“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.