What I Mean by White Supremacy

“The bondage of the Negro brought captive from Africa is one of the greatest dramas in history, and the writer who merely sees in that ordeal something to approve or condemn fails to understand the evolution of the human race.” (Carter G. Woodson, The Miseducation of the Negro)

Back at that anti-racism workshop in Hyde Park I wrote about yesterday, as I was drawing the crude stick figure KKK member, the teacher in me sensed where this was going: my image of white supremacy — my pre-conscious, un-thought-out vision of what it meant — needed work.  The presenter debriefed with us, and of course, I was not the only person who had produced something like that Klansman.  Many of us had very simplistic ideas of what white supremacy was.  The next thing the presenters did was show us this chart:

There’s a lot of compressed information here, but the short version is, white power and supremacy exist because a set of six narratives that support it also exist.  These narratives might look like “stereotypes,” but they are not only that.  They are also material structures, histories, stories, images, policies, philosophies, and more.  What I take from the Woodson quote above is that to understand history is not only to know the facts, but much more importantly, how we assess the significance of those facts.  I have always known (at least starting in 3rd grade or so) that slavery happened, and over the coming years, I also learned about the Trail of Tears, Japanese internment, The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Mexican War, the Gadsden and Louisiana Purchases, the annexation of Hawaii and much more.  I also lived through Iran-Contra, both Gulf wars, 9/11 and the construction of Guantanamo Bay.

I was always encouraged to all those events as “dark moments in our history,”  as mainstream historians and journalists so often describe them — as unfortunate detours in the grand march towards freedom I was always told America was.  What I have come to see now, though, is that these are not detours: they are the route itself.  Our country would not exist in any recognizable form if these acts of violent, aggressive seizure (and many more not named) hadn’t happened.

I grew up in an upper-class, nearly all white community, but our school teachers did not hide these facts from us.  What was kept from us, though, was their significance.  Consider Woodson’s words: “the writer who merely sees in that ordeal something to approve or condemn fails to understand the evolution of the human race” (my emphasis).  What I learned about slavery was that it was something that had happened in the past, and that it was morally wrong (“something to… condemn”).  According to Woodson, then, at that point, I failed “to understand the evolution of the human race.”

I think many white Americans’ understanding of slavery is like mine used to be.  We know it happened; we have done relatively little reflection on its significance, legacy, or present-day manifestations.  We are all sure it’s wrong – because it was and is – but we have no knowledge or awareness of the dynamics that drove it.  This is what was so terrible about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln: it was a movie that saw slavery as a random, stupid institution that was wrong, and whose savior, played of course by Daniel Day-Lewis, was clear-headed enough to oppose.  It failed to place it into any kind of meaningful context, or give the audience any sense of the ways the North and the South were deeply dependent on it.  It made it look like ending slavery was just a matter of buying off a few votes of a few venial politicians.

But what I have come to understand about slavery in the United States is that it etched its mark on (1) our national psyche, (2) our economic realities, and (3) our political institutions.

First – our psyche – there is a chicken-and-egg sort of problem here.  Did slavery create the notion of “African Americans a social and intellectual inferiors”, or was it created out of that notion?  I don’t know, but what I do know is, since it began, the material institution of slavery and the intellectual racist discourse of African-American inferiority became co-productive.  The one strengthened the other and vice versa.  And when slavery ended, though a material structure crumbled, the intellectual one persisted.  And so long as that intellectual structure remained, new material manifestations of it could be re-spawned: convict-leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow, redlining, white flight, urban renewal, mass incarceration, and more, on down to the present. Each of these new material structures re-affirmed the intellectual narrative of African-American inferiority, and each time one of them has been destroyed, the underlying narrative has remained.  It’s like a continually twisting double-helix.  This last point is not my own: it’s one Michelle Alexander makes very powerfully in the final chapter of The New Jim Crow called “The Fire This Time”.

So if we just see “slavery” as something that “ended” in 1865, we fail to understand the persistent narrative impact it has had upon America.  If we just see slavery as something to “condemn” we “fail to understand the evolution of the human race.”  We fail to understand the way that its material reality created intellectual ones, which in turn created other material ones, on down to now.

Second, economically, we also fail to understand the economic impact that it had and has.  We know that the day slavery ended, African Americans had very little amassed wealth, whether we mean real estate, other owned property, liquid assets, stocks or bonds.  So long as the anti-black intellectual discourse remained,  each successive material manifestation worked deftly to prevent the accumulation of black wealth, and also (easy to forget) created more and more wealth for white people, a group of people who were already economically ahead because of the enormous amount of capital generated directly by slave labor prior to 1865.  Each successive material manifestation of anti-blackness has meant more extraction of capital from black bodies into white people’s bank accounts.  The surface-level material form changes, but the extraction is constant.  Again, this not my own point – this one I took from this talk by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Third, our political institutions.  Slavery was such an economic boon to both the north and the south that at the time of the founding of our country, there was no way it was going to be abolished, as obvious as the contradiction was between slavery and the ideals the founders allegedly believed in.  The three-fifths compromise, the promise not to end the slave trade for twenty more years, the electoral college, the senate, the fight over westward expansion, compromising one state at a time– all of these things happened because the north was unwilling to surrender the profits its manufacturers could make based on the steady supply of free labor in the form of slavery it had come to expect from the south.  And even when the civil war ended, and the 14th amendment seemed to pave the way towards a new form of equality and social contract, it didn’t take long (DuBois makes this point really well in the chapter of The Souls of Black Folk called “Of the Dawn of Freedom”) for the old ideology to re-establish its grip, and the institutions to revert to form.

We must understand how slavery “evolved,” to return to Woodson’s words, to truly understand our social reality – our country’s thinking, its economic and its political structures.  It’s not enough to say “it’s bad and it was in the past.”  We totally miss its impact if that’s how we see it.

And though what I’m saying here is all in the context of the enslavement of African-Americans, and the discourse of intellectual inferiority that grew up around them and the economic and political implications of that discourse, similar stories can be told about each of the other “wedges” of that pie chart I included above.

  • (material) Native American genocide coupled with the (intellectual) vision of the Native American as a savage
  • (material) anti-Latinx colonial expansion coupled with the (intellectual) perception of Latinx as “tainted mestizos”
  • East Asian labor exploitation and political repression coupled with the vision of East Asians as perpetually foreign
  • South Asian/Middle Eastern Americans indefinitely imprisoned and unfairly searched in airports coupled with the vision of them as “marauding infidels”
  • perhaps most significantly, White people’s exploitative wealth accumulation worked hand in hand with the intellectual vision of White people as intellectually and socially superior.

I talked about slavery at greater length because I know more about it, but the outlines of each of these bullet points should be clear enough that you can see where I’m coming from.

And that is what I mean when I say that life in the United States is characterized by a system of white supremacy: there is a mutually reinforcing network of historically rooted material and intellectual structures that make it so that, all other things equal, it is easier to be white in America – if you are born white in this country, chances are, you will live longer and healthier, hold more wealth, have better access to almost everything than if you are born a person of color.  PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying every white person’s life is easier than every person of color’s life.  I am only saying that, if we keep other factors (like income, or place of residence) equal, white people will have it easier.  Because we have developed a long-term economic, social and intellectual commitment to their superiority.

To bring it back to the idea of the earth and the sun: people who believed in geocentrism knew the facts about Mercury and Venus’s orbits looking different than Mars’ and Jupiter’s, but they didn’t understand the significance of them.  A closer examination of their orbital paths, along with a set of other insights, led some scientists later to realize that the earth goes around the sun.  My argument is that a whole set of historical events, narratives and structures, rather than being anomalous and unusual in the history of the United States, are actually the core experience – that’s something that I think a lot of people of color just realize, because it happened to them and their ancestors, but it’s something a lot of white people, like me, need to come to see.

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4 Responses to What I Mean by White Supremacy

  1. Alice Neve says:

    Thanks for writing these, Josh. Leon and I are both reading them as we have time and appreciate your thoughts. We are leaving for the UK on May 2 for two weeks, so will likely have them along to read again on the plane trip over. Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts and analysis.

  2. Ron Maimon says:

    What you’re saying is true, but secondary. This racial focus is a disease unique to the American left. Because the US is founded on genocide and slavery, and because the US is economically strong, and because race is tied into notions of class in the US, and because unlike Marxism, this stuff is completely unthreatening to talk about in US media, they focus on race divisions. They imagine that in order to make society more harmonious, you need to come to grips better with white supremacy.

    This is an easy path, because the upper classes already rejected white supremacy long ago, in the 1940s, and substituted among themselves the different idea that there is a “talented tenth” among blacks, those deserving of success, and chucked aside the white lower-classes, the untalented nine-tenths among whites, as subhuman proles, completely equal to the untalented nine-tenths among blacks, namely both worthless. You’re obviously one of the untalented, by the way. You’re a teacher who reads Finnegans Wake instead of a wealthy person who hires an egghead to read it for you and summarize it in bullet points.

    Such racial ideas, while historically accurate in describing the origin of the American psychology in history, are not in themselves systemic and permanent. You can get rid of all racial divisions, and things will only improve in that whites and blacks will be harmoniously divided by class instead of race, as people were divided in 19th century England. Accepting and realizing everything you say as true does not point to any sort of economic system solution, rather it just (safely) explains a historical problem unique to the US which powerful people already recognize as wrong.

    Ideally, police will shoot unarmed white teenagers, pull over poor white drivers more, incarcerate whites at the same rate as blacks, the government will ignore white suburban areas into equal disrepair as they do black ones, and white folks will have mercury/lead poisoned water at equal rates. Payday lenders will tax black and white working families with equally punitive rates, banks will deny mortgages to poor whites as readily as they do black ones. Done. Success. Problem solved.

    What do you want people to do? Integrate? They try. Affirmative action? Sure. Acknowledge past crimes? No problem. Transfer wealth from poor white workers to wealthy black ceos and politicians? Sure, no problem. Put Oprah on TV and make her president? Easy peasy. Put black faces on coins and stamps? Done.

    The main issue is left undiscussed, namely the concentration of property into a few hands. In fact, when this problem was addressed in the US, under the new deal, they just divided the US land wealth roughly equally inside equal plots of house-space among white suburban dwellers, and completely excluded black people. This worked for the great mass of white workers, so the blacks just imagined “if we only get in on this partial redistribution of wealth, things will be great”.

    But this is absurd for several reasons. First, the suburbs, because they redistribute land in equal relatively large parcels, are terrible places to live. You need to drive a car to go see your friend (singular), all stores are driving distance, people are isolated from each other in gigantic houses that don’t serve any social purpose, only economic redistribution purpose. The isolation breeds insanity, so you get white suburban school shooters, and white suburban serial murderers. And prozac, and wellbutrin, and LSD, and marijuana to numb your brain to the suburban isolation. And stupidity. Sheer stupidity. The white people in American suburbs are by and large the stupidest people on the planet. These places suck to live in. It’s like murder to put your kids there.

    Integrating the suburbs doesn’t help, because the wealth redistribution was based on housing property values going up, and it stopped entirely in 2008, it’s going the other way now, as property values drop. Now only wealthy people who trade in suburban properties can make money, not those mostly white people who happen to live in them.

    Other countries with capitalism and no race divisions still managed to sustain terrible murderous class division without any racial aspect, for example 19th century Britain. They even invented the Irish race to discriminate against in order to sustain the class separation. The issue of property being unequally distributed, among races, families, classes, accent-groups, and so on, is solved by confiscating it through taxes, as in 1950s Britain. It is only solved by confiscating it through taxes, or by instituting an ownership structure that prevents the concentration of money in the first place. It is not solved by carving out 1000 square meters for every family to live in and own, and amass capital on. The solution to suburban sprawl is to redistribute property without tying it to land, and compress the communities so that people can talk to each other again, and shop at stores within walking distance, stores which families in their community own, instead of driving to a Wal-Mart and giving their money for a billionaire family to tax.

    The issue of racism isn’t solved by that type of redistribution, because individual people with racial ideas will still keep you from advancing even in Cuba or somewhere like the USSR, if you are dark-skinned. That requires separate social remedies of anti-racism propaganda, and so on. But it’s not so hard to do compared with the economic stuff, and it’s not such a big deal to be discriminated against when economic strata don’t really exist, as then your economic strata is not determined by the discriminating policy.

    So while class consciousness and Marxist economics is not the cure for racism, they are the solution for class division.

    The US is founded on the notion that people, individually and in groups, are inherently superior, not necessarily white people, and some need to oppress others in order for society to work, the oppressed ones don’t have to be black. The good people form the “natural aristocracy”, the bad people are the “natural serfs”, and the Jeffersonian idea is to let the oppression develop in freedom, so that those who amass more will oppress more. This is the idea the US is founded on, and the racism is not essential for it to continue. You could have a rainbow coalition of rich people of all hues own all the stocks and bonds and land, and tell all the rest of the rainbow coalition of serfs what to do, as in ancient Egypt, where race as a concept basically didn’t exist, or divided people completely differently, along tribal lines.

    The American ruling classes rejected racism long ago, so they allow anti-racism propaganda, but forbid you from discussing Marx. You need to discuss what is taboo, discuss Marx, not the untaboo stuff that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King have become.

  3. Josh says:

    Hi Ron! I appreciate your comments and your willingness to thoughtfully disagree with me. I do want to argue this out, but before I do that I just want to emphasize that dialogue like this works really well as long as we can both remain respectful. I’m going to try to hash this out by just responding to what you’ve said paragraph by paragraph. That’s not always the best procedure but I think it will help here.

    “What you’re saying is true, but secondary. This racial focus is a disease unique to the American left. Because the US is founded on genocide and slavery, and because the US is economically strong, and because race is tied into notions of class in the US, and because unlike Marxism, this stuff is completely unthreatening to talk about in US media, they focus on race divisions. They imagine that in order to make society more harmonious, you need to come to grips better with white supremacy.” –

    The claims in this paragraph are just too broad to be able to address. All these “they’s” are really hard to place, and well, overly general. Some aspects of the US media talk about race, some don’t. “The American left” is not one thing. And as far as its being nonthreatening to talk about race–maybe for some people, not for others. You’re speaking about hundreds of media outlets and millions of people in broad strokes. I realize my initial post does that in some ways, but not like this. I went out of my way to talk about myself because it’s really hard to have conversations about race when we start talking about things beyond that.

    “The upper classes already rejected white supremacy long ago, in the 1940s, and substituted among themselves the different idea that there is a “talented tenth” among blacks, those deserving of success, and chucked aside the white lower-classes, the untalented nine-tenths among whites, as subhuman proles, completely equal to the untalented nine-tenths among blacks, namely both worthless.” That “different idea” is just an evolution of white supremacy, not its rejection. It’s the shift to a kind of color-blind white supremacy, one that accepted its inequalities as baked in and then went to work to suppress any discussion of race to preserve that status quo. That is not giving up on white supremacy, it is simply acknowledging its initial success and recasting its language to make it impervious to criticism. That great tape of Lee Atwater explaining this (it’s on _13th_) – “you start out saying the n-word, then you move on to…”

    “You’re obviously one of the untalented, by the way. You’re a teacher who reads Finnegans Wake instead of a wealthy person who hires an egghead to read it for you and summarize it in bullet points.” – A weird joke I guess? I get that you’re not really insulting me, not quite sure where you’re going with the analogy though.

    “Such racial ideas, while historically accurate in describing the origin of the American psychology in history, are not in themselves systemic and permanent. You can get rid of all racial divisions, and things will only improve in that whites and blacks will be harmoniously divided by class instead of race, as people were divided in 19th century England. Accepting and realizing everything you say as true does not point to any sort of economic system solution, rather it just (safely) explains a historical problem unique to the US which powerful people already recognize as wrong.” I don’t accept the premise that if we eradicated racism, classism would just rise up and replace it. I can see why there would still be issues related to capitalism to address: racism is just one structure that helps perpetuate capital structures, absolutely. So is gender, so is class, and yeah, those all need to be contested too. I do not think the focus on race is a terrible starting point. I also do not agree that “powerful people already recognize as wrong” is even close to true. Could you provide some evidence that any elected official outside of some extremely safe majority-black districts in the house are even willing to say anything out loud about whiteness or white supremacy, beyond the obvious acts of condemning Nazis the like? I think they believe that a certain kind of racism is wrong, but not the kind I was describing in my initial post.

    “Ideally, police will shoot unarmed white teenagers, pull over poor white drivers more, incarcerate whites at the same rate as blacks, the government will ignore white suburban areas into equal disrepair as they do black ones, and white folks will have mercury/lead poisoned water at equal rates. Payday lenders will tax black and white working families with equally punitive rates, banks will deny mortgages to poor whites as readily as they do black ones. Done. Success. Problem solved.

    What do you want people to do? Integrate? They try. Affirmative action? Sure. Acknowledge past crimes? No problem. Transfer wealth from poor white workers to wealthy black ceos and politicians? Sure, no problem. Put Oprah on TV and make her president? Easy peasy. Put black faces on coins and stamps? Done.”

    This is all straw-person argumentation. I want none of those things. The goal is not to get police to shoot white people at the same rate as black people, it’s to recognize the police’s (and the other systems you’ve named) historic roots in white supremacy, and deconstruct the institution because of that. The goal is not to make them color-blind, it’s to see the way race is built into their DNA and do what you can to build new structures after that.

    “The main issue is left undiscussed, namely the concentration of property into a few hands. In fact, when this problem was addressed in the US, under the new deal, they just divided the US land wealth roughly equally inside equal plots of house-space among white suburban dwellers, and completely excluded black people. This worked for the great mass of white workers, so the blacks just imagined ‘if we only get in on this partial redistribution of wealth, things will be great.'”

    Consolidation of wealth often works through racist discourse. Contesting the system’s racism does work to break down that same economic structure you are interested in. This is not an either-or. I do not believe that I, or any of the authors I have cited, believe anything like “if we only get in on this partial redistribution of wealth, things will be great.” Certainly not Coates, who pretty thoroughly deconstructs that notion in his essay on Obama called “My President Was Black.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/01/my-president-was-black/508793/) I think someone like Barack Obama agrees with that notion, but I’m not sure I agree with him about it. I think there’s a little bit more to it than you’re saying, but I also generally agree with you.

    “Integrating the suburbs doesn’t help, because the wealth redistribution was based on housing property values going up, and it stopped entirely in 2008, it’s going the other way now, as property values drop. Now only wealthy people who trade in suburban properties can make money, not those mostly white people who happen to live in them.”

    I’m having trouble following this paragraph. I think it’s a little too steeped in “the–collapse-is-inevitable”-type Marxism. Property values rise and fall in different periods, nothing epochal happened in 2008 as far as I can tell. I just don’t understand the very last sentence of this paragraph.

    “Other countries with capitalism and no race divisions still managed to sustain terrible murderous class division without any racial aspect, for example 19th century Britain. They even invented the Irish race to discriminate against in order to sustain the class separation.”

    I agree that race is socially constructed and so as long as capitalism exists, and there is an incentive for the kind of racial divisions that benefit it can be constructed, they will be – which is exactly why “the Irish” were racialized. In strikingly similar ways to how black people in the US have been. Similar imagery about hair, noses, Simian characteristics, etc. There is nothing more or less absurd about anti-Irish racism than anti-Black racism. It’s just as those conditioned within the American racial hierarchy, the anti-Irish thing looks crazy. It IS crazy, but so is anti-black racism. We’ve just become so conditioned by its categories that it somehow looks more explicable. Somewhere in the world someone else is saying “The Americans think people with dark skin are BLACK!” It’s just hard to get your head around because it’s so commonplace here.

    “It is only solved by confiscating it through taxes, or by instituting an ownership structure that prevents the concentration of money in the first place. The solution to suburban sprawl is to redistribute property without tying it to land, and compress the communities so that people can talk to each other again, and shop at stores within walking distance, stores which families in their community own, instead of driving to a Wal-Mart and giving their money for a billionaire family to tax.”

    I think I generally agree with all of this. I think deconstructing American racism is a pretty necessary step to achieve this end, because racial division siphons off enough white votes to keep the plutocracy in power, and breaking it down would help reverse that.

    “So while class consciousness and Marxist economics is not the cure for racism, they are the solution for class division.” You’re probably right. But racism foments class division and vice versa. We need to deconstruct both, not just one. They are intertwined in very confusing ways. I get that capitalism is probably historically primary (though that’s a claim that’s really big and hard to assess or prove). But even if it’s historically primary it’s not necessarily phenomenologically primary in most Americans’ experiences. Race is. Again, I recognize that’s a huge claim that’s hard to assess also. I’ll just say both of these categories — race and class – deserve critical focus.
    “This is the idea the US is founded on, and the racism is not essential for it to continue. You could have a rainbow coalition of rich people of all hues own all the stocks and bonds and land, and tell all the rest of the rainbow coalition of serfs what to do, as in ancient Egypt, where race as a concept basically didn’t exist, or divided people completely differently, along tribal lines.”

    I totally agree that other forms of division could arise, which is why it’s important to be intersectional in our interrogation of race. What you’re saying is very hypothetical – if we got rid of racism something else might arise. It might, unless we draw the right conclusions from the collapse of the racial status quo when/if it comes. Which is again why we need to deconstruct both at the same time to the extent that we can.

    “The American ruling classes rejected racism long ago, so they allow anti-racism propaganda, but forbid you from discussing Marx. You need to discuss what is taboo, discuss Marx, not the untaboo stuff that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King have become.”

    My overall response to your comment is that this is a false choice – we can discuss Marx, MLK and Malcolm X. We need to. Race was absolutely an invention of capitalism, which means if we just got rid of race without paying any attention to why it arose we’d be back where we started and re-divided in other ways. But the mode of ending racism I am envisioning is different from the kind of colorblindness you seem to think I’m committed to. When you say “the American ruling classes rejected racism long ago,” they rejected a very over-simplified form of a certain kind of de-jure racism (though arguably it’s pretty clearly present in that form too in the Trump administration). They did not reject SYSTEMIC racism. They ARE still afraid to acknowledge it exists. Look what happened to Obama anytime he came CLOSE to talking about it. And he went pretty gently.

    tl;dr – we need to deconstruct capitalism and racism at the same time and pay attention to their interactions, not force ourselves to choose between one or the other.

    • Ron Maimon says:

      The point of the comment about the 2008 crash wasn’t a “capitalism inevitably crashes” Marxist diatribe. It was the observation that property values in the US did not just fluctuate up and down, they steadily went up in the suburbs from the 50s until 2008. In the 1940s and 1950s, the US system of wealth re-distribution was created, by the creation of suburban housing, which was socially guaranteed to always rise in value.

      This is how you would accrue wealth— you would by a house in the suburbs. In 20 years, you would own it, through government subsidized mortgages, at really low rates. Then you could use the capital of your house to get loans, do anything else any property owner can do, like start a small business. This process led to houses constructed on relatively small plots of land to go from a few thousand dollars to half-a-million over 50 years. The local businesses were family owned, and supplied the folks in the area with services.

      This type of property appreciation subsidized by government loans is a hidden method of wealth redistribution to the suburbs, which were race-restricted until the 80s, and still are predominantly white. This is not my point, it is Ta Nahisi Coates’s. The point of the mortgage subsidies, GI bill, and so on, is to place hard property assets in the hands of suburban dwellers. In order to work as Keynesian redistribution, it requires indefinitely rising house prices, and housing prices are what crashed in 2008, leading to the current situation. So since then, there is no working method of capital distribution to the suburbs anymore, so that the economic problems that were confined to cities (where there was no redistribution at all) are now affecting the whole US.

      The Marxist prediction of capitalism declining comes from the observation that you can’t have a classical economic equilibrium and a few people making all the profits. Under that circumstance, there are no consumers, and you end up in a permanent depression. The way England and the US got out of it was to generate work in house and road construction, this is Keynesian stimulus, and then to allow white families to move into suburbs, where their crappy houses, built for a few thousand dollars out of the flimsiest materials builders can get, would be guaranteed to appreciate to 3 to 4 times their value over a few decades.

      This mechanism of wealth distribution doesn’t work anymore, because housing prices can’t go up forever relative to the price of bread, otherwise people can’t buy houses anymore! You need different systemic ways to address the issue.

      Also, this mechanism of redistribution of wealth was geared to the suburbs. This makes American suburbs simultaneously terrible to live in and extremely wealthy. It’s almost unique.

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