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What Is White Supremacy? Part 1 of 2


This is the first article in a two-part series. Read part two here.

I have never met a white person who freely admitted to being a white supremacist, and rarely will a white person identify someone who is a white supremacist (except maybe Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck).

I suggest that this fact alone reveals quite a bit about the nature of white supremacy, and that the reality is that all people in our society are white supremacists because the society itself is white supremacist. Of course, white people are (naturally) more entangled in it, but this does not mean that non-white people are in any way exempt from the problem. In this post, I will explain why I think white supremacy is an enduring problem, indicating what white supremacy is not, and in the next post I will describe what I think white supremacy is.

When I was growing up, the concept that was almost always central to discussions of racism was “prejudice.” It makes sense. But what I see now that I was unable to see as a kid is that the invocation of prejudice was a construction of a narrative. It fit in with the yearly ritual of listening to Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 28 “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he speaks of a day when his children will be judged by their characters rather than the color of their skin. For now, we can ignore the fact that King was a hated man to the day of his assassination; instead, let me identify a way that (white) America has coopted King in order to preserve the white supremacist status quo.

One of the key catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement was the brutal murder of the fourteen year old Emmett Till, a black boy visiting family in Mississippi from Chicago, guilty of flirting with a white woman. He was murdered on August 28, 1955, exactly eight years before the March on Washington. What is significant is the shift made possible by isolating this individual speech of King’s. A black child is murdered because he has the wrong skin, and eight years later people cling to a sound bite about judgment. It creates a before and after effect: “Before America was physically dangerous for black people, but after King the only real issue is individual prejudicial attitudes. We have overcome!”

Please note that the “we” in the above is a white “we,” not black. White America appropriated the man they assassinated into their own narrative of overcoming one of their problems, and the notion of white supremacy was pushed to the margins, visible only in the ignorant, uneducated, poor white people that join hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. In other words, white supremacy moved from being a problem of American society as a whole to being an attitude problem of an uneducated minority of white people. With the victory of formal legal equality, white supremacy became a thing of the pre-King past, surviving only in those deranged few who live in the back woods of…wherever.

This will be grossly misunderstood if I am taken to be criticizing King. I am not. What I am identifying is a pernicious shift—white supremacy’s self-defensive pivot—which allowed it to covertly survive by hiding behind a (coopted and revised) legacy of King. In the white supremacist telling of the story, King was a great American fighting against the bigotry of a powerful few, who rallied around himself the sympathetic but silent majority of white Americans who believed in a better America, and together with black Americans they transformed American society.

What this story cannot bear to remember are the words of Malcolm X: “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are victims of Americanism.” This story cannot entertain the notion that when it comes to American society, white supremacy is not one of the accidents, but is part of the essence. But by identifying white racism as a contingent, non-essential element of American social life, rather than a constitutive dimension of American society as such, this story creates the illusion of white supremacy ex nihilo. (It also creates the opportunity to complain about reverse-racism, since it’s an individual problem…)

In pushing white supremacy from society to individuals within society, there is no way of accounting for why there has been such pervasive white racism. It must either suggest that by some bizarre miracle a bunch of different individuals came to have the same racist attitudes that had nothing to do with their society, or that it emerged from a society-wide game of telephone: George didn’t like black people, so he told Martha, and Martha told Abigail, who in turn told her husband John, who told his colleague Thomas, who then told his wife Martha that blacks were not to be trusted. And so on. It’s nonsensical.

The greater problem becomes apparent when considering the supposed solution to this problem of individually racist Americans. If one supposes that white racism is simply the prejudices of individuals, rather than an integral feature of the collective attitude of the society, then the solution becomes education and exposure: “What the Klansman needs is just to meet a nice black person, and to see that they aren’t so different after all.”

It becomes the burden of black people to somehow falsify racial prejudices. Of course, this ignores the fact that such prejudgment resists falsification. But more problematically, it places black people in a position of having to prove their equality—indefinitely. Black people are forced to live under the burden of scrutiny, of having to be somehow good enough for white people, of having to not conform to black stereotypes. In the end, they must conform to white standards for black behavior to be acceptable to white people.

And it becomes abundantly clear that white supremacy has not been sufficiently challenged. It’s clear that white supremacy has coopted the critique of white racism, and in so doing has been able to survive in color-blind anonymity. In my next post tomorrow, I will offer a description of what white supremacy is, and why it matters for theology.


Matthew Burdette is pursuing a PhD in Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. This article originally appeared on Interlocuters: A Theological Dialogue.

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