demonstrated otherwise.

The reality of how White Supremacy works to negatively impact the life chances for non-whites in the United States is one of the most documented facts in the Social Sciences.

The United States, created as a White Republic and Apartheid state, demonstrates its White Supremacist bonafides in the Constitution, a "glorious" pro-slavery and pro-Southern document.

African-Americans have been human property and suffered under Jim and Jane Crow racial terrorism for much longer than they have been full and equal citizens.

The Right-wing's deranged response to Obama's election from both the mouth-breathing Tea Party foot soldiers, and the herrenvolk Republican elite, has been a textbook example of how white racism is a toxin in the body politic of the United States--one for which "generational replacement" will hopefully provide a much needed remedy.

Chait's Obama, Racism, and the Presumption of Innocence, as well as his previous essayThe Color of His Presidency, are useful tools.

To point. The phrase "White Supremacy" has been frequently used in the conversations inspired by Jonathan Chait's debate with Ta-Nehisi Coates about "black cultural pathology".

However, there has not been a clear move to define "White Supremacy" as a foundational concept whose meaning influences the broader debate about the nature of racism and the colorline in post civil rights America.

I would like to remedy that oversight with the following (less than exhaustive) list.

What is White Supremacy?


1. White Supremacy is a complex social phenomenon. It is also a relatively new invention, one that along with the concept of "race", largely came into being with the modern European imperial and colonial projects.

2. White Supremacy is comprised of habits, actions, and beliefs. It is not reliant on the specific intentions of its actors, practitioners, or beneficiaries. 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.

3. Images of terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and Neo Nazis serve as outlier caricatures of racism in the post civil rights era. These cartoon versions of white racism do the work of White Supremacy as a social and political force because they present virulent white racism as an anachronism or the habit of somehow damaged and defective white people who should be ejected from the public square. In colorblind America, "polite" and "respectable" White Supremacy is far more dangerous to the life chances and safety of people of color than the overt racism of the Ku Klux Klan or other racially chauvinistic organizations.

4. In the most basic sense, White Supremacy is a philosophical, material, ethical, economic, scientific, religious, and political system that works to maintain the dominant and relative superior group position of those identified as "white" (and their allies) over those marked as "non-white". Other types of identities such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class simultaneously support the White Supremacist project while also complicating it.

Thus, White Supremacy is the philosophical and systemic umbrella for white racism.

5. Racism is not necessarily the same thing as White Supremacy. Racism is prejudice plus power. Without group power there can be no "racism". In American society, racism by white people is the primary means through which White Supremacy is enacted and made real.

6. White Supremacy is an evolving political project. While American society's laws and practices along the colorline have certainly changed, the relative superior group position of whites over non-whites in the West remains a relative constant.

This is one of the primary fruits of the White Supremacist project.

7. White Supremacy works on an institutional and inter-personal level. Its ultimate goal is securing more resources, power, opportunities, and privileges--material, psychological, or otherwise--for the in-group over the out-group.

White Supremacy involves, both in the present and historically, the systematic transfer of wealth, income, and other resources from non-whites to whites as a general group, and a White elite, in particular.

8. White Supremacy is a racial ideology that works to maintain class inequality. White supremacy also creates a commonsense notion that black and brown Americans are "naturally" poor and disadvantaged.

The racial logic and commonsense of White Supremacy (and a White Racist society) is sustained by not asking about first principles.

For example, what public policy decisions led to white Americans having at least 20 times the wealth of black Americans? Why are urban black and brown communities economically disadvantaged and white communities, i.e. the suburbs, have been materially advantaged by comparison?

White Supremacy as enacted through public policy made those outcomes. White Supremacy creates historical amnesia and myopia in order to prevent those first order questions from being asked or answered in (white) mainstream American public discourse.

9. Colorblind racism is the most recent iteration in a White Supremacist order where it is possible to have "racism without racists", and a black American President, while social and institutional systems still privilege whites over African-Americans and other people of color.

White racial innocence, and a sincere belief by many white folks that they do not hold racist attitudes, or benefit personally or collectively from systemic white racism, is an example of how White Supremacy has evolved to make itself relatively invisible (to willfully ignorant white people) as a dominant social force in American life.

Consequently, one of the deep tensions and challenges surrounding racial discourse in post civil rights America is how to locate a given white person's relationship to a broader system of institutional racism.

10. Austerity, neoliberalism, globalization, and the Culture of Cruelty are some of the most powerful social forces in post civil rights America. White Supremacy does not exist separate or apart from those ideologies and practices.

Chait's effort to make excuses for the racism of contemporary conservatism is mesmerizing. The mental gymnastics are great: Chait is offering up a car accident and demolition derby of intellectual work as he tries to make sense of race in the Age of Obama.

Ultimately, Jonathan Chait is providing a teachable moment about the nature of White Supremacy in a colorblind era, one that may be quite contrary to the one he had originally intended.