Sunday, January 17, 2016

What is White Supremacy?

White supremacy in the popular imagination
I think it is fair to say that most White Americans scoff at the notion that this is a White supremacist country. And it is easy enough to see why they would do so. After all, we all know what White supremacy is, right? It's that discredited world of white hoods and burning crosses, racial epithets and crude violence. The popular understanding of White supremacy is captured in's definition of the phrase:
the belief, theory, or doctrine that white people are inherently superior to people from all other racial groups, especially black people, and are therefore rightfully the dominant group in any society.
Put another way, the popular understanding of White supremacy is exclusively ideological. According to this perspective, white supremacy is discredited and marginal in American life because there are very few people who subscribe to the ideology that Whites have a racial right to rule. This is true, as far as it goes. The ideology of White supremacy, if expressed in an explicit form, has few supporters. But is ideology the only possible dimension of White supremacy? What about White supremacy as a material condition?

Scholars are increasingly discussing White supremacy as a fact, a condition, a set of systems that structure our lives. Take for example N.D.B. Connolly's recent book, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida. He writes,
As a system--or set of historical relationships--white supremacy was and is far more than the overtly and occasionally racist act. It includes laws and the setting of commercial and institutional priorities. White supremacy also includes the everyday deals that political operators and common people strike in observance of white privilege or, more accurately, white power...

White supremacy required political, cultural, and business transactions, especially as it related to the meaning and value of real estate in twentieth-century America. The culture driving growth politics in segregated US cities and suburbs, for nearly a century, could not have worked through a simple imposition of so-called white people pressing down on colored people. It required repeated buy-in from people across the class and color spectrums, trade-off after trade-off, year upon year. 
White supremacy in the scholarly imagination
In this scholarly usage, notice that White supremacy is not only a system and set of measurable facts on the ground, it is a system in which people of color participate. In popular usage, the idea that people of color could buy in to White supremacy seems a contradiction in terms. But if White supremacy has a concrete existence beyond ideology, the participation of people of all backgrounds is not only unsurprising, it is historically verifiable.

In the United States in 2016, people identified as White have large and disproportionate shares of wealth, opportunity, and political power, and they live in safer and richer neighborhoods with better access to quality schools, jobs, and public services. This is a statement of fact. You can call it something other than White supremacy if you prefer, but our desire to describe this state of affairs in non-racial terms has nothing to do with clarity or accuracy. Whether we refer to the racial ordering of our society as White supremacy or some other more clunky phrase (systemic White advantage? Disproportionate White power?), it is appropriate and productive to describe it with as much clarity and explicitness as we can.

Yet in popular media and public discourse, it is normal to employ deliberately vague terms that allude to facts but do not actually state or describe them. This is how White supremacy gets translated into terms such as "America's race problem," which can mean whatever you want it to mean, and to many people implies that people of color are the problem! There are two primary reasons for this confusion. First, the traditional ideological understanding of White supremacy remains the default popular usage of the term, and scholars and activists have not yet been able to make their more practical use of the term widely understood, nor have we found a suitable replacement for it. But the second and larger reason for the confusion is that most White Americans do not want to discuss racial conditions in clear and concrete terms regardless of the language we employ. This is a pessimistic take, but it implies that White Americans are not offended by the use of term White supremacy as such, but by the underlying reality to which it calls attention. If your group is at the top of an unjust racial hierarchy, why would you want to draw attention to it?

There is a remarkable inversion at work here. Most Americans understand White supremacy only as an ideology, even as it functions concretely and measurably in fact. Meanwhile, many Americans wishfully interpret colorblindness as a functioning fact, even as it operates primarily on an ideological level. The ideology of colorblindness prevents Americans from seeing the fact of White supremacy. The ideology is rendered as fact and the fact is rendered as ideology.

I welcome any insights and ideas for creative ways to resolve these misunderstandings. Clarity in our language will not in itself fix many Americans' underlying resistance to acknowledging racial inequality and discrimination. Still, it is helpful to understand that when you and I hear the phrase White supremacy, we may be imagining two very different things.

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