An old warning from James Baldwin looms over us in this tumultuous time.
What white people have to do is try to find out, in their own hearts, why it was necessary to have a “nigger” in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him…then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.
We’ve burned through fifty years since that warning and our time has run out. Why did we need blackness and whiteness? What function did white supremacy perform for us? We need to understand this because the unthinkable is happening. White supremacy is failing.
Why do we have this need that Baldwin described? Race began as a way to mark out and cordon off those doomed to slavery. By pairing slavery with an immutable, visible distinction, it became possible to dehumanize an entire category of one’s neighbors while thwarting the natural human tendency to see oneself in another. Cultivating a mythology of race helped slaveholders set dark-skinned people aside from society, easing concerns over the threat slavery might pose to the wider society (if they can enslave him, will they enslave me?) while creating a terrifying example for anyone who might challenge the slaveholders’ power. In time, this mythology of race would be useful for wider purposes, evolving into a mythology of white supremacy that would not just isolate dark-skinned Americans, but deliver a unifying sense of shared superiority for almost everyone else in our society.
Now, whiteness and blackness are losing their meaning, losing their power to create circles of trust and distrust, brotherhood and otherhood, their power to define our shared reality. We have to understand why we invented whiteness and white supremacy in the first place, and quickly, if we’re going to replace it with something better. That begins with understanding what white supremacy is, and what it isn’t.
The most generally accepted definition of white supremacy was probably best summarized by Professor Frances Ansley back in 1989. She defined white supremacy as:
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.
It might be helpful to go a bit further than Ainsley by distinguishing white supremacy from white nationalism. White supremacy is a mythology that defines us and them, attaching superior value to cultural artifacts defined as “white,” and inferiority, immorality and threat to anything seen as “black.” White supremacy isn’t a policy preference, a statement of fact, or a personal preference. It isn’t a set of beliefs, though a belief system often grows out of it. White supremacy has no rational basis, no dependence on facts or evidence. White supremacy isn’t bigotry. It isn’t meanness or hatred of blacks.
I would argue that the white supremacy I describe here undergirds a white nationalism, which is the wider social system I think Dr. Ansley is describing. White supremacy, as a mythology, defines the “us” on which sacrifice, collaboration and trust can be built. In short, whiteness is a trusted us. Everything else is them. And no one is more resolutely “other” than those that whites define as “black.”
White nationalism, a political and legal system breathed into existence by white supremacy, installs into the minutest details of our public lives the values of white supremacy. White nationalism creates structures in law, culture, business religion and every aspect of life which can continue to exploit non-whites long after white supremacy has been forgotten. White supremacy and white nationalism reinforce each other. Remove white supremacy entirely, and white nationalism can carry on more or less untended for quite some time unless deliberately dismantled.
As a mythology, white supremacy is programmed into our System 1 processes, defining Americans’ shorthand understanding of reality. One need not have ever met a black person or possess a single personal opinion about them to absorb the mythology of white supremacy. In fact, it’s difficult even for Black Americans to escape the programming of white supremacy, with its degrading tendency to devalue every aspect of their being from the cultural output to their very bodies.
At the core of this mythology is an unconscious aesthetic. Like our innate emotional response to certain colors or sounds, or our reaction to facial gestures, white supremacy embeds cultural cues, categorizing inputs, concepts or values we see as “white” as inherently good. Anything perceived as “black” is inherently menacing, corrupt, criminal or dangerous.
Whatever hasn’t been categorized into this dualism, like cultural products of immigrants not yet “assimilated” into whiteness, is treated with suspicion, placed under pressure to prove its non-blackness. Malcolm X described this dynamic in a cynical joke to his biographer Alex Haley. Sitting in an airport, watching a family of immigrants arrive in the Land of Liberty, he remarked, “They are about to learn their first word of English: nigger.” To survive in the US, immigrants must prove their whiteness. The first step is proving they know where blackness belongs.
What is white or black? The definition of “white” has been a pliable cultural construct, different across historical periods or subcultures. It took generations for Americans to evolve a coherent idea of what whiteness meant. Blackness, on the other hand, is a stake driven into the ground by slavery. Dark skin, curly hair and an African heritage are markers of oblivion in America.
If you’ve ever tried to discuss white supremacy with white people you’ve heard “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” and “I have lots of black friends.” Those responses are often sincere and completely misleading. On a rational, conscious, System 2 level I may harbor no particular animosity toward Black people and still respond with fear when a black man gets on the elevator with me. That emotional trigger, a bug in my threat perception, can be manipulated to influence my political choices. Those choices can have terrible implications for people I might never meet. This mythology grew from decades of cultural conditioning.
Our attachment to mental shortcuts can have material consequences. What gut-level, involuntary, emotional response does a black teenager in a hoodie inspire? When a black man kneels during the national anthem at a football game, how does that feel? Is rap music a uniquely American art form of remarkable complexity and inspiration, or is it a trashy expression of criminal “ghetto” values? Our first and most honest answer to these questions emerges from a place deep inside, beyond the ready reach of rational thought.
No one invented whiteness. No one invented race. These concepts evolved out of a need. Mythologies follow power. These mythological constructs of white and black perpetuated due to the prosperity and power they granted those who embraced these mythologies. Conditions changed. An environment emerged in which this mythology of white supremacy was more a burden than a benefit, yet it remained so deeply embedded in our idea of ourselves that we couldn’t easily shake it loose. We’ve reached an evolutionary bottleneck, where rapid environmental change has rendered an earlier adaptation a liability, leaving us with little time to accomplish a very difficult change.
It’s never been easy to pin down a specific meaning for a concept so deeply embedded in our collective subconscious, but many have tried. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens laid out the logic of white supremacy in perhaps its most earliest form in a speech given in 1861 introducing the Confederate Constitution. Though the language around the subject would soften in the century that followed, his formula for white supremacy’s role and meaning remains largely unchanged.
For Stephens, white supremacy was the greatest expression of America’s curious approach to equality.
All, under our system, stand upon the same broad principles of perfect equality…Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.
Recognizing the supreme position of the white race, a supremacy which all white people would share, rids America of the noxious European heritage of class and replaces early, more exclusionary American mythologies. This was a very attractive concept which we’ve yet to shed. Establishing a new, broader “us” of white racial solidarity raises Americans above “serfdom.” America’s interpretation of freedom depends on white supremacy.
Stephens lays out a white nationalist political and economic program consistent with this nascent white supremacy, in which all state interference in the economy is stripped away. Stephens’ white nationalism foreshadows later Libertarian thought, in which all state power, apart from a police power, is a threat to liberty. Under white nationalism, any power greater than the power of high-caste whites is a threat to white supremacy, which is a threat to a white nationalist definition of liberty. Stephens complains at length in his Cornerstone Speech about wasteful taxation poured into infrastructure and educational improvements, embracing instead the new prohibition against such state-mandated takings from high-caste whites:
If Charleston harbor needs improvement, let the commerce of Charleston bear the burden. If the mouth of the Savannah river has to be cleared out, let the sea-going navigation which is benefited by it, bear the burden.
And finally, he condemns the Northern states for their cardinal sin, “They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”
Yes, the Confederates lost the war, but only briefly. Stephens was elected to the Senate from Georgia in 1866, though barred from taking his seat under Reconstruction rules. Those prohibitions quickly ended. Stephens, interpreter of white supremacy, traitor to the union and former Confederate VP, went back to Congress in 1873 and remained in elected office for the rest of his life. The loss of slavery was a gateway to the rise of white supremacy and white nationalism.
Most whites preferred to overlook the brute violence of Jim Crow, drawn instead to a Victorian imperial mythology of whiteness as a civilizing mission. Most of the elements of white supremacy that continue with us today have a 19th Century origin in England. British writer and imperial adventurer Rudyard Kipling captured the new, more dignified and genteel formula of white supremacy in his 1899 poem, White Man’s Burden. It’s opening stanza frames the myth of white supremacy for the 20th century:
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Abolition placed a halo on white supremacy. Non-whites were to be pitied and feared, but never granted agency over their own lives. They are half devil and half child, inept at best, with a lingering air of menace. At the peak of the European scramble to gobble up the world’s remaining resources, Kipling painted this sprint to extraction as a sacrificial duty of the master race, a fully Christianized white supremacy, complete with a salvific vision and a demonic enemy – the dark “sullen” captives. Imperial oppression shrouded under the patronizing pretense of a duty to “serve your captives’ need.”
Consider that passage from Kipling as you look at the Emancipation Memorial in DC. Lincoln stands, clothed and dignified, hand outstretched over a kneeling, naked black man, shackles still on his wrists. A white man, from a position of dominance, deigns in his infinite wisdom and mercy, to grant a measure of relief to the miserable savage. It’s an idealized image of the White Man’s Burden, a statue that might have made Lincoln himself cringe.
This paternalistic formula for racial domination was the duty of the white man, not the woman. You can’t have a racial order without building stout walls around a woman’s reproductive life. A white woman’s status was only marginally higher than the other half-demon half-children in the white supremacist universe. Victorian obsessions with women’s sexual purity were essential to maintaining a racial mythology.
A poem titled The Angel in the House, published in England 1854, caught fire in the post-Civil War US, as Reconstruction bled into the violent birth of white supremacy. It came to define the role of women in this order, which was to bear white babies, as many as possible, while offering silent and longsuffering support to her white husband. Woman’s virtue was her joy in bearing children and pleasing a man who might, on occasion, barely note her existence. A notable stanza explains how a good woman waits patiently for her master to temper his anger at her.
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers;
Virginia Woolf wrote about the poem in 1931, explaining that “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” That white nationalist obsession with women as the reproductive weak link in a racial order never faded even as women’s power rose. A Venn diagram of modern Americans obsessed with destroying abortion rights and those backing Trump’s white nationalist vision is very nearly a single circle. White nationalism begins and ends with the careful policing of reproduction. You can’t have a white race without controlling the sex lives of white women.
It would be a mistake to imagine that white supremacy was an artifact of a backward South or the preserve of ignorant bigots. The relative violence of white supremacy in the South was a function of the size of the black population there. It takes more force to subdue a lot of people than it takes to oppress a few. As Black migrations expanded their presence in Northern cities, more forceful efforts at repression followed.
Official protection of white supremacy was Federal government policy until a few decades ago, continuing to linger in corners today. Mississippi’s Supreme Court in 1925 asserted that Constitutional protections could be ignored to meet the “broad dominant purpose of preserving the purity and integrity of the white race.” The US Supreme Court, in a decision written by former President Taft, agreed with them. And this formula of white supremacy remains deeply embedded even in the minds of otherwise well-meaning Americans.
How does a struggling Kentucky coal miner see Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump as an ally who uniquely understands their needs? Both figures position themselves beneath the umbrella of white supremacy, sharing their voters’ commitments to the symbols and expressions of that mythology. Republican strategist Lee Atwater, in a moment of drunken candor in 1981, described how he used this mythological framework to move voters even after naked expressions of racism were rejected.
You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.
Open references to white supremacy may have become socially unacceptable, but our deeply embedded System 1 mythology of white supremacy can still be leveraged for manipulation. Kelly Loeffler used Atwater’s model to reference the white supremacist fear of Black manhood in her Georgia Senate campaign. Her final campaign ad replaced Atwater “n.., n…” with “socialism,” explaining that “If you vote, we will win. If you don’t, we will lose America.” Who is the “we” in that sentence? They know who “we” are and what this narrative means.
Loeffler lost. A mythology that evolved to define us and them in black and white terms continues to identify blackness as a threat, and still animates a large minority of the voting population. But it isn’t what it used to be. Digging deeper into our history to discover how this myth emerged may offer lessons that could help us build a better, more just unifying order.