For too long, we've discussed American history in grossly irresponsible terms. We hear about America's "race problem" and the need for better "race relations." What we have been slow to grasp is that these terms are euphemisms for White supremacy. In recent decades historians have become increasingly precise, but there remains much work to do within the profession, and it will be a herculean task to get a more accurate and moral presentation to the public at large. To speak of America's "race problem"--as a recent popular documentary on the history channel did--is a little bit like defining World War Two as a "violence problem." A language of the Second World War without Nazis and concentration camps does not equip us to make sense of our past or present.
Such vagueness applied to World War Two is so obviously inadequate that it is absurd on its face. Yet we have indulged similar levels of absurdity in our perception of the American past, and thus, our present. As I look back over my archives, I know I have indulged this absurdity. We have avoided and found ways to talk around the elemental fact of White supremacy in this country. We continue to do so. When we speak of a "race problem," White supremacy is not necessarily implied. Indeed, because of the peculiar dynamics of racial identity and perception in this country, the culpability can flow in precisely the opposite direction. Because many White Americans have little awareness of their own racial identity, and thus of their own particularity, to speak of race is to automatically call Blackness to mind. African Americans are "raced" in a way that Whites simply are not (I argue this subtly distorts academic histories too). As a result, America's "problem with race" is little more than the colorblind racial order's more polite framing of the prior order's "Negro problem." It diverts attention from the core problem and places it on the population that has borne the brunt of that problem. I don't see how we can talk around White supremacy without falling into an ugly tradition of scapegoating and distortion.
To talk through White supremacy, to name it, to watch it grow and change, to study its defenders and opponents, is to value understanding more than fables. It is not about assigning blame. If you're simply an empiricist, it is about being accurate and precise. If you're a Christian, as I am, it is an integral part of following Jesus. How can I die to myself without calling into question the greatest idol this country has ever produced? If I cannot surrender my investment in Whiteness, I am like the rich young ruler who left in despair when he heard the demands Jesus placed on him.
Our ability to discuss White supremacy cuts to the very heart of whether we are willing to know ourselves and our heritage. Yet the contemporary racial order of colorblindness has clouded our minds and made honest conversations in many circles extremely difficult. Colorblindness posits that a vast distance separates our racial past from our racial present. It takes in the centuries-long White supremacist project and seems to see only a sustained run of coincidences. This myopia is sustained, in part, by vague language that elides how power and oppression have operated in American history. We must think more about how our everyday language can unintentionally support colorblindness rather than challenging it.
My intent here is not to document the reality of White supremacy. That is an important discussion, but skeptics have to genuinely want to learn before that conversation can be useful. Rather, I simply want to emphasize that our racial language shapes our racial reality, and we need to be more attentive to it. Moreover, if more of us named White supremacy as a matter of course, perhaps fewer of us would be mired in myth and ignorance. Consistently naming White supremacy instead of talking in general terms about racial problems will be an important part of overthrowing our sinful contemporary racial order.