What new or updated mythology can we assemble to replace the role of white supremacy? What will knit us together as a nation if whiteness has faded beyond critical mass?
Over the past few weeks I’ve stepped back from posting to hash through this question at length. The research has been fascinating and surprising.
One interesting conclusion stands out – white supremacy is not our founding mythology. Though African slavery dates back to our earliest colonial days, it took another century for the concept of “race” to emerge. And notion of whiteness as a unifying identity, more powerful than religious or ethnic identities, didn’t begin to emerge until about the Civil War. It took decades longer (about the 1920’s) for the idea to rise to dominance.
If this true, it suggests that racism and white supremacy are not as irreplaceable as some would assume. Americans have derived meaning and community from other mythologies in the past, which suggests we could adapt new ones.
Here’s how the project looks up to this point.
Dawn of Post-White America: It’s Better and Worse Than You Think
It is easier to destroy a unifying myth than to replace it.
White Supremacy Lives in System 1
White Supremacy is a mythology, a collection of shared narratives, many of a religious or spiritual nature, out of which our mental model of the world is formed. What it gives us, in addition to our innate definitions of “us” and “them,” is an evolutionary burden we call “implicit bias,” unconscious attitudes or stereotypes which distort our reasoning.
Why We Need Shared Myths
We inherently distrust information from people who reject our core mythologies. Absent a shared mythology we cannot even a share an empirical reality. People will not trust a set of alleged facts unless they share a mythological framework defining truth.
Half Devil, Half Child: The World Through White Eyes
We have to understand why we invented whiteness 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.
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 hatred of blacks. White supremacy is a mythology attaching superior value to cultural artifacts defined as “white,” and inferiority, immorality and threat to anything seen as “black.”
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.
How Racial Slavery Developed
Early 17th century colonists had not yet adopted the concept of chattel slavery or race-based slavery. For that matter, they hadn’t imagined into being the concept of race itself.
Once Virginia made official its commitment to Caribbean-style race slavery, the rest of the colonies were forced to face the matter directly. All embraced race-based chattel slavery, at least until the years leading up to the American Revolution.
Race, as a concept, evolved out of economic demands.
Race slavery needed a mythological foundation, a narrative system that would ensure its support among the broader population. Contrary to popular belief, this foundation never quite coalesced. Whiteness, as a unifying mythology, developed much more slowly than blackness.
America Before White Supremacy: Anglo-Saxonism in the North
History always looks like a straight line.
America was not always dominated by a white supremacist ethic, and it need not necessarily be dominated by this mythology into the future. Its evolution demonstrates how power shapes our perception of the world.
From about the time of the English Civil War to the late 18th century, England was developing a national mythology that came to be described as Anglo-Saxonism.
Mythology follows power, and power in 18th century England needed a national identity that would meld the new Protestant states into alliance against their Catholic enemies.
When 18th century English parliamentarians thought about threats to their world, they weren’t thinking about race as much as religion.
White supremacy emerged later in the American experience, and across the British Empire, to meet a set of needs that matured in the 19th century, out of strands that had been present earlier. Likewise, we can adapt a successor mythology out of the best ideological strands developed by our predecessors.
Cavalier Mythology in the Antebellum South
The Anglo-Saxonist mythology that spread in the earliest northern colonies didn’t resonate in the plantation economies that developed later in the South. There, a rival “Cavalier” mythology derived from the losers in England’s Civil War took hold.
Their “Cavalier” mythology rested on an ancient code of martial honor and aristocratic hierarchy. It was suspicious of the Enlightenment, prioritized authority over liberty, and was marked by a romantic ideal of agricultural life over the grubby concerns of mercantile and industrial interests. Slavery fit comfortably inside this aristocratic ethic, but landless whites didn’t. This would cause problems.
Myths follow power. Powerful people in the Antebellum South feared landless whites almost as much as they feared their slaves. They struggled and largely failed to construct a mythology that could successfully bring white people together in a unifying identity.
Crackup: How Antebellum Mythologies North and South Collapsed
Before there was QAnon, the target of our persistent, seemingly innate “Satanic baby-killing sex cabal” archetype were Catholics, especially Jesuits. Ireland in our mid-19th century imagination was what Latin America or the Middle East are for Americans today, a distant, incomprehensible hellhole of violence and instability, pouring forth destitute masses who “don’t share our values.”
[Author] Monk quickly faded away but her book inspired a flood of similar works, a whole industry of gothic porn for prudes, loaded down with anti-Catholic hysteria. That genre pitched a sexualized, blood libel paranoia, identical almost down to the word to the tropes in today’s QAnon, fueling waves of ethnic violence.
Thanks to this hysterical wave of nativism, the Congress elected in 1854 was split among six different political parties. Abraham Lincoln expressed his frustration with this crisis in 1855:
“As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.””
Ironically, this failure in the Northern states to adapt their mythology to accept new Catholic immigrants would bring slavery to the fore as a national issue. A wave of anti-Catholic porn in the North would kick off a chain of events that would eventually doom slavery in the South.
Birth of a Nation: The Rise of White Supremacy
Why White Supremacy Failed
College and the Toxic Myth of Merit
Wokeness Is Missing a ‘Theory of Us’
The Coming Wave of Political Violence
A New American Mythology