Many people today associate “white supremacy” with images of Nazis painting swastikas, the KKK burning crosses, or khaki-wearing white nationalists carrying tiki torches chanting “we will not be replaced” at Unite the Right rallies. Although these people are fighting for white supremacy and oft-referred to as “white supremacists,” they are just one of many symptoms of white supremacy.
Other symptoms of white supremacy can include:
- Centuries of systemic racism, without reparations, that have caused a racial wealth gap today, where the average white household possesses 16 times the wealth of the average black household.
- A housing market created by a century of legal and illegal housing discrimination against people of color that continues to produce an estimated four million cases of discrimination every year in an effort to prevent many people of color from moving into white-majority communities and accessing better public resources, such as quality schools.
- A school system that is three times more likely to suspend black students than white students for the same infractions while teaching a Eurocentric national school curriculum that white washes important parts of U.S. history such as what caused the Civil War, the brutally of slavery, and how this brutality and oppression against blacks continued after the Civil War.
- A 2007 U.S. Department of Justice report on racial profiling in our criminal justice system that found blacks and Latinos were three times more likely to be stopped by police as white people and that black people were twice as likely to be arrested and four times more likely to experience the threat or use of force during interactions with the police.
- Politicians and pundits that scapegoat and demonize people of color for white votes, such as President Trump intentionally creating fear from a caravan of asylum-seekers of color to win votes in the 2018 mid-term election.
- Subconscious internalized biases in white employers that cause white-sounding names on resumes to receive calls for interviews 50 percent more than black-sounding names with the same resumes.
White supremacy is not just the belief that white people are racially superior to people of color, it is the label given to systems—from institutions, to culture, to subconscious internalizations—that ensure white people are treated superior. This happens regardless of whether white people are aware of it or choose it. It does not matter whether whites are “good people.” These systems work in ways that privilege white people—often without their knowledge—politically, socially, and economically while oppressing people of color.
Barriers to Understanding White Supremacy
One of the reasons most white people never fully understand white supremacy is that it’s not often taught in our schools or even talked about in white communities. The less white people know about white supremacy the more powerful it becomes. Hiding the true realities of white supremacy is a perpetual self-preservation tactic of societies founded on white supremacy.
Quote 1: Charles Mills described this invisibility in The Racial Contract:
“White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. …
But though [white supremacy] covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years. And this omission is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination. Ironically, the most important political system of recent global history-the system of domination by which white people have historically ruled over and, in certain important ways, continue to rule over nonwhite people-is not seen as a political system at all. It is just taken for granted; it is the background against which other systems, which we are to see as political are highlighted. …Whiteness is not really a color at all, but a set of power relations.”
Quote 2: Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, adds:
“While white supremacy has shaped Western political thought for hundreds of years, it is rarely named. In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied. In fact, much of its power is drawn from its invisibility—the taken-for-granted aspects of white superiority that underwrite all other political and social contracts. White resistance to the term white supremacy prevents us from examining this system. If we can’t identify it, we can’t interrupt it.”
Another barrier for white people understanding white supremacy is the difficulty white people have understanding any racism that’s not explicitly obvious. Scott Woods wrote the following about this dilemma:
Quote 3: “The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes Black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.
Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another, and so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe.
It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”
Defining White Supremacy
When looking up white supremacy in modern dictionaries, it’s hard to find a definition that goes beyond a personal belief held by an individual white supremacist. It’s unfortunate that dictionary definitions of white supremacy fall significantly short of capturing the all-encompassing nature and pervasiveness of this ideology. Many of the leading anti-racist activists, teachers, and authors are trying to fill in this void by attempting to capture a comprehensive definition for white supremacy.
If you Google the words “CEO, Congressman, or billionaire,” you will likely see a page full of white faces looking back at you. That’s not a coincidence. Many people have focused on defining white supremacy based on its economic, political, and cultural domination in our society. Below are several attempts to define all the different aspects of white supremacy.
Quote 4: Frances Lee Ansley, Stirring the Ashes: Race, Class and the Future of Civil Rights Scholarship
“By ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”
Quote 5: Robin DiAngelo, No, I Won’t Stop Saying “White Supremacy”
“Many people, especially older white people, associate the term white supremacy with extreme and explicit hate groups. However, for sociologists, white supremacy is a highly descriptive term for the culture we live in; a culture which positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal.
White supremacy captures the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white, and the practices based upon that assumption. White supremacy is not simply the idea that whites are superior to people of color (although it certainly is that), but a deeper premise that supports this idea—the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as an inherent deviation from that norm.
Thus, when race scholars use the term white supremacy, we do not use it the same way as mainstream culture does. Nor, do we use it to indicate majority-versus-minority relations. Power is not dependent on numbers but on position. We use the term to refer to a socio-political economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefit those defined and perceived as white. This system rests on the historical and current accumulation of structural power that privileges, centralizes, and elevates white people as a group. If, for example, we look at the racial breakdown of the people who control our institutions, we see that in 2016-2017:
Congress: 90 percent white
Governors: 96 percent white
Top military advisers: 100 percent white
President and vice president: 100 percent white
Current POTUS cabinet: 91 percent white
People who decide which TV shows we see: 93 percent white
People who decide which books we read: 90 percent white
People who decide which news is covered: 85 percent white
People who decide which music is produced: 95 percent white
Teachers: 83 percent white
Full-time college professors: 84 percent white
Owners of men’s pro-football teams: 97 percent white
These numbers are not a matter of “good people” versus “bad people.” They are a matter of power, control, and dominance by a racial group with a particular self-image, worldview, and set of interests in the position to disseminate that image and worldview and protect those interests across the entire society.”
Quote 6: Ta-Nehisi Coates, The First White President
“It is often said that (President) Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican ‘rapists,’ only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself. …
To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a ‘piece of ass.’ The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (‘When you’re a star, they let you do it’), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.”
Check back next week for The Difference Between White Supremacy and White Supremacists (Part II), with quotes on the historical legacy of white supremacy.
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